Devotion 16. Mary v. Zechariah
Luke tells us the story of two miraculous births preceded by angelic announcements. It also tells us of two different reactions to the news.
The parents of John the Baptist were Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were old and childless. Zechariah was a priest. To be childless in that time was a humiliation. It was even taken as a sign of God’s disfavor. Many stories in the Bible revolve around God blessing a barren woman with a child.
Before John was conceived, an angel appeared to Zechariah to give him the news and prepare him for the great ministry the Lord had prepared for John. Zechariah was at work in the Temple, burning incense of the altar of incense. This altar sat before the ark of the covenant. It was made of acacia wood. It was square and had horns on the corners that were of one piece with it. It was overlaid with pure gold. Special incense was made to burn on it. It could not be used for anything else. The smoke from the incense represented the prayers of the priests and the people going up to God. In fact, Luke notes that a multitude of people were outside praying while Zechariah burned the incense (1:10).
The angel appeared next to the altar of incense. I think he did that to convey to Zechariah that he had come to deliver the message that God had granted Zechariah’s prayer for a child. The angel then told Zechariah he would have a child. His prayers had been answered (1:13). And what a child he would be! Many would rejoice at this birth (14), he would be great before the Lord and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of conception (15). He would be a prophet like the great Elijah and prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah (16-17). This would all result in tremendous joy and gladness for Zechariah and Elizabeth (14).
Imagine being told by an angel that you would have a child when it appeared impossible. Not only that, imagine your child would be a great man for the Lord. He would be another Billy Graham or R. C. Sproul or Jonathan Edwards. Of course that would bring you great joy! You would jump and shout and high five your spouse and dance around together. You would call your friends and share the good news.
But not Zechariah: he doubted. Remember he is in the Temple holy place in the presence of a glorious angel. He said “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (18).He asked for a sign that the angel was telling him the truth. I would like to think if an angel came and told me something I would believe it. I would not ask for a sign. And of course, the sign was the coming of the angel to tell him at the altar of incense.
This angel was Gabriel. He was not pleased that Zechariah would doubt him or doubt the Lord. He responded: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (1:19-20).
Because of Zechariah’s unbelief, his mouth was shut until the baby was born.
Now compare his reaction to Mary’s.
The same Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would have a baby who would be the Messiah. (26-33) Mary also had a question, but she did not ask for a sign or express doubt. Luke 1:34 says “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’”. Mary did not doubt the word of the Lord spoken by Gabriel. She just did not understand how it would happen, since she was a virgin and knew she should not have sex with her husband until their wedding. So, Gabriel explained to her that the Holy Spirit would place the child in her. He did not condemn her question. He graciously answered it. He did not reprimand her, for she did not doubt. In fact, upon receiving this supernatural explanation, she simply submitted to the Lord’s will. She said “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In effect she said, I am the Lord’s servant, he can do with me as he will.
The contrast is startling. Zechariah was old. He should have been wise and mature. In fact, the passage says he and his wife were righteous. In addition, Zechariah was a priest. He was honored to be chosen by the other priests to serve in the holy place and minister the altar of incense. But at the crucial moment, he doubted.
Ironically, he had prayed for a child. By doing so he expressed his belief that God would hear his prayer and had the power to grant it. Yet when God said he would answer his prayer, he did not believe. All of us have done similarly. We have prayed for something, but expressed surprise when God made it happen as we asked. Worse yet, we have taken credit for it and not given God thanks and praise for accomplishing it.
Mary on the other hand was young. Many think she was around 14. That was marriageable age for a virgin Jewess of the time. She was a Godly young woman who heard the word of the Lord, believed it and affirmed her submission to the will of the Lord.
Not many of us will have an angel come with the answer to our prayers. Only a few in the Bible had the experience. But we will experience answers to prayer. In response, we need to be careful to give God the glory and thank him for his gracious providence.
Not many of us will receive any word from the Lord given by the mouth of an angel. But all of us have the Word of the Lord in printed form. You do not have to pray for God to speak to you. Every time you open your Bible and read any word of it, God has spoken. When you read it, you may respond like Zechariah or Mary. You may doubt and even ask for signs that it is true. This does not please the Lord.
Or you may read it, no matter how fantastic it seems to you, and say “I am your servant. Let it be to me as you have said”.