Luke 1:6-7 NIV
Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Righteous, blameless and childless. An elderly couple who had done their best to serve God all through their lives, and yet had never been blessed with children. Children in the first century were not just a blessing, they were a necessity. They were a social support system for the elderly. Without them old age meant poverty and hardship. With them it could mean comfort, security and joy. Here is a godly couple but God seems to have forgotten them.
We know, of course, from the rest of the story, that God had not forgotten them, that they were to play an important part in his remarkable plan for the world. But they did not know that through all their years of trying to conceive, all their years of hoping. We know from Zechariah’s later response to the angel that this couple had stopped hoping for a child. They assumed it was impossible, and from a natural perspective it was. But though they had no hope, although they faced poverty and hardship, they continued to serve God in the way they knew how. They may have been angry, they were very likely sad, but they continued with God, even though the end of the story was unknown to them.
Philip Yancey wrote a book called Disappointment with God, where he explores this common experience of believers. It is easy to abandon God in our disappointment. It is easy to give up hope. People will even encourage us to do so. Job’s wife, in the familiar Old Testament story, looked at the desperation in which Job had landed and challenged him to “curse God and die.” But Job, like Elizabeth and Zechariah refused to abandon God. They held onto to their faith even when everything looked hopeless, even when nothing but suffering stared them in the face.
In the first years after graduation from medical school, as a young hospital doctor, I witnessed much suffering, and much hopelessness. All my beliefs about God seemed increasingly childish and foolish. Everything my Christian friends said seemed cliched and naïve. I became cynical and hard and came close to abandoning God. I was disappointed with God and I began to question whether he existed at all. But I never quite came to the point of abandoning him completely, because life without God seemed meaningless and empty, and seemed a door into hopelessness and despair. I remained “faithful” more out of fear than out of belief. I had become an unbeliever, but couldn’t let go of God. Or perhaps it was more that he wouldn’t let go of me.
It took some years and some extraordinary experiences but God restored my faith. Perhaps if I had held on despite my disappointment, my sadness, my disillusionment – if I had remained as faithful as Zechariah and Elizabeth – those years could have been more productive than they were. The last ten years have also been dry ones for me, years when God has seemed far away, years when nothing much of spiritual significance seems to have happened, years when a lot of my expression of faith seems to be just going through the motions. Like Zechariah and Elisabeth, I feel old, and I have almost given up hope. The challenge now is to avoid slipping into cynicism and unbelief and just keep serving in the best way I know how. I cannot see the future, but I can keep serving in the present and believe that God is in control, no matter what.