Two people at the start of Luke’s gospel
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
There are two people we encounter at the start of Luke’s gospel, who are given similar messages, but react very differently to them. Their reactions are interesting, as is God’s response. The two people are Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and Mary the mother of Jesus. They are both given the message that they will have a child by miraculous means. One of them responds very well, and the other responds not so well. Apart from giving us an interesting insight to their characters, the two stories tell us how we should be regarding ourselves, and our brothers and sisters.
Turn to Luke 1, verses 5:
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.
It would be hard to think of a better compliment, wouldn’t it? Upright in the sight of God, blamelessly observing all the Lord’s commandments. There is probably nobody in this room that that could be said about. There is no doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth were the kind of Godly people that we all aspire to be.
But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
This was a particularly appropriate time for the angel to appear. Zechariah was in a holy place, carrying out a solemn act. His mind would have been focussed on the things concerning God. Just being there is probably enough to enhance his faith.
When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The angel gives Zechariah a clear and unequivocal answer to his prayers. “You have prayed for a son, and you are getting a son. Not only that, but your son is going to be a holy man. As well as being a joy to you he will bring many people to God. He is going to be an important, influential man, in the life of Israel.”
Zechariah would probably have been delighted if he had just got the message “You are going to have a son.” This message was so much greater. Perhaps it was almost too great, because it gave Zechariah some difficulty.
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
That is the question he asks. It is very similar to the one that Mary will ask. Lets review what we know about Zechariah.
- He is a priest.
- He is upright in the sight of God.
- He observes all the commandments and regulations of God blamelessly.
- He has prayed to God about his desire for offspring.
We couldn’t really find fault in all of that, could we? If we had to we couldn’t point the finger at Zechariah and list his failings.
Yet Zechariah wasn’t perfect. He asked his question because he didn’t believe it was going to happen.
The angel answered, “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.”
Maybe that seems a little harsh, but it isn’t really. It is actually quite compassionate. Gabriel could have said “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. But you evidently don’t believe me, so I’m off to find someone more suitable.”
Instead Zechariah was struck dumb temporarily. Every time he would try to speak he would be reminded of the vision. He was given something that would strengthen his faith. When his wife became pregnant he would know that what Gabriel had said was coming true. And he would know that he wasn’t just going to be the father of another Israelite, but the father or a modern day Elijah.
Zechariah needed that boost to his faith. Although his faith was great it wasn’t perfect, and God was willing to work with him, to reassure him. As Timothy said last week, God continued to work with and refine Elijah throughout his life. God also worked with and refined Zechariah, giving him what he needed to strengthen his faith. The Apostle Peter was developed by God despite his many failings, as was Paul. When they were found to be imperfect they weren’t discarded. God was almost like a teacher marking a test: “You’ve only got 80%, but I know you can do better, lets work on those problem areas. And you only got 5%, but you like the subject so I’m going to give you special tuition.”
God also works with us. We all have different strengths and weaknesses in our Faith, but God does not condemn us because of them.
I know many Christadelphians have the fear that when Christ returns they will be called, and they will doubt the message, or maybe held back by some worldly concern. “If I go, what will become of my children?”. These concerns are natural, and I think Zechariah’s story teaches us that while we should be prepared to leave we shouldn’t worry that we will be punished for some lack of faith on our part. God is compassionate, merciful and forgiving. If we falter, as Zechariah faltered, God will pick us up again.
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
The sheep isn’t abandoned or slaughtered for leaving the flock. It is lovingly searched out and brought back. Zechariah was something of a lost sheep when he had the vision, but he was brought into the flock again. When Peter denied Christ he could hardly have been further from the flock, yet he too was brought back.
Lets move onto Mary now. Luke 1, verse 26:
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The first thing to notice here is that we aren’t given any background information about Mary’s character. We are not told that she was upright or faithful. I don’t want to read too much into that, but I think Mary’s actions in this passage speak louder than any description of her faith.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
This doesn’t seem to have been in response to any prayer of Mary’s. It must have come as something of a shock. But Mary is remarkably accepting of this message. Despite the enormity of it – ” The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end ” – Mary seems to take it on board. Mary does ask a question though:
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel knew that when Zechariah asked his question it was asked from doubt, with the feeling that what the angel had said would not come to pass. Gabriel’s response doesn’t imply anything similar about Mary’s feelings. Mary asked a question because she was curious to know the answer. That was all. She was effectively saying “I believe you, but there is one thing I don’t understand.” Mary’s faith was strong, stronger than Zechariah’s.
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
Mary didn’t need extra coaching. Her faith was strong. She didn’t doubt. She behaved in exactly the way Zechariah probably thought he would behave.
Suppose you had been a member of Mary’s family. You knew Mary and you knew Zechariah. Zechariah is an old man, he is a priest, he is righteous and godly. Mary, on the other hand, is just a young woman. There is nothing particularly remarkable about her. If you had been told each of them was going to get a visit from Gabriel, and one would accept his message without hesitation, and the other would have difficulty with it, who would you have said would be the most receptive to the message? Mary, a young woman who is going to marry a carpenter, or Zechariah the priest? It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the priest would be the receptive one. He would say “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
That’s not what happened. It was Mary who had the greater faith. Zechariah was a faithful obedient man, but Mary had more faith, and was more obedient. That should tell us a lot about Mary. She wasn’t just chosen to be the mother of Jesus because she was in the right place at the right time. She was chosen because of the quality of her character.
As well as putting a fascinating spin on Mary, there is a message for us today. In any organisation there will always be some individuals who are more prominent than others. In the average ecclesia there will be some members who everybody knows, some who are never off the platform. In the Brotherhood in general there are people who appear to be the wisest, or the most faithful, or whatever.
Appearances can be very deceptive. Those of us who appear to be strong to the outside world may actually be like Zechariah, with significant internal difficulties. And those of us who appear to be insignificant people may be like Mary, with strong internal faith. You should never think too little of yourself because you don’t make the same contribution to the ecclesia as others do. Similarly you should never think too much of yourself just because you do the visible jobs like exhorting and presiding.
To conclude, I want to summarise what I have said.
Everybody has a different type of faith. You can have an obvious level of faith, like Zechariah, or you can have a more discrete level of faith, like Mary. The obviousness of your faith is not necessarily connected with the strength of it. You can have difficulties at surprising times, like Zechariah did, or when great faith is needed you may have it in abundance, like Mary.
We can all rest assured that, whatever we are like inside or outside, God is prepared to work with us.