Theme: God uses people who are “too old” in the start of the Christmas story. Put aside American ideas of age and value. Renewal, usefulness, and being in the center of God’s will a matter of faith, not age.
See also today’s News & Views article by Dr. Murray Smoot, “Too Old!”
We are beginning a new series on the mixed up stories of Christmas. Those of you who are astute in liturgical stuff, I am not one of those people. It had to be pointed out to me, but we lit the wrong candle this morning, but that was deliberate. The joy candle is usually the last one you light in the four-week series of Advent, but this year we are celebrating the fact that God doesn’t always do it the way we expect. We are going to look at how God uses people that are too old, people that are too young, who does it at the wrong place, who does it at the wrong time, people give too much and people give too little. And yet, God uses it all for the redemption of the world. God doesn’t work the way we expect. He just doesn’t do it our way.
Let’s face it; God hasn’t done it our way in our lives has he? Think about it. The older you are, the more you can testify that God has been good, God has protected, God has blessed and God has not done it the way you expect. Things that you really expected God would do and you held on for, and you knew that this was the way God was going to do it, it didn’t happen that way. And yet, in it all we see the sovereign hand of God and we see that God is true to his promise to be with us, to protect us and to bless us.
And we see this happen in the Christmas story. We so often look at this issue of Christmas through the rose-colored glasses of twenty centuries of celebrating this and getting farther and farther away from it. That is one of the reasons why we use fresh art on our bulletin covers instead of using something that has sanitized angels and well behaved donkeys and things like that. We are focusing in on the meaning behind it and you will notice that you’ve got a cup, an empty cup, a fragile cup sitting on top of a baby blanket and for Elizabeth and Zechariah this was the way they entered into the Christmas season the very first time. They didn’t have all of these pictures of angels in the sky and God doing huge things through a Savior. They only had a very small picture and their small picture was that they had been empty and brittle for years, holding on to God, that God would somehow bless their family and so this picture then kind of symbolizes where they are as a family at that time.
God chose to work in a country that we wouldn’t otherwise even know about if it wasn’t for Judaism and Christianity. Israelite would mean no more to us than Jebusite and the only reason we know the word Jebusite is because we have the Old Testament from the Israelites. They would be totally off the map and yet God chose to work in that country and he didn’t even choose to work in them at a time when they were at their zenith or power. Instead, after four hundred years of them being downtrodden and oppressed by other people and under the power of other nations, after a period of time like that, he chooses to work and work on his salvation. Out of it, all in unexpected ways, God brings redemption. And the way God chooses to work in history and the way God chooses to work in our lives tells us about God’s character. He doesn’t use a military leader to deliver us. God doesn’t take a rich person in human terms and use them so that we would think somehow these human riches were part of the whole picture. He doesn’t do that. He takes unknown people, poor people in a poor country and that tells us a little bit about how God is and how God acts. God’s ways are not our ways as Paul says it in 1st Corinthians. 1st Corinthians 1:25 he says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”
Now, today we take a look particularly at Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah is a priest in the hill country of Judea. In verse 6 in this passage it says that they are upright people. These are good folks, but even though they are good people and observe all the Lord’s commandments, they are not particularly respected people in the community. They are not from the right part of the country to be respected. Country priest, but an upright person, and Elizabeth also. And so the angel of the Lord appears as in the reading of the scripture that we had earlier. The angel comes and promises to them a child; a child coming to an old infertile couple. These people had been praying for years that God would do something. They bore for years the shame of being childless because in that culture to not have a child was always a stigma. People always felt like somehow that was God’s judgment against you and so they buried their shame there, praying these prayers and always hoping, but even after a while the time of hoping was over.
There comes a point in your life that no matter how much you believe and how much you hope, you start to believe, “Well, the time for that is over, I better get used to it.” It can be all kinds of things. It can be that the time for getting married is over, the time for child rearing is over, the time for making a job change is over. There are all kinds of times, and we have this internal clock, and we have this sense that well, I wanted it to change, but maybe it won’t and they certainly had gone past that time and the hopes were dead, because they were just too old. “I’m too old for that” we hear that sometimes. “They are too old for that” we hear that even more often. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, too old to have a baby, too old to learn something new, too old to bear that responsibility, too old to change. There are so many times when we come up with that sort of excuse and these are easy things to say in a culture that’s obsessed with youth.
We live in a culture that sells tons and tons and tons of cosmetics; some of those to men. We are in a Botox culture where at the first signs of aging you’ve got to paralyze a part of your face so that it will look less wrinkly. Plastic surgery is a booming industry. In Hollywood if you are 35-years-old, even if you are a writer, you’ve got to hide your age because they want writers that are 25 to 25 years old, and so once you become 35-years-old, well come on, you are too old for this and you will not be a success. Even in the sciences, your most productive years are considered before you are 35-years-old. Albert Einstein did his most important work before 1909 while he was still a clerk in the patent office and all of that before he was 30-years old. So it’s easy to think that there are times that you become too old for something, but one of the things that we see in a passage like this is that God never writes us off because of age.
