Lover of God, yes you, I’m recording these events to strengthen your certainty. Lover of God – may I call you by your Greek name Theophilus? – I intend to present to you a detailed investigation which should leave you in no doubt about these events and what they mean for you. And I will use all my God-given skills to show you that this research is trust-worthy. I’m no fool. Just look at the language I can use. In the opening verse I have used four words which appear no where else in Scripture. The work I present to you is of a highly rigorous nature. I write in the tradition of the best historical work. And I have looked many of the eyewitnesses in the eye. Others, I have scrutinised their accounts. As you open me up again this Christmas season know the integrity of this work. This is a prize winning piece of research.
Because what has been fulfilled amongst us should bring certainty to our lives. Theophilus you know our deep human desire for certainty. It pervades everything we do, the way we’re taught to think. From the moment we enter school we’re told that education will bring you everything you need in life. We’re told that a strong friendship circle will bring certainty, attending the right university and establishing a career will bring certainty, getting into the housing market young, extra superannuation contributions, finding the right spouse, knowing the techniques for parenting, these will all bring certainty. We are always seeking to convince ourselves that we can be sure – just tick that box, follow that path, eat that food, take that step… And then Theophilus, listen to our language – I hope you do well in your exams, I hope your dreams are fulfilled, I hope it turns out alright in the end, (sing) I hope you have a merry, merry Christmas. Can we humans really deliver on any of these hopes with certainty? Is the use of the word ‘hope’ in these contexts any more accurate than the word ‘wish’?
Most excellent lover of the one true God our hope is more certain than this! Theophilus, we Christians are not just on about a philosophical way of life. We don’t live in a dream world. Our hope is not just a mere wish. Hope for us is certain. It can be researched and interviewed. You can visit the places in question, you can align the events with the history of the world. Our hope took place in events amongst us, and this is a record of those events. There is no “I wish” or “if only” or “good luck” for us Theophilus. Theophilus our hope was born!
Yes, born! Let me take you back to the hill country of Judea. It’s a quaint part of the world for us non-Jews, like going back in time. To that little nation of Israel, struggling to keep its identity in a Roman world. However, there was something particular that happened in the people’s midst, a very moving story about a couple – Zechariah and Elizabeth. To confirm his identity, I researched the exact division in which Zechariah served as a priest – the Abijah division. And I have learnt that Elizabeth can trace her line right back to the first priest of Israel – Aaron. These were two people of great integrity within God’s people. This couple were devout. They were model followers of the one true God.
Theophilus, if you think this means that everything works well for people like them, then think again. Bad circumstances do happen to righteous people. Elizabeth and Zechariah had lived with the shame of no children for many, many years. This cut to the very core of Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s identity. They knew what it was like to not fit in, to have people whisper when they entered the room, to feel on the outer at family events. Perhaps you’ve known those feelings for even different reasons Theophilus. Perhaps you’ve known what it’s like through no fault of your own to feel that kind of shame.
In what circumstances will hope be born Theophilus? A childless couple! Can you believe it?
That’s exactly what God enacted. Just try and picture it – there is Zechariah performing his once-in-a-life-time duty. The one person chosen, by lottery, to go into the holiest part in the temple, the place of God’s presence. He will never get to do this again. It’s his turn to offer incense, to pray that Kingdom Israel would be restored. For Kingdom Israel no longer to be under the rule of the Romans, or anyone else for that matter. That had been the hope of Israel since the Babylonians, hundreds of years of waiting.
And in this routine moment everything gets turned upside down. Something that hasn’t happened for a very long time occurs. God’s people had experienced God’s silence since Malachi, 400 years before. 400 years of entering and waiting, entering and waiting. This day all that changed. God had sent an angel!
