Christmas Questions: How can I be sure? (Luke 1:5-80)

Bob Brannon, DPhil   -  

Our friends, Doug and Kathy, had not entered fully into old age, but they were definitely knocking on the door. With a flowing grey beard, Doug was pushing sixty. Kathy was several years younger.

They’d had children later in life, their daughter was nearly finished with college and their son was just ready to launch his college career. That’s what troubled Kathy the most about her secret.

Something was wrong, and she was worried. She didn’t want to leave her family.

Her fear finally convinced her to schedule an appointment with their family physician. The doctor was concerned as she described her primary symptoms, general fatigue and swelling and stiffness in her abdomen.

Following a brief physical exam, the doctor left the room for a few minutes. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally came back in the room and gave her his preliminary diagnosis. “I think you’re pregnant,” he said with some amusement. Nine months later out popped little Clair.

Whenever they took their new little red-head blessing out and about, people commented on how nice it is for grandparents to get time with their grandkids.


As we continue our series on Christmas Questions today, we are going to meet another couple who had a child at an advanced age.

In their case, however, by the time Johnny came along, Zechariah and Elizabeth had actually crossed the threshold into old age, past the age of childbearing. They weren’t just getting up in years, they were old.

But more significantly, their faith in God had grown old. At least Zechariah’s faith had. He had prayed for a child so long that he’d finally given up. He no longer believed God would or could bless them with a child.

Maybe you can relate to him. You may or may not be old, but you’ve faith is.

You’ve been praying for a long time, but God doesn’t seem to be listening. Your Christian experience hasn’t gone the way you expected.

You haven’t completely given up on God. You’re still trying to maintain your faith, but it’s getting harder and harder. In many ways, you’re just going through the motions. You need a touch from God, a spark to rekindle the smoldering flame of your faith.

My friend, if you’ll trust him, God wants to meet you right where you are and rekindle your faith.


Zechariah’s faith was definitely faltering. When Gabriel told him he would bear a son in his old age, he didn’t believe it. He asked a question that many of us have asked, and maybe some are asking right now.

How can I be sure?

Then, nine months later, at an age when he should have been celebrating the birth of his grandkids, Zechariah’s faith was restored as he rejoiced at the birth of his first born.

Imagine the happy celebration as Elizabeth cradled her pride and joy in all of her gray glory. Neighbors and relatives marveled at God’s mercy as they shared their joy. The joyous announcement of John’s birth unfolds in three dramatic scenes. The first scene opens with infertility, doubt, and questions.


Going through the Motions – Luke 1:5-25

Luke 1:5-7 – In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

You need to understand that in those days for a wife to be barren was more than something to be mourned, it was something that brought shame.

Her husband could even divorce her with cause.

Scholar Kent Hughes comments, In any culture infertility is an aching disappointment, and for some and almost unbearable stress. But the burden cannot be compared to that borne by childless women in ancient Hebrew culture because barrenness was considered a disgrace, even a punishment.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had been on this difficult road of childlessness for a long time, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions that go with it. Together, they endured years of prying questions, insensitive remarks, pangs of desire for someone else’s baby, and doubts about God’s goodness.

Watching their friends and relatives bear children and raise their families, aching for a child of their own, perhaps blaming each other while experiencing deep shame, they likely wondered what they’d done wrong that God would withhold such an important blessing from them.

Zechariah may have felt an extra measure of shame. After all, he was supposed to be a spiritual leader. I wonder if he ever felt angry at God. Certainly he felt disappointed that God never answered his fervent prayers.

I wonder what was going through his mind when he was chosen by lot to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense (9). He was to offer incense to God in the Holy Place of the temple, a once in a lifetime privilege for a priest. I wonder what he was thinking as he entered that sacred space.

Was his heart expectant and hopeful that he’d encounter the living God?

Or was his cold heart convinced that God had long before turned his face away from him?

You also have to remember that this was a dark time in Israel’s history. God had been silent for a long time. The Jews had been waiting hundreds of years for God to speak to them. They were longing for the fulfillment of the promise God gave Malachi, see I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way for me. Then the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple… (3:1).

Do you think Zechariah expected God to fulfill that promise when he entered the Temple that day?

Or do you think he was just going through the motions, lighting the incense and watching the smoke rise and vanish as his prayers had over the years?

I suspect it was the latter. He was startled when Gabriel showed up, and he was more than skeptical when the angel announced that his prayer had been answered and that he’d have a son. He didn’t believe it.

1:18 – How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.

He had his biology right, but not his theology.

He seems to have completely lost faith in God, lost sight of his character and his power.

The irony is that he had prayed for this very thing but now ends up doubting God could do it. Here he is in the Holy Place, worshiping God, and yet he doesn’t fully believe.

Can you relate? Have you lost sight of God? Maybe he seems silent and distant to you. You’ve lost trust in him after years of consistently experiencing unmet desires.

Maybe your faith isn’t dead, it’s just old, and you’ve stopped expecting anything from God.

The question Zechariah raised is one many people have. He struggled to believe in the supernatural power of God.

That’s where people often struggle, isn’t it? You believe Jesus was a good man, a great teacher, but you can’t quite swallow that he was the Son of God.

You believe the Bible contains ancient wisdom, but you’re not convinced it was written by God. You believe Jesus died, but you’re not sure he rose again.

You want to be sure.

That’s how Zechariah felt after his faith and hope had been shattered.

It takes faith to accept God’s Word and to receive salvation through Christ.

Zechariah’s disbelief was costly. Because of his faithless response, Gabriel told him he’d be unable to speak until the day his words come true.

