Sarah was listening just outside the opening to the tent and couldn't help but giggle a little:
Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?" (Genesis 18:12 TNIV).Our world looks like it may be in for hard times.
The very promise of God to bring salvation to His people is clothed in laughter — the language itself speaks of a sweet intimate delight. Think of it: Isaac, the miraculous son of Abraham and Sarah's old age, means laughter! And how could his name not mean laughter, for God's word makes clear that in their old age, Sarah and Abraham did share in the pleasure that produces babies and God's miracles.
Out of this great story, God continues to show His sense of humor, His great delight in turning dark days into mornings of joyous light. Fast-forward thousands of years later, and we find another godly, but deeply disappointed old couple, in some of the darkest days of God's people. Their story echoes with the distant laughter of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.
Israel was now just a meager spot of dusty soil trampled under by the Roman boot. Subject to outside control for centuries, only a few held on to any real hope of God doing something glorious again. Israel's leaders, political and religious, had sold out to the Romans so they could keep their rituals in place. Common folks simply ignored God. Only the pious poor kept hope alive — and who were they, powerless and without voice, in this vast sea of darkness?
But as God would have it, an old man, going about his rituals as a priest, near the sunset of his years to serve, somehow was chosen to minister before God in the Temple. Caring for the incense in this service to God would happen to a priest only once, if at all, in his lifetime. This meant that just as Zechariah and Elizabeth had been reminded monthly of their failure to have a child, so also Zechariah was reminded twice each year that he was once again not chosen to serve God in the Temple. But on this day, God changed everything ... not just for Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also for us.
Beginning with this moment in the story of God, we hear of two things repeatedly: the Holy Spirit and joy!
The joy of miraculous conception for Elizabeth and Zechariah ushers in the season of joy for those of us who believe in Jesus! And Elizabeth's words become our words: "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people" (Luke 1:25).
Yes, there are problems getting to this joy, for sure. If we keep reading the story, we know that Zechariah had a hard time believing and was left speechless till his son was born. A young Jewish virgin was given the miraculous gift of God's Son in her womb and had to navigate the cruel waters of suspicion, bad timing, evil rulers, inhospitable people, and hard travel. But Elizabeth's miracle becomes the basis for this unwed pregnant woman to celebrate God's grace for the world now miraculously living in her womb.
The birth of John, Zechariah and Elizabeth's boy and God's glorious miracle, begins this season of joy. Darkness, oppression, bondage, disappointment, fear, alienation and despair for "those living in darkness ... in the shadow of death" are replaced with Zechariah's song of joy. The first words he speaks after nine months of silence are filled with joyous prophecy. He speaks of our being redeemed, God raising up power to bring salvation, our being shown mercy, God remembering our plight, our being rescued, God enabling His people, our living without fear, our sharing in God's forgiveness of sins, our seeing the rising sun, our being blessed from heaven, our being guided by God, and our walking on paths of peace (Luke 1:57-79).
Yes, our world looks like it may be in for hard times — bad economic news, rising tides of terrorism, and deep concerns for the future crowd our newspapers and scream to us over the airwaves. However, a closer look at God's story through the eyes of faith reminds us that in far worse times, our God brought a very dark world a season of glorious joy. So now God asks us to keep this season of joy alive in our day:
... because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
On my desk is an engraved piece of wood with a prayer uttered from desperately dark times long ago. I hope you will pray this prayer with me as we ask God to renew in us His season of joy:
Lord, I have heard of your fame, I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known (Habakkuk 3:2).
I'd love to hear your responses to these reflections or to the following questions. You can share your ideas and input on my blog:
We find ourselves in two situations that challenge our openness to joy: the current difficult economic conditions and also the “busy-ness” of the season. How do we reconnect to the joy of God during these times?
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, as well as the story of Abraham and Sarah that it reflects (Genesis 18), both are told with irony and a touch of humor. Yet frequently we do not notice humor in the great stories of God. Why do think that is so?
Why are awe at the work of God and also the ability to laugh with God both important in our lives and our worship?
Zechariah’s song sounds very much like a quotation of Scripture or an ancient song, why do you think these were the first words out of his mouth?
What is the greatest disappointment you face in your life right now?
What does this story say to you about the work of God in your life?