By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
This evening Kristen and I met with a few friends for a great time of Bible study and fellowship. We didn’t have a program or a lesson guide, we just took turns reading a chapter or two of scripture and then sharing whatever thoughts came to mind. In two and half hours, we moved through the first four chapters of Luke. Our discussions were broad and deep, covering questions that were both lighthearted and serious. It was a meaningful gathering that I was glad to be a part of.
Among the questions that rose out of our reading was the starkly different responses Zechariah and Mary received when they questioned the angel Gabriel. If you are not familiar with this story, I suggest you read it for yourself. The first people we meet in Luke’s gospel are Zechariah and Elizabeth — an elderly couple of priestly lineage who have lived good lives, were respected in their community and were seen to be “righteous before God.” Despite their highly exalted social and religious status, however, Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children of their own. As Elizabeth was already beyond the normal age for conception, it seemed unlikely the couple would ever have a son or daughter to carry on their name, yet they remained faithful to their God and their people. In ancient Israel, because there were many priests, but one central temple in Jerusalem, the priests were divided into orders; each order was assigned two weeks out of the year during which the priests of that order were responsible for maintaining the altar and offering prayers at the Jerusalem temple. Each day, lots were cast to determine which priest from the order would enter the holiest part of the temple to burn incense at the altar and pray for the people. This was a big honor, and on this particular day, it fell to Zechariah. The elderly priest made his way into the temple, as perhaps he had done before. A great crowd of people stood outside in the courtyard of the temple where the general population met to pray, but Zechariah was responsible for carrying those prayers into the sanctuary, where he would send them up to God wrapped in a sweet cloud of incense.
Then the story really gets interesting. While the incense offering is burning at the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared before Zechariah. Zechariah was startled, but Gabriel comforted the old priest and assured him that his prayer had been heard. Elizabeth is going to have a child. He will be a great prophet among the people, and will even be great in the sight of the Lord! Good news, right? Then Zechariah said the words that would be on anyone’s mind, though few of us would have the courage to speak in such a moment: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years (if you know what I mean).” Gabriel responds to this inquiry by silencing Zechariah’s voice and apparently rendering him partially deaf, at least temporarily; All of his senses will be restored once the boy is born and Zechariah follows the Lord’s instructions to name him John. That seems to be kind of a harsh move against a faithful old priest, but once John is born, Zechariah’s joy positively overwhelms everything else. This is good news indeed!
A few months later, Gabriel makes another visit. This time he calls on a young girl named Mary who is betrothed, but not yet married, to Joseph. Gabriel gives Mary a similar message, announcing that she, too, will have a son. While Mary doesn’t have the issue of age to worry about like Elizabeth did, she still has some questions about how she might possibly become pregnant with a son, as she has never done any of the typical things that precede pregnancy — like having sex. “How can this be,” she asks the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Instead of sealing up her tongue or rebuking her for a lack of faith, however, Gabriel simply assures Mary that while this message may not make since at first sight, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
So, to sum up the dilemma:
- Elizabeth and Mary both cannot have children; Elizabeth because she is too old, and Mary because she is a virgin.
- Both are told they will miraculously conceive sons.
- Zechariah asks “How will I know this is so?” and is punished for a lack of faith.
- Mary asks “How can this be?” and is gently reassured of God’s presence in her life.
What’s going on here? Why do these two people get such different responses in such similar situations? I have heard many explanations on this before. Some people see the subtle difference in the questions posed by Zechariah and Mary and infer that Zechariah’s question expressed a since of disbelief, while Mary’s was simply innocent curiosity. I don’t doubt that attitude is very important in weighing how we frame our questions to our friends, or to God. I can respect this view, but for me, it has never seemed quite sufficient. There simply isn’t enough information given for me to honestly interpret the attitudes and feelings of Zechariah and Mary. One major difference between the two situations I do notice in the text, however, is setting. A great deal of effort is put in to explaining the setting of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. Zechariah, as well as his wife, are both of priestly lineage. Zechariah’s order was on duty. A lot was cast (basically, the priests asked for God to make a choice clear) and Zechariah’s name came up. Zechariah left the praying crowd and moved into the sanctuary. Zechariah lit the incense offering. Zechariah stood by the altar and prayed. Gabriel appeared and announced that God had not only heard Zechariah’s prayer, but that was he was going to bless his family in a special way. The only word we have concerning the setting of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel is that it was in Nazareth — a small town about 65 miles away from Jerusalem. We don’t know if Mary was at home, visiting with a friend, at work in the field or walking down the street. What we do know is that she wasn’t in the temple — she wouldn’t have been allowed into the sanctuary where Zechariah had met Gabriel.
I don’t say all of this to imply that God can only speak in special places, or in certain ways. Clearly this story, and the ones that follow it, demonstrate that is simply not the case. What I do think is made clear by this story though, is that while Zechariah and Mary were both very surprised at Gabriel’s presence, only one of them should have been surprised. Zechariah had gone through a lot of effort — a lifetime of effort, one could argue — to make his case before God. Zechariah had done everything he could possibly do to demonstrate his respect for God and to show that he was sincere in his prayer. Zechariah was asking for God to intervene in his life, yet he was astonished when God actually showed up. Mary, on the other hand, probably wasn’t hoping to find herself pregnant at this point; she certainly hadn’t asked God to intervene on her behalf. Her surprise is understandable, and she is granted a little understanding.
It is not lost on me that of course, someone went into the sanctuary to offer prayers at the altar every day, yet every day an angel did not show up to deliver a special message from God. In fact, it had been sometime since God had moved among his people in a powerful way; prophets had grown silent; visions were rare; people were complacent.
But is that really any excuse? If we believe that God is alive and well, then we must not be surprised when he makes his presence known. If we pray to God expecting him to hear and honor our prayers, then why should we be surprised when we see him act? If we don’t believe our prayers matter, then why even go through the motions?
If, on the other hand, we come before God in awe and reverence, eagerly awaiting his command and longing for his blessing — just as that old priest did many years ago — then it will be our great joy to find him waiting for us, right there where he’s always been.