This series of sermons is based on a book called Five Questions of Christmas, by Rob Burkhart. Check it out on Cokesbury.
To get to the manger, you have to go through John the Baptist.
That’s kind of a “science-fiction-time-bending” statement. At the manger, John would have been an infant, scarcely able to preach repentance and baptize believers! Yet, during this Advent season, if we are to seek the manger, the birth of Christ; and, if we are to use that story to symbolize the birth of Christ into our own lives, then, we must first understand the message of John the Baptist – “Repent!”
To get to the manger, we have to go through John the Baptist.
Today’s scripture deals with John’s birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth. It was, like many other biblical births, a surprise! Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before him, Zechariah doubted the promise of a coming child. Zechariah didn’t trust that what the angels predicted would actually happen. The question we examine this morning comes from his own lips – “How will I know that this is so?”
Luke 1:5-20 (CEB)
5 During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. 8 One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty.9 Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God.17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers[a] back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”
19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Zechariah’s question echoes through my mind today, as I look at our world. “How can I be sure of this?” Or “How will I know?” Zechariah is promised an extraordinary blessing, and responds with doubt. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he asks a question we’ve all been asking lately – “Lord, how do we know your promises are true?”
Preachers and Christians the world over “talk a good game,” shower us with blessings and good words; but, when it comes right down to it, how do we know it is true?
Especially, how do we know God’s love and care is real in the face of loss? In a world torn apart by conflict? We might ask – “If all you say, Lord, is true, why is this world so violent, so cruel and cold?”
How can we proclaim anything vaguely resembling “Christmas Joy” this Christmas season?
Good news and bad news:
- Bad news: I have no definitive answer
- Good news: I know from life experience that – for those who love Christ and are surrounded by others who love Christ – the pain doesn’t last forever.
All I can do right now is point to poetic words that comfort me, and hope they comfort you. I come back, time and again, to the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Life is a curious mixture of hope and fear. Always has been! It certainly was for Joseph and Mary, as they pondered what it meant to birth the Son of God in a dirty stable. Maybe that mixture lay at the root of Zechariah’s question? He and Elizabeth were old, had been hoping for a child but feared their hopes were futile. Gabriel’s words were too good to be true.
For us, life is still a mixture of hope and fear. We hope for a long and happy life, but fear we won’t make it. Some days hope wins and we forget all about fear. Somedays, fear has had the upper hand.
If life were not such an odd mixture of hope and fear, faith would not be possible. If each day was more happy and hopeful than the day before, pretty soon we’d forget about our troubles and forget God. I’m not saying that God makes life hard so we will turn to him; life is already hard, has been since the beginning, and God is there to comfort us.
Gabriel’s words are so unbelievable that Zechariah is speechless – and remains so until the naming of John. In our world, we are definitely not speechless! We argue, fuss, criticize, judge, berate, fight, condemn, post, block, tweet and retweet, unfriend, and unfollow. More often than not, all our voices only make it worse. Maybe we should be struck speechless, too!
As “hopes and fears of all the years” meet in Alabama this December, I know the final victor will be hope. Fear may win tomorrow, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” All along that arc, hope and fear are battling it out!
When we wonder how we can know that God’s promises are true, when we ask for certainty, look around. Hope is there. Like a little baby in an out-of-the-way manger, hope is there and growing. Until hope wins it all, we have to nurture it. It’s hard, but hope will grow. And, one day, we will know.