Have you ever suffered from Foot-in-Mouth disease? It’s the sort of thing that happens when you talk faster than you think – which is all too common these days.
Have you ever suffer from a faith crisis? It’s the sort of thing that happens when what God says he’ll do is not the same as what you think he can do.
Both of these happened to our our friend, the priest Zacharias in the gospel of Luke 1:18-25, please read this with me.
The audacity of Unbelief!
Remember where this started,with the obvious righteousness of Zechariah and Elizabeth as well with their obvious inability to answer their own prayers. Zachariah looks back at his situation and despite the fact that an angel is standing right there in front of him, he sees his human condition as greater than the word of God!
This is what makes doubt such an unholy thing. It is not merely that we are uncertain of what God says, but that – though we are certain of it, we elevate our own thoughts, feelings and circumstance above Him.
Zacharias doesn’t look at the angel shining in front of him, he looks at his circumstance. He’s too old, and his wife is no spring chicken. It’s not going to happen. You can’t make it happen because I’m incapable.
Did not this priest remember Abraham and Sarah? They were also well advanced in years and beyond the age of childbearing. But God spoke to them also and promised them a child. When Sarah laughed and Abraham doubted, God assured them that his word would come to pass.
But when we let our own problems loom larger and larger in our eyes we are most prone to miss the glory of God.
The sun is a burning star of 93 millions miles away and 864,938 miles across, but you can block it if you hold your hand mere inches from your eyes.
In the same way the glory and power of God is easy to miss and easy to doubt when we stop looking towards him and start looking to our own flesh – and our own abilities (or lack thereof).
Zacharias struggled with believing the message he was given. He suffered a faith crisis because even though the promise he was hearing was coming from this angel, he was past the point of believing that God really could do anything about it. After being overwhelmed with fear, Zacharias finally finds his voice and faith crisis moves to foot-in-mouth disease.
Many Christians do the same thing as Zacharias when we doubt what God has written. Imagine the audacity of God saying He will forgive your every sin based upon the crucifixion of Christ; and yet for some inexplicable reason you replicate Zecharias’ sin of doubting when you imagine that you are the exception to that rule.
"God can forgive the thief on the cross and Saul of Tarsus but not me!" You might vainly think that is an expression of humility but it’s nothing short of arrogance.
Despite all that I’ve done I still don’t match up the Saul of Tarsus whom God strengthened even though by his own testimony he was the worst sinner of them all.
“…even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. ” (1 Timothy 1:13–17, NASB95)
In other words, Saul the murdering, blaspheming, Christian hating, self-righteous pharisee was saved by Grace. What arrogance does it take to believe that you are outside of that kind of grace and thus to doubt the saving promise of God?
If that’s your faith crisis, I want you to take a moment to resign your pride and doubt to God and turn away from it. Apologize to the master of all things for not trusting and believing his word to forgive you.
Let us watch and pray daily against this soul-ruining sin (see Hebrews 3:19; Isaiah 7:9). Let it be a settled maxim in our religion to trust every word of God implicitly and to beware of unbelief. 1
Then consider the consequence of not believing God’s word. It’s a consequence that Zacharias had to face. – it was a consequence of lost joy. Zacharias will not be able to rejoice in God’s work until it has already come to pass.
The Consequence of unbelief
Zacharias’ doubt triggers an answer. But before we get to the answer we have to meet the messenger because whether or not we believe something is first of all determined by the credibility of the speaker.
There’s a great scene in the movie “The Princess Bride” which illustrates this, where the hero of the story (the man in black)is slowly climbing a deadly cliff…
Inigo Montoya is standing at the top of the cliff waiting impatiently to engage him in a sword-fight. After asking Him to hurry up, the man in black responds, “If
you’re in such a hurry, you could lower a rope or a tree branch or find something useful to do…” But Inigo Responds: “I do not think you would accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you.” Man in Black: That does put a damper on our relationship.”
Inigo Montoya: But, I promise I will not kill you until you reach the top. Man in Black: That’s VERY comforting, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait. Inigo Montoya: I hate waiting. I could give you my word as a Spaniard. Man in Black: No good. I’ve known too many Spaniards. Inigo Montoya: Isn’t there any way you trust me? Man in Black: Nothing comes to mind. Inigo Montoya: I swear on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya, you will reach the top alive. Man in Black: Throw me the rope.
If you’re going to believe something, the credibility of the speaker is paramount. And this angel presents credentials that mark him as completely credible.
