Luke 1:5-20, 26-35
Growing up, I did not realize how easy my parents had it at Christmas. Since I was an only child, not only was it cheaper to buy presents for only one child, it was also lacking in dangers of jealousy or competition. As a father of five children, I have to take all of this into account. Not only do I have to divide my Christmas budget by five, I have to anticipate how they will react to each other’s presents. What I want to hear is “Oh mom and dad, thanks so much for all that you have given, it brings such joy!” What I dread and will likely hear is “That’s not fair, how come they get that and I only get this!” It’s not fair. That should not be a part of Christmas. And yet a reading of the Christmas story in Luke sometimes brings up questions of fairness. The short story is that Luke begins his Gospel with angelic announcements of the supernatural conception of two babies: John and Jesus. Gabriel brings this news to Zechariah and then brings this news to Mary. The parallels demand that we read these two stories together. The problem is that both Zechariah and Mary seem to question Gabriel on this and yet Zechariah seems to be punished and Mary seems to be praised. That’s not fair. Since they were related, you could almost imagine Zechariah complaining at family gatherings about how unfair it was that Mary was treated the way she was and he was treated the way he was. We have been saying that the Gospels begin a certain way for a reason. I believe that this is true of Luke as well. The question is: Was Luke’s purpose to remind us that God is sometimes just not fair or is there something else going on?
Zechariah and Mary
While at first glance it looks like Zechariah and Mary are in the same situation and are responding in the same way, there are actually some significant differences. Let us look at the situation more closely. First of all Zechariah and Mary did not have the same background. Zechariah was an old man and was a priest who served in the Temple. His many years, it should be assumed, would bring wisdom. As a priest, he should have a good idea of what God does and the traditions of Israel. Mary was a thirteen year old girl. She would have had almost no education and no experience. It could be questioned as to whether Gabriel should have treated them the same. Zechariah should have known better, Mary deserved a bit more patience. Secondly, let us look at the content of the message. Zechariah is told that his wife, who is both barren and old, will become pregnant. Of course that is unusual. But how unusual? There is a strong biblical tradition of this in the Old Testament. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the unnamed mother of Samson, and Hannah who was the mother of Samuel, were all barren and required divine intervention to become pregnant. Zechariah, as a priest, would have known this story and would have known that God does this sort of thing. What about Mary? Here we have a young girl who is engaged but not yet married being told she was going to have a baby. Oh and by the way, this child was also going to be the Son of God. How many examples of this do we have? We have Mary and … well, just Mary. While from our perspective both announcements seem unlikely, from a biblical point of view, it was much more likely that Zechariah was going to be a father than for Mary to become a mother in the way Gabriel was announcing. Thirdly, Zechariah asked for a sign. While losing the ability to speak was a manner of correction, it was also what Zechariah was asking for, and that was an immediate sign that this would indeed take place. Mary does not ask for a sign, but she gets one anyway and that is she becomes pregnant. And speaking as a male, I can say for myself that I would prefer a temporary loss of speech to having to give birth. But that might be just me. Finally, and most importantly, notice what Zechariah and Mary say. They do not question in the same way. Zechariah asks “How can I know this will happen?” while Mary asks “How will this be?” Those are two different questions. Let’s start with Mary. Should Mary have already understood how this was going to take place? Was it obvious? We are familiar with the virgin birth but there was no Jewish tradition of a virgin birth for her to fall back on. There is the prophecy of Isaiah but it was not obvious in the original context that it was talking about a virgin born Son of God. It is a prophecy that we recognize after the events took place. Mary could be asking two things here. She might be literally asking how this was going to take place. What was she supposed to do? Was the angel suggesting that Mary go through with her marriage to Joseph and that one of their biological children would be adopted as the Son of God? Or was something even stranger going to happen? If you look, before Mary asks the question Gabriel has said nothing about a virgin birth. It was a fair question. But there is another way to understand this question. It is an expression of awe. Wow God, how could you do something so amazing? That is not an expression of doubt, that is an expression of wonder. Think about that word ‘wonder.‘ I wonder how something can happen. Is that bad? What is something that is full of wonder? It is wonderful. Mary wonders about the actions of a wonderful God, she is in awe of the awesome God. Does Zechariah have that same sense of wonder and awe at the thought of finally becoming a father? “How shall I know this?” Zechariah is requesting some sort of confirmation to relieve him of his skepticism. Zechariah is not thinking “Wow, God is so amazing!” Zechariah is thinking “Have you seen my wife, I can’t believe that is going to happen unless you give me a really good reason.” What Zechariah is showing here is a lack of trust, a lack of faith. Zechariah can believe he is speaking with the angel Gabriel but he cannot believe that his wife will become pregnant. Zechariah does not see God as wonderful or awesome but as unlikely to be actively involved in his life. Zechariah was wrong. His wife Elizabeth gave birth to John and Zechariah received his voice back.
You and I
So Zechariah made a bad choice. He should have known better. God had performed a number of similar miracles in the past and could do so again. Compared to Mary, who was much younger and less experienced and was facing something much greater, Zechariah does not come off very well. But what does that mean to us? There are a couple of applications. First, we might be tempted to interpret this as teaching to never ask questions. That does not seem to be the case. There are many examples throughout the Bible where people, facing incredible circumstances, asked the hard questions. God does not ask us to abandon our minds. When something unusual or supernatural comes our way, we should not pass it off as if it was an every day event. Ask the hard questions but do it in the appropriate way. Zechariah asks “How shall I know?” The truth is that everything in life is about a mixture of fact and faith. I truly believe that my wife loves me. I have evidence of this based on what she says and does. But how do I know that Amanda loves me? I have never submitted her to a lie-detector or taken her to a mind reader or had the phone tapped to record her conversations with friends. I suppose I could bring the relationship to a halt and insist that I don’t know she loves me in the sense of knowing every detail of what goes on in her mind. However, I take the evidence as far as it goes and finish the way with trust and faith. This is not blind faith, it is the balanced way that is the only way to live out our life. We cannot know everything and we should not act out of complete ignorance. This is the philosophy followed by Luke throughout his Gospel. Luke writes his Gospel in the style of ancient history, using the methods of his contemporaries. He presents the facts and details needed to get people started in the process of following Jesus. Luke gives us reasons to believe. But Luke also knows that we need more than facts. At some point we have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and we are never going to know everything. But we have to do something and so we act on what we know, trusting in God, believing that he knows what we don’t know. The rest of Luke’s Gospel describes people who, to a lesser degree, take the same steps as Mary. Luke in turn challenges us to make the same choice.
Zechariah and Mary. Two people who encounter God and are faced with something amazing. On a surface level Zechariah and Mary have much in common. On a deeper level, they are worlds apart. Zechariah, despite age, experience and biblical training, has trouble believing that God could do for him what he has done for a number of others before. Mary, despite a young age, lack of experience and no education, is able to with a sense of wonder and awe accept something that God had never done before and would never do again. Where are we in this mix? God has some amazing things for us as individuals and as a church. We can look at this, knowing our weaknesses and the immensity of the challenge, and say with Mary, “How can this be?” But may we never respond with the skepticism of Zechariah, “How shall I know?” Reflect on what you know, try to understand what is possible and then make the leap of faith, trusting that God will accomplish his will.