Zechariah knew the immensity of the moment – he was gripped with fear. But the angel was there for joy, not judgement. The people in the Hill Country of Judea still laugh when they tell this part of the account of Zechariah in the temple. The angel explained that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a baby son who will play an important role in Israel’s restoration. Zechariah your prayer has been answered. But does Zechariah respond in gratitude? No! He argues with the angel. Can you picture it? “Angel you’re saying God can do the impossible, with Elizabeth and me. Angel I was just praying, I wasn’t expecting an answer!”
And then picture the angel with hands on hips. Let me be colloquial for you (Australian) lovers of God, “Listen mate, I’m Gabriel. I’ve come from God with this bit of news for you and all you can do is whinge. Here’s your sign – no speaking till the baby’s born”
And now picture Zechariah trying to describe meeting an angel en-acting charades.
In what circumstances will hope be born? A childless couple! Can you believe it? The deepest prayer of a righteous barren couple, the deepest prayer of the people of God answered in the same moment, and yet, could it really happen?
Lover of God, I really wanted you to know this story to build your certainty. It might seem like a strange place to begin a thorough and rigorous investigation . I’m sure some of you would prefer a set of facts than angels and barrenness and doubt. But I put it to you that in this very human account, more hope is born than it is possible to imagine. This is not an account of events that we can control or manufacture.
You people who love God, perhaps Zechariah’s experience resonates with you. He’s meant to be concentrating on the big things of God. He’s the one going into the holiest of holies. He’s the one who is meant to be praying for the restoration of Israel. And yet he can’t get out of his mind his own pain. The pain of his wife. He can’t help praying an impossible prayer. He’s full of doubt. And when this angel appears and reports that his prayer has been answered, Zechariah doesn’t believe it! Have you found yourself praying in vain?
Do you know those moments Theophilus? You know you should concentrate, focus on ministry and its outcomes, focus on what you know God wants to hear, you want to pray your kingdom come prayers… and yet your own pain, your own issue, is so strong, so consuming that those moments are distracted. That doesn’t stop God. How merciful is our God Theophilus, that he would still use us in this weakness.
Theophilus I don’t want your certainty based on your own faith, on how solid and dependable you are. I want you to have a hope that knows that God will work regardless of us – that’s certainty.
This story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elizabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purposes. How John would prepare the way for God’s greatest work of saving. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who the one true God is, as I will keep pointing out to you in my account. He is the God of lavish, self-giving love. And so when this God acts on the large scale, he takes on the smaller human concerns as well.
This is the God who intends to build our hope in him. Zechariah didn’t need to start with faith, but Theophilus, he will move in that direction. I’ll write soon about Zechariah’s song at the birth of John; how Zechariah came to be certain about the words of the angel. Zechariah’s certainty expressed in that song is much more profound than could come from his own self confidence. Zechariah has been transformed. It’s not Zechariah’s starting point that matters for certainty, for God is the one who creates faith. God is both the author and perfecter of our faith.
Perhaps the arrival of a child to a childless couple should not be a strange thing to you, lover of God. You know that it has been God’s way before to bring children from such circumstances: Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, or the birth of Samuel to Hannah. You should be alert to the fact that this is God’s way. He will not be controlled by circumstances. And like these other moments, John was to be set apart for a special purpose. A purpose that would bring lasting hope to God’s people. Are these not encouraging words Theophilus: “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (verses 16-17)
The son to be born was to fulfil the promises that had spoken of God sending someone to prepare Israel for the coming divine visit. The Scriptures had foretold that the prophet Elijah would return one day to get the people ready for God’s arrival. Gabriel tells Zechariah that this will be John’s task. After 400 years of waiting God is ready to act.
Zechariah returned home and Elizabeth conceived. Her shame taken away just like that. But Elizabeth didn’t go and boast. She secluded herself for five months and just savoured being pregnant. Like in Zechariah, God used this moment not to build Elizabeth’s own self confidence, but to build her strength in the Lord. God’s purposes for wholeness and wisdom and power are quite different for how we tend to use them Theophilus.
