Choosing Punishment Over Blessing
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “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 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, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
- Luke 1:11-13,18-20
If we are truly to trust God, then we are asked to believe a great many things that seem implausible if not downright impossible. The arguments against the existence of God are embedded deeply in our society, ostensibly supported by obvious and unimpregnable logic. Doubting God is perhaps inevitable and not always wrong. Wondering about God, asking questions of God, seeking answers about the Gospel, these are good. These types of “I don’t how to believe…” questions force us to look more closely at the Gospel and are signs we are seeking earnestly to know more and can lead us into deeper fellowship with the Holy Trinity.
However, most of the doubt we absorb from our culture is not that sort of doubt. Rather, our doubt is like Zechariah’s. Zechariah was a priest from the lineage of Aaron and held a position of importance in the Temple in Jerusalem. His failure to father children was seen as a flaw, and his wife, Elizabeth who also was shamed for not having children, had become too old to bear them. Their devotion to God and their prayers to Him indicated great faith, yet when God answered their prayers, Zechariah doubted.
The next time we think, ‘if only I could see a miracle or some miraculous sign…”, we need to recall Zechariah. An angel from God, God’s own messenger, appeared to Zechariah inside the Temple when he was offering incense, and Zechariah doubted. Holy man that he was, devout in his living, a priest in service to the Temple, Zechariah doubted the angelic messenger from God when he appeared to him. Miracles and signs can edify and strengthen our faith, but if we doubt them, we slowly reach the point we cannot even see them.
What Gabriel told Zechariah was an impossibility, and Zechariah knew that. His question to the angel was, “How can I know?” In other words, “prove to me that what you say is true.” This is distinct from Mary’s question recorded just a few verses later, “How can that be? Her question was, “how am I to get pregnant or be pregnant without a man?” Or, “How is God going to accomplish this in me?” There is a big difference between doubting what God tells you and wanting to know how you are to act or respond to God’s plans. Zechariah was punished for the former, and Mary was answered for the latter.
Western civilization has spent at least two hundred years doubting God, throwing down the proverbial gauntlet and demanding that God prove Himself and His existence. What began as a “just suppose…” sort of question has become established as (false) common knowledge. We allowed our faith to be confined to the privacy of our homes and places of worship, thereby effectively silencing us in public. We are not so far from Zechariah. Even the form of this idea departs from the hyper-individualism of American society. Christianity is not individualistic but communal. We are joined to a family through Jesus Christ as children of God. This familial, spiritual organism of Christ’s Body on earth means the work of God in one of us is His work in all of us, and conversely, His work in all of us re-creates us anew individually. Thus, the question of God’s existence posited over the last few centuries can be seen in the silence of doubting Christians in the last decades.
The angel Gabriel spoke a punishment upon Zechariah, but it is the same punishment we experience now because we didn’t recognize that Gabriel’s words would also apply to us. “How do I know what God says is true?” is a question that renders us mute. Doubt stops momentum, and in a state of doubt and paralysis, we cannot speak and defend what we doubt and therefore, experience the embarrassment of our faith in popular culture.
Recently, while shopping for Advent calendars, an obscene link that popped up – under the title “Advent calendar”, and my friend forwarded it to me. The link was a conflation of Advent, which we celebrate for four weeks, with the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow Christmas and lead to Epiphany on January 6. The calendar? Twelve days of “pleasure toys” for adults. At some level, I tend to think nothing promoted in popular culture can surprise or offend me any longer, but apparently, I’m suffering from a lack of imagination. The advertisement does, however, reveal a great deal about popular views of human salvation.
Zechariah’s experience is our experience, the only difference being a matter of degree. We allowed doubt to arise, and we are silent. In our silence, sin and evil have run rampant among us, so much so that many of us do not know how to recognize it any longer. Many of our children and grandchildren have rejected God, and we lack both the witness and the defense of our faith necessary for helping them see and understand.
I believe the time of our silence is coming to an end. As God loosed Zechariah’s tongue when he named John as he was instructed, our obedience and trust in what God has said and Christ has done will unleash the restraints we have accepted. Our punishment will be lifted, and we will see the signs and wonders of God again. Already, God is busy in our world if we know to look.
One of the greatest traps we need to avoid is prediction of Christ’s return. This has been common for the last one hundred and fifty years or so, but it reveals an impatience in us that comes from a lack of knowledge of history. American Christians have not experienced serious persecution or martyrdom. We’ve not lived under a godless regime, but godlessness has been growing for a long time in Western culture. We make a mistake to think the rising tide of evil and the suffering inflicted by others – mockery, lost jobs or promotions, intentional exclusion, political threats – somehow foretell Christ’s return to save us. Christian history is full of examples of persecution by the powers that be. The notion that our generation should be exempt from such injustices and inequity is a vestige of modernity, the secular idea that we have risen above such things. Modernity got it wrong, and the sooner we accept that, the more quickly we will be free to live the Gospel fully in our own lives, irrespective of external attempts to harm us. Our actions will reflect our beliefs, and our credibility will rise with those who doubt because we doubt.
Jesus promised us that He would be with us always. He promised to send His Spirit to come alongside us. He told us to abide in Him so that our joy would be complete. Our God is not far away. He is near. He is closer than the air we breathe. His Spirit imbues us with life and strength. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, the Spirit will grow “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” within us. He did not write that this fruit would be ours easily.
God’s plans are not our plans, and we do not need to waste time in speculations when we could invest time in growing in the knowledge and love of God. Realize that it is far easier to wait for Jesus to return than it is to strive to grow in His likeness. Christ will be revealed in God’s timing, not ours. Maybe that’s tomorrow. Maybe He will be revealed in a thousand years. Our task is far more difficult. We are to live faithfully and obediently now, undistracted by human speculations, Christian or otherwise. When we do so, He will be revealed in His Body on earth.
When we doubt, everyone loses. Our punishment is the unbelief of those we love, for our doubts support the ethos of the age. When a father brought his son to Jesus to heal, his request was, ‘if You are able, have compassion and heal him.’ The essence of Jesus’ response was, “If I am able?’ He then goes on to say, “if you believe, all things are possible.”
That’s the catch right there. If we believe that God is able to do what He has promised, all things are possible. If we do not believe, if we doubt, we will not see all the possibilities of God.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau