Godliness is no guarantee of happiness

Some people are childless by choice. To my surprise I discovered that 20% of American women are in that category. But not Zechariah. He wanted a child. He dreamt of a child. Yet gradually the dream disappeared. With the passing of the years it seemed no longer an option. I guess that Zechariah would have identified with the following lines of Matthew Wanner’s reflections on his childlessness:

Oh how I have dreamed,
for years allowed to grow.
A face, a smile, a love,
that one day I would know.

Choices have been pondered,
to make this world your own.
The name, rules, and school,
to mold until you’ve grown.

Lessons carefully collected,
to help along the way.
Requirement that is no more,
on the shelf they’ll forever stay.

Facing challenges with earnest,
a journey filled with strife.
Hoping to grant one gift,
the precious gift of life.

Alas the battle was lost,
this dream must be set free.
Leaving me only to grieve,
the person you will never be.

Farewell my sweet dream,
for I can no longer view.
A new one must be found,
a dream without you.

With Christmas soon upon us, it seems appropriate to look at the story of Zechariah and reflect on the unhappiness many feel when so much focus at this time of the year is upon the family. Zechariah, whose name means ‘God remembers’, probably felt God had not remembered him. I would imagine that this is how many others feel too.

Zechariah was a priest, who traced his ancestry through Abijah, the second son of Samuel, and then through Samuel back to Aaron (Luke 1.5 GNB). His wife Elizabeth also belonged to a priestly family (1.5). A priest could only marry a woman of pure Jewish blood. Zechariah went one better: he married a priest’s daughter, who may have well been named after Elizabeth, the wife of Aaron. Not only did they have a good religious pedigree, they were also good people. “They both lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commands” (1.6). Yet their godliness was no guarantee of happiness. Despite their deep commitment to God, “they had no children” (1.7).

For many couples this can be a cause of deep sadness. This was even more so in first century Jewish society. The Rabbis said there were seven categories of people excommunicated from God, the first two of which were ‘A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and no child’. Singleness and childlessness were often viewed as signs of God’s judgment. Childlessness was even regarded as a valid ground for a man to divorce his wife. In those days the woman was always blamed for failing to produce a child. Indeed, Luke says: “But they had no children, because Elizabeth could not have any” (1.7)”. To be fair, Luke also mentions that both Elizabeth and Zechariah “were very old” (1.7). They were both well and truly past having kids.

Despite of who they were and the kind of life they lived, God had not blessed them with children. Here we see that going God’s way does not guarantee we shall receive all that we want in this life. In some Christian circles there is an assumption that if you are a Christian, then God will bless you with health, wealth, and happiness. This is a nonsense and is not the teaching of Jesus. We do not become Christians because of what we can get out of this life: rather we become Christians because of what God has given us in Jesus.

God eventually surprised Zechariah in a happy way. He and Elizabeth finally had the child they had longed for. Although bearing in mind how eventually John lost his head for standing up to King Herod, we might wonder whether John proved to be the child of their dreams.

Not every Christian story has a happy ending. Sometimes our dreams are shattered. We shout out to God: ‘God, why can’t we have children? Why did my sister have to die? Why did I have to lose my job?’ We don’t mind happy surprises: but disappointments are another matter. Yet even in the midst of disappointment, God can be at work. I think of how the Apostle Paul three times asked the Lord to remove the ‘thorn’ in his flesh; but the Lord refused and said, “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak” (2 Cor 12.9). To Paul’s amazement that proved to be true. He discovered that God’s unwanted answer to his prayer did him more good in the long run than he could ever have believed. God can be at work in our lives, even when our prayers are not answered.

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