Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Christmas, Pt. 1: "Silence is Golden"

Middle Age is the last laugh before old age is no laughing matter. People in middle-age can identify with his piece of humor titled “Middle Age”:
Maybe it's true that life begins at fifty, but everything else starts to wear out, fall out or spread out.
There are three signs of old age. The first is your loss of memory, the other two I forget.
You're getting old when you don't care where your spouse goes, just as long as you don't have to go along.
Middle age is when work is a lot less fun - and fun a lot more work.
Statistics show that at the age of seventy, there are five women to every man. Isn't that the darndest time for a guy to get those odds?
You know you're getting on in years when the girls at the office start confiding in you.
Middle age is when it takes longer to rest than to get tired.
By the time a man is wise enough to watch his step, he's too old to go anywhere.
Middle age is when you have stopped growing at both ends, and have begun to grow in the middle.
Of course I'm against sin. I'm against anything that I'm too old to enjoy.
A man has reached middle age when he is cautioned to slow down by his doctor instead of by the police.
Middle age is having a choice of two temptations and choosing the one that will get you home earlier.
You know you're into middle age when you realize that caution is the only thing you care to exercise.
At my age, “getting a little action” means I don't need to take a laxative.
Don't worry about avoiding temptation. As you grow older, it will avoid you.
The aging process could be slowed down if it had to work its way through Congress.
You're getting old when getting lucky means you find your car in the parking lot.
You're getting old when you're sitting in a rocker and you can't get it started.
You're getting old when you wake up with that morning-after feeling, and you didn't do anything the night before.
The cardiologist's diet: if it tastes good, spit it out.
It's hard to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything.
You know you're getting old when you stop buying green bananas.

The gospel of Luke opened with a dark cloud, a deep sigh and a mood of resignation, the drama increased by the absence of recorded prophetic utterances for about 400 years, the period between the Old and New Testament records. God had not spoken a word for an astounding 400 years! Worse, the king, not the Lord, was in control or in charge. The tyrant Herod the Great had humiliated God's people by placing idols in the temple. The government's sword was louder than the people's protest. Herod's name was feared more than God's. However, God’s presence, power and purpose were evident for all who had eyes of faith, but many people’s faith was turning middle-age – the time when faith is getting worn-out, getting washed out and getting no workout. Luke’s gospel began not with the Messiah’s birth, but with His forerunner’s appearance and family. God’s 400 years of silence between the two testaments was broken by a loud announcement, but it was greeted with strong skepticism and outright disbelief by one of His most faithful servants.

What is middle-age faith? Where did the midlife crisis in faith come from? How can believers become young at heart and fresh in faith again?

God Deserves Our Best
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. (Lk 1:5-7)

Father Joseph went up to Father Fred one afternoon and said, “I am sick of all this clean living. Tonight let's you and me go out and party. We'll carouse, drink, whatever we want.” Fred was shocked. “Are you crazy? This is a small town and everyone knows us. Besides, even if they didn't, they would see our clothes and know we were priests.” Joe was ready for this. “Don't be silly. We won't stay in town, we'll go into the city where nobody knows us and we'll dress just like anyone else.”

In the end, he managed to persuade Fred, and they went out that night and partied like professionals. When they got back home at 5:00 AM, Fred's face became pale. “I just thought of something,” he said. “We have to confess this.” Again, Joe was ready. “Relax, I told you I thought this all out in advance. Tomorrow, you go into church and into the confessional. I will come in my regular clothes and confess, and you absolve me. Then I'll go put on my garments, you come in and confess, and I'll absolve you.” Fred was amazed at Joe's brilliance.

Joseph went in later that morning and said, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned. My friend and I, we're both young men, and last night we went out and caroused. We became drunk, went womanizing, used foul language, and danced to wicked music.” Fred answered, “God is patient and forgiving, and thus shall I be. Do five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, and you will be absolved of your sin.”

A while later, their places were reversed as Fred came in and confessed everything in detail. There was a short pause, and Joseph answered, “I don't believe this. And you dare to call yourself a priest? You will do 500 Our Fathers, 500 Hail Marys, donate all your money to the church and go around the church 500 times on your knees praying for God's forgiveness. Then come back and we'll discuss absolution, but I make no guarantees.” “What?” Father Fred was shocked. “What about our agreement?” Joe replied, “Hey, what I do on my time off is one thing, but I take my job seriously.”