In a way that makes sense. As David Gooding comments, a priest who cannot believe the authoritative word of an angel of God, because he cannot accept the possibility of divine intervention to reverse the decay of nature, has lost faith in the basic principle of redemption. Without redemption, he has no gospel. Without a gospel, any blessing he pronounced upon the people would be the emptiest of professional formalities. If Zechariah could not believe the angel’s gospel, it were better that he did not pretend to bless the people. Fittingly, the angel struck him dumb.

For nine long months Zechariah was forced to sign and gesture because his voice was taken from him. Scene two picks up when his silence is broken.


Breaking the Silence – Luke 1:57-67

After turning briefly to Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she’d have a baby, Luke reports rather matter-of-factly that Elizabeth gave birth to a boy. When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son (57).

On the eighth day, they came together to circumcise and give the boy his name, according to tradition. It was customary to name the child after his father, so they were just about to call him “little Zach” when Elizabeth spoke up.

No! He is to be called John, she insisted (60).

But they argued with her. When she wouldn’t relent, they turned to Zechariah to get his opinion. Still unable to speak, he wrote out his answer.

His name is John (63), he wrote.

I think he’s a changed man.

His faith is restored.

At first he doubted, but God mercifully brought him once again to a place of full trust. At that moment, what Gabriel promised was fulfilled.

64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed and he began to speak.

Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit like Mary three months earlier (46-55), Zechariah began to sing a prophetic song. That brings us to scene three.

Praising the Lord – 1:68-80

Zechariah’s prophetic lyrics begin in the form of a familiar Old Testament blessing. There are two main stanzas. The first contains praise to God for coming to redeem his people. The second is a commission for his son, John, in the role of forerunner to the Messiah.


Praise for the arrival of the Redeemer (67-75)

After spending three months with Mary, Zechariah knew about her pregnancy. He also knew that God had promised to give a son to rule on David’s eternal throne (2 Sam 7:12-13). Zechariah realized the birth of his son as the forerunner meant the promise of a Redeemer was being fulfilled.

He has come and has redeemed his people (68), to set his people free.   

He has raised up a horn (strength) of salvation (69), to seek and save the lost.

Salvation from our enemies (71)… to rescue us from the hand of our enemies (74a) – Why?

To enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (74-75).

All of this is in direct fulfillment of his promise: As he said through his holy prophets of long ago (70)… his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham (72-73). This is all a wonderful demonstration of God’s mercy (72).

Zechariah then turns to the calling of his young son, John, to be the forerunner of the Messiah.


Commission to John as Forerunner (76-79)

Do you remember what Gabriel said about the son Mary would bear? He will be called the Son of the Most High (1:32). Here Zechariah proclaims that his son will be called a prophet of the Most High.

As prophet and forerunner of the Most High, John is commissioned to do two things.

#1–To prepare the way for the Lord (76b) 

Gabriel told Zechariah, 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 (1:17). John is the promised Elijah to come, the voice in wilderness who pointed God’s people to Jesus as the Messiah.

#2–To provide the knowledge of salvation (77)

How does he prepare the way for the Lord? By giving his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. By pointing to Jesus, lifting him up. When John saw Jesus, he said, Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29).

Zechariah concludes his song with a beautiful picture of the rising sun coming to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness (78-79).

Spiritual darkness. The darkness of sin and doubt.

In what form does this light come? It comes in the form of a child! Isaiah tells us, For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

Jesus Christ is the child born to us; he is the light of the world who came to bring light to our darkness.


Nancy Abell tried to get Katharina Groene to turn back. But with only 150 miles to go on her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, Groene wanted to see her adventure through. Nancy met Katharina after Katharina had walked 2,500 miles northward from the Mexican border. It was late in the season, and Nancy was concerned because Katharina didn’t have snowshoes. She couldn’t stop thinking about the German hiker all alone in the mountains. A few days later when forecasters said to expect two feet of snow in the mountains, Nancy called the local Sheriff’s Office, explaining that Katharina might be in trouble.

On the mountain, Katharina was dehydrated and disoriented and thought she might have frostbite. She kept falling down and having to will herself to get back up, a sign of hypothermia. Surrounded by evergreens that were sinking under the weight of the snow, she screamed for help. No one heard her. She got out her phone and began recording messages for the friends and family she hadn’t seen for months, apologizing for dying on the trail.

Officers launched a search, and soon found her. Rescuers said it’s likely she would have died within a day. Katharina told reporters one reason she went on the hike alone is because she had lost her “faith in humanity.” Thanks to Nancy, it’s back in “a really big way.” Antonia Noori Farzan, “A hiker in the Cascades thought she would die in a snowstorm. But a stranger was looking out for her.” The Washington Post (11-2-18)


Have you lost your faith in God somewhere along the way? As you approach the celebration of Christ’s birth this year, how do you come?

Do you come, like Zechariah, a bit skeptical, cynical even?

Has your faith grown old?

Are you disappointed with God because he didn’t give you a blessing you thought you should have?

Maybe you’ve never really had faith. You’ve never put your trust fully in Jesus Christ for your salvation. You’re asking, how can I be sure the Bible is true, that Jesus is really God and that he died and rose again? How can I be sure that God is real?

My friend, I have good news for you. God understands. He loves you, and he has sent his own Son into the storm to meet you right where you are, to rescue you. In his tender mercy, he sent light from heaven to shine in your darkness and guide you into the path of peace. That light came to us in the form of a child – Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The late Keith Green experienced darkness on his journey. His heart grew cold and his faith faltered. But in that dark place he cried out to God, and God met him there. Will you make his prayer your own today?

My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to You and dead to me

But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is You, Your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of Your Blood

 Blog post adapted from the message by the same name delivered on Sunday, December 12, 2021.