What Zechariah and Elizabeth Can Teach Us About Active Waiting
I’m impatient. When I see something I want and I’m forced to wait, I am tempted to give it up. Because of this, I’m amazed by the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth, told in the Gospel according to Luke.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were given the promise of parenthood, and they demonstrated hopeful, faithful active waiting, not depressed, resigned passive waiting.
Luke says: ”But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” In the first century, not being able to have a child was very differently viewed than it is today, and there was a bigger problem than even the heartbreak of infertility. The people of Israel followed all the commands of God, and one command said to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, have lots of children! When a couple did not have children, it was seen as a shameful act for the family. People thought maybe Zechariah and Elizabeth were receiving a divine judgment, maybe they’d done something wrong and therefore were not able to have children.
“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.’” Luke 1:11-13a
Zechariah might have thought, “Which prayer? I’ve been saying a lot of prayers here!” Here’s the answer. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”
The angel spells it out: “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
A good Jewish priest would have studied the Scriptures regularly, so this would have reminded Zechariah of Scriptural prophecy. These words might have come to his mind, from Isaiah:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God… …A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:1,3-5
After Zechariah told Elizabeth this promise, she waited until it was obvious she was pregnant to go out and about. Her body had changed enough so that others could see a child was indeed to come. Now she could share her joy, and she shares it first with her cousin, Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus. What a promise fulfilled! Elizabeth said to Mary, “In these days he (God) has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace…”
What does this story tell us about active waiting?
Zechariah was an old man, and he could have given up after years of waiting, but he did not. He served his community and his God faithfully, actively – perfectly modeling active waiting. In God’s timing, the promise was fulfilled and Zechariah was rewarded.
Sometimes we fail to be active as we wait, because daily we see so much that is wrong with the world. We want evil to end. We want terrorist acts, illness and suffering to end. Sometimes, it’s tempting to slip into passive waiting, just believing that there will always be pain, rather than trusting that God will eventually make it right.
Not long ago, I worked at a local children’s hospital, and met families whose children were struggling with terrible diseases. My job as the chaplain was to visit their rooms and just listen and pray with them. Do you know the number one question they asked?
“Why? Why is this happening to us? Where is God in this?”
It’s a reasonable and heart-breaking question that we all face at some point in our lives.
As I talked with these families, I was reminded how desperately we want Jesus to come back and make things right today. But the Bible says that he waits so that salvation will be brought to many. There are people out there who still don’t know Jesus, who aren’t saved by his grace and his love. There are people out there who stubbornly are saying no to God, and maybe God is waiting for them.
While we live in this broken world, we ask the same questions families asked me in the hospital. We get impatient, and we think somehow if we just yell more at God, it’s going to happen tomorrow. But there is a better way to wait.
God’s timing is perfect. In our active waiting, the best we can do is to be present and patient.
Let’s not offer some crazy answer to those who are hurting, but simply be present. Maybe join them in prayer. Maybe share with them our hope.
John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth came to point people to Jesus, to prepare peoples’ heart for Jesus. That’s our role and responsibility too. It’s our job to step into the suffering and the loss of someone else and bring hope to them in the midst of suffering. One day that suffering will end, but until then we wait with great anticipation and we bring hope, not just to ourselves but to others. We don’t do this by ourselves. We do this through the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, in Isaiah:
“Why do you complain…Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:27.28-31
That is active waiting. With the Holy Spirit in us, we bring that kind of strength, not our strength but the strength of the Holy Spirit to minister to others. Together, let’s cling to the truth that God makes promises and keeps them. Let’s actively wait, no matter how long it takes, because our God’s faithfulness endures forever.
How can you “actively wait” today?
What promises has God already kept in your life? How can those promises help you to actively wait today?