What was yesterday?
Seventy years after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, it is still, as FDR said “A date that will live in infamy.” We all know that story, of the bombers, fighters, and torpedo planes launched from six Japanese aircraft carriers to converge on Hawaii—the home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Everyone knew that war with Japan might happen, almost no one expected that it would happen on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.
Four battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and several smaller ships were sunk, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed and over 2,400 people were killed. More than a thousand people were injured.
Although hundreds of planes were destroyed on the ground, several pilots took off to fight back. Lieutenants Harry W. Brown and Johnny Dains jumped in Brown’s convertible and managed to avoid a strafing Japanese attacker to get to the Haleiwa airfield in order to get a P-36 and a P-40 into the air to counterattack against the enemy planes. Each shot down a Japanese Zero.
The two returned to the airbase to refuel and rearm.
Just a few hours later, far to the west, across the international dateline at Clark Field, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, two American servicemen, Leon Long and George Loritz, heard the sounds of more than 50 planes approaching. At Clark Field it was already December 8, and the authorities knew that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese.
Loritz said “Hey, look, it’s nice to see the Navy is out protecting us.” Long explains that “About that time, the earth began to erupt at the end of the runway.” The two friends were surprised to realize that the planes were Japanese, trying to destroy the B-17 Boeing “Flying Fortresses” bombers and P-40 Curtis “Warhawk” interceptors which were stationed there.
The two dove for cover as the Japanese bombed and strafed the aircraft and the airbase.
An unprecedented surprise attack in Hawaii and an attack that should have been no surprise at all in the Philippines. Each was a dramatic victory for the Japanese. In each case the soldiers and airmen fought back bravely. The parallels are there, but also contrasts which serve to highlight the stories and clarify what was happening.
The way we respond to surprises says a lot about what we believe.
We’ve heard Gabriel’s words to both Zechariah and to Mary. In both cases, Luke records the response that they had to the angel. Their responses are different, but their stories are strangely similar. As we listen to Luke’s words, we see the very different paths to praise of these faithful people.
One of the problems with looking at only a few verses at a time is that we may miss the wonderful way the writers (human and divine) have crafted the story. In these first two chapters Luke has woven together the stories of the births of John and Jesus.
He shows us these wonderful ironic parallels: the birth of each baby boy is announced by an angel, but one is to an old man who doesn’t quite believe the announcement even though he is a priest and can see that the promise is for God to do something that He has done before, the other is to a young girl who immediately believes though the promise is to do something God has never done before.
Zechariah hears and is skeptical even though his humiliation will be removed if God does what is promised. Mary hears and believes even though her humiliation will be unbelievable if God does what is promised.
The parallels are there, but also these contrasts which serve to highlight the story and help us to understand what God was doing in these people’s lives.
The way we respond to surprises says a lot about what we believe.
Zechariah had received the angel at the peak of his career as a priest. There were about 18,000 priests, and their divisions rotated through the assignments and perhaps once in his life, a priest could expect to assist in the daily offering by entering into the holy place to burn incense. This was Zechariah’s big day—he was ready for God to use him, or so he thought.
While Zechariah was in the Temple, the angel came to him and gave him the wonderful, surprising news that his wife, Elizabeth was going to have a son. And not just any son, a son who would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
But Zechariah flinched, just a little bit:
[Now] Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
Not a bad question—Zechariah asks for confirmation:
And the angel answered him,
I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.
And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
And Luke weaves the story of John’s birth together with the story of Jesus’ birth, so let’s pick up the story in verse 46, where Mary, having gone to Elizabeth’s house, has heard Elizabeth’s exclamation “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”
What is the response of this teenage girl who submitted to the angel’s words? She offers praise to God, and the way she does shows exactly what she expects to happen:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
She’s thrilled by this peculiar blessing—she’s pregnant, unmarried—but her son (said the angel) will be a king.
We know that God often works in surprising ways, but Mary’s not surprised! She says that God has paid attention to her “humble state,” and that he will bless her
“For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
And reflecting on it after about 2017 years, she’s been right!
I want you to notice: She’s not surprised! She expects God to act this way! Why is it that God has blessed this peasant girl? She goes on to explain it in words that sound just like she’d been reading the Psalms:
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
Why does God work through peasant girls who are submissive to Him? Because He’s merciful to those who “fear” him. He’s powerfully opposed to those who are proud. Does he work in surprising ways? Not to those who know him!
Mary stuck around then until just about the end of Elizabeth’s pregnancy:
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
Luke 1:56. Mary goes home, then Luke tells us about John’s birth–just as in the next chapter he’s going to tell us about Jesus’ birth:
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
Luke 1:57-58. Why a “great mercy”? Because not only had he given her a child, he’d given her a son. Particularly in that culture a son would be important for parents who would need someone to care for them.
Well, the time came to circumcise the boy and to formally name him:
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.”
Luke 1:59-61. Everyone assumed that he would be given a family name, but Elizabeth contradicted the whole group. Why? How did she know the baby should be named John? The angel didn’t come to her. What do you think Zechariah had written to her a hundred times? “His name is John!” “Hey, if I’m off on business and you have the baby without me, make sure you name him John!” He didn’t want to get in trouble with the angel again.
And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote,
His name is John.
And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.
So as soon as Zechariah stated the name the need for the sign was over. (Remember Zechariah had asked for a confirming sign!)
What was it like for Zechariah? He had nine months of silence. I’ll bet the first three months he was grumbling about how unfair God was to strike him dumb. “Gee whiz, it caught me by surprise! It wasn’t that I didn’t believe, it was just that I didn’t quite understand . . . .” It was probably typical human rationalization.
