Monday, December 15, 2008

Certainty (or the lack thereof)

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18).

“How can I be sure of this?”

This was the question that crossed the line, provoked Gabriel to render the priest mute. This was the question that exposed something of the condition of Zechariah’s heart. This question allowed fear to trump faith.

And it is this question that many of us have asked time and time again. Many of us are asking it right now. We know in our minds and we say with our words that there are no guarantees in life – but the margin of uncertainty must never be too wide. We want to eliminate the variables. We want to know that things will work out, unfold according to plan, meet our expectations.

To insist on a razor thin margin of uncertainty is to live with an equally diminished capacity to trust. Our hearts are thus exposed and what we find is fear.

We can hardly blame Zechariah for asking this question. After all, the man never renounced faith in God. In fact, Luke makes it clear that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both upright and blameless people – not perfect by any means, but devout. They took God seriously and lived life in devotion to God.

As a priest, Zechariah had been chosen for the one duty that would fall to him only once in his lifetime. He was chosen by lot – by the providence of God – to offer incense in the temple. In the middle of this sacred moment the angel Gabriel appeared and told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son. Echoing well known stories from the Hebrew scripture, Zechariah and Elizabeth are old and they’ve never been able to have a child. Gabriel breaks the news with a powerful sentence. “Your prayer has been heard.”

That’s exactly what we have a hard time believing. Especially when it comes to something over which we have prayed long and wept much, an area of life that God has stubbornly refused to bless. The day finally comes when our prayers become little more than occasional thoughts that leave our eyes dry.

And then one day with stunning suddenness there’s an announcement that all those prayers have been heard, that they were heard all along. Not only have they been heard, they are now being answered. God is up to something. That’s what happened to Zechariah. And his response?

“How can I be sure of this?” We get Zechariah. We get him because we’d want to know the same thing. You may be asking the same question right now about some part of your life. How can you be sure? How can you know it’s true, that God is at work in that tender place in your life?

Here’s the short answer: you can’t be sure. Certainty is demanded by those who refuse to trust. God will give us confidence. By grace God will strengthen our faith. God has spoken promises to us in his word. But God does not allow us the luxury of bypassing trust.

On the heels of the third Sunday in Advent we will be thinking about our fears at Christmas time and what Christmas means for our fears. Is there an area of life in which you’ve been waiting for certainty, for the narrowest margin of risk? What do your fears look like in these days of Advent? Name them right now. We’ll spend the rest of the week thinking about what to do with them.

Gracious God, something inside of me craves certainty. Sometimes my desire to be sure masks a refusal to trust you. Today I bring my fears before you. I name each one and ask you to teach me what it means to be bold in following you. Help me to seize the grace of courage this week, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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