“The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Luke 1:19-20; Mid Week Advent 1; December 3, 2006
Doubt… Who doesn’t have doubt in their lives? I suspect that it is almost as much a part of human life as needing sleep, getting hungry, or being thirsty. And yet it is not. It is not a basic need of life. At root it is distrust, and even more when connected with faith, it is distrust of God. For that reason, Martin Luther in a sermon called doubt “a most damnable sin.”
Doubt is a part of our sinful flesh that we do not like to own up to, because it is such a part of our life, like worry or fear. To the point that some of us will brush it off with statements like, “That’s just the way I am.” Or the finger pointing to try to make themselves feel better, “He/She does it too.” And that is true, so very true. Remember some of the greats of our faith who doubted God—Abraham, Sarah, Thomas. You may rank right up there with the best of them. And yet that doesn’t make it any better. This is part of the condition that St. Paul wrote about in Romans 7—“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to god—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So tonight, we study how Jesus comes to those who doubt, bringing the proof of God’s mercy. And we are given the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Who among us would not feel sympathetic towards this lovely couple. Even our text designates them as upright and even blameless…a way that the Bible designates people with great faith. And yet, they were without the one thing they so desperately wanted. They wanted a child. They had prayed for years and years and yet no child. Why? What had they done wrong? Please! You can just hear those prayers—“Please, I beg you, Lord! Give us a child! And yet nothing happened.
And the years went on, and on, and on! And they passed by, past the time that Elizabeth could even have children. Now it was no longer physically possible…they thought. Now it was over. They would go on with their life. They would serve the Lord, but there was always something missing, and the question was still there in the back of their minds. For these past 25 years, “Did God really hear our prayers?” (Oh yes, yes indeed, Elizabeth and Zechariah.)
Then came the time that Zechariah was called upon to fulfill and obligation of his birth. He was given the special right of serving at the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the Temple. This was, indeed, a special privilege that happened only a few times in a person’s life. As a matter of fact, some Bible scholars suggest that this may have happened only once in a person’s life. What a privilege God has given Zechariah, to be able to serve in His glorious temple in Jerusalem.
There in Jerusalem, Zechariah would go to that glorious Temple, which is God’s house to serve in this once in a lifetime way. He would be allowed to go into the Holy Place, while the people waited outside. He would light the incense on fire and the smoke would go up to God as a pleasing aroma. He would pray for the people outside. He would pray for the nation of Israel, for the sake of the people, for homes and families, for the sick and the bereaved, much like we would today. He would pray prayers of thanksgiving, and probably prayers for his own life as well.
And then the unthinkable happened. There on the right side of the altar was an angel. Fear struck Zechariah. First of all, Zechariah was supposed to be alone…alone with his feelings…alone with God. And second this being, this angel was different. Something about him identified him as an angel. And third, He seemed so intent on speaking to him. He gazed at Zechariah. What would this angel want with him? Zechariah, this guy from the hill country. Little, insignificant Zechariah?
Do not be afraid Zechariah your prayer has been heard. Wow, he knows my name! He probably thought. What prayer? I just said many prayers. Was it the one that I just asked about my dear Elizabeth? “Your wife, Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” What did you say? It can’t be…Physically impossible! Yet, tell me about that child. “He will be a delight, many will rejoice because of this birth. He will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah---to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Yeah right! Sounds good. But how can I be sure of this?
I want proof! I’ve been waiting all of these years…I am an old man…give me some proof. Oh, proof you want Zechariah. Okay.
Well, here we go! The angel said, perhaps with a glare in his eyes, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” Now these are very significant words to a devout believer like Zechariah. Gabriel, the angel mentioned in the prophet Daniel. Gabriel the angel who explained to Daniel the great mysteries of God. Gabriel, the mighty one, who stands in the presence of God was now speaking to him. But, no longer was he speaking calmly, or joyfully. He spoke with righteous anger because Zechariah had doubted and not believed. “And now Zechariah, you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens.”
So for nine months Zechariah struggled with his doubts. Perhaps you, dear people of God can understand. Do you struggle with your doubts as well? Maybe they are doubts like Zechariah and Elizabeth. Does God really hear my prayers. I have been praying these prayers so long. Does he really listen? Does He care? I have been stuck with this problem, this difficulty, for so long.
Two years ago when our mission team went down to Guatemala for the first time, one Guatemalan teenager put it this way…”I struggle with the doubt whether Christianity is really worth it.” This was a young man who experienced crime and poverty in ways that we could never really imagine. He saw that those who were in gangs, and in a life of crime were becoming rich. And he wondered. Perhaps we wonder too.
In the book of Romans, St. Paul writes, “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?” For nine months Zechariah waited and he watched. He watched as Elizabeth became pregnant. He watched as the baby inside of her grew. And as he watched his doubts were dispelled.
Just imagine when that child was born and they wondered what to name that child. How confident that once silent voice of Zechariah was—“His name is John.”
John, which means “Gift of the Lord.” He was that for sure. This child was the forerunner of the Lord, Himself. His job was to point people to Jesus, the Savior of the World. As we wait and watch and study. Out doubts are also dispelled.
Although the inclination to doubt will always be there in this life. Jesus comes to help us overcome. A wise person once said about the Christian faith, “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs.” I like that, because God has this way of always proving this faith. Zechariah learned this. So did the apostle Paul who said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.