What do you wish for this Christmas? Are you expecting something fun? After the isolation that came with COVID last year, I suspect that many, like me, are hoping for family gatherings filled with feasting, love, and good cheer.
Hope. Hope expects. Hope wishes for something to be fulfilled. Hope practically defines Christmas. Yet, in the midst of trials and suffering and disappointments, whether in body, soul or mind, it is easy to lose hope, to stop wishing, to stop believing.
The Christmas story pits hope against hopelessness in countless ways. If you’ve lost hope, this story is for you.
While pondering the first week of our Simply Bible Advent study, the contrast between hope and hopelessness leaped off the pages through the differing reactions of Zechariah and Mary. In Luke’s account we see God dispatch His angel, Gabriel, to deliver very specific, personal, and life-altering messages. One reacts with hopelessness. Another reacts with hope.
Yet, before we compare Zechariah and Mary’s responses, we need to understand the purpose of Luke’s gospel. In the midst of various eyewitness testimony and writings, Luke seeks to pen an orderly account of the events and words of Jesus Christ. Notice the idea of orderly, the opposite of chaotic. Why? So that the most excellent Theophilius—a real person, who lived in a real place, at a real time in first-century history—may have certainty concerning the things he has been taught:
It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. Luke 1:3-4
We know very little about Theophilus aside from the meaning of his remarkable name, “Lover of God.” (Yep! You can call me Theophilus any day of the week!) Yet, what stands out about Luke’s account written specifically for Theophilus is its purpose. Luke’s purpose remains just as true for us in the twenty-first century as back in the first century: that we might have certainty concerning the things we have been taught.
Isn’t this most appropriate at Christmas time? We’ve been taught a lot about Christmas through our traditions. Many of these traditions are fun, yet completely unrelated to the birth of Jesus. It is easy to overlook or even question the miraculous arrival of His coming. How do we maintain certainty, or zero doubt, in Jesus while being bombarded with commercialism of Christmas?
His Word has been compiled and set down in a permanent form, a gift easily overlooked in the busyness of the season. Knowing and enjoying God through His Word, may be more important at Christmas than any other time of the year. Celebrating Advent is one way to stay connected.
Back to Zechariah and Mary.
Luke begins his orderly narrative about Jesus with these two different accounts of the same angel, Gabriel, visiting two different people at two different times: Zechariah and Mary. God wants both of them to know ahead of time what’s about to go down in their corner of the world. Evidence of His grace and hope.
First, Gabriel goes to Zechariah. Who is Zechariah that God would send his angel to give him a personal message? Luke shares:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Luke 1:5-7
Notice that Zechariah is a Jewish priest. He is old. He’s married to Elizabeth. She is old. They are both righteous and walk blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Jeepers! Stop right there! According to God’s Word they obey everything. EVERYTHING. Can you say that? I surely cannot.
Finally, we learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth are barren. In the first-century Jewish culture, not having a child was considered a reproach, a place of dishonor. The opposite of being blessed. Elizabeth most likely was the recipient of some smack talk.
Luke continues by telling us that Zechariah is chosen by lot—a practice used to determine God’s divine will—to burn the incense inside the temple. (God is preparing a divine appointment!) Zechariah shows up to the temple to perform his priestly duties. He enters the temple of the Lord to burn incense, and lo and behold! There is an angel on the right side of the altar. Poor Zechariah is beyond startled:
And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. Luke 1:12
The angel reassures:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. Luke 1:13-14
God’s grace is all over this message! Do not be afraid, Zechariah. God sees and knows Zechariah by name. God is not looking to scare Zechariah. Rather, God has heard his prayer. He comes to deliver a message of joy and gladness! Listen to this good news, Zechariah!
But Zechariah cannot believe. Here’s the conversation:
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “...behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words..." Luke 1:18-20
Zechariah is an old Jewish priest, whose very job it is to worship God and intercede on behalf of the entire nation of Israel, yet he cannot believe. He has lost hope.
Zechariah’s hopelessness is oh-so relatable. After all, how many times had he cried out to God? How many times did he offer the same prayer over and over again? Yet his request remained unanswered day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. One wonders if, as an old man, did Zechariah even continue to offer this petition?
Hopelessness blinds the eyes of his heart. Hopelessness also erases his memory of a similar miracle that God bestowed upon his founding father, Abraham.
