By Scott Armstrong
We have made our way out of Advent and are now officially in the season of Christmas (that’s right: according to the Christian calendar Christmas is just beginning!). Our Savior has been born in Bethlehem! What greater joy is there than that?!
Since early December many passages have proven meaningful in my times of devotions and preaching and reflection. However, there is one odd phrase that keeps resonating in my mind and heart that at first seems to have little to do with Advent or the Christmas story:
“How can I be sure?” (Luke 1:18).
Maybe a little context will help.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are closer to retirement than they would like, and they have all but given up hope of having a baby. In spite of their unmatched integrity (v. 6), they have remained barren, and the comments of their neighbors and so-called friends have made even them wonder if there is something wrong with them spiritually. They have prayed and wept and trusted in God time and again only to be disappointed month after month and year after year. Serving God is still their unwavering commitment, but it used to be their passion and joy.
Why not for us, Lord? Why for everyone else?
A priest (this time, Zechariah) is selected to enter the inner temple and burn incense to the Lord. Worshipers are outside. This happens every year.
Except this year the ritual doesn’t go as planned. An angel appears and almost gives old Zechariah a heart attack. And his message was more astonishing than his appearance: “Don’t fear. Your prayer has been heard. You’ll have a son. Give him the name John.”
All of Zechariah’s peers were already grandpas, some great-grandpas. Now he is supposed to believe he will be a first-time dad?! It’s more than any of us could have handled.
And that’s when we hear his gasping, faltering response to the angel:
How. Can. I. Be. Sure.
There was no one more upright in Israel than Zechariah. No one else had access to the very presence of God like he did (literally, this year). And for decades no one had had more faith than Zechariah. And yet the question stammers off his lips in disbelief. It’s haunting, really.
It’s one thing to believe God is able to do the impossible. But it’s another thing to believe he will do it.
And it’s one thing to believe God will do the impossible in someone else’s life. But it’s another thing to know he will break in in the midst of your impossibility.
“I hear your voice, Lord. I understand the message. It’s just that, deep-down, I have to be honest: how can I be absolutely certain that you will come through?”
The best cure for a lack of faith that betrays us in moments like these is often silence. Well, geriatric Zechariah got a heavy dose of that. During his wife’s pregnancy, he could write down messages, but not everyone could read at that time. He got pretty decent at charades, but most people lost patience with him or just started laughing at his hand signals. So he ended up having a whole lot of time to just listen.
And in those nine months of forced silence, he heard God’s voice clearer than he had ever heard it before.
“Elizabeth has morning sickness. Or did you think it was the bread and figs she ate?”
“Her belly’s growing, Zechariah. I can tell you’re starting to believe after all…”
“Feel that kick? Haha! This baby will be a world-changer for sure!”
“Zechariah, this is it! The baby’s ready! Elizabeth is pushing. Are you sure now?”
Listening, listening, listening.
And on the eighth day after the birth, when he scurried to write on the tablet: HIS NAME IS JOHN, his faith had grown as big as the joy he had as he held that little boy. His tongue was loosed and there was nothing else to do but to belt out praises to the God who had astonishingly done – and was still doing – the impossible.
Now he was sure of it.