Sunday, December 20, 2009

Getting What We Want

Luke 1:5-25

Christmas in our culture is a time when people are invited to focus on their desires. "What do you want for Christmas?" is a repeated question. Usually the answer is something material. The world tries to convince us that getting some "thing" is crucial to our happiness.

It’s not unusual for most people to have a list of things they would like. Christians are called to have desires which are rooted in our relationship with Jesus: to be more like him, for our children to know him, and to see his kingdom extend more and more into our world.

One reason the Bible is a timeless book is that it tells the stories of people, and people aren't all that different when it comes down to our basic needs and desires. We all want to belong and to be secure. We are most comfortable in a family situation where there are people to receive our love and give love in return. We want to feel that there is some meaning in our existence and purpose in what we do.

As Luke sets the stage for what we call the Christmas story, he introduces us to two people who have lived most of their adult lives with unfulfilled desire. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both well along in years, but they had no children. There are some couples in our culture today who take great pains not to have children, but that is an attitude that would have been unknown in the Bible's world of eastern culture. Children were security in a couple's old age. They were a blessing from God –– like a divine stamp of approval upon the marriage.

Then there are the natural feelings that usually exist between a husband and wife. I can still remember the excitement I felt as a hoping and then expectant father because there was going to be a new person coming into the world who would be a combination of me and my wife –– the woman I loved. Our first child was, to me, a tangible expression of the union that Libby and I have in our relationship.

I remember some worried and disappointing days, too. Libby and I have a fertility problem and it took over a year for her to conceive Jeremy. We both consider him a special gift from God to us because since then we have not been able to have other biological children. (But that opened the door for our Katie, another gift from God, who came to us a different way.) It's probably impossible for those who have had no fertility problems of their own, nor been close to those who do, to truly identify with the ones who are infertile for one reason or another. You look at those who so easily conceive and find it hard to share the joy because of your own disillusionment and jealousy. You fight a special kind of pain when you hear of all the women who have abortions –– those not wanting a child and yet conceiving –– when you want one so badly and it doesn't happen. So you wonder if God is at all fair and if he really cares about the desires of your heart.

I guess Zechariah and Elizabeth had some intense feelings like that. I'm sure they had prayed countless times –– like Hannah, Samuel's mother –– but nothing had happened. I do not know if they were still praying for children at this stage in their lives. It does not seem that Zechariah was expecting God to do with him and Elizabeth what had happened with Abraham and Sarah. By this time in their lives it seems that they had resigned themselves to their seemingly allotted roles.

At the point of time in this story Zechariah had something else on which to focus. Zechariah was a descendent of Aaron, which means he automatically served as a priest, as did all other descendants. This also meant there were too many priests. To give all a chance for service, they were divided into twenty-four sections. Except for special seasons of the year, an ordinary priest like Zechariah was only able to serve one week, twice a year. For those who loved their priestly service (and we can assume Zechariah did because of his character –– upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly, v6) it was the highlight of their lives.

This particular occasion was especially unique. A priest was allowed to offer the incense only once in his lifetime. This time the lot had fallen to Zechariah. On the day of this special honor, Zechariah was standing there in service as representative of the people. One of the things he would have been doing is praying for the spiritual redemption of Israel, as the assembled worshippers were praying outside (v10). All of the faithful had their hearts set on that time when God would fulfill his promises to David and bring glory to Israel.

Suddenly Zechariah was aware of the presence of someone else in the holy place with him. An angel was there with this message, your prayer has been heard (v.13). The question I want to ask is, what prayer? The angel goes on to say that Elizabeth is going to have a son, so it would seem that their prayer for children has finally gotten a response. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the prayer for children was anywhere current; Zechariah had been praying with and for the people that God would fulfill Israel's promised destiny. That's the prayer that is being answered in this context (and let's remember that Luke is setting the stage for Jesus as that fulfillment), but in the answering of that prayer God is using this faithful man and woman to bring it about and is granting their personal heart's desire all at the same time. That brings up the one thing I want you to hear today: God gives us our heart's desire when it coincides with his activity.

