The angel Gabriel was working overtime back in the first chapter of Luke. It was his job to deliver the top two birth announcements in Christendom to (1) the priest Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth was to become pregnant and bear a son, John, who would be the forerunner of Jesus and to (2) Mary, the young virgin chosen to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus, the savior of the world.
Zechariah and Mary had a few things in common, but their reactions to the similar but equally improbable news from Gabriel prompted different reactions to Gabriel.
Zechariah had labored long in his spiritual service to God. In fact, he was on temple duty when Gabriel appeared to him next to the altar of incense. When he learned that his prayers and those of his wife for a son were finally being answered in the affirmative after many years, Zechariah had trouble believing it could be true. “How can I be sure of this?” Zechariah asked incredulously of the heavenly messenger of God. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18b, NIV).
Gabriel dealt immediately with the hesitant old priest, taking away his voice but promising to give it back after his promised son was born. Sure enough, when Zechariah finally emerged from the temple, the Bible says he could not speak to the assembled worshippers or anyone else. They supposed he had seen a vision.
Mary, likely a young teen when Gabriel spoke to her, was understandably troubled when she learned that she was highly favored by God. Asked how she, a virgin, could carry and deliver a baby, she was assured that this is exactly what would happen. She would give birth to the one who would become known as the child of God. No doubt, Mary was confused. She was not a person of wealth, position or education, hardly a good choice in her mind to deliver a king to her people.
Mary also had reason to fear. She would become an unwed mother, and people would assume she could not be a virgin. She would be accused by many of committing a sin that could be punishable by death in her day. Unlike Zechariah, she was undoubtedly a novice in religious matters if for no other reason than her tender age.
Both the priest and the young virgin were fearful when confronted by the heavenly messenger from God. But Mary had the greater reason to fear. Abraham and Sarah already had set a precedent for old folks having babies but the world could simply not fathom a virgin birth.
Still, Mary’s response was different from Zechariah’s. Even after receiving divine news that God was going to grant the couple’s fervent decades-long prayer, Zechariah demanded further proof. As soon as Mary received the answer to her question, she readily accepted her assignment: “May it be as you have said,” she told Gabriel (Luke 1:38a). His mission accomplished, Gabriel left.
Interestingly, Zechariah had demanded a sign but it was Mary who was affirmed in her calling as the birth mother of Jesus. Scripture indicates she immediately made the long journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard the young woman’s greeting, the yet unborn infant John leaped for joy in her womb. This prompted Elizabeth to be filled with the Holy Spirit, ecstatic that the mother “of my Lord” should come visit her.
“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:45), Elizabeth said. Mary then launched into her own litany of praise and adoration to God, which we commonly refer to as “Mary’s Song” (or Mary’s Magnificat). Mary showed no hesitancy toward fulfilling her destiny as mother of the Christ child.
For most of us, following God’s will for our lives is not nearly as risky as it was for Mary.
As it turns out, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph were faithful in their stewardship of childrearing — each of their sons fulfilled his strategic calling, John as the forerunner of the Messiah and Jesus as the king whose kingdom will never end.
Ever since, mankind has been confronted with the same questions that faced Zechariah and Mary: Will we willfully, joyfully and, if need be, courageously follow God’s will and leadership in our lives? What will we do with Jesus? How will we respond to the challenge of raising our children as God-fearing, Christ-loving parents? What is our place in the grand scheme of salvation God initiated by bringing his son Jesus into the world?
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.