Pray and When God Answers Believe
Have you ever prayed for something only to be disappointed your prayer wasn’t answered according to your plan and your schedule?
Have you ever prayed for something and you had it all figured out how God was going to answer and then when He did answer you were surprised at how God answered your prayer?
Have you prayed for something and struggled to believe that God answered your prayer because the answer seemed so improbable?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then let me encourage you by letting you know that you are not alone. Your experience has been the experience of many Believers and it was also the experience of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
AN EFFECTIVE PRAYER LIFE
Could we say (based upon what we know from the text) that Zechariah and Elizabeth had an effective prayer life? I think I could safely say that they did. Part of why I believe that to be true is the testimony of the angel. In verse 13 the angel said to Zechariah “Do not be afraid, Zechariah for your prayer has been heard”. Whatever prayers he had been offering had been pleasing to God and therefore God heard them in the sense that they had been prayed according to His will. Then the angel went on to tell Zechariah that him and Elizabeth were going to have a child and he would be a great child who had been brought into the world to be a part of God keeping His promise that He made in Genesis 3. Remember God said in Genesis 3:15
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, ESV)
As we know the child would be John the Baptist the forerunner of the Messiah, the one sent by the Father to prepare the way for Jesus. Would God have entrusted such an important child to careless and prayerless parents?
I think not!
Therefore, do not evaluate the effectiveness of your prayer life by the rapidity with which God answers your prayers. It may take years, even decades before God answers but He always answers in such a way and in such a times as it is best for His glory.
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the entirety of Scripture is about God, about His plan, His faithfulness, His power, and His working in ways that only He can work. And he works in such a way that His glory is maximized and magnified.
As a believer this gospel story teaches me to never give up believing in spite of what I see with my physical eyes. I must never cease to trust what we see with my eyes of faith. This story teaches us that God works in the most unexpected ways and with his own perfect timing.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Apply this to your life. Is there something that you have been praying for, yet the answer has yet to come? Are you beginning to doubt the Lord’s faithfulness to you? If that is where you find yourself this morning look to an old man who has spent his entire adult life serving his God in the Temple, day after day, year after year, decade after decade remaining faithful, continuing to serve, he kept moving forward even though there is one overwhelming desire of his and his wife’s heart that in their mind God had never answered, that God had said no to. Look to Zechariah and Elizabeth and be comforted with the knowledge that God’s delay is not the same as His denial.
Luke of course writes with the mind of a historian. He is careful and precise in his writing and provides just enough detail to provide enough evidence to validate that what he writes is true.
He begins by highlighting the important players in this drama. He begins verse 5 “In the days of Herod, king of Judea”. Although Luke provides no details about Herod other than he was the king of Judea history reveals that he was man who could not be trusted, and he trusted no one. He is known in history as a violent, brutal, and bloody man. His reign certainly was a dark time for the nation of Israel.
Contrasted with evil Herod is a good man married to a good wife. Their names were Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Verse 6 tells us that the were “both righteous before God” why were they righteous before God? Because they walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord. They were God fearing, God honoring people who obeyed God’s moral law.
They were not perfect people, but their heart was bent towards God and for God. They loved God and their loved showed in how they lived day in and day out.
Then Luke adds an important detail. Verse 7 “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” Culturally this was painful especially for a woman. Children were understood as a sign of God’s blessing. Yet they had none. Imagine a priest and a wife who didn’t have a child. I wonder did the people whisper to one another what kind of priest he could be if God had not blessed the man and his wife with even one child?
And they were past that time in their lives. The hope of one day having a child was now nothing more than a distant memory. The pain was still there but the hope was gone.
Isn’t that the situation that we often find ourselves in? The hope is gone but the pain remains. Remember just like Zechariah and Elizabeth God is not finished writing your story. Even if the pain remains throughout your life a great weight of glory awaits you in your eternal home.
Philip Ryken writes: “We can well imagine the lifetime of heartache behind those words. This was the great disappointment of Elizabeth’s life. She had always longed to hold a child in her arms—her child—but now that was impossible. She had been through menopause; her womb was old and barren.”
Just as Jesus said that the man who had been born blind had been born that way for the glory of God, so too Elizabeth was barren for all those years, well into her sixties for the glory of God.
