Beyond Belief: Advent, Christmas, and Leaps of Faith

Today marks the beginning of Advent, which starts a new year on the traditional church calendar. Over the next four weeks, many churches will focus on anticipation and spiritual preparation for Christmas. Devotions, sermons, articles, television specials, etc., will tell the Christmas story. Made-for-TV movies will share tales of Christmas magic. People expect something special to happen just because December 25 is on the calendar. Some might be disappointed when life returns to its old normal after the Christmas tree comes down, ornaments are put away, and credit card bills arrive in the mail.

Image from PxHere.

We expect magic because we see a certain “magic” in the Christmas story. It is a familiar tale. Mary is a virgin, but an angel tells her that she will become pregnant and give birth to the Son of God. Her betrothed, Joseph, marries her, and they travel to Bethlehem, where she gives birth. Shepherds and wise men visit them to see the newborn King of the Jews. In Christmas cards and TV specials, He is usually depicted in a manger that glows like a floodlight; a line of visitors longer than the one gathered for a shopping-mall Santa Claus waits to see Him. Mary and Joseph look regal, flanking the (possibly radioactive?) manger. The Baby is serene, and Mary looks rested and peaceful (not like she just went through labor and has to breast-feed a newborn and change His diaper every two hours). By the way, didn’t the animals talk that night too?

The biblical account is very different. Much like our lives, it was messy, stressful, and complicated. Mary and Joseph had to confront their doubts and fears, the skepticism of others, and other challenges. It sounds simple, but the Bible tells a story about ordinary people facing an incomprehensible crisis together.

We can start with the angel’s visit with Mary. Gabriel had visited her relative, a priest named Zacharias, several months earlier. He told him that God would give him and his wife a son (John the Baptist; see Luke 1:5-25). No miracle is promised; Zacharias and Elizabeth would conceive a baby normally. What made it unusual was Elizabeth’s age. It was an unlikely, but not unnatural or impossible, birth. God had done it before; Isaac, Samson, and Samuel in the Old Testament all come to mind. Nevertheless, Zacharias found it hard to believe.

Later, Gabriel visited Mary and told her she would bear the Son of God, even though she was a virgin (see Luke 1:26-38). Unlike Zacharias, Mary believed. Was it easy to believe, though? God had given children to older mothers throughout the Old Testament, but never to virgins. Was it really an angel? Was it just a dream?

Perhaps nobody knew about her pregnancy until she arrived at the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth (see Luke 1:39-56) and heard her relative’s prophetic greeting:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord’” (Luke 1:41-45, New American Standard Bible).

The Visitation. Mary and Elizabeth in the garden of a country house – Huth Hours (1485-1490). Master of the Houghton Miniatures, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Remember, this occurred before the invention of telephones. Elizabeth likely had no way of knowing in advance that Mary was pregnant or coming to visit. Miraculously, Elizabeth realized that Mary was carrying the Son of God. Mary needed encouragement and assurance.

However, upon her return home three months later, family and neighbors would know she was pregnant. Her parents probably knew nothing about her pregnancy until then. Just imagine what they thought when she said that she was having a baby but was still a virgin, and God was the baby’s Father.

Can they really believe this? It was more believable that she had premarital sex with Joseph (a huge taboo in those days—not socially acceptable like it is now) or had cheated on him while visiting her relatives.

Jesus would endure suspicions about the circumstances of His conception for the rest of His life. On one occasion, His opponents would shoot out a barb, “We were not born of fornication” (John 8:41), probably implying that Jesus was illegitimate. The circumstances during Mary’s pregnancy would make this the most logical explanation.

Think about it: If a woman today claimed that God got her pregnant, would she be worshiped by the faithful or given medication by a psychiatrist?

Joseph knew he was not the baby’s father and thought Mary cheated on him. Matthew 1:19 says that he planned to divorce her; unlike a modern-day engagement, a betrothal was legally binding and required a divorce to end it. However, Scripture says that an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, affirming Mary’s explanation and telling him to marry her (Matthew 1:20-25).

Joseph recognized the dream as a word from the Lord, not merely wishful thinking. He took a leap of faith, beyond all reason and common sense, and obeyed God. In fact, this is Joseph’s great contribution to the Christmas story. God speaks to Joseph in a dream; he obeys; God’s plan for Jesus is fulfilled.

The biblical account of Jesus’ birth is not a magical fairy tale like the animated specials we watch every year. It is a testimony of bold leaps of faith into the unknown, the illogical—perhaps, more accurately, above and beyond all logic. Joseph and Mary believed God when previous experiences and all they knew contradicted what He called them to do. Even when others found their stories far-fetched, they said “Yes” to the Lord. Because they took radical leaps of faith, God entrusted His Son to their care so that He could bring salvation to humanity.

In many ways, Joseph and Mary were much like you and me. Before Jesus entered their lives, Joseph and Mary were ordinary people who would have been ignored by history: a simple carpenter and his wife in a small town in a region that was controlled by a foreign power. They were not superheroes, wealthy, or powerful. They had to face doubt, suspicion, and uncertainty. Raising the Son of God would be a difficult choice, far beyond their abilities.

Has God called you to do something that seems impossible? You are not alone. The life of faith is a leap beyond what we can see and understand into the arms of a God who perfectly knows what He is doing and how to accomplish great things through you. Trust in Him. May that leap of faith be our goal in the coming year.

Heavenly Father, give us hearts that are open to all that You desire to do in us, through us, and for us. Sometimes it is hard to believe You. Give us the courage to trust You, knowing that when we take that leap of faith, Your arms will be outstretched to catch, carry, and guide us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Have you ever found yourself needing to trust God when it did not make sense? Can you recall a time when He did what seemed impossible in your life? Please share your thoughts about this below.

Copyright © 2022 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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