[Note: This is an Advent sermon preached at Jerome UMC, Plain City/Dublin, Ohio on November 27. It is the companion piece to the drama posted earlier in the week.]
Prayer: O God, being alone with our doubts is not an easy place to be for most of us – but it’s a necessary place from time to time for reflection, prayer and time with you. Zechariah doubted your promise and needed some time out to be still and know you are God. Zechariah’s story challenges us as we begin this hectic holiday season, and we pray for the wisdom to find adequate time especially now to pray and reflect on the reason for the season. Amen.
How would you rate your level of doubt on a scale of 1-10? My doubt score changes from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. I’ve learned that some doubt is better than others; a healthy bit of skepticism can keep me from being naively gullible to a sales pitch or one of those Chicken Little alerts we all get from time to time in our email inbox. The ones that assure us the sky is falling and our computers are going to crash if we don’t send all of our passwords and personal information to someone in Bangladesh immediately and forward this dire warning to everyone in our address book. I’m most thankful for snopes.com as a resource for checking those things out before I perpetuate them.
Doubt is like yeast. It only takes a smidgen of it to influence our decisions. The doctors say, “we’re 90% sure this is nothing to worry about,” and that’s good. 90% is an A-, right? But it’s that darn 10% that convinces us we need CAT Scans and PET scans – and I don’t’ even have a cat or a pet! My dear wife, Diana, went sky diving a few years ago, and the instructor assured us it was 95% foolproof. She went up and had a once in a lifetime experience, but the 5% doubt kept me on the ground watching.
There are lots of good reasons to have doubts today – political paralysis, congressional chaos, economic uncertainty here and abroad, virtual and real time bullies, violence masquerading as entertainment, fears about changes in health care. You know the list all too well. Part of the reason doubt is epidemic is TMI – too much information—and 90% of it is bad news. The 24-7 news cycle makes it very hard to escape from it. Following the stock market creates more whip lash than riding some monster roller coaster at Cedar Point. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated it took weeks for the news of his death to reach the western parts of our country. Compare that with how quickly we know about tragedies today.
Most of us watched the 2nd plane crash into the world trade center in real time, live as it happened. God’s still small voice is hard to hear amid the information overload. There’s an easy solution to some of the TMI – I pads and I phones all have a great little app called an OFF Switch. And the good news of the Gospel is that we also have an OFF switch for I DOUBT.
One of the biggies in the doubt department is our fear and uncertainty about eternal life. We profess a belief in eternal life that is light years better than anything we have here, but we are very reluctant to reap that reward. We will seek out any possible medical treatment to postpone our passage to paradise. We sometimes even resort to eating wisely – well, not this weekend – or exercising. I’ve heard it said that exercise doesn’t make you live longer – it just seems like it. I recently saw an email about the advantages of walking that said walking every day will extend your life expectancy – so you can spend 7 more months and $30k more in a nursing home before you die. My favorite – “My grandpa starting walking 3 miles every day when he was 55 years old, and we have no idea where he is now.”
Seriously – why are we so unwilling to depart this life? Isn’t a big part of it that 10% of doubt and uncertainty about what the future holds? Eternity is a long time, and we want to get it right. Frederick Beuchner says “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” We can’t have faith without some doubt because faith and hope are about things we can’t see or touch or feel. You don’t hope for something you already have – nobody puts something they already have on their list for Santa.
Hope implies a degree of ambiguity, and the strength of our hope depends on what evidence we have to lessen our uncertainty. Evidence is funny stuff. Two people can look at exactly the same object and see it differently depending on their perspective. The glass half full or half empty is the classic example, and what we see when we look at that glass depends on the lens through which we view it. Do we look through the lens of faith and hope or put on glasses of doubt and cynicism. What is your default position?
A communication professor of mine in grad school called this process attention switching, meaning that how we choose to think and talk about life and situations makes all the difference in how we feel about them. My favorite example from Dr. Brown was the difference between asking someone at a back yard barbeque, “Would you like a pork chop?” or instead asking, “Would you like a piece of dead pig?” Same reality, very different response.
Do we look at life through a lens of doubt or hope? Hope implies the need to wait, and that’s hard for us 21st century folks for whom instant gratification is way too slow. Next time you are on an airplane – watch how many people grab for their cell phones the second the wheels touch the tarmac. We can’t wait to know what’s happened or if someone has called us or texted us in the two hours we’ve been off line. We don’t like to wait – Black Friday is now Black Turkey day or earlier. We can’t wait till the football season is over to hire the next coach – we want our Messiah and we want him now – not four weeks from now.
