As I was reading through Luke 1:57-80 in preparation to speak at Warrenville Bible Chapel, a single word jumped out at me, that word was ‘mercy.’ In my life I have often struggled to understand mercy because it gets confused with grace. Mercy and grace do go hand in hand, and because Christians are saved by grace, according to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have tended to jump to thinking of grace without contemplating mercy. Recently, though, the TV show Vikings, which was made for the History Channel, has made me look longer and harder at mercy and how essential it is to the Christian faith.
The History Channel’s Vikings is an accurate portrayal of the brutality and savagery that was part of everyday Viking life. Revenge is portrayed as being a core value in the heart of the average Viking. The main character, Ragnar Lothbrok, is often betrayed and plotted against in the series. What makes the plots all the more gut wrenching is that the betrayer is often a close friend or family member. For example, there is an ongoing tension between Ragnar and his brother Rollo in the series. At the beginning of season 2 the brothers find themselves on opposite sides because of Rollo’s ambitions and his grief at living in Ragnar’s shadow.
They fight in a bloody battle and Rollo, the great warrior, strikes down many of his opponents. After killing his old friend One-eye, and wounding his friend Floki, Rollo comes face to face with Ragnar, but he can’t fight him. After a tense moment of bitter internal strife, he lays down his axe and surrenders. What will be done to Rollo? We are used to seeing Vikings kill each other in this series for the smallest reason. However, Ragnar shows his brother mercy. He frees him and tries to hold no bitterness against him. Others in the clan are aghast, many are bitter, but it does not stand in the way of Ragnar’s pronouncement that Rollo is forgiven and free. Ragnar, however, does not really extend grace to his brother. Rollo unravels when the just penalty of death is lifted, but the vacuum it causes is not filled with a new life of grace. Mercy then is experienced when just punishment that we should receive is withheld.
The topic of redemption has been examined in movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Atonement. However, the image that has stayed with me most powerfully from books and movies is the image of Edmund with Aslan. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Edmund betrays his brothers and sisters by trying to lead them to The White Witch. Because of his betrayal, Edmund’s life is forfeit and he is destined to be a slave to the evil queen. How can he be bought back?
How can he be restored? Aslan makes a pact with the White Witch to buy Edmund’s freedom. The price will be Aslan’s life. Before Aslan goes to his death he talks for a long while with Edmund and Edmund realizes the magnitude of his debt. It is a beautiful picture of the debt that we all owe. Aslan, of course, is representative of Jesus and Edmund is in the predicament a sinful world finds itself in when ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Redemption is defined as gaining or regaining something by paying a debt.
In many passages in Scripture we know that God shows his people mercy. He stays his hand when punishment would be just. We also see God redeeming his people. He pays their debt to him and allows them to pay for their own lives with the life of a bull or a lamb.
Reading Luke 1:57-80 we see mercy and we see redemption. Our response whenever we see evidence of God’s mercy and redemption should be to praise. I pray that our study of the passage will focus us heavenward and will result in us blessing God like Zechariah does in his Benedictus hymn:
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.58 And her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, enquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbours. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
Early in the passage we see that God shows mercy to Elizabeth by redeeming the barren. This is a theme that has been retold many times in the history of Israel. The birth of Isaac to Abraham and Rebecca in Genesis was a nation’s foundation. Barrenness is a factor in the war between Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob. The judge Samson’s parents struggled with infertility, but a mighty warrior was born to them. Samuel was born to Hannah who was so desperate about her condition of barrenness that she was mistaken for a drunkard. Childlessness was seen to work against the fabric of Creation. God had created the Earth for bounty and fruitfulness. Before modern science showed how both men and women could be responsible for infertility, ancient people often believed that a man planted his seed in the woman. It seemed like a curse if a womb became a barren land that caused a man’s seed to wither and die. It was therefore her fault if the seed did not grow and flourish. The barrenness in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s life would have caused them more unhappiness than we would commonly experience in our culture. There would have been questions about whether the couple could be really good because God had withheld his blessing from them.
