Grace That Overcomes Unbelief
Text: Luke 1: 5-25
Proposition: The gospel of the kingdom challenges what we believe, it expands our prayer, it expels unbelief, it entices us to see greater things, it exhorts us to worship.
Introduction: Some friends of ours are missionaries in the South Pacific. They have been living with a tribe of people in the remote jungle and for the past 20 years have been trying to not only understand the language but also to use it to translate portions of the Bible into the village language. After working 60 hour weeks with their language helpers to complete the translation of the book of Mark into the tribal language they returned to Canada for a break. They had finished it. It was done, the gospel of Mark was complete and now the people would soon have it in their own hands. They left the village and returned to Canada and waited to hear from the village about how the books were being received. It turns out that the aircraft that was going to deliver this precious cargo, that had taken great effort and time to produce, was unable to land at the village airstrip and ended up taking the bundles of books to another airstrip a considerable way from the village. There they were placed in a tin shed to await further instruction. The books stayed in that shed for a couple of months, the Word of God carefully packaged, ready to be unfurled, full of power, sitting in a cellophane wrapper in a tin shed away from the eyes of men. Did God somehow make a mistake? Was there a momentary slip in sovereignty? Does God ever misplace things or people, like He somehow overlooked them for a time? Perhaps the passage we’ll be looking at this morning will help us answer these questions because it describes some people who likely felt that way. It describes people who persistently kept going through the motions of belief or faith but it felt like the center had somehow been misplaced. It was like the heart of their belief was sitting in some obscure place, like in a tin shed in the jungle waiting to be discovered. Turn with me to Luke 1:5-25.
I. As God Responds to Prayer, It’s Seldom the Way We Would Expect.
I don’t think that Zacharias expected such an answer to his prayer. After all, the prayer itself was part of his job, it’s what he was supposed to do as the priest of Israel whose name was drawn to pray on behalf of the nation. And maybe that’s the way it is for a lot of us, we too pray as an act of duty, as those who care for others but often we tend to expect little will really change. God responds to Zacharias in an extraordinary way, He sends an angel to tell him several things:
1. His prayer has been heard – we really don’t know what he prayed but we can assume from the way it’s answered that it was a cry to God to fulfill His Word. The last prophet in Israel was 400 years earlier, Malachi had said that God would send a person who would be like Elijah, an earlier prophet of great signs and wonders. This next Elijah type person would turn the hearts of the people back to a longing for the God who had led their forefathers. What difference would it make to you if you knew without a doubt that God has indeed heard your prayer? Would it transform duty into faith? He knows what you long for, He hears your words and your heart, but how He will answer is seldom what you’d expect and that’s not because He seeks to trick you or frustrate you. His answers are just greater than what you might imagine.
2. He and his wife are the Promise – the angel tells him that, like Abraham and Sarah, nothing is impossible with God. Not only will they have a son but he will be this Elijah type character and they are to call his name John. We recognize this person as John the Baptist who was the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. So in essence God says, ‘Yes I will keep my promise to care for the people and here’s the good news, here’s the gospel… You are my promise! From you Zacharias and Elizabeth will come a child whom I will use to prepare the way, he will cause the ears of the people to perk up, he will get them to sit up and get ready to hear because right behind him is the One who I really want them to hear, to see, to follow, to believe in. I’m about to send My Son Jesus and you’ve never seen anyone like Him before, He’ll change your life and He’ll change your world.’ When God responds to prayer it’s seldom in the way would expect because His answers are greater than what you’d ever imagine.
II. As God Confronts Our Unbelief, It’s Seldom What We’d Expect.
So there’s Zacharias standing in front of an angel whom just minutes before he had been terrified of. He hears this amazing, over-the-top kind of announcement and he pauses and says, “So, how can I know this is a for sure thing, I am kind of old you know, and Elizabeth, well this may upset her biological clock a little. Are you sure God?” What is faith anyway, what does it mean to believe in God, to believe in Jesus as the One He sent? Do you just sort of muster up the will and say, ‘Yes it is because I want it to be.’ In other words does faith exist because of an act of our will only? Certainly there is an aspect of choice involved, Zacharias was chastised because of his unbelief, he was unable to speak to anybody about what he had seen and heard and knew about the future. Unbelief in something that is absolutely true, unbelief in something that will absolutely take place is not only foolish, it violates the truth. If I came in here this morning and taped a $100 bill under each chair and then I told you that you were sitting on $100 and all you had to do was believe me and reach down and receive it, to not believe in the absolute truth of it, to not believe that what I said I did was in fact true would not only be foolish it would be tantamount to calling me a liar. So faith then is a response to a truth claim, but faith also has a transcendent aspect to it. Faith, the very act to make this response to God’s truth claim, is something that we are prompted to by the Spirit of God. It is a gift, it’s both an invitation and a prompting to accept that invitation to believe in that which is absolutely true and in that which will absolutely happen. Welcome to the world of Zacharias as he who has been a priest in Israel his whole life now experiences faith at a whole new level. God confronts our unbelief in ways we’d least expect. He does not stomp away with his arms crossed, He does not withdraw His promise as He could have done with Zacharias. Instead He allows consequence to join unbelief, in this case the inability to speak for 9 months, the inability to tell others that not only was his son to be, this son named John would be the Elijah like guy promised in Malachi and much greater than all that the Messiah was coming soon, even in his life time! God confronts unbelief with greater truth and winds up faith within us so that it would send us out with the gospel of the kingdom, the good news that God has changed the world!
III. As the Lord Deals With Us, His Grace in Jesus Is Greater Than Expected.
So much of our story has revolved around Zacharias, but what about Elizabeth? Look at what it says in verses 24, 25, “Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived and she hid herself 5 months saying, ‘Thus the Lord has dealt with me in the days He looked upon me to take away my reproach among the people.’” For 5 months Elizabeth listened to God as the truth of what He said He would do became yet more and more sure in her belly, her head and her heart. For 5 months she knew that the grace of God was real, then, on the sixth month something amazing happened. As she describes it in verse 41, ‘The baby in her womb leaped for joy’, because of the greeting of a young virgin named Mary. As amazing as the conception of Elizabeth’s was, this is greater than ever expected, this young virgin had also conceived and was also carrying a son, the Son of God, Jesus Christ! Elizabeth had said that God had looked upon her and taken away her reproach as a barren woman in an Eastern culture of family. Here was the presence of the Messiah in vitro, here was One who would take away the reproach of sin, here was the One who would look upon us by being one of us, tempted in all things as we yet without sin. Here was the one who draws all men to Himself, inviting their imagination and their faith to rest in Him. Here is One who has come with more grace than could ever have been expected.
So here’s the point, if God does respond to prayer and does confront our unbelief and does deals with us in great grace, why do you think He’s trying to catch your attention? Is it that there really is some good news, and specifically this is good news for you. It’s not just that kind of news about there being more jobs or less recession… it’s the good news, the great news, that Jesus Christ has come and that the world has begun to change into a place that He calls… My Kingdom! This, this is what Christmas is all about, a baby and a manger yes, but much more than that, much greater than what we might expect. The Word, Jesus Christ, is about to be taken out of that tin shed of unbelief, unwrapped from thin opaque wrapping of history and the full glory and knowledge and power of Who He is, is about to be unfurled. This Christmas the great announcement has been put into our hearts and mouths, He is coming again soon, His Kingdom is come!