The next three months he must have been realizing that God had given him exactly what he asked for—a sign—maybe seeing some humor in all of this after all. By the end though . . . .
By the end I think that he was aching to speak, aching to give glory to God, aching to praise the God that had . . . .
Had done what?
Remember, God left this couple without children for years and years. Don’t you think they begged God for a child? “Please, O Lord, have mercy on us—do not let us be ashamed!” And what did people say? “Oh poor Elizabeth, she seems such a nice woman, but barren . . . I wonder what’s wrong with her?”
And then, when (humanly) all hope was gone . . . in the middle of the highlight of his priestly career, all of a sudden an angel springs this on him:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
Here’s Zechariah’s big test—and he muffs it. Then he can’t speak.
Do you get this? It was nothing to God to leave two pious believers childless for most of their lives. It was nothing to God to let Zechariah be mute for nine months. At the end of the nine months the baby is born, though, and Zechariah writes “His name is John,” and now he can speak. Well, this is astounding, and the people react appropriately:
And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What then will this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him.
With all these strange goings on, this has got to be a special child.
Now that he can speak, Zechariah’s aching to praise God for what he has done, because all those years of pain and all those months of silence end up showing Zechariah something of God’s glory that he wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Here’s what he says:
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Who’s he talking about? Messiah! The Messiah is coming! The Messiah is coming! “[T]o rescue us from the hand of our enemies and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
Does Zechariah think John is the Messiah? No, he now understands exactly what is going on:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John’s going to be the forerunner, not the Messiah.
I think that in the years that followed Elizabeth and Zechariah found that raising the forerunner to the Messiah was tough work:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
Luke 1:80. Talk about a strong-willed child:
“John, you know I don’t like it when you go off and play in the desert!”
“But Mom! I like the desert!”
“John, what’s that on your chin? Have you been eating locusts again?!”
“I like locusts, Mom! Especially with honey!?”
Now we’re through chapter 1 of Luke, so at least we’re ready for the Christmas story. Is there anything for us in this?
I think there is. I think Mary and Zechariah end up in the same place. God brings them to a point where they see that God’s faithfulness in the history of Israel is continued by his faithfulness in their lives.
The path to praise for Zechariah passed through some of the most painful parts of the history of Israel.
The God that gave the barren Sarah children,
the God that gave the barren Rachel children,
the God that gave the barren Hannah children—
that God blessed Elizabeth (and Zechariah) with a child, too.
So too, the path to praise for Mary went through all the prophecies which told of the coming King. The Mighty One who has done so many great things for Israel in the past has done a great thing for Israel again—He has sent the Messiah! And in so doing he has blessed Mary.
But these are not unambiguous blessings. They come with pain. Even after these wonderful songs of praise, Mary (and Joseph), Zechariah (and Elizabeth) suffered horribly. Both of these boys lived odd lives.
One preached in the desert.
One wandered from town to town.
Both died horrible deaths at the hands of the state.
Think back to 1941. The way those servicemen responded to the two surprise attacks says a lot about their training, their roles and their courage, but their responses didn’t determine whether they lived or died on the days of the attacks.
Of our two pilots at Pearl Harbor, one landed and fought through the remainder of the war. The other, Johnny Dains, was killed by “friendly fire” as he returned to the airfield. In the Philippines, George Loritz died in the attack while Leon Long survived, and escaped before Japanese ground troops overran the airfield. Long fought against the Japanese for the rest of the war.
In each case one lived, one died.
You know . . . their stories are your story.
The God who was faithful to Abraham, to Sarah, to Joseph, to Jacob and Rachel, to Elkanah and Hannah, to Samuel, to David, to Elijah, to Nehemiah, to Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph and Mary, to John and Jesus, to Stephen, to Peter, Paul, John. He’s going to be the same God to you.
But . . . he’s not too worried about your pain. He’s not too worried about leaving you in a difficult situation for years. It’s not really what He focuses on. He focuses on the end. And the end is praise.
He will bring you to a place where your good and his glory come together.
He will bring you to a place where you can praise Him—forever. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” That’s what the writers of the Westminster Confession wrote.
That’s what He’s doing.
No wonder it doesn’t seem to make sense when all you can see is that God won’t give you children, or He strikes you dumb, or He makes you pregnant so that people will think you’re not a good girl . . . .
No wonder it doesn’t seem to make sense when your children do wrong, or your girlfriend dumps you, or your friend goes to jail, or you lose your job or your house, or someone commits suicide, or murder, or your spouse wants a divorce, or you make a choice which is wrong and cannot be undone . . . .
We’re talking about forever.
He is taking you on a path to the point where you will praise him forever.
Towards the end of his life, C.S. Lewis, a lifelong bachelor, married a divorced American, Joy Gresham. It was a very happy marriage, but it didn’t last. Joy died of cancer only a few years later, and Lewis had an excruciating time of it.
Lewis was a writer, and in his sorrow, while he was grieving, he wrote a little book, almost a diary. It was published (anonymously) after her death as A Grief Observed, by N.Clerk. It was so raw and honest that a friend of his bought and gave it to him, believing that the writer’s experience with grief might help Lewis with his own sorrow.
In the first stages of grief Lewis wrote:
<blockquote> [I am not] (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”</blockquote>
Lewis was worried that he might come to think that God didn’t love us at all, that God must enjoy human pain
Later in the process, he found he had changed his mind—he didn’t believe that God was a Cosmic Sadist, but the truth might be equally painful:
<blockquote>The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more that we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. . . . [S]uppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting.</blockquote>
God will finish the operation . . . no . . . matter . . . how . . . much . . . it . . . hurts.
Do we ache?
Even at Christmastime.
We ache to praise.
We ache so that we will be able to praise. Forever.
-December 8, 2013