When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.
The opening narrative of Luke’s Gospel brings a painful experience, both in the ancient and modern world, to centre stage; a hardship often relegated to a shadowy corner, left to steep in its own shame, is suddenly brought into the light of God’s redemptive purposes. Before Luke mentions the infertility of Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, he makes the point of telling us how God sees them. They are not primarily Elizabeth and Zechariah the infertile couple, which is probably how many people viewed them, whether sympathetically or otherwise. Rather, they were Elizabeth and Zechariah “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6 NIV). Would this alleviate entirely the pain they felt at being unable to conceive? Did it mean they were unfeelingly stoic regarding their cruel circumstances? Had they simply given up hope and given in to bitterness? Of course not. Their pain was very real and immediately present. It was something they mourned as a great evil upon God’s good creation, a cruel oppression of God’s image bearers. And bitterness did not consume their hope because they refused to be defined by their circumstances. In a world marred by cruelty they had faith in a God who cared for them beyond their understanding. We know this because “both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Their hope in God gave birth to lives marked by the kind of obedience unattainable by those who wish to put God in their debt.
“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:7 NIV). It is entirely plausible that Elizabeth and Zechariah knew other couples who were experiencing infertility, who likewise put their hope in God and resisted the temptation to define themselves by their circumstances. Moreover, it is just as plausible they knew couples who had died with their hopes of having children unfulfilled but whose hope in God remained unwavering. Like many couples before them Elizabeth and Zechariah embodied the yet unwritten words of the Apostle Peter, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19 NIV). In their suffering they learned something that often eludes most of us. What they came to understand was that God owes us nothing. Suffering has a way of throwing this truth into sharp, heart-piercing relief. It is like being awakened by the shock of having a bucket of ice water poured on us. And when this happens we are faced with a choice: if God owes us nothing will we pay him back in kind or will we, in hope, trust that even though he owes us nothing believe his promise that he has already begun to freely give us all things, along with the one who is most precious in his sight (Romans 8:32 NIV)?
It is this kind of hope – humble and confident all at once – in the God who not only reveals himself to us but also freely gives himself to us in Jesus the Messiah that emboldens us to ask for the seemingly impossible as Elizabeth and Zechariah did (cf. Luke 1:13) while also leaving the answer, whatever it is, firmly in the lovingly faithful hands of our Creator:
“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We are not to be defined by our circumstances. We belong to God as sons and daughters, freely adopted into his family, lovingly accepted – never to be rejected – because of Jesus. Because of this we can ask God for anything and know he will give us what he knows to be the very best for us because no one loves us more than he does.