Is the certainty of hope transforming you in these ways, lover of God? Are you being stretched to find confidence beyond yourself and in the one true God? Can you see how God can work for the good of the world and you without any difficulty? Is your doubt being transformed, not by your own work, but the work of God in you?
My dear God lover there are more reasons to be certain. Our God who can bring hope to a barren couple through a child had only begun to enact his plans. This next episode calls forth even more wonder and delight. This time my research took me to a small village, Nazareth in Galilee. It’s not the kind of place where you expect world changing events, but our God is not constrained by such an immaterial fact! The woman in question was engaged, as good as married, but still to consummate the relationship. She had no desire to be pregnant, imagine the shame if she was pregnant at this stage! Theophilus, I am sure you understand how human beings are produced. As a doctor I don’t need to tell you. We Greeks are not ignorant people – our culture and thought is sure to infect the world for many years to come. Let me remind you that my research is thorough. There is no benefit in creating an account of a virgin birth. This would not help your certainty. Suffice it to say that the events here are consistent with the God of Genesis 1, the God who calls into existence the things that are not is at work here. Nothing is impossible with God! And this action is entirely consistent with God’s character. For it is clear that his motives are love.
The angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the son of the most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (verses 30-33).
My dear Theophilus, I trust you understand the real threat of this child; the real reason to want to be sceptical of the virgin birth. The claim for this child is rulership of the whole world. For this child to sit on David’s throne and to rule forever; he is no human Caesar who is defeated by death. This Jesus threatens the whole establishment we humans have designed. Our whole desire for self-rule and self-confidence are undermined by this birth. Surely our doubt has more to do with the consequences of believing, than this event being out of the realms of possibilities with the one true God of the universe.
Lover of God, you have come to see that this Jesus is the true ruler of the world. You can be certain that this was God’s intention. Jesus did not take this role upon himself. As you will come to understand as you read my account, even establishing this kingdom was by means hitherto unknown. Who would have thought a kingdom could be established through death? That last weapon of power – to kill those in your way, Crucify him! – defeated. Can any mortal ruler, any self-rule or self-confidence defeat this King Jesus? No.
Theophilus, what a contrast is Mary to Zechariah. He the muddled and puzzled priest who should have had it all together; she the humble young girl who responds in obedience. Unlike Zechariah, Mary has not asked for a child, her question is more of bewilderment than doubt. Her willingness to take on shame – an unwed mother! – stands as testimony to the call of God on her life. Mary has been called into a deeper hope that does not rely on her reputation. And so like Zechariah learned, Mary has engaged with God on his terms. I will have much to say about the value of women to God in my account. But for now, Mary is another excellent example of whom God works through.
Lover of God, I trust you can see this important theme that I have begun to express, and will unfold throughout my account. Does God need to work in the wise and gifted and powerful? No, most excellent Theophilus. He works through the doubtful like Zechariah and the humble like Mary. He works in the unexpected, and the things which are not. Lover of God, he works in you and me. Be certain of this Theophilus.
My dear Theophilus, as I begin to open up this account for you of what has happened amongst us be encouraged in your certainty. In what circumstances will hope be born? A childless couple! A virgin! If you can’t accept that God can bring about a child to barren Elizabeth, then you won’t believe that God can bring about a child from a virgin Mary… nor will you believe that he can raise the dead! But real hope is far more than we can imagine. To gain real certainty Theophilus you’ll have to move beyond what you can control, your own self confidence, your own matrix. Lover of God you will need to be in a realm as big as the God of the universe, who can bring children from the barren and virgins… and who can raise the dead.
Salvation, real salvation must push beyond our human boundaries Theophilus. We have tried for too many years to fashion gods and philosophies within our world to bring hope, but death still knocks. Theophilus these events I have rencountered to you are the fulfilment of the words spoken over many year, words that offer true certainty to rebellious ears. Words by which we are transformed into something far beyond what we could have imagined, making our future all the more certain.
Can hope be born Theophilus? I’m now certain of the answer lover of God – it must.