How Can I Be Sure?

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.

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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!”

Until, finally…

“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.

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Welcoming the Wilderness During Advent

The following excerpt is from “Advent is a Season of Longing,” written by Carolyn Arends and published in Christianity Today.

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

If the latter is the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. To the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

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So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John chose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

–Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.