Let’s contrast Zechariah’s hopelessness with Mary’s hope. Luke explains that Gabriel is also dispatched by God to give a message to Mary:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Luke 1:26-28
Mary also needed to ponder and try to make sense of the angel’s greeting:
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. Luke 1:29
So just as he did with Zechariah, Gabriel is quick to say:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." Luke 1:30
Do not be afraid, Mary. There it is again. God sees and knows Mary by name. God does not want Mary to be afraid of Him or His Word. Rather, Gabriel comes to deliver a message of joy and gladness!
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Luke 1:31-33
It is true that Mary asked the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v.34) But in this case, Mary does not ask in disbelief. She is not hopeless. In order to better understand Mary’s heart, we must look back a few verses:
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. Luke 1:29
Those words tried to discern describe an internal debate raging within Mary to make sense of the angel’s message. Her question comes from a place, not of disbelief, but of seeking to understand. When troubled, when genuinely seeking to discern truth, it’s okay to ask questions. God made us curious that we might seek to know Him. Doubt, questioning, curiosity—these are all very different from flat out disbelief.
If we’re honest, we’ve all undergone internal debates about God and His Word. That’s okay. Mary’s question is the right one. How in the world can this be since I am a virgin? Just as a reminder, a virgin is a female person who has never had sexual intercourse. Even to this day, we all still ask, “How can this be since Mary was a virgin?”
Mary’s question is affirmed as a good question by the angel’s reply. He matter-of-factly explains to Mary how this is going to go down:
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Luke 1:35
I cannot imagine that Mary comprehended the angel’s message in the present moment! To this day, the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ remains incomprehensible. Who can believe or dare hope in the miraculous?
Something about Gabriel’s explanation carries me back to Genesis 1:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Genesis 1:1-2
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth, too, was void. Mary’s womb is void. In the beginning, God’s Spirit hovered over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light!” God spoke light and life over the emptiness of the earth. This Most High God will now speak Light and Life into the womb of Mary. Why?
Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. Luke 1:35
Gabriel confirms that Jesus will be fathered by God, such that He will be known as holy and the Son of God. Whoa! In the words of Simon Peter spoken to Jesus years later:
And we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God. John 6:69
Hope. Here’s the hope of Christmas. Emmanuel, God with us.
And somehow, Mary gets it. This small town, ordinary—yet favored by God—Jewish teen girl, believes. Hopes. Expects for God’s words that Gabriel is speaking to her to be true. She boldly gives an imperative back to Gabriel:
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38
Mary dares to say to Gabriel, the angel who stands before God, “Behold!” In essence, she says, “Look! I believe. I will hope. I will expect that what you say will be fulfilled. And I am willing to serve, to lay down my life, my hopes, my future to serve God.”
Have you ever spoken such a bold prayer of belief?
For Mary, serving the Lord in this way really did involve laying down her life. Perhaps her future marriage. And temporarily, her honor.
This ordinary teen girl made the extraordinary choice to hope, to wish, to expect God’s will to be fulfilled in her and through her so that not only she would be blessed, but that all the world might be blessed through the fruit of her womb and the hope of Christmas, Jesus Christ. Hope.
Battling hopelessness? Be encouraged.
Notice that God did not remove his favor from Zechariah due to his hopelessness. No. Despite Zechariah’s initial unbelief in God’s message, Zechariah was blessed by God. His day of rejoicing at the miracle of his son’s birth takes place. Ultimately, his hopelessness is transformed to hope. More evidence of God’s grace.
God’s power, His mercy, and His steadfast love trump our uncertainty, our questions, our doubt concerning His promises. Hopelessness today may be dispelled by God’s mercies in the morning. (Lamentations 3:22-24) God’s favor to Zechariah never ceased. The same holds true for doubters today. John said it well:
For from his [Jesus’s] fullness we have all received grace upon grace. John 1:16
Through Jesus, we all have received, been favored with grace upon grace. Let that sink in. We all have hope upon hope available to us.
This is not to minimize Mary’s favor. Mary was favored indeed. As Elizabeth exclaimed:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! ... And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Luke 1:42-45
An ordinary first-century Jewish teen girl achieved the extraordinary. She believed. She hoped. She expected the miraculous. Forever Mary will hold the position of being the first to trust and believe in the gift of our Lord, Jesus Christ. She will forever be known for her heart of hope.
Let us know with certainty the things we have been taught. Let us live with Hope.