That raises a question, though. What did Elizabeth and Zechariah deserve? The text tells us by telling us that the birth was the Lord showing great mercy on her. This implies that Elizabeth’s barrenness was deserved. Remember, mercy is the removing of punishment for sin. The truth is that Elizabeth and Zechariah seem to be ‘good people’ in the way that we would define good. They are devout servants in the temple. They are focused on God and his ways. How is it just to allow them to be barren? If we take Romans 6:23 seriously, ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Dead people don’t have children. If each person received the just punishment from God for their sin, there would be … no children. God is merciful to all people, when he allows each birth. Many a birth is taken for granted because God allows his goodness to flow to people who are not good. God is still good when people are barren. Elizabeth knows this. Although she would be grieved, although she would be ashamed, her theology does not allow her to blame God for an injustice. When a child does come she and the community around her see that as a mercy. God shows mercy by redeeming the barren.
Flourishing is part of God’s design. Images of God’s blessing in the Old Testament are coupled with words of fruitful lands flowing with milk and honey. Our aversion to the ‘health and wealth’ gospel might have closed our eyes to the fact that fruitfulness is God’s goal. The Garden of Eden is lush and well-watered. It is full of food and people are commanded to multiply. At the time of Luke 1, God’s people had fallen a long way from the glory of Solomon’s kingdom. They were occupied by Rome. Their production was taxed, their children were slaves and the people struggled. In Zechariah’s Benedictus hymn, his song of praise blessing God, he looks to a time when the barren condition of his nation will cease. It was believed that when the Messiah came he would defeat Israel’s enemies and restore the throne of David and make Israel fruitful again. The Messiah will do that for God’s people. However, their definition is too focused on material fruit. The people of Israel’s desires are too worldly. The coming Messiah that John the Baptist prepares the way for, will produce fruit in people’s hearts first. In their core people will produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Israel will give birth to a fertile movement that will reproduce and multiply. They will water the ground with the blood of the martyrs. They will change the world with the truth that they speak. Many Jewish people may have been disappointed by the lack of material wealth or the abundance of production that followed the appearance of John and Jesus. However, some Jewish people took the message of God’s mercy to the whole world and it has never been the same.
You may ask my credentials to speak about barrenness and infertility. When you look at me sharing these words, you may assume that I speak out of ignorance and I couldn’t understand any of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s pain. Kelli and I have been down the hard path of infertility. You could say, in a sense that we are still there. We have never had biological children together. For Kelli in particular it has been hard. Mother’s Day services could be a mockery and women’s meetings at times that only housewives could attend seemed insulting. In Christian circles it is the norm to get married and have children. There is even a promotion of a woman’s rightful place being in the home raising children. Anything else is failure. If Christians often do not know what to do with singleness, they definitely do not often handle infertility well. My wife had to find peace with God. She had to accept mercy. My wife wrote a piece when her anger finally died. I will read some of it here, but the whole piece, and much more, can be found on http://thisoddhouse.org (Check infertility as a topic on the right of the page).
The night after an ultrasound confirmed—no heartbeat—I lay in bed. Shaking and sobbing. With grief and fury. Peter lay next to me. Dazed and silent.
“How could He?” I kept saying. “It’s too much! What a cruel joke. How could He kick me so hard when I am already down?”
“Stop fighting Him,” Peter finally said. “He wants to be enough. When will you surrender? What is it going to take?”
But I couldn’t let go of the anger. It was the only thing I felt I had left.
Just a few days later I woke at 4 a.m. My first conscious thought was the same as it had been for the past two years—apart from that three-week pregnancy reprieve. “What’s the point of waking? This is not a life that I want to live.”
I stumbled out of bed. Trudged down the long hallway to the bathroom. Turned on the light. And looked in the mirror at my sad, tired face.
There’s no other way to explain.
In an instant. The scales fell from my eyes.
And I saw myself for who I truly was.