God’s plan of visitation after 400 years of silence couldn’t happen to a more trustworthy, devout and active priest. Zechariah was better, nicer and godlier than most people and priests. Zechariah could boast of the finest stock in priestly lineage. His ancestor was Abijah (v 5), whose forefather Eleazar was the chief leader of the Levites and the son of Aaron, Israel’s first high priest (Num 3:32). His wise choice of a mate also added to his credit among priests, his reputation before men and his standing before God. Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Not one but both were righteous and pious before God. They were complimentary, praised and outstanding. They served hand-in-hand, were of the same mind and had a heart for God. There were not many stable years in Israel, but there was one stable couple - solid citizens - in Israel. The two were the bright lights, the shining stars and the distinguished luminaries in the silent and chaotic period. They were careful to observe all, not part, of God’s commands. A gem of a couple, they were devoted, faithful, obedient and reverent.

Since the couple did not have kids, they gave the best of their time, talents and treasures to serve God. I couldn’t think of a more devout and dignified couple in the Bible. He wasn’t devout just because he was a descendant of Aaron or that he was from the line of Eleazar, the immediate successor of Aaron (Num 20:25-29). Zechariah was a devout man of his own choosing and Elizabeth was a devout woman of her own cognizance. No spouse or family member could push righteousness down another’s throat. It has to come from the heart, from within from inside out.

Zechariah did not need prodding from his wife to attend to his temple duties, to be on his best priestly behavior and to live up to his priestly vocation. No public scandal or troublesome past tailed him, no destructive habits or moral vice gripped him and no petty dispute or ill gossip entangled him. He was as goody two-shoes, as sweet as pie and as prim and proper as one can find or get.

God Demands the Best
8 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” (Lk 1:8-20)

Two teachers met back on campus during home-coming after having not seen each other for many years. Their conversation was something like this:
A: I have gotten married since we last met.
B: Oh, that's good.

A: I don't know about that. My husband is twice as old as I am.
B: Oh, that's bad.

A: Well, I don't know about that. He's worth a million dollars.
B: Oh, that's good.

A: Well, I don't know about that. He won't give me a cent.
B: Oh, that's bad.

A: Well, I don't know about that. He did build me a $200,000 house.
B: Oh, that's good.

A: Well, I don't know about that. It burned down last week.
B: Oh, that's bad.

A: Well, I don't know about that- he was in it!

The usually dependable Zechariah acted out of character when it counted. Initially, he couldn’t believe his good fortune when his name was chosen by lot out of all the priests in his division to go into the temple and burn incense (v 9). Matthew Henry suggested that a priest could only be chosen once in his lifetime, if ever at all. It was the high point of a priest’s life and the highest honor afforded to a priest. He was the talk of the town, the envy of the priests and the celebrity of the week. To add the topping to the cake, God sent an angel to announce the good news and congratulate him personally – not just any angel, but Gabriel, the legendary great arch-angel. This is the first time the Greek word “evangelize” is used in the Bible (v 19). The first evangelist in the New Testament poured out his heart, but the news did not hit Zechariah hard; in fact, it did not hit him at all. Zechariah was supposed to get down on his knees, thank God for the gift and bow down in humble worship, but his attitude left much to be desired with and was insufferable for an angel’s stomach. Gabriel was jumping with joy but Zechariah didn’t even break into a little jig. Zechariah greeted the heavenly courier, carrier and caller with a ho-hum and bah-humbug, what-else-have-you-got, and what-planet-are-you-from from attitude.

To make sure Zechariah get the point, Gabriel assured Zechariah that his prayer was remembered and answered (v 13) but it fell on deaf ears. He was untouched by an angel - unmoved, unimpressed and uninspired. He could at least feign interest or ask, “What prayer?” The contrast of a boy to a girl (Matt 10:37) still did not catch his attention or make him curious. The last straw was the naming of the child still did not break the spell or pique his interest. The specific details, personal visitation and the cheery announcement were all noise, nonsense and nonsensical to him. The angel’s stress of joy, delight/gladness and rejoicing in verse 14 did nothing to wake him from his listlessness or indifference and was not able to break the deadlock and glumness in him. The angel’s rah-rah speech could not shake him out of his sustained self-made state of disbelief.

