The world, it seems, cannot wait to turn the calendar to 2021 and bury the year 2020 as a bad memory. The past year has been full of more hardship than most. Before we turn the page, however, we should ask what God has been doing in us through the vicissitudes of 2020. One answer to that question is this: the Lord has been working faith in his people.
As we approach Christmas and New Year, it’s fitting for us to remember how our Lord worked this same faith, through suffering, in Zechariah the father of John the Baptist. Luke chapter 1 vividly records the story.
Zechariah was dumbstruck for nine months, his vocal cords were quarantined, because he did not believe the promise of Gabriel. The angel had met Zechariah the priest in the temple as he burned incense to the Lord. He announced that old Zechariah and his aged wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son. Their son, John, would be a prophet of God and go before the Lord Jesus. But Zechariah did not believe Gabriel’s words. Silenced by God, he endured perhaps the greatest inconvenience and suffering of his life for most of the next year.
Remember that Zechariah is described from the outset of the story as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (1:6). He was a believer, and yet the Lord wanted to work greater faith in him.
What was Zechariah thinking about during his nine months of silence? We don’t know exactly, but he demonstrated his belief in Gabriel’s words when, at John’s birth, he insisted in writing that the boy be named John. “And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God” (Luke 1:64).
In the quiet of his own soul during those nine months, he must have mused deeply on the word of God in his challenging circumstances. He likely prayed fervently with anticipation. Whatever exactly was going through his mind, his Lord was busy in him, working faith in Zechariah. When his tongue was set free, he didn’t gripe about his circumstances. Rather, he blessed God! Those nine months were the most fruitful of his life up to that point, and he rejoiced in the goodness of God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the “Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ by working faith in us and thereby united us to Christ in our effectual calling” (WSC 30). He does that at our conversion, and the Holy Spirit continues to work faith in us through our whole lives. He did it vividly in Zechariah’s nine months of suffering, and he’s done it in the hearts of his people in 2020.
God has not failed this year. Many people’s prayer lives are deeper, their trust in God is greater, their confession of sin is more thorough, their marriages have been strengthened, their appreciation for worship and the church has grown, their sense of responsibility for others' well-being has increased, and their relationship with the Lord himself is richer. These fruits are the work of the Holy Spirit himself.
What is the right response as we look back at the past nine months, especially? Zechariah responded after nine months of feeling God’s chastening hand by believing God's word. Then, he could not help but break forth in praise, thanksgiving, and anticipation. We owe God the same kind of response as we come to the end of this year. Let’s praise him for working faith in us by rejoicing in our Lord and his salvation.
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. - Luke 1:67-79 (ESV)