This past week, we saw one of the great political upsets in history when Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States. The fallout has led to constant riots and protests. People were declaring their disapproval of the results of the election on social media using #notmypresident. People were mad. People were angry. People were disappointed.
How many of you here have ever been disappointed? Maybe it was when you were a child at Christmas or a birthday and didn’t get the gift you wanted? Maybe you were disappointed in a relationship when things didn’t turn out the way you wanted or expected? Have you ever had all your expectations crushed by something you had done or maybe something God allowed? Sometimes those experiences can have a profound effect on how we see God and how we relate to him.
In the Gospels we read the story of a man named Zechariah. It was the most important day of his life. Annually, a priest was chosen to go into the Holy of Holies to burn incense. This was the highest duty for a priest. While in there, he has a fantastic experience. He and his wife Elizabeth could not have children and they were getting on in age. An angel appears to him and tells him that his prayers are answered and they will have a child… but he is unable to believe.
So the question comes up, “Why was Zechariah unable to accept the angel’s words?” If God told us something amazing and seemingly contrary to what natural science would confirm, wouldn’t we? I think most of us would say, “It depends…”
Today, I want to look at how are past experiences – pain, unfulfilled expectations, can affect our relationship with God and affect our attitude towards His ability to answer our prayers or keep His promises.
I know in my own life and maybe yours as well, that past pain can cause us to live in unbelief. None of us have grown up disappointment free or scar free. I can show you all of my scars and each one has a story… broken glass, knife slip, grinder, aluminum chalk board. Some represented painful injuries while others were from being careless.
It is interesting seeing pictures going through checkout and looking at the pictures on the cover of magazines. Everyone’s faces and bodies look so perfect. The hair is perfect. Even the tattoos look good. Know most of us know that the answer to this form of perfection is airbrushing. Any imperfections are digitally removed. But the reality is, nobody goes through life without scars
For Zechariah, the scar of infertility made it hard to believe. He and Elizabeth went through years of trying to have children. Based on age, they had given up. What was promised wasn’t coming to fruition… they lost their faith. Pain can do that to us.
There is another story of some disciples whose experience of loss left them unable to see the truth right in front of their eyes. These disciples were on way to Emmaus after the death of Jesus. Along the way, Jesus appears to them but they were too grief stricken to believe. As they mulled over their pain and loss, they couldn’t believe in something that was seemingly too good to be true.
I think part of the problem is we sometimes prefer the safety of doubt over the risk of disappointment. I think that is why we sometimes don’t pray for things. We are afraid to ask God just in case He says, “No.” And the result is we live in unbelief and this leaves no room for God.
Now we do that in different ways. Firstly, we often live in the mire of our past and present pain because we tend to focus on ourselves all the time. Many years ago, I took a course on suicide intervention. They say when you are working with someone who is suicidal, you need to help them see outside the tunnel – the light at the end. When someone is so focused on no hope, struggling to get past the “Woe is me… nobody cares…,” it leaves no room for God.
Secondly, we are often surprised or pass it off when God does answer prayers but we refuse to acknowledge His role in the answer. I was reading a story about a woman who was healed of cancer. She was ecstatic but then when asked a year later about it, they responded that they “thought” she had cancer. So the question ends up to us being, “Do we believe in a God who can do miracles or do we just believe in coincidences?”
Another problem we have and the third struggle we have is we sometimes fill our lives with so much other stuff, there is no room for God. All of us are busy. We all have numerous commitments in our lives. Many adults have to fit in work, time with their spouse, time with family, social activities like clubs, sports, and other recreational activities. Where does God fit in? Teens are trying to fit school activities, sports, music, relationships, and family. Where does God fit in? Even children are busy getting shuttled around to preschool, music lessons and family.
Another struggle we have is with unbelief. Do we really believe? I have seen and experienced how unbelief freezes us and prevents us from fulfilling our God given potential. Zechariah couldn’t celebrate because he was caught up in how impossible the promise was. Back in the Old Testament, Abraham and Sarah were the same. Sara’s response was laughter when the angels said she was going to have a child at her old age. It is seen in our personal lives as well as the life of the church. It can keep us from moving forward, in taking risks for God.
But like the man who came to Jesus to heal his child. His struggles led him to call out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief.” As Christians, we all have seen God at work in our lives or in the lives of those we know, but when things don’t happen the way we want, we begin to have doubts. The question, “Will God answer?” becomes “Can God answer?”
But I think our biggest issue comes down to the fact that we have more faith in ourselves than God. In other words, who do we trust more? In the story of Zechariah, we see that it is actually about two Zechariahs – one was the old man, faithless; and the other one who stood in the presence of God, and in the end was changed. All Zechariah saw when the angel declared his prayers answered was himself… I’m old and so is my wife. How many of us only see with our eyes? Are we like that, too? But in the end, God acted and Zechariah’s doubt transformed into a miracle. The great church father Augustine knew the struggle so he prayed that God would enlarge his soul. In other words, that God would make room in his heart and life for Him.
God desires to do great things in our lives and the life of this church. We need to see today and tomorrow through His eyes. One of my favorite quotes is from Marcel Proust “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I believe that is one of the main keys to life – to see things differently, with new eyes, new hearts and minds.
We all have experienced pain in our pasts – maybe we were disappointed with an unanswered prayer? Maybe we have some deep hidden sin that we’ve never dealt with? Maybe there’s been abuse or something else that we’ve allowed to keep us from really developing a close intimate relationship with God? They leave scars which can affect how we see God and His love for us.
So how do we get beyond the scars we see and the experiences attached to them? The answer to all of this is we need to look at Jesus. The Bible says God loves you and through Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness, healing and restoration. Did you know that God never tires of telling us how much He loves us? In John chapter 10:10-11, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.
That love is seen in what Jesus did for us on the cross. The nails left scars on Jesus that are reminders of His love for each of us. They show us how much God loves us and that through His healing hand and loving grace, we can become the men and women of God – freed from the past and empowered for the future, a future He has ready for us.