For many years I had a problem with God’s dealing with Zechariah. Every year during Advent I would read this story of a faithful, righteous priest named Zechariah (Luke 1) who would become the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, is “advanced in years” (a genteel way of saying she is old) and barren, a fact which quite naturally leads Zechariah to ask a question when the angel of the Lord tells him Elizabeth will bear a son:
How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years (Luke 1:18).
What has troubled me for so long about this story is not the question – it’s a question any of us might ask – but the angel’s response. Acting on behalf of the Lord, the angel strikes Zechariah with muteness. The reason given is because Zechariah did not believe.
If this were the only time anyone dared to ask a question of God and they received this sort of discipline that would be fine. We would know not to question God, and to do so brings consequences. The problem, however, is that this is not an isolated event.
In Genesis 15, God tells Abram that his reward shall be very great. Abram questions God about this and reminds him that he has no offspring, no one to be an heir. God tells him he will one day have more offspring than the stars of heaven, and Abram believes. But in the very next scene God tells Abram that He is going to give him land to possess and Abram’s response is, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Gen. 15:8). Essentially the same question Zechariah asks, but rather than being punished, God leads Abram to worship.
In Judges 6, Gideon is hiding from the Midianites when an angel of the Lord appears, calling him to lead an army to save Israel. Gideon’s question is, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15). The Lord’s answer is not to strike Gideon with muteness but to assure him that He will be with him.
And if this were not enough to muddy the waters, in the very same chapter where Zechariah gets scolded, Mary asks essentially the same question to the angel that came to her announcing she will give birth to Jesus! She asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Mary gets promised the Holy Spirit to assure her. Zechariah asks the same question and gets 9 months of silence.
Do you feel the unfairness here?
That’s what I felt for years. Every time I read this story it bothered me that Zechariah got punished when so many others did not.
But this year is different. This year I am seeing this as the marvelous, mysterious, merciful hand of God at work in each one of these people, and in each one of us.
What if God’s inspired word presents each of these different stories to show us that God is not a cookie-cutter kind of God and does not respond to each and every one of us in exactly the same way? What if the Holy Spirit wants us to see that our Father in Heaven actually treats us like His children?
As the father of five I recognize that I treat each of my kids differently. While I may love them all the same I have learned that each of them require something different from me. One will respond well to just “the look” when he is acting in ways he should not while another will require I actually get up out of my chair. One will be on cloud nine with simple words like “that’s awesome, son” while another will get more from a hug. The point being, each of my children need something different from me. My challenge as their dad is discerning what that “something” is. I don’t always get it right.
But my Father in heaven always gets it right. He knows exactly what I need. He knows exactly what you need. Every time. And He never grows weary doing it.
Since I trust that my heavenly Father is good, and that His will for me is my sanctification (my becoming more like Christ), I can trust that what discipline or blessings come my way are God’s design for me and me alone for the purpose of maturing me in Christ. He does not have a cookie-cutter approach to raising His children.
This year I recognized that it is the sinful nature in me that finds Zechariah’s sentence unfair. Far too often I look at what others got or did not get based on their choices and think to myself or aloud, “That’s not fair! Why did he get away with that?! Why did she get that? Why not me???!” Far too often I compare myself with others and assume that if God is doing something in one person’s life He must do it in mine, too. Zechariah reminds me that this is not correct. And he does one better. When he finally does get to speak, he doesn’t say, “Hey! Abram and Gideon and even Mary asked the same thing I did! What about them?” Rather, he declares,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:68, 78-79).