Barrenness is such a lonely word. Hearing it, reading it always leaves me feeling alone and a little lost.
In Luke’s gospel, the writer tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived with barrenness for many, many years. And not only did they suffer pain over having no children, they also experienced humiliation, disgrace, and embarrassment. In their day, children were a sign of God’s favor—a demonstration of God’s blessing. Having no children meant that God was withholding favor.
Most likely, Elizabeth was the one who bore the burden for their infertility. In first century, wives were held responsible for a couple’s “barrenness.” So Elizabeth was thought to be the infertile one, and her condition brought disgrace to her husband. But Zechariah suffered right along with her. He too knew pain; he too was heartbroken. These two sad, hurting people, a married couple longing for a miracle were desperately wishing for a child. But they were too old, too old to be having a baby.
This is not a happy story—and in fact, it seems to be a hopeless one. Is there any good news, any hope for this elderly married couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth? Well, we know how this story ends. We know about the miracle. We know that Elizabeth will soon be pregnant. We know that she births a son that they will name John.
So in the end this truly is a story of hope, but the HOPE I find in this text is not Elizabeth’s pregnancy or the birth of John. Elizabeth’s miraculous conception at a very old age and the safe delivery of a tiny baby boy is NOT what makes this passage a story of HOPE for me.
Instead HOPE is found in unexpected places. Hope doesn’t come suddenly at the end of the story AND HOPE isn’t just wishful thinking about the future. Instead HOPE is written in between the lines on the page. HOPE is hidden in curious parts of this passage.
HOPE is found in their normal, everyday routines as Zechariah fulfills his priestly duties, showing up every day and serving in the Temple. HOPE is found in the words of promise spoken by the angel to a doubting Zechariah. HOPE grows stronger in the sacredness of Zechariah’s silence. HOPE is seen in unexpected places.
I must confess that for most of my life I read quickly through this first chapter of Luke, hurrying toward verse 57 – rushing to read “she gave birth to a son.” Those words are the highlight for me—the good part of the story, they are the happy ending. During my own years of struggling with infertility, I needed stories with happy endings. I needed HOPE that a baby would come to us. I needed somehow to believe that God would do a miracle. I needed my own happy ending!
I still like happy ending. I like stories that conclude with miracles—and my own personal story has had a few miracles along the way. In 1994 and again in 1997, through the miracle of adoption, my husband and I became parents. We received good news that babies would indeed come to us.
But despite my continuing desire for happy endings, as I have aged I have become much less willing to skip those first twenty-two verses of Luke chapter 1. Those first verses have become more important, more meaningful, more helpful to me than the latter verses. I have learned that you can’t skip to the end when it comes to life. You can’t avoid the hardness or pain of living. You can’t avoid the challenging times. You have to somehow deal with the struggle.
I have also learned that sometimes a good ending isn’t the ending at all—but only a new beginning. Our adoption of Michael and Alex began a whole new phase of our lives—we became parents and have experienced all the joys, frustrations, and hardships that go with parenting.
I have also learned that sometimes—indeed many times, there is not happy ending. Some stories don’t end well. Sometimes there isn’t a miracle. So what do we do, how do we live with HOPE in the midst of pain and heartbreak, doubt, uncertainty, questions. We can find HOPE as we live faithfully day by day.
We can find HOPE in the midst of sincere doubts. We can find HOPE even on those days when our faith is in short supply, and we can find HOPE in the quiet times, in times of silence.
Our HOPE is NOT just wishful thinking about the future, or dreams of what can be. Our HOPE grows out of reliance on God. Our HOPE comes from our connection with God’s purposes and our desire for God’s presence. Our HOPE is in the God who holds our future, but our HOPE is also in our God who is with us NOW, our God who gives us the strength to deal with the chaos of life, with the hurts and suffering that we all encounter. Our HOPE is in God.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.