The first image: Myself. A stubborn, grimy toddler. Waging a two-year, grown-up, full-fledged tantrum. Legs flailing and kicking. Fists beating the ground. Angry protests screamed at the top of my lungs. All for the benefit of my Almighty Father.
The second image: Orual [from C.S. Lewis’ ‘Til We Have Faces]. Composing a foolish complaint against the gods. Ranting and raving. About justice and cruelty. But then. Ultimately. Seeing the mercy she had been given. Seeing herself finally in the mirror. Standing finally unveiled.
The third image: Mrs. May [from Flannery O’Connor’s Greenleaf]. Fiercely trying to control her life. Trying to keep God at bay. And that Bull—Patient. Persistent. Penetrating. Who pursued Mrs. May to the very end of herself. Who stabbed her through the heart since that is what it took for her to see. Whose other horn wrapped her right around and pulled her close.
Like Mrs. May and Orual—I finally saw truth.
I saw. That this life isn’t mine. It never has been. When had I taken such obstinate control? When had I forgotten that He is God? When had I forgotten that He can do whatever in the world He likes?
I stood there in the bathroom. And cried. But—miracle of miracles—this time not in anger at God’s cruelty. Rather, in humility at His grace.
Peter found me there. He shuffled into the bathroom, eyes barely cracked.
“I’ve had an epiphany,” I told him. “I get it now.”
His brow furrowed with sleepy skepticism.
“Okay,” he said. “Can we talk about it in the morning?” And he headed back to bed.
I would be lying if I said that everything was downhill from there. Certainly not. In fact, life kept kicking us in the gut. For the next several years. No, the pain didn’t go away. But in that marvelous moment in front of the mirror. Thank God. My anger finally did. Finally.
Of course, the infertility did not go away. However, God showed us great mercy in healing us enough to adopt. God gave us two children to love dearly. God could have killed us for our ingratitude for what we had. Instead he lovingly brought us forward.
We must all be mindful that God has shown us great mercy. Some of us cry out for the good things we want as if it was a cry for justice. However, ultimate justice is not what any of us wants. God is just in destroying this world through a flood. God is just in turning Lot’s wife to a pillar of salt just because she looked back. God is just when he destroys Canaan for their sin. God is just when he sends Israel into exile. God is just when he kills Ananias and Sapphira for lying to him. We should all be killed horribly for our wayward lives. We take our own desperate condition too lightly and we misunderstand God’s holiness when we shake a fist at God. God has shown us all great mercy.
However, God wants to show us mercy even in the areas where we may feel a lifelessness or barrenness has set in. A barren season in our lives can lead to apathy and depression. Apathy is that feeling when we lose interest in our activities, our friends, or even our own lives. We can obscure it by creating a false mask of happiness which we present to others, but doing that is the definition of hypocrisy. We need to process our cognitive, affective, and behavioral reactions to the barren periods in our lives. Then we need to discolse our true condition to God, friends, and family. We were designed to struggle through life together – not in isolation. The faithful, barren women in the Bible cried out to God in their despair. They cried out to their husbands and wept with their friends. Then, if God showed them mercy the whole community rejoiced with them.
I personally find movies like Facing the Giants unhelpful because in that movie they imply that infertility will always be reversed by prayer. Some faithful people still look askance at those who are not blessed by God with biological children. Somehow they attribute infertility to a lack of faithful prayer. Singleness or infertility do not identify a cursed member of the community. We live in a sinful world where God’s ideals of sexual union and fertility are not always realized. In fact, according to 1 Corinthians, singleness can even be a preferred position to advance the gospel. We need more courageous conversation and understanding in the church when it comes to difficult areas like infertility. We need courage to initiate conversation when we want to hide because we are grieving or ashamed because God has not given us children. We need courage to talk with people who are hurting, even when their responses to us might by affected by deep pain. It is good to listen in such circumstances and not offer too much advice or say things that are unwise or untrue. An example we often heard when we were adopting was the examples of people who adopted and then God gave them children of their ‘own’. This implies the adopted children are not ‘our own’ and it also implies they are solely compensation for not having biological children. Also, I have heard that statistically the pregnancy rate of adopting families that struggle with infertility is just 7%. So the words of comfort in that case are generally unhelpful and untrue (https://adoption.com/truth-about-getting-pregnant-after-adoption) . Talking to a person in pain doesn’t generally mean that we have to find something clever to say. It means that we draw alongside them and encourage them to talk so that they release the emotional storm that is raging inside.
