In our Phoenix Community fellowships, we are in the middle of our yearly Advent series running up to Christmas. We led off with the Hope candle, examining Luke 1, and the account of John the Baptist’s birth announcement. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old, possibly late 60s to early 70s, and though ever faithful to God (Zechariah was even a priest), they were childless, which was frowned upon in the ancient world. After decades of earnest prayers for a child, they must have given up, yet kept living for and serving the Lord despite this disappointment. When an angel suddenly appears to Zech while serving in the Temple, amidst the shock, he gets unexpected news- God has heard and remembered their prayers, and Elizabeth will have a child, who will do great things, and usher in the Messiah.
Zechariah’s response? “How can I be sure of this, since my wife and I are so old?” The angel seems incredulous, even offended, at Zech’s skepticism, and “hits the mute button” on his vocal chords until the baby is born.
Contrast this with Mary’s response to the same angel bringing her even more incredible, unexpected news, which we studied this past Sunday, as we lit the Peace candle. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mary is a young teen, possibly 13-17 years old, from a working class family, already betrothed to be married off soon. She receives the heavenly visitor as well, declaring that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah, not just for the Jews, but for the whole world.
Mary’s response? “How will this be, since I’m still a virgin?” This time, rather than flaring up and “chewing her out” for disbelief, the angel gently gives Mary a simple explanation of how her “divine conception” will take place, assuring her, “nothing is impossible with God.”
What is the difference between these responses? I’ve found this a fascinating question.
Zechariah was old, resigned, and apparently had all but given up on the dream of being a parent, as I’m sure Elizabeth had too. To me, Zech had been overwhelmed by the shocking visitation, and the unexpected news with it (as would I). I think we often grow more jaded and skeptical with age, after years of unmet expectations and disappointments. And yet, after a messenger from God Himself delivered the unexpected news, you’d think Zech’s response might have been more faith-filled. Hard news to swallow, I suppose.
By contrast, Mary was young, enthusiastic, maybe even naive, being a teenager in backwater Palestine. She was likely following in the footsteps of her mother and nearly every other woman she had ever known, being married off as a teen. She was terrified, stunned at the news she received, yet I think asked a typical youthful inquisitive question, stating the obvious about herself, and wanting to know how these things will happen. Her question is not from skepticism, but apparently from curiosity. As a teacher of high schoolers, I always welcome questions from my students, when they don’t understand something. I tell my kids, “the only stupid question is the sincere one not asked.”
Zechariah questioned from skepticism and doubt. Mary questioned from expectation and curiosity. Yet in the end they both received what was promised, they both praised God and were blessed, and they both participated in God’s plan of redemption, as most certainly did Elizabeth too.
Mary’s response reminds me of Jesus’ command that whoever would come to the Father must exercise “the faith of a child”. We see this over and over in the Gospels. For me, the lesson here is to never lose the “wide-eyed wonder” of my youth, never lose that conviction Mary came to believe- “For nothing is impossible with God.” -Luke 1:37
Mary’s ultimate response? “I am the Lord’s maidservant. Let it be to me according to your word.” (v.38) That’s the kind of youthful trust we should all exercise.