A prominent pastor once told about meeting an old seminary classmate of his. The classmate had been widely acknowledged by everyone to be the ablest member of their class: a compelling communicator, a great leader, a person who got things done quickly and well, the sort of person others immediately respected and followed. “Joe,” they said, “will be the one who leads the largest church in the biggest city with the most clout in our denomination.”
But when Joe and this classmate met one another for the first time since their graduation, Joe was pastoring a tiny church. He enjoyed his ministry, but he was far from being the superstar everyone had expected him to be.
The two of them had been talking for some time, when the classmate screwed up the courage to ask, “Why? Why hadn’t Joe fulfilled his promise?”
In response, Joe had his own question. “Whose promise are you talking about?” he asked. “God never promised that I would be a superstar. God promised to be my God and Lord if I repented and believed in Jesus. God promised to be with me. God promised me new, eternal life. But God never promised me I would be a superstar. And in response to all of God’s promises, I promised to surrender to Jesus everyday. I promised”—and at this Joe chuckled—“to pray and try to mean it when I prayed, ‘Thy will be done.”
Joe allowed as how his life had turned out differently than he had expected. But he stood solely on the promises of God and then, day in and day out, did his duty as God set it before him.
Our lives don’t always go the ways that we or others think that they will. Everybody here tonight could probably identify at some level or another with Robert Redford's character, Roy Hobbs, in the movie, The Natural.** Years after mysteriously and suddenly dropping from the life of his high school sweetheart, Hobbs and the sweetheart, played by Glenn Close, meet one another again. With wistfulness, Hobbs says, "Things sure turned out different." "What do you mean?" she wondered. "Just different."
But our call is to be faithful to the Lord Who has been ever faithful to us, no matter how different things may be from how we'd imagined they would be. Our call is to be faithful in the midst of what we don’t understand.
Several years ago, I was re-reading this passage from Luke about Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. In some ways I read my Bible exactly as I read books, journals, or magazines. Like any good nerd, I set with pen in hand, making underlines and writing comments in the margins as I read. I dialog with God.
As I re-read the story of Zechariah, a line struck me which I hadn’t noticed before. It’s the line that composes the last verse of our lesson: “When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”
While offering sacrifices at the holiest place in the temple in Jerusalem, Zechariah had encountered the angel Gabriel, the same angel who would visit Mary six months later. It wasn't at all what he'd expected, or probably had dreamed all his life, would happen if he ever had the chance to offer incense offerings at the temple.
Gabriel told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son, John the Baptizer. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel at first and as a sign that his message was correct, God caused Zechariah to be struck dumb, unable to speak.
Now I ask you: What would you have done if you were Zechariah, if you had encountered an angel and suddenly were unable to speak?
I tell you what I think I would have done. I would have run out of that place with terror, in reaction to the weird, frightening holiness of the moment.
I can’t imagine that a soul in the world would have blamed Zechariah for doing just that.
But Zechariah didn’t run. When the full force of that line--“When his time of service was ended, he went to his home"--hit me as I re-read it several years ago, I wrote in the margin of my Bible, “Amazing! He stayed.”
Zechariah may have stayed before the incense altar, in part, because, with something like 22,000 priests, composed of several divisions, charged with the care of the temple and only those whose names were drawn by lot able to offer sacrifices at the altar as Zechariah was doing at the moment of his encounter, he may not have wanted to let go of this less than once-in-a-lifetime experience. Zecharaiah would have known maybe thousands of priests who never would have been given the privileged duty he was undertaking at the time.
But I suspect that something more was at play in Zechariah’s decision to stay at his post in spite of things not going at all as he had expected.
Martin Luther once observed that Christians often work themselves into a blather over what God’s will for their lives might be. They ask things like, “Shall I marry?” “What career should I pursue?” “Where should I live?”
God cares about those things, of course, because God cares about us.
But, Luther said, we can pursue God’s will married or not, in one career or another, living anywhere. Above all, Luther said, God’s will is that we simply do our duty—love God, love neighbor, make disciples, live justly, repent for sin, believe in Jesus—whatever we do.
By not believing the angel’s message, Zechariah knew he had, for a moment, lapsed in his faith. But, in spite of things not going as he’d expected, he kept at his duty.
This is a lesson Zechariah must have taught his son. In our Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, several groups of people, in response to John’s preaching of repentance come to him and ask, “What should we do now?” He told all to share their blessings with others. He told tax collectors not to take more from people than they were supposed to take. He told soldiers not to exhort money from the terrified or to falsely accuse people. In other words, John said, God’s will is for us to do our duty, just as Zechariah, his father, did that day in the temple after being visited by Gabriel.
So often, we Christians complicate things. I don't know how to complicate this, folks. God’s will for us is really simple:
- Trust in Christ no matter what.
- Repent for sin and receive forgiveness.
- Love God.
- Love neighbor.
- Tell others about the saving good news of Jesus.
- Treat others as we would be treated.
Zechariah did his duty to God and to others. He stood solely on the promises of God and did his duty from moment to moment. May we do the same, whatever life brings to us. Amen***
*Joe wasn't his real name, by the way.
** Based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, the story line from which the film departs significantly.
***By the way, I do not think that it is God's will that people stay with jobs where they are unappreciated, underpaid, or subjected to abuse. Nor do I believe that employees who work under such conditions should do so without making their grievances known.
I also do not believe that people should remain in marriages to spouses who engage unrepentantly in extramarital liaisons or who are physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually abusive.
Nor do children owe obedience to parents who are in any way abusive. Nor do parents need to fear to discipline their children with appropriate self-control and love.
The Bible is very clear that our relationships are not to be built on the rights we demand for ourselves, but in the responsibility, love, and respect each of us owes God and one another.
The Golden Rule--"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"--should govern all our relationships.
The "household codes" which conclude many of the letters of Paul and Peter, found in the New Testament, all are predicated on this notion of relationships built not on the notion of rights--a non-Biblical concept, but on the belief in our mutual responsibility as human beings...all human beings.