Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke1:18-20 NASB)
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:34-37 NASB)
These two accounts of an annunciation of good news both end very differently. On the other hand, they also begin differently. But the similarities in both are striking. In both the response is initially fear. In both there is a question about how such things can become true in the current situation. Yet in each the response of the messenger is very different.
So why does Gabriel, the messenger of the Almighty, punish the old priest, but coddle the teenage girl? It’s a mystery, but one that has some lessons for me, possibly us. Like perhaps angels can do what they want, so don’t upset them.
Punishing the “Old Priest”
It could start out as a joke, “A priest walks into the temple…” but this is a special day for Zachariah. This event appears to take place as part of the ‘sin offering’ described in Leviticus 16. In that description, the incense is put on a pan of coals from the sacrifice outside, brought inside to the incense altar before the holy place, before the veil, and the smoke ascends over the mercy seat. That is where he meets Gabriel. It is a once in a lifetime event for Zachariah, a tremendous honor. And anyone else in the temple would be expected to be killed by God. Yet there stands a man by the altar.
There are a variety of competing emotions that probably flowed through Zachariah, but the fear is what the angel addressed. The setting (inside the temple at the altar of incense), the situation (another person standing where no one should), and the person (an aged priest of pedigree and experience) all combine together to strengthen the message of this angel. But it doesn’t seem to be enough for Zachariah.
Sure this is an unexpected place; yes, this guy shouldn’t be here and alive; and of course, he has heard and read of such things in his studies and training. But still, now? Now, when he’s too old to toddle after the toddler, now he is to be a father? Now, after he has had to endure the whispering, the shame, the prejudice, and indirect scorn of his fellows, now he gets to be a father? Where was God ten or twenty years ago? Still, he should have known better than to ask for another sign, “How will I know this for certain.” It is the last request he voices for a very long time.
The setting, the situation, and his background indicated he should have faith in what he was told. Perhaps it was his bitterness and pride that hindered him. Whatever it was, he was muted until he should finally speak in faith. That is his only sign.
Coddling the “Teenage Girl”
The teenage girl isn’t in the temple. She’s not a seasoned religious leader. She’s not even involved in some religious ceremony. She’s at home, probably doing chores, which means she’s in her day, daily routine, contributing her part to the family program. In the midst of just another day, this person appears with a really weird greeting, “Greetings one highly favored of God.” So, “highly favored of God” is now a euphemism for, “one doing dishes?” So she ponders, wonders, crunches in her mind, tries to figure out just what this person means.
The angel continues to describe what cannot be since she’s only betrothed, not actually married. As would be expected, she doesn’t see the connection between her situation (dish washing in dad’s house) and having a divine baby. It is one of the minute, yet significant, differences that Mary does not ask for a sign, just an explanation. So the angel explains, and his explanation contains a sign, Elizabeth is pregnant. This is proof that nothing is impossible for God.
Considering the two situations, I would probably fall more closely into the categories of Zachariah. So unfortunately for me, I get no space for lack of faith. No asking for a sign for me. While it is true that I have a daily grind, and I’m not necessarily involved in a religious ceremony on any given day, I still have enough training and experience that I have no excuse for not believing a visitation. And all that means is that I’m in real danger of being placed on mute.
Which category do you fall into? Are you the experienced religious person or the young neophyte of faith? Are you a seasoned veteran of religious life, or a new believer struggling to connect faith with life? Are you also in danger of being muted until you act in faith, or will you receive an honest answer to an honest question for clarity? Do you wrestle with pride, or are you willing to admit you ‘don’t get it’? Jesus would later claim that only a wicked and rebellious generation asks for a sign. Suddenly, I don’t feel so wonderful about my pedigree.
What’s your view through the knothole?