The Gospel of Luke begins with two monumental exchanges between the material and the spiritual. A messenger of the Lord appears first to an aging man in the midst of his priestly duties, and later to a young, peasant girl in the midst of anticipating the life ahead of her. In each visit, like a gust of wind that turns an umbrella inside out, the message delivered was the sort of news that moves the lives of all who go near it, let alone the worlds of those who heard it first. Both visits incite fear. Both invoke questions. But in the interchange of the eternal and the temporal, though the promises of God are similarly moving, we find two very different human responses.
Zechariah was chosen by lot amongst the other priests at the temple that day to offer the daily incense to the Lord. While the crowd stood praying outside, Zechariah entered the temple only to find an angel standing on the right side of the altar of incense. “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him,” imparts Luke. “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’”
Now Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth did not have any children. The angel’s words confronted a prayer long on his lips, a hope long deferred, a shame daily unforgotten. Zechariah’s response does not seem unreasonable to me. Fearful and uncertain, his wounded heart cried to know that God had been moving in those silent years of childlessness. “How can I be sure?” Zechariah asked. Another translation of the Greek renders, “How will I know this?” His hope for just a little more certainty seems fair enough in his state: “For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
There is a protective cynicism that runs in the hearts of those who live in the reality of unanswered prayers. I know because I have carried it too. Am I really to believe that God not only knows the greatest desires of my heart but is also able to answer them? Am I to trust the most weighted areas of my life, the most tender corners of my heart in hands that seem absent? There are times when the words of Jesus resonate much more like a commandment than a comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”(2)
The angel replied to Zechariah’s question with words reassuring and rebuking at once. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”(3) It seems unfairly harsh. The one who remained upright through years of anguished silence was now silenced himself.
Six months later, this same messenger appeared before a young girl named Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”(4) Like Zechariah, Mary was troubled. And similarly, she responded with a question. But unlike Zechariah, who had diligently prayed for such a miracle, Mary was unwed, a teenager with marriage and children as possibilities and hopes yet unrealized. This news put these hopes and her young life in danger. And yet this peasant girl responds with faith greater than the priest, with wisdom as sharp as her youth. “How will this be?” she asked.
Whereas Zechariah spoke in fear and uncertainty, Mary spoke with unfathomable faith. In the tenderness of youth and greatness of belief, there was no question in her mind that God would do as God said. Her question was as trusting as it was expectant: “I know this will be so, but how, since I am only a virgin?” In other words, how will God accomplish his plan through me? She was ready for the unfathomable because she saw her days in the hands of the one who sees all things.
The responses of Mary and Zechariah remind us that we live well when we give God room to inhabit our lives, through loss and silence, surrendering even our expectations to the one who sees. Unlike Zechariah, Mary was never introduced to her messenger. Yet to Gabriel she uttered, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary was alert and ready for the world to be a place where God is ready and able to break through. Perhaps for this reason Elizabeth recognized that Mary was blessed among women indeed. For most of us it takes places of fear and loss to discover the unfathomable places of God’s presence and grace, tears and silence to shape a song that is real.
One can only imagine the words welling up inside Zechariah as his child was delivered from the womb of his once-barren wife. Naming his newborn son, his mouth was opened and he declared in song: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel… who enables us to serve him without fear.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Luke 1:12,13.
(2) John 14:1.
(3) John 14:19, 20.