As Christmas approaches, you’ll see that phrase in a lot of different places. Painted in sparkles and decorating a plaque on a tree. Written in cursive icing over the top of a gumdropped Gingerbread house. Sung in wispy, happy , 80’s voice at the end of a made for TV holiday Classic.
OK...the message is clear. One thing you’re going to want to do this Christmas is to BELIEVE.
But…believe in what? Believe in elves? Believe in the power of the mistletoe to bring couples together? Believe that the next helping of figgy pudding will be a healthy choice? (It’s got figs in it afterall). Believe in the magic of the iPhone 6 to make sure all of your kids have a Merry Christmas and never ever sass you again? Believe in the power of the human spirit? Believe that if you just want it hard enough and wished for it with all your heart, this will be a good Christmas?
Did you know that BELIEVE is also a message that was a part of the very first Christmas? In fact, about a year before the first Christmas – just a little bit earlier than Walmart puts their Christmas decorations out – an angel brought that very news to a man named Zechariah. Only what the angel asked Zechariah to believe was much different than believing in Santa Claus or a Red Nosed Reindeer.
It was real.
Here’s his story.
Zechariah lived at a time that wasn’t filled with a lot of hope. His country was dealing with foreign opposition. In verse 1 it says, “…Herod was king of Judea.” King Herod was the appointed representative of the Roman Empire from around 49 B.C. to 4 B.C. And the history books record him as kind of a tyrant.
Times were hard for the Jewish People. They were not in charge of their own country and didn’t have a lot of say in their government. They dealt with angry Roman soldiers, over taxation and over bearing Roman laws. It wasn’t exactly a magical winter wonderland filled with belief.
Then there was his personal life. Zechariah was a priest. He had devoted his life to God. In fact, Scripture mentions that Zechariah was blameless which – while it isn’t the same as sinless, because no one is sinless – it does mean that Zechariah was a generally respectable and faith-filled guy. – Always in church, always in prayer, always working hard to obey God’s laws.
Yet…in spite of all this, Zechariah had no children. He had served the Lord, worked in the church, devoted his life to God and he was still childless!
I’ll bet it bugged him. Bugged him when he saw others with kids. Others who didn’t spend their lives devoted to God, who weren’t even married—even godless Romans had families! This didn’t seem fair.
And now? He was old. Too old. Both he and Elizabeth were past their childbearing years. Scripture says that Elizabeth was barren.
Imagine what this was like. Kids running into temple for Hebrew school were just another reminder that he would never teach his own son the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Playful shouts from the marketplace were reminders that he would never bend over to play tag with his boy. The neighbor boy didn’t just leave his toys in his yard…he left a reminder of the scars on his heart.
Do you see why it would have been hard for Zechariah to have hope? Hard for him to BELIEVE?
One day Zechariah was on duty with his division of priests and was chosen to into the temple and burn incense. An honor that was only given to one priest at a time every so often. Zechariah went in and began going about his duties. He lit a candle. Gathered more incense. Set it on fire. Then he backed up to watch the sweet smelling smoke rise to heaven.
Then, he saw it. Behind the thin wavering lines of the smoke was a light. Dim at first. Then, as the light sifted through the smoke it became clear.
It was an angel!
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. God has heard your payer. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you will name him John."
I’ll bet Zechariah blinked his eyes. This angel’s message was so incredible. Think about what the angel was saying:
First, that God had heard his prayers? He had been praying those prayers days after day and night after night for years. Never did his wife get pregnant. Never did he receive an answer. Never did he get so much as a sign that God had actually heard him.
Was he really to believe that God had heard him all this time?
Second, that he would soon have a son. Did the angel get the wrong priest? Was he off a week with his visit? Did he know how old he was? Didn’t he know that his wife was barren? That he was known as “Zechariah—the old priest with no children…”
Was he really to believe that God would give him a son after all this time?
Then the angel’s message got even more incredible. 15 As far as the Lord is concerned, he will be a great man... He would bring many people of Israel back to God. He would have the power of Elijah and be filled with the Holy Spirit even at birth. He would prepare people for the Lord –as the director prophetic forerunner to the Christ!
Was Zechariah really to believe that his ‘son’ would be a special servant of God?
