Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” (Luke 1:18)
“How will this be, ” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)
Luke’s gospel tells about two unexpected birth announcements by the angel Gabriel, and two different receptions of the wonders that God was to bring about.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth would have grieved their childless state all their married lives. Barrenness was a curse no one wanted to endure. Children were a blessing from God, ensuring someone to care for you in your old age and carry on your family name and traditional place in the community. As the couple grew old, hope had died a natural death.
It’s surprising, then, that Zechariah didn’t leap with joy when Gabriel appeared to him in the temple to tell him he was to have a son. Not only a son, but one who would prepare the way for the Lord.
Though he was a priest and must have been steeped from birth in the story of Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah’s response was to question God’s ability to allow his wife Elizabeth to conceive. He was seeing and hearing an angel in God’s temple, yet he was thinking in purely worldly terms.
When Gabriel appeared to the very young Mary with his news, she asked a very different question. She immediately received and accepted what Gabriel said would happen, but was puzzled by how this conception would take place. It was important for her to know whether any human intervention would be involved. Gabriel’s response to her contained no rebuke, and left no doubt as to how this would be brought about. Gabriel also told her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy to underline that “no word from God will ever fail.” (vs. 37).
Because he didn’t believe Gabriel’s words, Zechariah was left speechless until after his son John was born. Because Mary believed without question, she was able to speak out of humble willingness, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (vs. 38)
This was all the more significant because this pregnancy would place Mary in social jeopardy and potentially destroy her reputation and any hope of marriage. By contrast, Zechariah had nothing to lose and everything to gain by this unexpected conception.,
Perhaps this is a lesson about how repeated disappointments can dull our receptiveness to God’s purposes, and the importance of maintaining a childlike faith throughout our lives.
Zechariah was slow to receive the wonder of a miracle in his life that would extend far beyond his own family. Mary received her even more astonishing news by immediately putting herself firmly in God’s hands and at His disposal. In doing so, she became a crucial part of His plan for the salvation of all who would open their own hearts to receive the wonder of Immanuel, God with us.