Sunday, December 25, 2016
Faith in Impossible Christmas Stories
The day after we started reading again, our oldest son came to his mom with some confessions. He is seven years old and his admissions were mainly focused on fibs and half-truths he had told about things that had happened at school. More confessions came on the second day and it really seemed like our family scripture study was helping him make better choices.
On the third day, he confessed again on the drive home from school. When he had vented, he added with concern, "Hey, Mom? Do you think that Santa will still bring me a present since I fixed it?"
So that's it.
Of course, my son's behavior is based on an impossible premise. There's just not enough time for one old man on a reindeer-powered sleigh to deliver hundreds of millions of presents around the world in a single night. Behavioral scientists observing my son's behavior might then conclude that his behavior has been completely irrational-- and they would be right except for two important details: first, my son is making decisions with imperfect information; and second, despite his lack of knowledge, his faith in Santa has always been rewarded as promised.
Indeed, our faith in Christ operates in much the same way. Though we are often "left in the dark" when it comes to the details, the Lord encourages us to live his gospel and see for ourselves whether our faith will be rewarded as promised. Just as my son ascribes Santa's deliveries to magic, we often see the fulfillment of God's promises as miracles-- and at no time do we celebrate our belief in those miracles more than during the Christmas season.
The biblical account of the first Christmas begins with the miraculous story of an angel who appeared to Zacharias in the temple. The angel told Zacharias that his wife, who had not been able to have children and was now "well stricken in years," would have a baby boy. Such a birth was not only improbable, but physiologically impossible.
A few months later, the same angel appeared to announce another impossible birth. This time he was speaking to Mary, a young woman engaged to the rightful heir of King David's throne. According to the commandments of the Lord and the customs of the day, the couple had remained chaste prior to their wedding:
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus...
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God... For with God nothing shall be impossible. (Luke 1:30-31, 34-35, 37).
In both cases, the appearance of an angel alone may seem unlikely if not viewed through the lens of faith; but the subsequent pregnancies of a virgin and a barren old woman challenge even the faithful. Yet, as the angel instructs, with God nothing shall be impossible. The question is not whether his word will come to fruition, but how we respond to even the most impossible promises.
Perhaps we will be logical, like Zacharias, who was skeptical of the angel's message though the divine messenger stood before him. His skepticism made his experience more difficult, but when his wife bore a son as the angel had prophesied he was ready to believe.
Mary's fiance had a similar reaction. We don't know what, if anything, Mary shared of her experiences, but Joseph sought to break off their engagement until he saw the angel himself in a dream. His vision persuaded him to believe the impossible and move forward with the wedding.
Elizabeth, Zacharias' wife, had been "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" despite living her entire life in a culture that incorrectly believed that her inability to have children was a form of divine punishment (Luke 1:6). Clearly, she was a woman of faith. Yet, knowing her conception was impossible, Elizabeth appears to withhold judgment for several months. Finally, she allowed her hope to sprout a greater faith and rejoiced that the Lord had taken away her shame. When Mary visits a month or so later, Elizabeth instantly recognizes the joy of her unborn child and testifies that Mary is the mother of the Christ.
Mary was also a woman of faith who, according to the angel, had found favor with God. When she heard the angel's impossible news, she responded with a humble and willing statement of faith. "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord," she said, "be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). When Elizabeth saluted her as "blessed... among women," Mary gave a similar response: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call be blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name" (Luke 1:46-49).
None of us knows all of the details about how Mary and Elizabeth conceived their miraculous children, nor are those details particularly important to our salvation, but as we respond with faith we will benefit from the many promises made possible by the lives of Jesus Christ, our Savior, and his Elias, John the Baptist. We can receive a remission of our sins, the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, knowledge to guide us through our most vexing problems and happiness in times of trial.
We can also receive greater faith that with God nothing is impossible. At Christmas we celebrate that a virgin did conceive and bear a son. That son walked on water and calmed the storms; turned water to wine and fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and some small fish; healed the blind, the leprous and the paralyzed; brought the dead back to life; atoned for our sins and was resurrected. Because of Him, we can see estranged family members reunited, be relieved of physical or mental anguish, find the strength to forgive, have a chance to pursue our impossible dreams and return to live with our families in the presence of God forever.
There were many others who responded to the impossible news of Christ's birth. Three kings traveled for years to bring gifts and worship him. King Herod tried to kill him. Simeon and Anna looked for him their entire lives and immediately recognized him and rejoiced when they saw the Christ child in the temple. Our experience will depend a great deal on our response to his invitations. Will we be skeptics, like Zacharias, and throw rocks into our own path; or will we allow "he that is mighty" to do "great things" in our lives because of our faith in him?
One indication may be our efforts to understand and rely on Christ through our study of the scriptures. Though our family may not always be consistent, it is a blessing in our lives to know that our faith-inspired study does indeed help our son, and all of us, respond with readiness to the Lord's invitations to serve his children. We don't know exactly how but we've noticed that it always seems to work-- no cookie tax required.