I suggested last week that the story of the Advent is a story of contrasts. We want to look at another of those contrasts today. We will do so around this theme: ‘Never Too Old – Never Too Young’.
Previous to the scriptures I just read we have the account of the two visits of Gabriel to Elizabeth and six months later to Mary. Let me begin with a brief recap of that.
The story begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth, two somewhat obscure but very important people in the Advent narrative. Zechariah and Elizabeth were the father and mother of John the Baptist. But that's the end, not the beginning of the story.
Zechariah, which literally means "whom God remembered," was a Jewish village priest. His wife Elizabeth, which means "God is my oath," came from a priestly family whose lineage went all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were devout and scrupulous in the observance of the Old Testament Law. They were faithful followers of the Lord.
But that did not exempt them from a heartbreaking problem. They were now quite elderly, and they had no children. This fact had brought them much pain. They had prayed for a child for years. That child had never come.
The 24 families of the sons of Aaron were responsible in rotation for service in the temple at Jerusalem. Zechariah travelled from his village, not too far from Jerusalem, to take his turn serving as a priest. On this particular occasion, it was his turn to serve in front of the Most Holy Place. Zechariah had the great privilege of entering the sanctuary to burn incense while the congregation remained outside in prayer.
The strangest thing happened. The Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah was startled. Fear gripped him. The angel said to him:
"Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:13-17).
Zechariah was stunned and didn't quite know what to say. Initially, he could not believe this. He asked the angel for a sign. Gabriel gave him a sign — (and what a sign it was) nine months of mute silence.
The people outside couldn't figure out why Zechariah was spending so much time in the temple. When he finally emerged, he could not speak to them. He tried to communicate with sign language. It didn't work.
In the meantime, Elizabeth realized the fulfilment of the promise. She began to feel life within her. She gave God the credit. She cried out, "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Luke 1:25).
Six months later, Gabriel appeared to a teenager in Nazareth named Mary and told her that, although a virgin, she would conceive a child whose name would be Jesus. Then the angel told Mary about her older cousin Elizabeth being six months pregnant. Mary went to visit Elizabeth and the two women compared notes. Luke records Mary's great prayer glorifying God, which we have come to know as the Magnificat. The two women understood quickly the respective roles they had to play in what would be the relative positions of their children.
I want you to keep that scene in mind. It was a scene of stark contrast, filled with wonder and beauty: a very old woman and a very young girl both pregnant with God-purpose.
First: A word to the elderly: God is not finished with you yet! As long as there is one more breath in your lungs there is God-purpose in your being here.
Put yourself in the position of Elizabeth and Zechariah. All your life, you had prayed for a child. All your life, you had been faithful in the service of God. All your life, you had read the Old Testament Scriptures. All your life, you had done your best to obey the Old Testament Law. All your life, you had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Now, the years had turned into decades, and many of them had passed, and it was time for retirement. Many of your friends had settled back, finding their greatest joys came from being surrounded by their children and their grandchildren. Many of them had not been as faithful to God as had you. Look what they had. Look what you were missing.
Some are there right now and the temptation to let the heart fill with resentment and bitterness is very real. But that was not the approach of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They remained faithful. And far more importantly God remained faithful. The story reveals that His timing was better than theirs. This is something we must never lose sight of. Very often the miracle is in the timing itself.
I don't care how old and insignificant you feel, God is not finished with you yet.
There's no theology of retirement in the Bible. We are still followers of Jesus Christ, no matter how old we are. You and I are meant for God-purpose, whether we're a teenager like Mary or senior citizens like Zechariah and Elizabeth. The example of Elizabeth and Zechariah makes it very clear that God has no has-beens. This story is a word to the elderly; God is not finished with you yet!
We also see in this story that God meets us at our point of need. By that I mean our point of deepest and greatest desire. It is right there around that internal reality that God will birth purpose in us – whether old or young. When Mary entered the house of Elizabeth there was a coming together of the old and the young and in that merging of the generations there was this amazing discovery: God is a God of surprises, but more than that His surprises transcend age.
Youth often comes with what one writer called ‘the naive optimism of a health and wealth gospel’, while on the other hand, age often brings ‘the negativism of a lifeless traditionalism that doesn't expect anything fresh and vital from God.’ Somewhere between these two extremes lies the truth. But the story suggests that this truth is arrived at only as the young and the old come together. In isolation of the other we remain unbalanced.
There is an incredible prophetic picture of this very reality in Zechariah – one of the Old Testament Minor Prophets. Before looking at that let me remind you that Zechariah ministered during that period of restoration after the exiles returned from Babylonian captivity. The weight of his message was restoration, renewal and rebuilding.
In the eighth chapter of his prophesies he gives us this picture of what the earth is going to look like when the people of God have finally come into their full purpose and have fully taken their place in the order and plan of God. And right at the heart of that picture is this: “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand because of age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets.’ “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If it is too difficult in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, will it also be too difficult in My sight?’ declares the Lord of hosts.
Notice that the old are sitting with staff in hand. It is a picture of having come to a position of full rest. The word ‘staff’ is defined as ‘anything of support’. This speaks to the fact that in this place of full rest there is a maturity that brings strength and support to the younger generations; instead of bringing judgement they bring support. And to cut off that generation of age is to cut off the support and strength needed for the next generation. This is not the attitude of present culture and already society is paying the price.
And note that children are playing in the streets, meaning that ‘play time’ is not a waste of time and energy. During that season of play there are vital lessons learned, that we carry into adulthood. And again, this is one of the dreadful tragedies of our culture; children are not allowed to be children. The pressure to “grow up” is unrelenting and what it produces is children in adult bodies who do not have the maturity to handle those adult bodies.
But the picture of the prophet has each generation doing what it is designed to do at its particular stage of development; and each doing so in the shadow of the other. There is no judgement. There is no threat. There is no competition and jealousy. At last the generations have merged in a totally safe environment. There is generational harmony and the passion to bless and serve one another.
God seals it all with this: ‘If it is too difficult in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, will it also be too difficult in My sight?’ In other words – what is impossible with man is not at all impossible with God; in fact no one but God can pull this off.
I cannot help but see the affirmation of this message of the prophet in that “Christmas visit” of Mary and Elizabeth, when the old and the young came together in celebration of what God was birthing in them.
How old are you on this Sunday of Advent, 2011? How young are you on this same day? It really doesn’t matter. When it comes to carrying God-purpose there is none of us too old or too young. We are each just the perfect age.