I recently heard a great message on Luke 1.5-29 and was struck with the juxtaposition of Zechariah, the father of John the baptizer, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each was visited by Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, and given the same news: “You’re going to have a son!” While their circumstances were similar in some regards, their responses were very different.
Zechariah was an old man–he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, were “advanced in years.” (v. 7) Mary, on the other hand, was a young teenager. She was also childless, but not because she was barren. She was a virgin. (I almost feel like I should explain that term.)
For Elizabeth, the reproach of barrenness (v. 25) would be replaced by the wonder of motherhood. As an elderly woman bearing a child, she would be a sensation in the community. Today, she would likely be written up in a medical journal and interviewed by Oprah. Mary, on the other hand, would be treated with suspicion and contempt as the obvious bearer of a bastard child.
Both Zechariah and Mary are troubled by the appearance of the angel, and understandably so. (vv. 12, 29) It is interesting, though, that Zechariah is troubled by the very appearance of the angel and Mary is “greatly troubled” by what the angel says to her. Gabriel understands this and acknowledges their fears are different when he reassures them.
When given the news that after many years of fervent prayer God had finally answered him, (v. 13) Zechariah responds with skepticism–the default setting of the human heart. He asks the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (v. 18) Gabriel reminds him that just moments before, he had been in the presence of the Almighty and had been sent away expressly to deliver this good news to Zechariah. (v. 19) As a rebuke for the priest’s faithless rebuttal, God causes him to be mute until the day of John’s circumcision.
Mary, however, simply asks how, as a virgin, she will be able to bear a child. She does not doubt it will happen, but wonders about the mechanics. Though a young girl, she is not naive about the facts of life and understands that even though she is betrothed to Joseph, their marriage will not be consummated until after Jesus is born. Gabriel honours her forthright question with an explanation that satisfies her, and she replies, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”(v. 38)
Later, when Mary visits Elizabeth and the two compare notes on their miraculous pregnancies, Mary’s soul bursts into a powerful, spontaneous psalm of praise to God that demonstrates her spiritual maturity, her humility and her theological acumen even as a middle-school aged girl. (Juxtapose her with the middle schoolers you know.) The contrast between this Magnificat and Zechariah’s silence is striking.
Mary’s response to Gabriel is a good lesson for us. When we pray, we should pray in faith and not be shocked when the God for whom “nothing will be impossible” (v. 37) answers us. We will not always understand God’s methods, and sometimes He will offer no explanation when we ask Him. But we can rejoice in His goodness and humbly surrender to His will, just as that young peasant girl did two millennia ago.
(The above photo was taken about ten years ago at Hussey’s General Store in Windsor, Maine.)