We should be careful to see something here. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not just want a child. Yes, they wanted a child, but along with that –– or even more than that –– they desired that God would have his rightful place in their hearts. It was because of this that their desire for a child was also given. One day in the future, the one to whom their son was a forerunner said these words, But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Zechariah and Elizabeth had already learned this lesson through their relationship with God.

For the sake of balance, though, I want to add some qualifiers to this subject of our desires and God's giving. From this story of Zechariah we can discern two important factors: First, for God to be the motivation behind our desires being granted, he must be given his rightful place in our hearts. Second, once God has been given rightful place, the thing we desire must be subjected to his desire for us. So, there needs to be a sober assessment both of who God is and of the thing that is the desire of our heart.

In the book of James we are told that we may not receive the things for which we ask because we ask selfishly (Jam 4:1-3). In other words, we can think only of ourselves and not about God or other people. It's so easy for us to presume that because we want something, God wants us to have it. Maybe we seldom take the time to sense what the Holy Spirit would say about it. I'll just add that if we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit in that way, then we are giving God his rightful place in our lives.

There's one other factor in this matter of God giving us our heart's desire, and it's something I find very frightening. The Scriptures tell us that sometimes God lets us have the desire of our hearts even when we do not give him his rightful place as Lord and when the thing we desire is not in our best interest. But instead of our desire ending up in blessing, it turns out to be a curse. Sometimes God allows that to happen to remind us who he is and how we only make things hard on ourselves when we demand our own way.

The story I use as an illustration of this horrible reality is found in Numbers 11. We are there given the account of the Israelites grumbling about the manna they had eaten for so long. They wanted some diversity in their menu. They complained so much and so gave in to their stomach's desire for meat that God blew a huge flock of quail into their camp. They had their meat –– but along with it God sent sickness. Writing about the incident years later, the Psalmist said (106:14,15):

In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wasteland they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease upon them

The wording of the King James translation is even more haunting: And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.

If you stop to think about it, humanity can be divided into those who desire what God wants and those who have their own desires regardless of God. That was Eve's down-fall in the garden, and she persuaded Adam of the same. We've all had the same problem ever since. The terrible thing is that God will let us have our own way and wishes if we persist hard and long enough.

But there's good news. God also has a desire for us. That's why we can want to know him and want good things instead of the selfish things that will only leave us broken and bitter. God had worked a great thing in Zechariah and Elizabeth, but it wasn't for their sakes alone. God was setting up the ultimate deliverance from our own selfish desires.

I'm sure that Zechariah didn't understand all of that. He wasn't even sure he believed what he'd heard. The angel had to give him a tangible sign, and it wasn't pleasant. We might think about that if we're ever tempted to ask God for a tangible sign to increase our faith. We might get it, and it might not be easy.

During Advent we are invited to remember the things God did in the earthly preparation for his Son's appearing. I want your to remember three particular things from this initial story.

First, we can get an overall awareness that God is working his purpose out. He is involved in our world in fulfilling his promises.

The second thing is that God works in the lives of people like you and me to accomplish his intentions. Zechariah and Elizabeth were normal flesh and blood people with desires and frustrations just like we all have.

Finally, when we submit our desires to God and give him his place in our lives, we can find the ultimate desire of our heart satisfied. It may be that God will give us the thing we've wanted. It may be that it will never come. But if it doesn't, and God is the true lover of our souls, then we will someday come to the realization that our desires have been met after all. Let's never lose sight of the fact that above everything else about us, God is wanting to remake our character to be like his own. He wants that to be our first desire, too.

Other desires will come and go. Some will be good ones and others not so good, because we are that kind of people in that kind of world. Sometimes these desires will be fulfilled in our lives; other times they will not. In the coming and going, though, let's not lose sight of what God is doing in our world –– what he has done in the lives of people like Zechariah and Elizabeth and what he is wanting to do in us. Sometimes it will be through the desires we already have. Sometimes it will be through new desires God gives us.

Maybe you are struggling today with unfulfilled desires. Whatever our desires, I hope you've gotten a glimpse of the God who can give us our desires or change them or give us the grace to live with them. But whatever it is, let's first of all be people like Zechariah and Elizabeth in their commitment to allow God to be God in the realities of life. That's where we'll find our desires being fulfilled.

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