Note: This is an excerpt from our FREE Advent eBook, Come Lord Jesus Come. You can download it here.
What is hope? We use the word all the time. I hope I don’t get sick. I hope my boss is nice to me. I hope my favorite sports team is good this year.
When we use “hope” this way, we really mean something more like wish – a desire for something we want to have happen regardless of feasibility. Biblical hope, on the other hand, is “the confidence that what God has done for us in the past guarantees our participation in what God will do in the future.” The word “guarantees” demonstrates the vast difference between the fleeting wishes of casual hope and strong promise of biblical hope.
Hope is a future-oriented term, but it is grounded in past events. In the Old Testament, the source of hope for God’s people was God’s proven character and His mighty deeds in history. The Psalmist says, “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:5-7). His hope is founded in who God is and what He has done.
What, then, do we do with some of the really difficult promises that God has made to us in Scripture? Like 1 Corinthians 10:13: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” If this is true, then why are we still struggling with the same old sin? The Bible’s promises should give us confidence and contentment in God’s faithfulness, but the reality is we often find ourselves in doubt and frustration. It might be that we don’t think God will actually come through on his promise or maybe that he is even unable to do so.
We can see two very different responses to these kinds of impossible promises in Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and “advanced in years,” meaning well past the time where they could have a baby. Barrenness for any expectant parents can bring great sorrow and pain, but compound this for Zechariah and Elizabeth, who lived in a culture that very likely condemned them as being cursed by God because of some great sin in their lives. You can imagine the angel Gabriel’s delight in telling them that not only was God answering their prayers for a child, but He was giving them a son like Elijah who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” – Luke 1:18-19
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” – Luke 1:34-38
Zechariah’s response was one of doubt and unbelief. God was delivering the greatest news this old man could have ever received — the answer to his decades-long prayer — yet Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” He wanted a sign. He wanted it to make sense. Like we are prone to do, Zechariah doubted God’s promise and maybe even God’s ability.
In contrast, Mary’s response to God’s “impossible” promise was one of humility. When Gabriel came to Mary, saying, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Luke tells us that Mary was greatly troubled, trying to figure out what it meant. She didn’t understand it, but she received it. Rather than indignation, Mary’s initial posture was one of humility.
Then Gabriel gave her a promise that was just as unbelievable as the one he gave to Zechariah: “Despite the fact that you’re not married, despite the fact that you’ve never been with a man, despite the fact that in your knowledge you’re not from any type of royal lineage, you’re going to have a baby growing in your womb whose kingdom will never ever, ever, ever, ever end.” Zechariah said, “This can’t be.” Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
We can easily contrast Mary’s humility against Zechariah’s indignation, but it is worth digging deeper: What about them produced these kinds of reactions? The difference between them is not their situation or strength, but rather their hope in God’s love for them. It seems that Zechariah had given up on the idea that God loved him and would provide for him. We can imagine him screaming, “You haven’t been there for the past fifty years, so why should I believe that you’ll be there now?” Mary, on the other hand, seems to have simply believed that God loved her so much that He would deliver on his promise.
We Hope In Christ
When you hear or read the promises of God that seem to be too good to be true, do you believe that God loves you? When you are in a dark place, can you see that God is near and working for our good, to conform us into the image of His Son? This is what God did with Zechariah, even in his unbelief. Zechariah went through a grinder of disappointment, followed by nine months of silence, but on the other side of God’s provision, he was a humble and joyful man who hoped and trusted in God’s promises.
Christmas morning shows us that God is willing to fulfill His promises. Easter morning proves that God is able to fulfill His promises. We hope in both. We hope in Christ.
Nathan Sherman. Born and raised in Texas, Nathan helped plant Providence Church where they completed a two-year church-planting residency and internship. He is now making disciples at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, NM along with his wife, Marcie, and their three sons Owen, Caleb, and Micah.
Will Walker. After six years as a missionary to college students at the University of Texas and four years as an associate pastor at Coram Deo church in Omaha, NE, followed God’s call to plant Providence Church in the fall of 2010. He currently writes for World Harvest Mission and New Growth Press. Will and his wife, Debbie, are the parents of two boys, Ethan and Holden.