Formations lesson for Dec. 7: To Believe or Not Believe : Friday, Nov 14, 2003
November 14 2003 by Jimmy Allen

Formations lesson for Dec. 7: To Believe or Not Believe : Friday, Nov 14, 2003
Friday, Nov 14, 2003

Formations lesson for Dec. 7: To Believe or Not Believe

By Jimmy Allen
Luke 1:8-23

The title for this week's lesson is a play on one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "To be, or not to be: that is the question" (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1).

Hamlet was struggling with the decision of life. "To be" meant to endure the struggles of life - "the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay."

"Not to be," meant to die, to sleep and perchance to dream. But we dread not knowing for sure what will happen after death, and we prefer to bear the ills of life rather than the unknown, Shakespeare wrote. "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all" (Act III, Scene 1).

As Christians, we, of course, have assurance of life with God for eternity. Yet the inner struggle of Hamlet relates to the struggle within Zechariah when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the Jerusalem Temple. Zechariah's struggle was whether to believe or not.

From an outside perspective, he had every right to believe. He was a priest, a member of the Abijah order. And to add to his Jewish luster, he was married to another descendant of Aaron. Both Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were righteous people, Luke wrote. In essence, Zechariah believed in God.

Yet something was wrong in his life. He and Elizabeth were childless. In that 1st century culture, being childless was grounds for divorce. To heighten the anxiety that Zechariah and Elizabeth both faced was a rabbis' list of reasons people were excommunicated from God, according to William Barclay. First on the list were a Jew with no wife or a Jew who has a wife but no child. This pressure on these two descendants of Aaron was likely oppressive.

Yet on this particular day we read in Luke, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer sweet-smelling incense. Being chosen would have been the highlight of his life. Yet this righteous man was terrified by the presence of Gabriel. At this point, Zechariah endured the Hamlet-like struggle to believe or not to believe. To believe meant to be stretched beyond the known, the comfortable. To not believe would be a way to try to keep life just as it was - oppressive but known.

Maybe we're afraid of encountering God in our own lives because we don't want to change. Maybe we're comfortable and have learned to live with the problems of life. If so, we don't want to see our lives unsettled.

As pastor of a mission church, I've learned that one of our challenges is uncertainty. We don't have relationships developed over years among the church members like those in an established church. We don't have the clear expectation of doing something the way it always has been done. We don't have the financial stability of most churches. Yet in the midst of this uncertainty, we find ourselves depending on God and being open to experiencing His presence and leading.

The known isn't necessarily better.

The story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, of course, is a vital stage in the development of the Gospel story. Their son, John, would prepare the way for Jesus.

On its own, the story provides us with two key elements of a Christian's life.

One, God answered Zechariah's prayer. We joke sometimes by saying be careful about what you pray because you might get it. There's some truth to that. Jesus said, "whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive" (Matt. 21:22). We shouldn't be surprised when God answers. We should rejoice.

Two, God doesn't necessarily make sense to us. Zechariah had wanted a child, but he wanted the child while he and Elizabeth were younger. Zechariah's rational thinking played a greater role in this story than his awareness that he was in the holy presence of an angel of God.

Maybe we try to rationalize God in our own lives. Maybe we allow Him to affect us but only within our rational guidelines. In effect, we choose to believe but only to a degree.

Our responsibility is to believe. That is the prerequisite for salvation as told in John 3:16. When we choose to sincerely believe, we can expect to experience a life of joy and sorrow, wonder and bewilderment, challenge and tribulation.

The journey of belief may be the path less traveled, but like Robert Frost's described so well, "that has made all the difference."

11/14/2003 12:00:00 AM by Jimmy Allen | with 0 comments

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