Thursday, 6 August 2015

"But" - little word, big meaning

Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But... Luke 1:6

Life is full of "buts". 

"We’d planned to go for a picnic, but it bucketed down with rain..." "We were in front until the 89th minute, but their centre-forward just sneaked a goal..." "Everything seemed great, but then that awful phone-call came..." "The holiday was fine, but our flight home was cancelled at the last minute..."

You can probably think of various buts in your life as you read this. This tiny word can have a big meaning; it reminds us that life is never perfect, and that we should never take anything for granted. 

And this is true of the finest Christians as much as of anybody else. It was true of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, the people we’re reading about here. They were exemplary, God-loving people. They lived holy lives. But...

You probably know what comes next: "... they had no children... and they were both well on in years". For all their goodness, a cloud of sadness hung over this old couple. Today, childlessness is no stigma - indeed, some people consciously choose it ("We aren't childless," somebody said, "we're child-free"). But in New Testament times it was a reproach, taken by many as a sign that God was displeased with them.

But then what happened? They were told that, impossible though it might seem, they were indeed going to be blessed with a child. And so John was born. (It strikes me that perhaps it was a blessing that Zechariah and Elizabeth will almost certainly have died before they saw the weird life their son ended up living - a prophet of God with a diet of locusts and wild honey! - and the tragic death he died. But they knew joy in their latter years.)

Yes, there can be good buts as well as bad ones, positive buts as well as negative ones. "It was raining heavily, but suddenly the sun came out...!" "It really looked as though she wasn't going to pull through, but here she is today...!"

Two thoughts at least are worth digesting.

First, don't write off the old.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived long lives, and probably felt they had nothing new to look forward to or to contribute. But God hadn't finished with them. They still had a vital role to play in the unfolding of his purposes. 

So, a couple of questions... 

If you are young, do you tend, even if only subconsciously, to dismiss the old? Well, stop it! And if you are old, do you tend to think you have nothing left to give or to enjoy? Well, again, stop it! 

As long as God gives anybody another day of life, there is something for that person to do, to achieve, to enjoy, simply to be. I read not long ago about a pensioner who was called to a new ministry as a "street pastor" - she's out there in the streets in the early hours befriending prostitutes, some of whom think of her as a substitute mother.

Second, don't give up on prayer.
I'm sure Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed much about their sadness. All right, perhaps they had stopped, given their age - and who would blame them for that? But God did answer their prayer, even if not in the time-scale they would have liked. And we need to learn that however things may look today, there will be good days ahead.

What is the gospel about if not the great and miraculous but of God himself?

"Like everyone else we were by nature objects of wrath," writes Paul in Ephesians 4. Grim! "But God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ..." “You were like sheep going astray,” says Peter. Sad! “... but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2). “Simon, Simon,” says Jesus to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat...” Worrying! “But I have prayed for you...” (Luke 22).

When all seemed dark and hopeless God decided to act in the giving of his own Son, and nothing has ever been the same.

Dear Father in heaven, help me to cope in faith with the sad buts in my life - and to keep looking in hope for the joyful ones. Amen.

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