Not all barrenness is biological. We can often find that our labours are unfruitful at work or at home. This too can lead to apathy or depression. We can have tried for years to reach our own children with the gospel, but they can persist in a godless attitude. We can try hard to devise plans for commercial success only to see mediocre sales. The way forward with this is also to connect with God and community and share our burden. Look to see some area of life where God is still extending mercy. Amidst the devastation of Jerusalem, Jeremiah could write, “The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning (Lamentations 3:22,23 (NLT)).’
We have looked at how God shows mercy by relieving the barren. We also see in Luke 1:57-80 how God shows mercy by breaking the silence. He breaks the silence of Zechariah and he also breaks his own silence.
Zechariah was struck dumb by the angel of God because of his lack of faith when God told him he would have a child. A lack of faith in God has its consequences. However, once Zechariah shows his obedience in spite of his affliction, God loosens his tongue. In this passage we see that Zechariah was living in a silent world. The townspeople had to make gestures to him when they wanted to know the child’s name. He not only could not speak – he could not hear! So his world was silenced. This was a holy man. This was a man dedicated to God and God silenced him. All his faithful service did not make him immune from God’s punishment. Then God showed mercy. After months of silent living and eight days of wondering if it would last forever, God suspends his sentence on Zechariah and rather than bitterness, Zechariah responds with blessing. His song is called the Benedictus because benedictus is the Latin for blessed, which is the first word of the song. His song speaks of God’s mercy, but Zechariah is not thinking only of himself but of Israel.
Israel has received word from the prophets that a Messiah will come, but then God himself seemed to become mute for 400 years. The people of Israel lived in silence. They did not hear God and subsequently they could not speak new words from God into the lives of the people. Now Zechariah sees that the time of waiting is over. He bursts into song for his people. He knows that his son will prepare the way for a new freedom. His words imply that he thinks the Messiah will establish an earthly kingdom. Regardless of his understanding of what God is doing, he knows that God is speaking to his people again. God is no longer silent. In fact, as John tells us in his gospel, the Word of God will become flesh. God is not only speaking to Zechariah – he will be speaking in the flesh.
Those who have watched closely the common experience of Christians have developed ‘stage theory.’ In books like Critical Journey by Hagberg and Guelich stages of faith are recorded. In Critical Journey the fourth stage is called The Wall, in other writing it is called the Long Dark Night of the Soul. It is that time when the heavens seem as brass. Our prayers seem to go nowhere. We feel isolated. We do not hear God’s word. Bible reading leaves us feeling as empty when we finished as when we began. Answers that once thrilled us now leave us flat. This time of silent isolation is common for those who push deep into the faith. We have a resistance to growth. Our resistance, possibly like Zechariah’s, might be due to an overly strong ego; it can come from a history of guilt and shame; it can come through frustrated efforts to make sense of the world; it can come through our desire to please others. However, like Zechariah, we need to endure discomfort, we have to heal. Risking all and following God into the darkness, despite his seeming silence, requires a courage that only he can give. He is near, even when he does not feel near. He is speaking, even when we do not hear him. The common experience of those who go through The Wall is that God’s mercy and grace are experienced in deeper ways than ever before. People become broken before God, but in breaking to pieces they are made whole.