Let’s not sugarcoat the story because it’s Christmas time. Elizabeth had suffered for decades because she was not able to have a child. But God was going to use this most improbable woman’s suffering by giving her a special child. And the best way to show that God had something special in mind was by having a godly woman, an elderly woman, but a barren woman give birth. As one commentator wrote; “Elizabeth was suffering because of the way God wanted to be glorified through her life.” I take that to mean that there was purpose in her suffering. That purpose wasn’t revealed until the latter stages of her life, but she ultimately understood what lay behind her suffering.
The experience of Elizabeth teaches us the even in the midst of suffering there is a way for us to glorify God. Suffering heightens our spiritual sensitivity and can bring us into a closer relationship with God. (Go read the account of Hannah the mother of Samuel.)
When we suffer, and the Bible teaches that we will all suffer, the question we should not ask is “What have I done to deserve this?” But how can I glorify God through this?”
A DARK TIME
It was a dark time both for the nation of Israel because of Herod and it was a dark time personally because they had no child and as far as they knew they never would.
Yet Luke shows us that even in the darkest and bleakest times in history and our lives that God is at work in ways unseen and unknown to us. We can be confident that God hears our prayers even in the dark suffering times of our lives.
Yet despite the circumstances Zechariah and Elizabeth remained faithful to the Lord. And this was a special time for Zechariah. Not only was he a priest who served daily in the Temple he has been chosen to go in and burn incense.
This was a once in a lifetime experience. Jewish historians tell us there were as many as 20,000 priests serving in the Temple in Zechariah’s day. The priests were divided into 24 divisions, with each division serving at the temple on a rotating basis for two weeks every year.
In the providence of God Zechariah received a great honor. Every day two priests were chosen to enter the Holy Place and offer incense on the altar of prayer. One would enter in the morning and one would enter in the evening. Because there were 20,000 priests they were chosen by lot and on this day, Zechariah was chosen. Commentators say this would have been the greatest moment, it would have been the apex of his personal history”. It would be like Andy Dalton winning the super bowl (now that would be a miracle). It would be like Michigan beating Ohio State It would be like Joe Carter hitting a walk off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the World Series for the Blue Jays. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
This was Zechariah’s super bowl, this was his World Series moment! But what he didn’t realize was that it was going to be an even bigger moment than he could ever have imagined.
Zechariah very carefully put on the priestly robes that symbolized purity. He would then have walked through the Temple courts with the eyes of the worshippers who have come to the Temple to pray locked on him.
He went up to the Holy Place where God was. Once inside he would have seen the ancient Holy Furniture and instruments the people of Israel had made according to the instructions that God had given to Israel’s greatest prophet Moses.
Zechariah was standing in the presence of God Almighty burning the sweet incense that would rise as a pleasing offering to God. It was a moment of awe, perhaps he could hear and feel the beating heart in his chest.
Suddenly Zechariah realized that he was not alone! Standing on the right side of the altar was an angel. And the Bible says that he was troubled and afraid. Rightly so! Now when I think of an angel, I don’t think of a thin waif of a man with delicate wings.
No, when I think of an angel, I think of a warrior. I think of Heimdall the guardian of the Bifrost. I think of Thor. I think of someone who has come to do God’s bidding, one who has been sent to protect God’s children. I want Thor protecting me and not Ant Man! Amen!
A PETRIFIED PRIEST
But what was the first thing that God’s mighty angel did? He offered words of assurance to Zechariah. Those weren’t the words of the angel; the angel wasn’t adlibbing his way here. These were the words of God. The angel’s words give us insight in the character of God. The angel told him to not be afraid, for his prayer had been heard.
Now what prayer is the angel referring to?
We may think that the angel is referring to the prayer of Zechariah and Elizabeth for God to give them a child. After all, the next words from the angel are “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
But I’m more inclined to believe that the prayer the angel has in mind is the one that he has just offered there in the Temple. I say that because the angel said, “your prayer has been heard AND your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
The appearance of an angel in those circumstances could and did cause some concern. Perhaps the first thought in Zechariah’s mind was “Oh no I’ve dishonored God with my prayer and He has sent this angel to correct me maybe even to kill me!” So, the angel reassures him that his prayer was acceptable and that it has been heard.
