It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”
So go the opening lines in Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, although writing in the 19th century, expressed a truth we sometimes forget – that the more things “change,” the more they stay the same. Our surroundings may change, circumstances and experiences may change, but the yearnings and desires of the human heart have remained constant since the beginning of time – as have human frailties and sins. One of those frailties – the struggle to believe and trust God – is part of the Christmas story.
Remember Zachariah? We’re introduced to him in Luke 1. He was the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest, and a good one. Luke describes him and his wife Elizabeth as “. . . righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). It was during a time of service as a priest that he was told that they would have a child, who would be forerunner of the Messiah. He was in the Temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him – in the holy place offering the incense of worship to God, and offering sacrifices for the sins of the people. He was in the place that represented God’s presence. But what was his response? “How can that be true? I’m too old, and my wife is too old.” God stepped in to Zachariah’s life with a message of hope, but he was too focused on the “reality” of his circumstances to believe. Zachariah was controlled by his doubt and unbelief.
On the other hand, consider Mary. Luke also records her story. She, too, was visited by the angel Gabriel. He brought her the news that she would also have a child – and this child would be the Messiah. Now, she knew that there was no human way for her to have a child because she had never been intimate with a man. But her response showed that she believed. “Help me understand this, because I’ve never had sexual relations” (paraphrase of Luke 1:34). And so the angel gave the first information about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Mary’s response? “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Notice the difference. Mary gave a response of faith to Gabriel. God had said it, so that settled it. It was for her to trust God and believe. Zachariah, however, gave a response of doubt and unbelief, questioning the accuracy of an angel from heaven. Zachariah the priest – older, supposedly wiser, a “man of God” – doubted the very God he served. Mary, though – a young teenage girl, simple and probably poor – opened her heart to God and yielded herself to whatever God had planned for her.
Let’s not be too hard on Zachariah, because each of us is probably more like him than we are like Mary. We may be separated by over 2000 years, but the human heart is still the same. To borrow from Dickens, Mary lived her life in the “epoch of belief,” while Zachariah lived in the “epoch of incredulity.” For Mary, Gabriel’s visit brought in a “season of Light,” while Zachariah could not break free from his “season of Darkness.”
Perhaps this Christmas, it feels like “the worst of times” for you. Finances, family, personal struggles – whatever the issue, the world seems “dark.” At Christmas, we remember that Jesus is the Light of the world, and that he brought light to this dark world. Jesus is the incarnation of God as man – the Word made flesh. This Christmas, allow your faith to be renewed and strengthened. Because, like Gabriel said to Mary: “With God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Merry Christmas!