The first hope had now faded and died. The second hope was bright as ever. He was about his duties in the temple when something happened to him. It was written down in Luke 1:
Then 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. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 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" (Luke 1:11-17, NIV).Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this?" That's the first of the questions of Christmas. Another is asked by Mary: "How can these things be?" Another by the wise men, "Where is he that is born?" But this is where Christmas begins, here in Luke, chapter 1, with the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, and his probing question, "How can I be sure of this?"
Sometimes doubt asks this question. Sometimes faith asks this question. Always Christmas answers this question. In this text, it is not doubt that is asking, but faith. The difference is this. Doubt is looking for a way out. Faith is looking for a way in. Doubt is looking for a way out of the responsibilities that come with believing. Doubt is looking for a way out of the guilt that comes with believing. If for one moment I admit that Jesus is who He claims to be, if for one moment I grant His claims, then I am obligated. I am obligated to a certain way of thinking and living and doing, and people don't want that obligation. So in doubt, they say, "How can I know for sure?" Behind it all is this: they do not want to believe. That's why Jesus came down so hard on disbelief - harder than on anything else. It amazes us that Jesus should have more harsh things to say about disbelief than any other problem in life. "Woe unto thee, Chorazin," he said to one city. "Woe unto thee, Bethsaida," He said to another. "Woe unto thee, Jerusalem," He said. Again and again Jesus fiercely condemned disbelief. Why? Because people choose to doubt or they choose to believe. Doubt always has moral roots.
Whenever you meet a person who has problems with his faith, if you will probe deeply enough, you will find that he also has problems with his morals. That's where doubt begins, down in the sub-soil of life where we decide how we are going to live. Faith rises out of a determination to do right. Doubt rises out of a desire to do wrong.
Now because people ask out of doubt, they demand a kind of proof for Christianity that cannot be given. They demand mathematical proof of the Christian religion. You cannot prove Christianity by mathematics . Indeed, there are quite a number of important things in life that you cannot prove by mathematics. To demand mathematical proof of the Christian religion is to demand something that cannot be given.
Some people demand scientific proof of the Christian religion, but there are, after all, some things that cannot be poured into test tubes or heated over Bunsen burners or weighed on scales. Yet they are just as real as the things that can be. Bring love into your laboratory. Can you dissect or analyze it? Bring faith in. Can you dissect or analyze it? It exists in the world, whatever its basis. Some important things in the world do not lend themselves to laboratory experiments, and therefore are beyond the pale of science, as they are beyond the pale of mathematics. He who asks for that kind of proof of Christianity asks out of doubt.
Jesus illustrated the problem in the story He told about a rich man who lived in a fine house and ate sumptuously every day, and a beggar full of sores who was laid every day at his gate. The implication is that the man never thought about giving any food to the beggar and that the beggar's hunger did not diminish his appetite one bit. Death came to them both. The rich man went to Hell and Lazarus the beggar went to Heaven. In torment the rich man cried out to father Abraham, "Send Lazarus, that he may dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue."
Abraham said, "There's a great gulf fixed, and nobody can go from one to the other."
Then said the man, "Send him to earth, for I have five brethren. Let him testify to them lest they also come to this place of torment:"
Abraham said, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them believe them."
"No," said the man. "But if one rose from the dead, they would believe."
"No," said father Abraham, "even though one rose from the dead, they will not believe."
Now remember that it is Jesus who told us this parable. It is Jesus who in sadness is looking ahead to His own resurrection and then looking ahead to our age, and noting that in our time, there will be people who will not believe even though He rose from the dead. The stubbornness of doubt is clearly in the mind of Jesus. Jesus understood that faith is a choice we make, and that doubt is a choice we make. People who have chosen to doubt are not going to be convinced by anything. They are going to say, "Well, how can I know for sure?"
In this text, however, the question does not rise out of doubt. It rises out of faith. Zechariah is a believer. It is faith seeking confirmation, faith seeking reassurance. What kind of confirmation does faith have a right to seek? We have already seen that it has no right to seek mathematical or scientific proof for things that are beyond the realm of mathematics and science. But faith does have a right to ask for confirmation. What men have predicted is often not confirmed by history. For example, in the early 1920s, D.W. Griffith said, "Speaking movies are impossible. When a century has passed, all thought of our so-called speaking movies will have been abandoned. It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the picture."
In 1889, The Literary Digest had this piece in it. "The ordinary horseless carriage is a luxury for the wealthy. It will never, of course, come into common use as the bicycle." In 1913, a man said of the radio that it would never be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic and such an idea was absurd and misleading. In 1902 Simon Newcomb, the astronomer, said, "Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible." Edgar Cayce, in whom some people still continue to believe, predicted an earthquake so severe that California would break off the mainland and sink into the Pacific Ocean. His followers set the date - April, 1969. It passed. They recalculated and set it for 1975. It passed. California is still here. That's the way the predictions of men work out. But if you will turn through the Bible you will find prophecy after prophecy after prophecy that came true. We have a right to expect that history will confirm Scripture, and it does.