The angel might as well save his strength, send a letter, fly a bird or shoot an arrow to deliver the message instead, given Zechariah’s poor response. Breaking into song and dance, sending a choir of angels and doing cartwheels in the air would also make no impression on the stoic priest. Zechariah registered a minus on a zero to ten “interest” scale. The angel could shout until he was short of breath, dry in saliva or coarse in speech but the result and response were still the same. Further, Gabriel’s job was to break good news, not break stubborn people. So, doing more to impress and convince Zechariah was out of his realm of responsibility. Zechariah typified the generation that was blindsided and conditioned by 400 years of silence. The priest needed a heart job and a big jolt.

God Delivers His Best
24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:24-25)

An old Indian was arrested and taken into court on charges of running a still (distillery). The judge asked the Indian for his name, but the Indian gave no sign of having heard the question. The judge then asked if the Indian had a lawyer, but this question drew no response.

The judge was a busy man, and since there was no real evidence that the Indian sold what he made, the judge told the D.A. that he was going to dismiss the case. The judge told the Indian he could go and called the next case. The Indian sat motionless while the next defendant was brought in and charged with operating a still.

The defendant's lawyer went into a two-hour defense, and when he was through, the judge sentenced his client to three years' hard labor. The lawyer gathered up his notes and started to leave the courtroom when the old Indian got up, walked over to him, and whispered, “White man talk too much.” (The Toastmaster General's Favorite Jokes 131-32, George Jessel Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 73)

God’s intention from the start was never to punish Zechariah; his intentions were not to slap or strike him, but to shake and sober him. He had always intended to reward and not to rebuke Zechariah and Elizabeth, to bless and not to break the two, to congratulate and not to condemn the faithful couple. Zechariah’s words were pathetic but not poison, tasteless but not tragedy, and inappropriate but not insane. His attitude was disbelief and not unbelief, reservation and not rejection, doubt and not desertion, unfortunate but not unforgivable. He did not say “I do not believe,” but rather the tone was “This is unbelievable.” The priest had always had a good heart, a strong conscience, a godly reverence, a flawless record of impeccable and outstanding service. God was not about to abandon, ostracize or remove the faithful priest. Zechariah was unwise but not unrepentant. His words were ill-mannered, but not ill-conceived.

Further, Zechariah’s cold shoulder, sharp tongue and rare faithlessness could hardly be counted as Elizabeth’s fault or a blemish onto her account. The best gift God had given the priest was his wise and godly wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s attitude was just the opposite of her husband’s. Unlike her husband who had to say something, she hid herself for five months (v 24). She took time to pause amidst confusion, to ponder the meaning and to fathom the unfathomable. It was a time to escape inquiry, to examine oneself and to seek God. The Chinese say: “Speak more, err more.” When she had to say something, unlike her husband, she broke into praise mode and not protest mode. Her joy was unspeakable, unsurpassed and unsurprising. The Greek word “disgrace” or “reproach” (v 25) that occurs only once in the Bible describes the notoriety she suffered for being childless, being taunted at and deemed a disgrace.

The humble and contemplative Elizabeth knew from the start the baby was never about what she deserved, but about what the Lord did. She reflected on and submitted to what the angel said. The baby was from the Lord to them for Israel’s deliverance. He will go on before the Lord bring back the people of Israel to the Lord their God, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (vv 16-17). Eventually, Zechariah came around. God’s ultimate purpose was for him to be stricken and not silenced, not to be a mute but to be a messenger, not to be dumb but to be delivered. God wanted him to learn the lesson of the obedient heart and not to repeat the lesson of the open mouth. In the end, the angel’s prediction that the father will give the name to the son not only came true in good time but it also gave Zechariah the chance to redeem himself.

Conclusion: God wants us to meet the challenge of faith, face head-on the dare to believe and to rise to the occasion of spiritual growth. God is not satisfied with half-hearted, wishy-washy and sweet nothing believers. Have you reached a midlife crisis in your faith? Have you plateau in belief? Are you trapped in disbelief, ensnared by disillusionment and hobbled by disobedience? Have you stopped growing, serving or reflecting? God is not finished with you yet. There is nothing worse than having no self-expectation, nothing to expect from God and nothing to expect in life. Ask God to help you see what new opportunities, fresh challenges and unfinished tasks you need to work on.


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