Here in this passage God takes the longing of years, prayers offered up over years of sorrow and brings an answer in their latter years. Because of God’s sovereign purposes he holds off an answer he could have given earlier in life, but gives it later because he is weaving it into a series of events that are far bigger than anything that couple could have ever imagined, the longing of the whole life of Israel is coming to fruition in Jesus Christ and they are woven into being part of that, because their son is going to be the one who comes before him saying, “Prepare the way for the Lord.” And it all begins with a miraculous birth of this child, John the Baptist, to a couple who is too old to possibly conceive a child. There is a number of things we need to learn from a passage like this and I would like to hit just a few of them.
The first one, there is a call upon us to serve God all of our lives from start to finish. Another way of saying that is, God needs us at any age to fulfill his purposes. There is no such thing as spiritual retirement. That’s the first thing we’ve got to learn. There is no such thing as spiritual retirement. You are going to hear next week that you can never be too young and you are hearing this week that you can never be too old for God to work. Sometimes the biggest and best things come later in life.
I want to tell you about a woman named Sissy Davis. Sissy is someone I know from First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge. Now Sissy has a southern accent so thick you can cut it with a knife. I mean it is an amazing Mississippi accent. Sissy has spent most of her life driving a schoolbus. Single mother. Not a whole lot of money, working hard to raise her kids, having all the anguish that a single mother has and finally in her 50s she meets a man and after her kids are actually out of the home she gets married, but that’s not what this story of all about. What this story is about is that in 1993 and Sissy is past 50 at this time, Sissy is praying to God, “God let me do something significant in my life. I don’t want to go on and pass away without having left a mark somehow. God I am just a schoolbus driver. I am a poor woman and I am not educated, but can you use me?” Well the pastor of that church got a phone call from a hospital saying that they needed little outfits for premature babies that passed away at birth or soon after. I don’t know whether you have ever thought about this, but when a baby gets small enough they don’t fit in baby clothes anymore. And so, hospitals all over the nation have families that are in this time of grief and crisis and somebody in the family has to go to a toy store and buy doll clothes or the hospital has to wrap up the baby just in a little blanket they might have laying around or sometimes the baby is so small they have to wrap it up in paper and so there is a need for these families and so the pastor talked to Sissy and said, “Sissy, can you do something about this?” And so she, somebody gave a $100 gift she went and bought a bolt of cloth and started cutting out small baby clothes and began a ministry to these families where she could give these clothes to the hospitals and then when there was a crisis and a death these hospitals could help these families in need. Well, in God’s sovereign way word got out. It was on national television. It was in national magazines and women starting calling from all over the country saying “we have experienced this. We want to help other women, other families that are in this kind of crisis.” And she began a ministry called Threads of Love. Threads of Love now has 100 chapters in the United States and Canada and they have given away 40,000+ items to help families in grief and crisis. Schoolbus driver. Getting too old for anything significant and God uses that limit to begin a national ministry.
I want to tell you a little bit about another woman, Virginia Deder, a missionary in Japan, who served as an English teacher and for 35 years she served teaching in our classes and like so many other missionaries in Japan had nominal results, you know just a conversion here or there, an encouragement to a weak Christian, but never seeing a time of harvest and finally she came down to her very last term of service in Japan and she asked the school, “Can I be reassigned to travel around the nation and visit all of the alumni of the school, all of these women that I had in class across these 35 years?” The school had the wisdom to say yes and Virginia in her very last three years in Japan as a missionary went around and visited these women. And it was three years of harvest. She found out that a number of these women had become Christians later in their lives because of the testimony of that school earlier in their lives and other she was able to lead to Christ as she visited in their homes and went around the country and so there were these long years of service and then right at the end, right before she retires, God grants her the harvest. She wasn’t too old for that and in fact she’s retired now and she still returns to Japan to minister to these women all over the country.
Well, we don’t have to go out of this congregation to find stories. You will find in the News and Views and in the devotional booklet Murray’s story. Murray serves well here for years and as soon as he retired God decides to use him and his wife in other places. There are people in this congregation who as they got near to retirement took on new challenges. Phyllis and Peter-Desmit has taken on the challenge of being our Missions directors; going overseas to represent this church and making contacts with missionaries. All at a time that other people would be saying it’s time to garden. Scott Corey who together with a number of other leaders in this church working with Habitat for Humanity. All of these things come at a time that other people are saying “well you know, I have done my bit.” But God doesn’t work that way. You are never too old. So that’s the first thing we’ve got to hear.
I can also tell you about Mamma Lu Smitty who began her service as a missionary at 93 years of age in Equador. That’s quite a story. She died ten years later and asked to be buried in Equador because at 10,000 feet to be buried among the Kechuwa Indians, she was that much closer to heaven in her mind.