We have a right to expect that experience will confirm our faith and reassure us. When we ask, "How can I know for sure?" we're asking experience to bear out what we ve been taught. Someone described his experience like this:
I've dreamed many dreams that never came true.The more you pray, the more you believe in prayer. The more you pray, the more confident you are that it works. The people who doubt prayer are the people who seldom pray. The people who are confident about it are the people who pray often. God does confirm our faith and reassures us in the very experiences of life.
I've seen them vanish at dawn.
But I've realized enough of my dreams, thank God,
To make me keep dreaming on.
I've prayed many prayers when no answer came
Though I waited patient and long
But answers have come to enough of my prayers
To keep me praying on.
Suppose I were to play one of those word association games with you and say, "When I name a word, you say the first thing that comes into your mind." If I were to say the word "Ebenezer," you would say "Scrooge." That's the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of the name "Ebenezer." That's a great shame. The word "Ebenezer" is in the Bible and in the hymnal. It is in the hymnal in that song, "Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I'm come." That's a reflection of a word in the Bible. It's a very important verse in the Old Testament. The Children of Israel have arrived at their destination. It has been a long and difficult journey. They put up a stone of remembrance and wrote on it, "Ebenezer." Ebenezer means "hitherto hath the Lord helped us." Are there not many who could write over this moment of life, "Ebenezer! Hitherto hath the Lord helped me." Experience confirms faith.
Logic confirms faith. One legend says that the wise men lost sight of the star on their journey. It faded from their view until they sought to draw water from a well and looking down into the deep well they saw the star reflected in its water. It's only a legend, but if you look into the deep things of life you will begin to see the appropriateness of Christian faith. You will see the relevance of it. You will see how it fits into our understanding of life and the world and ourselves. Yes, there is a certain logic to the Christian religion.
Zechariah did have a son. His name was John the Baptist. He was the forerunner of Christ. When Christ came on the scene, they put John the Baptist in prison. In prison, he sent his followers to ask Jesus, "Are you he that should come, or look we for another?" He was saying the same thing that his father had said, "How can I know for sure?" I preached some years ago on that text. I chose this as my title, "A Faith That Asks Questions." Many people believe that faith means not asking questions. They say, "Well, I don't question it; I just take it on faith." I'm not sure that's real faith.
Other people think that faith means having all the answers, but that's not faith either. That's knowledge. Faith means that we begin to see a glimpse of how the Christian religion fits into the fabric of all things.
The question, "How can I know for sure?" is answered in Christmas. To some people, Christmas is pure poetry. It's all romance. It's all music and candles. In the Bible, Christmas deals with the hard and sometimes harsh realities of life. Read the Christmas account in Matthew and Luke. You will find birth and death. You will find pain and loneliness. You will find travel and discomfort. You will find hunger and need. You will find misunderstanding and slander. You will find all of the harsh, hard realities of life.
Is it not appropriate that in the midst of them there should shine some light of hope? Is it not appropriate that in the darkest sky there should shine some star? Heywood Hale Broun, the famous columnist, said that one Christmas day he was at the newspaper office. Nothing is lonelier than a newspaper office on Christmas Day. The few people who had to come to work were sitting around wishing they were somewhere else. He said it was a very dull day. Then the telegraph began to click. Nobody paid much attention to it until they noticed it was clicking the same pattern over and over and over again. "Well," he thought, as he went over to the machine, "What is it? War? Peace? Death? Life?" And as he listened to the staccato ring of the telegraph key, he began to understand that the Morse Code was saying. "Unto us a child is born, unto us a child is born, unto us a child is born." Somewhere at the other end of the telegraph wire an equally bored newspaper man sat. Having nothing else to do he was tapping out over the syndicated wire the opening verses of the Christmas story. And Heywood Hale Broun said it seemed to him, in view of all of the bad news that l had come across that wire, that it was singularly appropriate there should come this good news over and over again on Christmas Day, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a child is born, unto us a child is born."
What if we took Christmas out of the world and thereby take Christ out of history. I ask you what year is it and you say, "I don't know. We have no way to mark them." I ask, "Where is the hospital?" You say, "What is a hospital?" I say to you, "Direct me to the nearest church." You say, "I've never heard of that." I say, "I am in need; will you help me?" You say, "I have no time for you." Imagine - a world without Christ!
Christmas is the only festival that is not tied to the seasons. We have harvest festivals, spring festivals, midsummer festivals and midwinter festivals. We have festivals to mark birth, marriage, and coming to manhood. But Christmas stands alone, not related to the passing of the seasons and not related to the cycles of life, but utterly related to the penetrating question of the heart, "How can I know for sure?"
Christmas tells us that the report is true! The promise is kept; the presence is in our very midst. All the world stops for Christmas. Most of us will have candles. They came from Ireland. Christmas trees came from Germany. St. Nicholas came from Holland. Christmas cards came from England. Decorated houses came from Italy. Carols to sing came from Palestine and Bethlehem. All the world comes to my doorstep and all the world celebrates Christmas around my hearth. We will not hesitate to sing, "Joy to the World" written by an Independent minister, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," written by an Episcopalian, "Silent Night, Holy Night" written by a Catholic, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," written by a Unitarian, or "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," written by a Methodist. Something about Christmas melts away the barriers and reaches out arms of divine love to embrace the world.
If it embraces the world, it embraces me.