They are four of the saddest words in Luke’s Christmas story: “But they were childless.”
Luke writes them, of course, of Zechariah and Elizabeth:
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7)
It’s worth quietly pausing at these sad words. For some, to do so will cause terrible personal pain. And all of us, perhaps, will feel keenly the sorrow of those whom we love and who are childless: those who have never married, but who would love to have married; others who are married, but for whom the birth of a child has never been given by God. Childless.
It is, as one childless couple has said, “that strange grief which has no focus for its tears and no object for its love.'' There is no anniversary of childlessness on which friends might send a card of condolence, no grave to visit and remember, no photograph or name or memory of the child who never came. It is just an emptiness, a not-ness, a joy that didn’t come, a hope forever dashed.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were married. They hoped and prayed for a child, for they valued highly such a wonderful gift of God. But the child never came. The months went by, but there was no conception. Gradually the biological clock ticked on to the years when it seemed unlikely to happen, and finally into that stage of life when it was most definitely not going to happen. Many tears, much quiet grieving. And no hope. Childless.
Yet however painful it might be to consider these words, it is important to do so. For it will deepen our grasp of the nature and the wonder of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. And that depth of wonder will more than compensate for the tears we may shed.
From “Dis-Grace” to Grace
Childlessness is a poignant motif in the story of the Bible. Abraham and Sarah are childless—until Isaac is given; Isaac and Rebecca are childless—until Esau and Jacob are born; Jacob and Rachel are childless—until Joseph is given; and there were others. And now Zechariah and Elizabeth, this godly priest and his pious wife, are added to the list.
It is clear that for none of these couples was their childlessness a punishment from God for their sin. And yet, after her son, John, is conceived, Elizabeth describes her former childlessness as a “disgrace” among her people: “‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people’” (1 v 25).
Some would have considered Elizabeth’s childlessness to be a disgrace because they thought it was a punishment from God for her sin. (The friends who come to “comfort” the Old Testament character Job in his misery think like this.) Such people would have been wrong. Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms as profoundly righteous people who keep the law of God because they believe all the promises of God.
And yet there is a sense in which their childlessness is a “dis-grace”; for it is a peculiarly vivid example of the misery of living in a world under sin and the righteous judgment of God. Every sickness, every sadness, every disability is—in this sense—visible evidence that we live in a world under the righteous judgment of God. Whether you have children or not, no doubt there are marks in your life at the moment that show you too are living in a world under judgment; we are all marked in some way with what Elizabeth calls “disgrace”.
And therefore—and this is the wonderful significance of what happens—the removal of this “disgrace” is a sign of the kindness and mercy of God, as “dis-grace” is swept away by grace. Again and again in the Bible story, this is what the birth of an unexpected child means—from Isaac onwards. It is a sign of the gospel. A world with no new children would be a sad and forever aging world, a world without hope. Every child is a sign of hope for the future, a bundle of unknown possibilities, a sign of what we call God’s “common grace”—his kindness to all humankind. And this unexpected child, John the Baptist, is a sign not just of God’s common grace to all, but specifically of God’s particular kindness in what he is about to do in the gospel of Jesus.
The conception and birth of John the Baptist does not mean that every yearning of a childless couple will issue in a happy birth. Far from it. There have always been, and will be to the end of time, godly, prayerful couples who long for children and are not given them.
None of us can know, when we get married, whether or not God will grant us this precious gift.
But we can all know that the conception and birth of John the Baptist points forward to a much greater gift. The particularly painful “dis-grace” experienced by Elizabeth and Zechariah is vividly replaced by a gift of grace. That boy will be the herald of a deeper and more wonderful grace. So whether your present experience is of sadness or joy, use today quietly to pin your hopes not upon a change in your circumstances but upon the great hope for the future to which this baby, John the Baptist, points so clearly. Think about your marks of “disgrace”; thank God that in Christ they are not a punishment for your personal sins; and rejoice that when Jesus returns, every one of those painful marks will be taken away.