Regardless of which prayer the angel is referring to his prayer had been heard and then the angel delivers the news that this godly, elderly couple had been waiting to hear all their adult lives. They were going to have a child and the child’s name would be John which means “God has been gracious”.
By the grace of God, they would finally have the child they had longed and prayed for.
The child they would have would be a source of great joy. But not just for his parents but for many others as well. The angel went on to tell them how to raise this gift of God’s grace (which all children are the gift of God’s grace) John was to be set apart, and as a sign of his holiness he was not to have any strong drink. That was to show that what he said and what he did came only from the influence and the power of the Holy Spirit and not strong drink.
Zechariah had just been given incredibly good news! Their prayer had been answered the child they had prayed for was going to be something special! You would think Zechariah would be bursting with praise, he would be bursting with joy that he would be on the top of the world, but he like so many of us was filled with doubt and unbelief.
I can identify with Zechariah. Recently I got some good news. Nothing like Zechariah received – Sherry and I are not expecting, but pretty good news but it didn’t take long for the doubts to creep in, it didn’t take long for unbelief to begin to shove aside my joy and my words of praise and thanksgiving and begin to play the what if game in my mind. Yea, that was good news but what if this happens? Or what if that happens?
We must always be on guard and fight against unbelief. Because whatever is not of faith is sin.
Zechariah gets this incredibly good news and was is his response? Unbelief! Luke records his response “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Hey angel in case you haven’t noticed I’m not spring chicken any more and Elizabeth has been spending a lot of money on wrinkly cream lately!
Let’s read this with our sanctified imaginations. Luke gives us the response of the angel “I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God.
Do you think he said that in a whispered voice? Do you think he spoke those words in light hearted conversational way?
I think his voice sounded like thunder “I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God”. Translated to mean, how dare you doubt the word of the very God you serve, the very God you have been offering your prayers and your incense to! How dare you who do you think you are?
Notice what happens next. Gabriel responds to the unbelief of Zechariah with the pronouncement “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 because of his unbelief Gabriel said, “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.”
It is a serious infraction to doubt God, to doubt God’s word. This is what him and his wife had been praying for yet when God answered he doubted, he let unbelief rule. And he had to suffer the consequences of his unbelief.
Remember unbelief is always easier than faith. (see doubting Thomas) But there is no reward for unbelief and faith is always rewarded.
Zechariah despite his prayers did not believe in the supernatural power of God. He looked to himself and said no way this can happen. He thought of his wife’s age and said she’s too old to have a child. He looked everywhere but to where he should have looked. He failed to look to God, he failed to take into account the power of God Almighty maker of heaven and earth!
As one commentator said he had his biology right but his theology wrong!
He chose unbelief over faith. What about you? What is God going doing in your life or in our church and your choosing unbelief over faith. Remember the Bible says that whatever is not of faith is sin!
Apparently, Zechariah didn’t really expect God to answer his prayers. Ryken says “Sometimes even a good man has trouble believing in the power of prayer or the truth of God’s Word.”
That’s the take away from the Scriptures today. Even believers are plagued by unbelief. But your unbelief displeases God. I wonder how long it took for Zechariah to recognize how foolish he was to doubt God’s Word, to doubt God’s ability to do what from a human perspective seemed foolish. Probably about the time he realized he couldn’t say a word.
But you and I have the perspective of time and more importantly the testimony of Scripture. Luke includes this account of unbelief so that we can believe and not doubt.
There is a closing observation here. Unbelief many times is expressed in our words. Listen to what you say, your unbelief is showing.
Pray during all the seasons of life. Pray through the dark clouds and the sunny days
Pray because you do not know how God is working behind the scenes to answer your prayer.
Continue to pray because God is glorified in your praying. Pray because God uses your prayers as the means by which is will is accomplished.
The longer the delay the greater the glory. Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for decades and the answer to their prayers turned out to play an integral part in God’s eternal plan and purpose.
If God had answered their prayer sooner, the child would not have been the forerunner of Christ, the child would not have been after the power and the spirit of Elijah.
When God answers your prayer guard against unbelief. As we will see in the life of Mary, there is a vast difference between “I can’t believe it” and Zechariah’s “I won’t believe it”.
As a church we must make sure that when we pray, we really do believe that not only is God hearing our prayers He is actively at work answering our prayers in such a way that His glory is maximized!