His name is Gabriel. The last time Gabriel is mentioned is in the Book of Daniel 9:20-21. At that time Gabriel brought a message of the end times. Now here he is again. Gabriel showing up now should make us wonder about a connection to the end and of course there is. The coming of John the Baptist is the beginning of the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, here comes John in the spirit and power of Elijah (v17). Jesus, the Lord comes, and we know that he has promised to return, surely the day of the Lord is coming!
Gabriel’s task this time was supposed to be all of happy news but it takes a turn for the worse for Zacharias because of the audacity of unbelief. As Zachariah stood there in the presence of this angel questioning Him, his faithlessness was rebuked.
Gabriel’s sentence: “You will be silent….”
Zechariah’s inability to speak probably also meant he was deaf too since all he could do is make signs, and verse 62 says that others had to make signs to him to communicate with him. But even in the midst of this judgment don’t miss the grace of God. Zechariah’s lack of faith will not nullify the promise. His questions will not stop John’s birth; it will still be fulfilled in the proper time. With or without Zacharias believing it’s possible.
But for you and I the lesson is clear, we can be certain that when God breaks the silence he means what he says. But doubting the words of God carries a cost.
The Cost of Unbelief
Outside the temple the scene shifts to all of the anxious people standing outside. When the priest went in to burn the incense, he was supposed to go in, come out and pronounce a blessing: Numbers 6:23-27.
Just imagine the scene for a moment. The people were outside praying in silence, but pretty soon – one by one across the temple complex the worshipers finished their prayers, lowered their arms, opened their eyes and looked expectantly to the door of the temple and waited. And waited. And waited….
Why was he in there so long? He was an old man, had he forgotten what he was doing? Had he died in there? Had he knocked over the altar and he was feverishly trying to clean it up? Who knows what they pondered.
The longer they waited, the longer he seemed to be taking.
Finally he emerges with a wild faraway look in his eyes, a look of rapturous joy on his face – but instead of pronouncing the blessing he just stands there and motions, first to the temple, then to himself then to the heavens. Maybe he flaps his hands like angel wings – who knows. All he could do is motion, until finally in an interminable bit of charades they figure out the truth of it all. Zechariah has seen a vision. He can make all kinds of motions, but he cannot speak. And they cannot know what he saw.
When God’s own people doubt his word, the rest of the world just stands by unable to even hear the gospel because our faithlessness get’s in the way of communicating it. For Zacharias the cost of unbelief is the inability to express joy. For everyone else his unbelief conceals the good news.
Unable to speak and apparently unable to hear he finishes his job and goes home when he’s all done. For now that’s the last we see of Zacharias. Although we might imagine that him coming home as a deaf mute might have made his return home an interesting one, none of it is material to the story.
Up until this moment we’ve been exposed to the crime and punishment of unbelief. Not only is Zacharias punished by not being able to speak, but the people also are now kept out of the loop because of the priests unbelief.
The contentment of faith
In stark contrast to Zacharias’ doubt is Elizabeth’s quiet faith. Miracle of miracles Elizabeth, Zacharias’ wife becomes pregnant. But she doesn’t run out to the street corner and proclaim it. She’s been wanting this for so long, she simply savors it in private. No-one is with her when the baby first kicks, just Zacharias. He doesn’t say anything, and he apparently can’t hear her talk. But for five months, Elizabeth consoles herself from her long years of hoping-, wishing and praying by silently reflecting on God’s sudden grace.
Being childless is always hard, certainly it was for Elizabeth. But now God has taken away her disgrace. Her only response is to relish the events, to relish the truth and to worship.
I can’t truly be sure why she kept herself in seclusion for five months. Whatever else there may be, I think this last verse explains her five months in seclusion – God has taken away her shame and for five months she would rather just revel in the grace of it all believing with faith the life that was growing within her. But by her fifth month, chances are good that her swollen belly would give it all away, and all of her neighbors would know the obvious: she is pregnant!
God has shown her grace while all the people have shown her disgrace.
The contrast between Zacharias and Elizabeth is the difference in choices for us. Will we choose the punishment of disbelief or the quiet blessedness of faith? Will we take God at his given word which is printed in front of you, or will we question even it’s plain meaning?
How will you and I respond to God’s intent to save and redeem? How will we respond to the angel who proclaims the good news that God has sent a messenger to prepare the way for Christ? This is where the rubber meets the road in the gospel of Luke. There’s a huge contrast between the punishment of unbelief and the contentment of faith.
Where are you this morning? Are you silent because you do not believe God can bring about a miracle of salvation? Or are you relishing the grace of God?
1J. C. Ryle, Luke, The Crossway classic commentaries (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1997), Lk 1:18.