How about those of us who are a little younger. Those of us who are old have to remember that there is never a time that God stops to work in our lives, but those of us who are younger have to remember that these slow years and these empty years are not wasted years. Think about Elizabeth and Zechariah not when the story happens, but 20 years earlier when he is working as a country priest and he’s not getting any press for it. Just day to day life and they are praying for this family that they want so badly and nothing happens year after year after year. Are those wasted years? Not if they stayed close to God. And it says in verse 6 that they were upright and obeyed the commandments of God and that’s what kept those empty years from being wasted years is because in the middle of this seeming emptiness, in the middle of these struggles they worked to stay close to God. So if you are a young mother and you are home all the time and you look forward to Sunday just so you will have an adult conversation with someone who isn’t your husband, that can be an empty feeling time in some ways. You know that its worthwhile to invest yourself in your children yet you are always feeling like there are all these other things that I could or should do. Well that time will pass after a while. It’s only a season, but God is at work now and God is doing things in you now. They are laying foundations so that when you are freer as your children get older you will be ready for some new challenges.
What about those of us who are in jobs and you are starting to feel like this is a dead end job, not going anywhere? Dead end job or you don’t like what you are doing or you don’t make enough doing it and its easy to start feeling at that point that those are wasted years as well and believe me sometimes that’s a sign that you should seek something else, but sometimes those doors don’t open and if those doors don’t open and you are still in that job that isn’t paying enough, that you don’t like enough, are those wasted years? Again, no. Not if we stay close to God. God uses those times to prepare us for the future. God is at work in the empty years. Moses had 40 years as a shepherd in the desert before God used him. Man, that seems like empty years to me and yet that’s the way God did it. God prepared Jesus for 30 years before he used him in three years of ministry. That’s just the way God works. And it’s not always easy to be able to see in our situation how God is using it to prepare us for the future because life doesn’t fit into straight lines. If you think about the story of Moses, remember Moses was born in Egypt. He was actually raised by a family of Pharaoh because of a series of events. In my thinking, God should have used Moses right at the end of that period when he was living in a household of Pharaoh because he knew everybody. He was known himself and that’s the time to make an impact, but that’s not how it worked. God let 40 years happen before God ended up using Moses. It’s not a straight line.
I think about my own walk. In 1985 I made the firm decision that I wanted to get ordained to become a pastor. I had already gone to seminary, but had been working in lay ministry and at that point I was in England and I saw some dynamic churches, that these churches were then a base for work to go on in the community. So the different Inner Varsity and Campus Crusade staff members went to these churches and they were a foundation for ministries all over the Oxford area and I saw these healthy churches and said, “I wanted to be a pastor like that.” And praise the Lord I am now a pastor in that kind of church. But who would have thought you had to go through ten years in Japan to get there? God’s ways are not our ways. There are some mixed up stories that God is using for his purposes.
Where you are and what you are doing right now can be part of what God is doing to shape you if we respond to that by staying close to God. God’s primary task in our life is not using us in ministry, but making us like Christ. So that’s always the primary agenda. So there might be 20-year periods of our lives that it’s not the ministry that gives meaning to our lives. It’s what God is doing in us that gives meaning to our lives. So it might not be the outward focus, but the inward things that God is doing to perfect us, not that we become perfect, but to be working in us to become like Jesus Christ.
Last week those of us who got there early got to see a bunch of pictures in the past of this church. And some familiar faces that are now older faces among us were there in those pictures and we could see at the dedication of some of the buildings that we are in right now, but years ago we can see people who are older now who were one at one time our ages, no matter what our ages are here. We can see that they have gone through the same struggles. They have made the same choices. They have had some of the same sorrows that we do and so when we look at their lives now, if we see something we like, then if we are younger, we need to go to them and say “I want to learn from you. I want to connect with what God has taught you.” Because they are not too old, they are just old enough to know something to tell us or in my case I am older than many of you. I am old enough to tell you something and then you are maybe old enough to tell somebody else something. We only need to be one or two steps ahead to have something to offer to the person behind us. So the first thing is we’ve got this wealth of maturity around us and we need to be creative in making opportunities to connect with some of these people. Maybe it’s your opportunity to invite them over to dinner instead of waiting for them to invite you. But if we are older, maybe you get the stronger message today. You are not too old. God is not finished with you yet. It is not time to spiritually retire. No matter what our age and health is, until the very end of life there will always be a new response we can make to the call of God. There will always be an appropriate response at every stage and what’s amazing is that in the economy of God, once we get to the end and we are making our very last responses to God to be faithful in this life, it is not the end, but just the start of something bigger and something better. God is not finished with us yet.
Let’s pray. Gracious God we look in the lives of these people, Elizabeth and Zechariah and we take heart that as they were faithful in the dry years, that you worked in them in such a way that you would be more able to bring great blessing in their later years and we believe that you have good intentions like that for all of us, those of us who are young, those of us who are older. God we pray that you will help us at every stage of life to be faithful to you because we know that you will be faithful to us and we ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.