Guess how long it was between the time Isaiah wrote his prophesies about the Messiah –How “the government will be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We could use that kind of leadership in Washington or Greece or Rome – most anywhere today, right? But do you know how long it was between Isaiah’s time and Jesus’ birth – six or seven hundred years! And then Jesus wasn’t what the Jews wanted for Christmas; so they missed him and are still waiting for the Messiah. We have GPS’s that track my Fed Ex packages, and Santa’s travels on Christmas Eve. Why can’t we come up with a Messiah tracker and take doubt out of the whole process? Just think how much easier if would be to time our last minute conversions if we knew when Jesus was coming back!
The bottom line question is – what evidence do we have for being Hopeful people? The way to look for that evidence is to ask what God has done for us in the past. Notice I did not say what God has done for us lately. That’s the wrong question. God’s time table is different than ours.
The Bible is our record of God’s steadfast love and redeeming actions. Read your Bible this Advent season to remember how God over and over again saves people from their doubts and sinful behaviors. None of the leading characters in the biblical story are perfect. There’s more sibling rivalry and adultery and deceit in the Bible than a modern day soap opera. The sub-title for the Bible could well be “All of God’s Children.” But God’s love and redemption trump human doubt and dubious deeds every time. God’s grace is stronger than Moses murdering an Egyptian and Peter’s denial of Jesus. It’s even stronger than a Roman execution and the tomb that couldn’t contain our risen Lord. So that love is certainly stronger than my doubt and yours. When in doubt, pray on those things. If we focus our attention on the promises God has kept and the blessings we have received instead of on the disappointments and doubts – we have a much better chance of having an attitude of gratitude. We enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving, except for some of those annoying relatives; but making thanksgiving a way of life year round is what hopeful people do.
Now, let’s look at Zechariah’s story – thought we’d never get back there didn’t you? Luke tells us Zechariah was a priest, a godly, righteous man. Being that kind of religious person, we can assume Zechariah knew his Bible. He knew the stories of his people and how God had delivered them from Egypt and from the Exile in Babylon. He knew the story of God’s salvation history, and he most certainly would have known the foundational story of how the nation of Israel began with the birth of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s son. That story in Genesis is so similar to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation that I can’t believe Zechariah could have possibly missed the connection. Abram and Sarai were old geezers too – barren, giving up hope that God’s promise that they would be the parents of a great nation could ever happen. They doubted too – they laughed at God’s messenger when they were told Sarai would conceive in her 90’s. But they weren’t laughing nine months later, and after that Abraham believed God’s promises. Genesis and Romans both tell us that Abraham’s belief was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6, Romans 4:9) That’s very important because it is the basis for our Protestant belief in salvation, not through doing enough good works, but through faith and trust in God’s grace.
So, given all that obvious evidence, why would Zechariah fail to believe it was possible for him and Elizabeth to have a son? In a word, Doubt. We all have it. Martin Luther is famous for saying, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” God by nature is mysterious and beyond our human ability to figure things out logically. The problem Zechariah has and that Abraham had originally, and that some people have with the virgin birth, is that we think rationally and scientifically. We know AARP card carriers don’t have babies – thank God for that!
But this isn’t a biology test –it’s a theology test. And that’s what moves us from doubt to hope, from mere intellectual belief in God to 100% trust in God’s promises. Belief is something I do in my head. For example, I understand the physics of why parachutes work; I believe it. But it takes real trust and faith for me to strap one of those on my back and jump out of an airplane.
It also takes a Leap of faith to trust that God will provide for us now and forever – that we can bet our lives on god’s promises.
Advent is a season of Hope because we wait for Christmas and the birth of Christ. We remember again what our Awesome God has done and that he is a promise keeping God who gives himself 100% to become one of us – an even more outrageous miracle than Zechariah’s becoming a daddy in is golden years.
The good news is that just as Abraham and Zechariah doubted God at first, our doubts can also be transformed into hope and trust if we take time to ponder the mystery of this Christmas season. God will give us time to do that, just as he gave Zechariah quiet time to consider his choice between doubt and hope.
To be fair, we know Zechariah’s story began in doubt – but it didn’t end there. I’d like for Zechariah to come tell us the rest of his story. Come on down Zechariah, and I’ll interpret for you.
Zechariah: [excited and animated] No need to interpret. It was a real miracle! Elizabeth did indeed conceive, just as the angel said. And when her time came she gave birth to a beautiful son. Everyone expected us to name him after me, but God had told us both to name him “John,” even though no one in our family ever had that name. I guess God knew “Zechariah the Baptist” didn’t roll of the tongue as well as “John the Baptist!”
Interviewer: So, when did you get your voice back?
Zechariah: As soon as I showed my belief in God’s plan. I wrote, “His Name is John,” and immediately my voice returned, and I haven’t stopped witnessing since. I tell everyone who will listen what great things God had planned for our son. God has promised us that John will live in the wilderness and become strong so he will ready when the time comes to go before the Messiah to prepare his ways – the ways of repentance and forgiveness and salvation!
Interviewer: Thank you, Zechariah, for sharing your amazing journey from doubt to Hope.
Zechariah: Thanks be to God!