God speaks to us whether we hear him or not. However, sometimes our experience tells us he is silent. These times of silence serve a purpose in taking us deeper. They show us our own limitations. Sometimes God’s holiness and our own fallen nature lead to a lack of understanding. God calls us deeper than our doubts and fears (See Chapter 3 of 20 Things We’d Tell our Twentysomething Selves). God calls us to walk through the dark storms of our emotions and trust him when trust seems foolish or irrational in our limited thinking. Then in the stillness after the storm he whispers his name as he did to Elijah after the whirlwind. Then, as he did through the Psalmist, he says ‘Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).” We will sit in surrender at the feet of the master at some future date and we will hear all that he wants us to know. Until that day, as committed disciples and apostles, we follow wherever he leads and we go wherever he sends us.
God shows mercy by redeeming the barren, and he also shows mercy by breaking the silence. Ultimately, though, the glory of the Luke 1:57-80 passage, and the thrill of Zechariah’s heart, is that God shows mercy by sending a saviour. God has done this many times for Israel: In famine he sent them Joseph; In slavery he sent them Moses; In warfare he sent them Joshua; In oppression he sent the judges; In their confusion he sent them a king; In exile he sent them Nehemiah. However, in this passage comes the advent of the Saviour. All the past deliverers pointed toward Jesus. The coming saviour will redeem God’s people in ways that will be everlasting. All things will be restored to the way of ‘shalom’ or peace. John is a great gift to his father, Zechariah, because he marks the coming of one greater than him. This person will redeem God’s people. Zechariah’s limited mind explodes into inspired words of blessing – each couplet in the hymn could be unpacked in its own sermon, but even though Zechariah’s understanding is expansive, it is limited. The Apostle John will later expand on the light and darkness theme in his writings in the New Testament. Jesus as the coming king is expanded by Matthew’s gospel. The role of the Jewish people in God’s plan of salvation is more fully explained by Paul. Zechariah is excited and his words are beautiful, but like his son John, but his words are spoken just before the dawn of a new era. In this book we are reading a foretaste of some of the truths Luke will unpack in the books of Luke and Acts. Israel will be blessed as the vessel which will bring the Messiah, and the promises to bless the nations which God made to Abraham will soon be fulfilled. Zechariah, like his son John, is bidding us to get ready for the saviour.
We have traditional holidays that focus on getting ready for the saviour. Christmas is the traditional time when we read through the beginning of the gospel accounts, especially Luke. Somehow though Christmas doesn’t point to the saviour anymore. Christiaan Snedeker was out shopping in 90 degree weather at the beginning of September and ran into a display of Christmas trees. He posted his confused selfie on Facebook with these words, “90 degrees outside and Christmas trees inside. Happy September!!”
Christmas and Easter are good times to bring family together and sing praise to our saviour. We go to church and share the stories of his birth, death, and resurrection. However, with church attendance becoming more sporadic in the modern age, is our saviour worthy of us just becoming Chreasters – those who visit church on just Christmas and Easter? I think we have commercialized and cheapened our understanding of who Jesus is.
One practice that has been foundational to my walk with Jesus over the years has been the Breaking of Bread service that I experienced in Brethren churches. The focus on the bread and the wine and the quiet contemplation leads to a deeper appreciation of all that Jesus has done and all that he is doing. Rather than most church services where one comes as an empty consumer expecting to be filled, the Breaking of Bread has participants coming with hymns to share, passages to read, and hearts ready to pray. This means that each believer brings their experience of the saviour to the service and mutually builds up each member whilst pouring out their praise and worship to God. I would say that all churches could use a time where its congregants come together in quiet reflection and mutual support. These times should be focused on Jesus our Saviour and should examine the limitless wonders of who he is. The Brethren have such a time. I wonder if a busy, secular, consumer lifestyle can still give rise to spontaneous praise to God like we read in Luke. I would advocate that we disengage from the rat race and make more space for what matters most.
As we remember how God has shown mercy by redeeming his people, we have focused on three ways God shows mercy in Luke 1:57-80. He shows mercy by redeeming the barren. He shows mercy by ending his silence and the silence of his servant. He shows mercy by sending a saviour. Like Zachariah, seeing what God has done should lead us into theologically rich songs of praise. One verse comes to mind of a song I have sung many times. It shows the terrible, sinful condition of mankind and the grace God has shown by sending his son.
Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!