Perhaps for a second, a glimmer of hope glistened in his eye. But then…that hope was clouded. Doubt took over. Grumble and unbelief voiced its opinion: “What proof is there for this? I’m an old man, and my wife is beyond her childbearing years.”
I don’t know that angels know how to speak sarcastically. Yet… 19 The angel answered him, “I’m Gabriel! I stand in God’s presence.” In other words, I’M AN ANGEL!!!! Zechariah wanted a sign? What did he think he was looking at? “Talk to a bright, shining, winged, otherworldly being” was not on the list of temple duties that Zechariah was to perform that day. Wasn’t the angel himself proof that something incredible was happening?
Secondly the angel added, “God sent me to tell you this good news….You Zechariah, should believe me, because this message is from God. God who created life out of nothing and who would have no problem creating life in a barren womb. Zechariah, you should believe me because God said so.”
"But because you didn’t believe what I said…God will give you a sign. A reminder each day for the next nine months of your unbelief and of God’s promise: You will be unable to talk until the day this happens.”
Zechariah was speechless.
The angel left and Zechariah stumbled out of the temple. Crowds of people gathered around him. What did you see? Why did you take so long? Are you alright?
Zechariah couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t muster a word. But he didn’t need to. That smile on his face said it all.
What about you? Do you believe?
It's easy to feel like there’s not a lot to believe in this Christmas. Like Zechariah, our country has its own gloomy problems. The still struggling economy means you might not be able to get every gift you wish you could get your kids just like last year. Emergency news stories about violence and hatred are more common than seasonal specials about the peace of the season. Estranged relationships keep your family from any kind of holiday togetherness. Silent Night means grabbing a Jack and Coke to sip on while sitting by yourself with your feelings of loneliness and solitude.
Understand what God’s message is for you today. No matter how lonely, no matter how inadequate, no matter how scared, frightened, or hopeless your life feels right now, God wants you to BELIEVE! BELIEVE…in HIM!
It all seems a little foolish. In our high tech, high business, highly practical, no room for faith world, this seems a little foolish. It may seem silly in this struggling economy and take a break and gaze at a cute little stable scene: A cow. A horse. A few sheep. A mother. A manger. A child. All under a sign fastened to the top of the stable: A SAVIOR IS BORN!
Do you understand what those words mean? Do you understand what God wants you to believe?
BELIEVE: At Christmas God enacts his plan of salvation.
BELIEVE: God placed the Christmas family together in his divine providence.
BELIEVE: The baby born in the manger is your Savior.
BELIEVE: The baby born in the manger is God himself.
BELIEVE: God grew up and never sinned.
BELIEVE: God was put to death for your sins.
BELIEVE: You are forgiven by God.
BELIEVE: God came back to life on Easter.
BELIEVE: God promises eternal life for you.
BELIEVE: You are loved by him.
BELIEVE: You will be in heaven with God.
This is the message of Jesus. This is the message of Christmas.
Want proof? Don’t look to me. I’m not an angel. I don’t have wings. I probably won’t leave you speechless. But I can point you to where the proof is. In the Bible. God’s message.
In the Bible, this baby boy grows up to change water to wine, to heal men with the incurable disease of leprosy, to make a lame man walk, a mute man speak, and a dead girl live.
Anyone else you know do that? Why not believe!?! Believe as our verse of the day says, BELIEVE based on the evidence of the miracles themselves!
Even today’s miracles which took place before Jesus was born at the announcement of Jesus’ cousin are proof that this “Jesus” is someone special. Think about it – (1) an angel (2) a barren woman made pregnant AND (3) a voice removed for nine months! This is miraculous.
BELIEVE based on the evidence of the miracles themselves!
You wanna know what happened to Zechariah? SPOILER ALERT: He became a father. He went home and Elizabeth was pregnant. Nine months later he held his baby boy in his arms and that baby boy grew up to serve the LORD in a very special way.
God’s promises are real. They do not falter.
In the coming weeks, you’ll see the phrase BELIEVE more than once. When you do, BELIEVE. But not just in the generic magic of Christmas…believe in something real. Believe in God. Believe in Jesus. Believe in your Savior.
And when you BELIEVE – I guarantee your holidays will be brighter. Not because you’ll get lots of toys or your family will magically get along, but because you will be attached to your Savior. You will have the peace of sins forgiven. You will have the hope of eternal life in heaven.