“How can I know this?” Zechariah asked the angel. ‘For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.'”
“Mary asked the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the lessons I consistently try to teach my children is that attitude is everything. Well, it may not literally be everything, but it sure counts for a whole lot. One action can be performed, one thing can be said, and the result could be one of two totally different outcomes. Which one it is depends almost entirely on the attitude of the person doing or saying whatever it was. When it comes to preparing for God’s plans, attitude makes a pretty significant difference as well. Just how much of a difference it makes is put on display by two of the key characters in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth. Let’s take a look together this morning.
After a quick prologue, Luke’s Gospel does not open with Jesus’ birth. Instead, he opens it by taking us to an old priest serving in the temple. We learn that this priest’s name is Zechariah, and he is one of the good ones. He has been faithfully serving the Lord for a very long time. His wife, Elizabeth, has been faithful as well, right by his side. The pair always longed to have a child of their own, but it was not to be. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to them. They were both past the point that having children was something that was on their radar any longer. This would have been hard for both of them, but especially Elizabeth, who would have been seen as the source of the problem.
But then one day…
Each year the Jews celebrated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day, a priest’s name was essentially drawn out of a hat, and he was given the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies in the temple. This was the inner sanctuary where they kept the Ark of the Covenant. It was where they believed the very presence of God dwelt. He went into the room after a series of purification rituals and sacrifices. They made sure to tie a rope around his ankle to pull him out if God struck him down for some reason, so they didn’t have to go in themselves and risk a similar fate. While in there, the priest would burn some incense as an offering to the Lord and offer prayers in His presence. It would have been seen as an enormous privilege.
When Zechariah got his turn, everything was going according to plan until he turned around and saw an angel standing next to the golden lampstand. The angel delivered to him the news he had been waiting his whole life to hear. He and his wife were finally going to have a son. What’s more, this boy would be a special blessing as he was going to be the forerunner of the Messiah Himself. They were going to raise the child who would get the people ready to receive God’s Messiah when He revealed Himself. This was about the best news in the world for someone in His position.
There was just one problem: Zechariah was so embittered by a lifetime of childlessness, and so emotionally consigned to his fate that he couldn’t receive the news as good. Doubt had overwhelmed his faith and he responded to the angel from out of that doubt. “How can I know this?” In other words, “Why should I believe any of this?” He was standing there giving worship to the God who had miraculously saved His people from the hand of Egypt and shepherded them across hundreds of years of history. This was the God who had given Abram and Sarai a child in their old age. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to believe God could do it again with him and his wife. His attitude was all poisoned by life.
A few months later, in another little village, in another part of the country, the same angel appeared to a young girl named Mary. While her circumstances were vastly different from those of her cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth, her news was much the same. She was going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. But her news on this point was even better than what Zechariah had received. Her son was not going to be merely the herald of the Messiah, but the Messiah Himself.
There was just one problem: She wasn’t married. And she was still a virgin. She may have lived in a pre-scientific culture, but she at least understood the mechanics of how babies were made. It took a man and a woman, and you know the rest. She could furnish the woman side of that equation, but the man side was missing. Without that, the equation wasn’t complete, and babies couldn’t happen. If what the angel told Zechariah was hard to believe, Mary’s news was impossible as far as she and everyone else who has ever lived understood. As a result, Mary asked the entirely natural question of how this was going to happen.
At a glance, the two questions of these two individuals seem the same. But there’s a difference. The difference is one of attitude. Zechariah had a bad attitude and didn’t really believe God could or would do something like the angel had announced. Yet before we condemn him for this, if we were in his shoes, we would probably have reacted in much the same way. It is far too easy to let ourselves get overwhelmed by life and lose our ability to see what could be through the dense fog of what seems to be. Mary, on the other hand, though surely overwhelmed by the angel’s news, had a much better attitude. Her mindset was that if God wanted to do this thing which the angel assured her He could do, then she was on board. Attitude makes the difference.
This Advent season, it may be that God has been trying to do something in or through your life. What kind of attitude are you bringing with you to the opportunity? In this supposedly happiest of seasons, it is ironically easy to develop a bad attitude that we carry with us throughout it. The reasons for this sour attitude are many, but the outcome is the same. We lose the ability to go with God into the places He wants to take us. We miss out on opportunities to experience His presence or be a part of expanding His kingdom because we are so fixated on ourselves and our problems. Attitude makes all the difference.
And I know: If I was in your situation, I would have a bad attitude as well. Yet as I tell my children on a regular basis: Attitude is a choice. It is always a choice. You always have the choice of whether to respond to the circumstances you are facing with a good attitude that sees things through a lens of hope and joy. Or, you can respond to them with a bad attitude that sees things through a lens of bitterness and frustration. What you choose may be understandable given the circumstances, but it is still your choice. And you have the power to make a different one if you so desire. Find a small way today that you can choose a good attitude and see how God blesses your efforts.