Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 4. The Faith Element
Luke 1:11-13 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. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.
Faith, the New Testament says, comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). When God speaks (including through an agent such as an angel) heaven holds its breath to see how we will respond. I have suggested previously that within the Christmas story are a multitude of lessons but to see those lessons we have to ask questions of the text.
So in one of the earliest parts of the Christmas story an angel comes to an elderly priest, a childless priest named Zechariah, who has found himself being called into the inner part of the temple to perform his duties. Now there is so much about this incident that we could write a dozen studies on it alone but for the moment all I want to do is observe this old man’s response to the angel. First, we read, he was startled and gripped with fear, i.e. he was scared stiff! The angel reassures him and then goes on to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth will have a baby in her old age. For Zechariah this was one bridge too far. He has prayed and prayed and nothing happened. Years have passed and nothing happened. God could have enabled them to have a child, but He hadn’t. It’s now too late, and so his words are not words of faith: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Lk 1:18)
Now there some uncomfortable aspects to this story and we usually ignore or forget them. For instance, first, do we believe God stops women conceiving and, even more, that He can make infertile women conceive? Second, if God was going to give them a child, why wait until so late in their lives? Third, if God knows everything (and He does) why does He tell this old man this, knowing he is going to reject it? Fourth, if we believe in free will (and we do) why did the angel slap a gagging order on Zechariah and make him dumb until the son was born? Difficulties!
We’ve got to be brief. First, yes, God can stop and release conception for our blessing. That statement takes a lot of believing and grace if we are on the receiving end of no conception, especially the ‘for our blessing’ part. We could write a page on that but space prohibits it. IF He has stopped you, ask Him the reason. If it is just part of the effects of the fallen, broken world, ask Him to help you conceive.
Second, why wait for so long? We can only guess at answer sometimes and so I venture to suggest that sometimes a) there will be a right time that fits in with other things in God’s plans and b) sometimes God wants you to see His supernatural hand on your life after all other hope has gone, because He wants to build a high level of faith in you for the future, for the life and ministry He has for you.
Third, God knowing the old man will reject the word. I think sometimes the Lord looks beyond the immediate present and sees how we will eventually come to faith. Fourth, why the gagging order: I believe the Lord sees that sometimes we just need a serious encouragement to press on through.
Despite his struggle to believe – and we so often give Zechariah a bad press – the Lord persevered with him so he went home (yes, dumb) but did what was necessary for Elizabeth to conceive and when the child was born, spoke the name out by faith. He got there! Look, if God speaks a word of instruction to you, it is because He knows you are capable of seeing it through. At first sight you may splutter in unbelief but God is bigger than your doubts and he can help you press through to a place of eventual victory. If He instructs, He knows you can do it – eventually. If He gives you a prophetic word and you splutter over it, there’s an easy way (receive it and rejoice over it) or a hard way (splutter your lack of belief and be a Zechariah or a Jonah or a Moses – the ‘Unbelievers’ Club’, who eventually got there!!!!). You’ll get there in the end because God knows you better than you know yourself. Prayer? “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil4:6,7)