I watched the sun come up this past Saturday morning. Somewhere around 3:30 or 4 a.m., I picked up the book I had been reading, Fresh Faith by Jim Cymbala, and began reading at the top of chapter 7, “Faith Runs on a Different Clock.” I got four pages into this chapter and was really struck by the way that Pastor Cymbala told the story of the birth of John, as told in Luke 1. Basically, he was bringing the reader to focus on the truth that many times God works on a much different time table than we do and that our challenge as people of faith is to not throw away our confidence in the meantime, bearing in mind that it will be richly rewarded (Hebrews 10:35).
One particular line that stuck with me was: "Many of our struggles about faith have to do with timing. We believe, at least in theory, that God will keep His promises—but when?" He approached the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist in such a unique way that I soon found myself reaching for my Bible to read this account more in-depthly for myself. After reading the account detailed in Luke 1:1-23, I was immediately struck by several things.
First, in verse 6 we are told, "Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations." So, we would assume that surely God honored their faithfulness by blessing them with a full and fruitful life. However, verse 7 says, "They had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and now they were both very old." For so many generations, it had been prophesied that the messiah would be born of a woman, so every woman in the lineage of David had a hope and an expectation that her baby just might be “the one.” So you can understand how that to be barren in those days meant that you were disqualified from even being a candidate. Barrenness carried with it disgrace, reproach and a deep sense of rejection and exclusion. So, before we go any further, when you put verses 6 and 7 side by side, you can’t help but see that in spite of the disappointment and disgrace that this couple experienced (Luke 1:25), they were still faithful, obedient and righteous in the eyes of the Lord. That’s saying a lot right there.
It’s not just that they were disappointed in general, but verse 7 tells us that "now they were both very old," so they had been disappointed for a long time. We aren’t told exactly how old they were, but the fact that the Bible makes it a point to say that they were “very old” is an indication that this was something they had been dealing with for quite a while. In fact, it is likely that they had grown so accustomed to their situation that they figured that it wasn’t going to change. But verse 8 says, "One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple …" Isn’t that something? Disgraced but faithful; disappointed but still serving; unfulfilled but undaunted.
While Zechariah was serving on this day, "an angel of the Lord appeared, standing to the right of the incense altar" (v. 11). Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have a child, but they had certainly prayed about it. "The angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! For God has heard your prayer, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son! You are to name him John’” (v. 13). This is incredible to me, especially in the context of what we read in verses 6-8, seeing that Zechariah was faithful to serve, all the while with an unrealized hope tucked away in his heart. He may have even forgotten about his prayer, but God didn’t.
When you look at the scope of this series of events that preceded and eventually led to the birth of Jesus Himself, we see that the delay in the answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer was not really even about them at all. It was all about the timing of the Lord. If it had happened earlier, God may not have gotten the glory, and the prophecy would not have been fulfilled. It had to happen how it did and when it did, in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled and John to be the forerunner to Christ Himself (v. 17). The story is encouraging and redemptive on its own, but still pales in comparison to the small part it played in the larger story of the birth of Jesus and how the world would never be the same as a result.
Reading this story, I was forced to ask myself the hard question: "Can I still serve, be faithful and obey even when I don’t get what I think I should have when I think I should have it?" Even harder, “Am I willing to accept the possibility that the time I am spending in wait might not even be about me? Does God have my answer on deck, waiting for a set time to reveal it as a part of a larger and much more important storyline?”
In today’s culture, we are so spoiled. When we don’t get the job, the car, the promotion, the house, the man/woman or even the pair of shoes that we want, we have the audacity to lose hope and slack off in our devotion, faithfulness and commitment to the Lord. This selfishness is magnified even more when we look at the timelines and demands that we put on our faith. When thinking of the things that we give value to and the relatively short time restraints we put on God "coming through" for us, we can quickly see how our attitude and impatience paints a vivid picture of a shallow faith that is built on having what we want when we want it.
How long have you been waiting? Zechariah and Elizabeth waited a really long time, but they were still faithful and trusted in the Lord. I hope and pray that we can develop that same kind of focus and tenacity to remain faithful and obedient even in the face of an unrealized hope or desire. God has not forgotten you, but faith runs on a different clock. Don’t lose heart, but in between the asking and the fulfillment, keep serving. Stay faithful. Be obedient. Unplug your clock and trust in the perfect timing of the Lord. Back up from your situation and begin to ask God for a revelation of the bigger picture of His kingdom being established on the earth and how the hope in your heart today fits into the greater story that will play out tomorrow.
[Grant Jenkins is a late-twentysomething entertainment professional who recently relocated from the rolling hills of community-centered Nashville to the cat-and-mouse game that is Dallas, Texas. He misses the Southern hospitality but admits that it is a fair trade for getting to live out his passion on a large scale.]
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