Once upon a real-world time, there was an old priest named Zechariah. He was burning incense in the Temple, when something happened for which his life provided no precedent: "there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense" (Luke 1:11). Doctor Luke understatedly observes that "Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him" (v. 12). No doubt.
As angels have had to do pretty much from the start, "the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah,'" then adds...
...for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."To Zechariah, the news would be challenging, but wonderful. Every couple wanted children, and he and his wife had been denied this blessing. Now they were to have a son — and such a son!
But he answered, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (v. 18) The angel, who (unlike us) was there, recognized unbelief in Zechariah's response, and replied
"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" (vv. 19-20)Indeed, that word of unbelief was Zechariah's last word for some time. He could tell others, but only in such a way as included the revelation of God's judgment on him for his unbelief. This would humble Zechariah, would give him opportunity to bear fruits in keeping with repentance (to lift a phrase from his son's future preaching), would reinforce the message — and it would impress on the hearer the importance of believing the message.
The aged priest sang a sweeter song when next he spoke aloud (1:63-79).
In that same chapter, we have the story of a young lass named Mary. The same angel brings similar tidings of a miraculous conception. However, in this case, the circumstances could hardly be more different.
Gabriel's first hearer was long-married, had yearned for a child, and bore some reproach for his childless estate. Mary was, however, the opposite in every respect: she was as-yet unmarried, and could not have a child (since she was a virgin).
Moreover, in Mary's case, pregnancy would be absolutely disastrous. It would bring shame on her, her family, her fiancé. There would be horrendous consequences.
In our modern moral swamp, even professing Christians are often casual about such circumstances. We have every reason to believe that Mary would see it differently. Her response to Elizabeth (1:46-55) is drenched with Biblical allusions, and (to get ahead of myself) her response to Gabriel reveals an earnestly Godward heart.
So how does Mary respond? Formally, her initial words sound like Zechariah's ("How will this be, since I am a virgin?" - v. 34). Yet Gabriel detects none of Zechariah's unbelief; indeed, later Elizabeth will tacitly contrast Mary's response with her husband's ("blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord," v. 45). Mary has never read this story, and isn't sure how this could happen. So Gabriel tells Mary what she needs to know about the miracle that she is to receive.
How does Mary respond? With stunningly submissive simplicity: "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (v. 38).
Remarkable. With that response, Mary leaves herself open to all the social catastrophes and slander and miseries her new status virtually assures. But she now knows that it is God's will. She has God's word. So, in faith, she embraces that word — along with everything that accompanies it.
In the next chapter, we will meet some shepherds with similar hearts. Though by many accounts socially viewed with suspicion, when they get the word from God, they instantly respond in faith, and go running to find the newborn Savior (2:8-20).
And here's the point of today's Bible story:
Simple young girl Mary took the angel at his word, though it involved almost certain disaster. She believed God's word.
Rustic, uneducated shepherds did the same.
Sophisticated, educated, professional religionist Zechariah — he was too "smart" simply to believe the word of God sent through His messenger.
Do you see present-day applications?