My soul thrills with God,
My spirit exults in God, who saves me,
Because, though I’m nobody important, I’ve been chosen.
Everyone will surely know that I’ve been blessed
Because God has come through for me.
God is awesome.
God’s relief comes to those who respect God,
Past, present and future.
God has strong-armed
The proud, disrupting even their thoughts.
God has supported a people’s revolution
That has toppled tyrants.
God has fed the hungry at a banquet
To which the rich have been uninvited.
God has helped the chosen people
And, true to God’s own nature, cared.
God has kept the promise made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and every generation since.
Meanwhile, the people outside were waiting for Zack, wondering what was taking so long in the sanctuary. When he finally came out, he couldn’t talk. Instead, he made gestures without saying a word, and they realized that he’d had a vision in the sanctuary. After his term of service ended, he went home, and Liz got pregnant. She kept the pregnancy secret for five months, telling herself, “God is up to something. God has blessed me, so that I am no longer an embarrassment to my family.”
When something big happens, it takes a while to adjust. But sooner or later everyone is going to know.
With Zack, everyone knew sooner. He couldn’t talk. It was pretty clear right away that something had happened. Certainly, Liz knew very soon that something had happened.
And that’s the other thing about something big happening. We may think of it as happening to us. But it’s bound to affect those around us. And then they will also have to deal with it, too. And the way they deal with it may not be the same as the way we do.
Zack’s big thing turned out to be such a major event for Liz that it took her five months to decide how to handle it. But five months is just about as long as you can hide a pregnancy. Then everyone knows. Eventually she decided it was a good thing. She wouldn’t have to put up with her mother in law riding her about when she was ever going to get grandchildren.
But it took time to figure out. She hadn’t been privy to the messenger’s revelation to Zack, and now Zack wasn’t talking. She knew God was up to something, but she was clueless what it was.
Nearly any big event, nearly any unexpected turn of events, has the capacity to be good or bad. Bane or blessing. And a lot has to do with how we respond to it. Sometimes we have a little time to mull it over. But respond we must. And quite often our response determines whether what has happened turns out to be a miracle or a curse.
It happened that when Zack was serving as God’s priest and his cohort was on duty his number came up (as was the custom of his order) to take a turn to burn incense in the sanctuary while all the people gathered to pray outside. And while he was in there, one of God’s messengers appeared to him next to the altar of incense. Zack was terrified, shaking in his shoes, when he saw the messenger. But the messenger said, “Don’t be afraid, Zack.” God has heard your prayers, and your wife Liz will have a son. When he’s born, you must name him John. You’ll be so happy! And so will many other people be glad, too, because he’s going to do great things for God. He must never drink anything alcoholic. Even before he’s born he’ll be a special spirit. He’ll bring a lot of Israel’s people back to God. He’ll go in the spirit and power of Elijah, so that parents are reconciled to their children and the wayward will return to their senses. He’ll get the people ready to meet God.”
But Zack said the the messenger, “How can I know that you’re telling me the truth? Look, I’m old and my wife is no spring chicken either.”
The messenger answered, “I’m God’s man! I know God personally, and I’ve been sent with this great news for you. But since you’re unwilling to believe me without proof, even though what I say is as good as done, your proof is that you will be mute until the day it all happens.”
What would you say if your prayers were suddenly, against all odds, answered?
Would you, like Zack, wonder whether it was really too good to be true? After all, we’re often told, “If something’s too good to be true it probably is.”
Would you, like Zack, be shaking in your shoes, but still, somehow, have the courage to talk back to the messenger of the good news? And what would you say?
Would you, like Zack, be so stymied by it that you couldn’t say anything at all?
Would you believe it? And would you live your life differently because of it?
Here’s my hunch. Things happen. Even a lot of wonderful but improbable things happen. All the time. People make unexpected recoveries from serious illnesses or injuries. People who haven’t been able to have children have them. People win the lottery. People land their dream jobs. People sometimes get a gift certificate or cash in the mail at a moment when they really need it. All this happens. People call them miracles.
But they’re not really miracles. They’re just improbable things that happen. They only become miracles when they change the people they happen to for the better. If they go back to living life as they always lived it, it’s just an unlikely thing that happened. If they don’t believe it enough to use what happened to make any difference, it’s just an occurrence.
That’s my hunch. But maybe you’ve experienced a miracle. What was it like? How did it change you? How will your miracle, like the announcement of John’s birth, change the world?
Once upon a time, when Herod was the king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zack who belonged to the Order of God’s Children. He lived with his wife, Liz, who was descended from Aaron. Both of them lived godly lives, and had clean records so far as the religious rules and regulations were concerned. But they were childless. Liz had been unable to get pregnant, and by now they were both very old.
After setting the reader up to expect a well-documented history, the story opens with lines reminiscent of a fairy tale. In fact, the story of the virtuous aging childless couple has been told many times before. It’s in the Bible. It’s Abraham and Sarah’s story (Genesis 15:1-3). It’s Ramathaim and Hannah’s story (1 Samuel 1:1-2). But it goes beyond the Bible.
It is told as far away from the Bible’s ancient near east as the native Hawaiians in the story of Lau-Ka-Ieie, complete with the promised child delivered to transform sadness into joy. (A beautiful modern re-telling of it is here.)
Why? Because childlessness is a common human condition. And so is the universal human hope that a future is possible, even when all efforts at playing by the rules have failed and it’s getting near the end.
As such children born to childless couples are signs of that hope fulfilled. They come as gifts from God. They are cherished. Great things are expected of them.
But from there it’s only a small step to realize that really every child is a child of promise. Every child is born of a childless couple. Every child is, according to the name of Zack’s priestly order, God’s child.
So, when every child is cherished as the divine sign of a promise fulfilled, and when every child is expected to achieve great things, the promised future really is born into the world.
Even when all the other attempts have failed.
Even when it’s getting near the end.