“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”
The Second World War was thundering to a close when the young soldier stepped onto the troop carrier that would carry him from the United States to Europe. Halfway across the Atlantic, word arrived that an armistice had been signed. The war with Germany was over.
Of course, the ship could not turn around; there were clean-up operations to be done in Europe. So the ship kept going, and the young man did his duty.
After his tour was over, the soldier married his sweetheart back home. It took some time to find work, but they finally found employment at a farm. Growing a family was more important to them, though, than raising crops. Unfortunately, after years of trying, they learned they were not likely to have children.
They prayed that God would trump the doctor’s word. Against human odds, a healthy baby girl was born in the fifth year of their marriage. A baby boy followed, then three more girls and another boy.
The couple had a good life on the farm, but none of their six children followed them into the family business. Instead, the four daughters became teachers in Christian schools. One son wed a doctor, and together they have been active in cross-cultural mission efforts; the other son became a pastor and Bible teacher.
To this day the postwar couple shrugs when asked how it all came about. “We just begged God to give us kids,” they say. “Then we learned to pray for our children every day.”
I know. I’m their eldest son. And I’m only now beginning to realize how much my parents were like the infertile couple Elizabeth and Zechariah, who one day felt ecstasy as well as fear when God actually answered their prayers for a child. They could only vow to do their best and ask for God’s help.
There is no magic formula for having kids, let alone having them turn out well. Many couples remain childless after years of agonizing prayer. And even miracle children, bathed in spiritual significance, carry with them no guarantees of piety. The old priest Zechariah and his wife celebrated the day of John’s birth. But what did they think when their son lived like a wild man in the desert, provoking the wrath of Jewish leaders and priests with his scathing sermons and unorthodox baptisms? Were they alive when their son was imprisoned, then beheaded?
Should we stop asking for children because they bring pain into our lives? No. This story and others remind us that we live in a broken world in which we depend on one another for encouragement when the waiting is long or when children don’t turn out the way we had hoped. With the help of others, and with God’s encouragement and strength, we can have hope.