Lessons from the Nativity: 2: Believe what you hear
Luke 1:11,12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
I said in the first meditation in this short series that I will not do verse by verse studies here but will focus on one particular lesson from one particular verse each time. Yesterday we pondered on breaking free from a ‘settled’ mentality where nothing changes from year to year and our expectations are low or even non-existent. We saw Zechariah, an old man and childless, serving twice a year in the Temple.
But the story goes on and an angel appears to him. Now I don’t know how this happened because some scholars of Jewish practice tell us that he would have gone into the main part of the Temple to light the candles, accompanied by two attendants. Now whether they had left him or they also saw the angel we don’t know but we are simply told “an angel of the Lord appeared to him.” Now we have possibly read or heard this account at Christmas so many times that we now take it for granted but suppose you had never read this account before and suddenly you read of an angel appearing. Now what makes this all the more startling is that at the beginning of this book, the writer Luke speaks in such down to earth ways about his writing: “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you,” (Lk 1:3) and so here now we find this scholar talking to us about an angel; not angels up in heaven but an angel here on earth, talking to a particular human being.
Now I emphasise the strangeness of this (because, in the light of the normal everyday materialistic world, this is strange) because I suspect if you are a believer you have come to accept the existence of angels and that this happened just like this in this account from Luke. Now I will say from the outset that there are a variety of ways God seems to speak to us and if you either get an audible voice or an angel turns up to communicate to you, you are either in big trouble or God is about to communicate to you major life changing information. Most of us don’t get angels – but we do get God talking to us and this, as they say, is where the rubber hits the road! It is so common in the Bible that we probably take it for granted that God communicates, God speaks, God is a communicator and people are the recipients of His words.
Now I put it like that in such a general way but in the light of this account and in the light of so much of what we find in the New Testament, I have to sharpen or focus that last sentence and say, and we are the recipients of His words. You see, this is what this is all about. God spoke to Zechariah. That is it in a nutshell, but Zechariah struggled to believe what he was hearing. Why? We’ll go on tomorrow to see one reason but generally, never having had this experience before and having in his mind that God sent angels to special people, he must have actually been struggling to believe the entire episode, struggling to believe that this is a real angel and an angel from God with a personal message for him!
This is all about believing that God can speak to us and does speak to us. There are many good Christians who accept all the basic beliefs they find in their Bible but when it comes to it coming up close and personal, they baulk at that. Consider the various ways that God speaks to us and then see where it is that you draw the line. If you exclude any of these four things I am going to put before you, I suggest you need to read your Bible again and ask God for faith to believe it. The biggest and most repetitive question I have from people when we are talking about these things is, “How can you know it is God?” and when people ask that they are expressing their uncertainty and lack of security in God’s love for them. If it conflicts with the Bible or doesn’t bring you into a closer relationship with Him, it is unlikely to be Him speaking to you. But how does God speak?
Have you ever noticed how verses from the Bible sometimes leap out at you? This does assume you read it regularly but have you ever noticed that? God speaking to you. Have you ever sat utterly convicted at the end of a sermon? God speaking to you. Now I suspect that most Christians are happy with those thoughts, even those who illogically say God stopped speaking at the close of the New Testament canon – and it is illogical because if God did stop speaking this cannot be Him speaking to us today.
To be honest those two ways of God communicating don’t require much faith. We’ve had the experience and we know what we feel at the end of it. But then comes the third way He communicates, personal prophecy. Unless you want to tear out the various New Testament references to personal prophecy, you’re stuck with it. Your only questions are likely to be, how does this work and how do I know it is God and not man’s ideas. Good questions. Can I answer by a statement and a testimony. First the statement: prophecy is when one person catches a word from God for another that encourages, comforts and builds up; for how it works see the next one in a moment or two. Second, the testimony: I could give you dozens upon dozens of illustrations of things that God has said to me or that I have had for others, that are basic fundamental comforting, strengthening and building (see 1 Cor 14), which have sometimes been predictive and have always been fulfilled. Dare you be open to the possibility.
The final way that I am going to mention is a personal sense of words or a phrase or sentence or even a picture that comes into our mind out of the blue, but which has clarity of meaning and understanding about it. God’s Spirit communicates with our spirit through the receptor we call our mind. We think, we ‘see’, we imagine, we ‘hear’ in our mind. How do we know it is God? Does it bring clarity, does it bring us closer to Him, does it bring peace, does it bring hope, does it release faith? Those are all good signs that it was Him speaking to us. Who could say (read that list of questions again) that any of those things were bad? Even worse, for those foolish people who attribute good to Satan, would Satan bring those good things into your life so you walk more strongly with the Lord? (Jesus also had to counter the same thinking – Mt 12:24-28).
Zechariah struggled to believe what was happening and specifically what he was hearing. It is probable that he was set in his thinking about his life and he struggled to believe that it was God saying the amazing things that were being said to him when the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” This was God! Do not have the unbelief that Zechariah exhibited. Jesus often, it seems, chided his followers for their lack of faith. Don’t be one he has to chide.