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A Tale of Two Birth Announcements

Look over Luke 1:5-25; 57-66.

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Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence) Public Domain

We all know the story, don’t we? Zacharias (an “official” “ordained-type” priest) goes in his proper time to offer incense within the Temple. The Angel Gabriel appears to him there, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, along with his role as forerunner and preparer of the way of the Lord.

Zacharias responds, objecting, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” [v. 18] Gabriel then identifies himself by name, and declares that Zacharias will be mute until his words were fulfilled.

Time passes and so things come about. Zacharias regains his voice finally upon naming his son “John” at his circumcision, in response to community objections because this is not family name of their line.

We all know the story.

Now, please look over Luke 1:26-56.

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The Annunciation by Pinturicchio (1501, fresco in the Cappella Baglioni, Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello) Public Domain

We all know this story, too, don’t we? We see this played out in Christmas pageants almost annually, no? The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, declares her favored, calms her confusion, and announces that she will conceive the Son of the Most High and name Him Jesus.

Mary seems to respond much as did Zacharias, pointing out a physical incongruity as she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [v. 34]

But far from punishing her, as it could seem Gabriel did to Zacharias, the angel answers graciously with not only the answer to her question (that the power of the Most High would overshadow her), but he gives her an additional sign declaring that Elizabeth (her kinswoman) is six months along expecting the birth of John. Their exchange ends with “’nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her” [vv. 37-38]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, like, am I the only one who ever wondered, “what’s the difference here?”

Zacharias clearly ticked Gabriel off, while Mary didn’t. It’s one thing to point to the “rank order” difference between them. There’s certainly a difference of “graciousness” between them. Lots of flavorful differences, but I always sensed there was more here than that.

And… why should we care? What difference does, or should, it make to us… to you and me… here and now… why these two encounters went the way they did?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I think the answer to both questions is the same one… “Faith”.

The difference between the two encounters is “Faith”. And the reason we should care, is also “Faith”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It never dawned on me, until very recently, that Zacharias… even faced as he was with the terrifying countenance of an Angel of God Almighty… doubted the truth of his words. Even INSIDE the Temple, standing next to the Altar of Incense as he offered up incense to God!

Seriously?

All of Gabriel’s words spoke to FUTURE events, not present events. Zacharias was going to have to go from that place, be with his wife in the proper time, conceive John, and watch nature take its course for the next nine months.

But that wasn’t good enough for Zacharias.  He says, “how will I know this for certain?” (We know italicized words are inserted by editors.) So he wants to know, right here, right now, why he should believe Gabriel. Waiting apparently isn’t good enough. (We know for certain that the issue is doubt, because Gabriel tells us that.) Zacharias is rendered mute until all was fulfilled “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” [v. 20]

Zacharias needed to know these things were true before he was willing to do his part. Clearly, his part in this miracle would be of crucial importance. It was he and Elizabeth who needed to conceive this child. But before he would go to that trouble, before he would dare go communicate this to Elizabeth, before he would risk Elizabeth’s heartbreak, disappointment, or disgrace… he had to have a sign. He had to KNOW this was true, before he could obey.

Gabriel gives him an unmistakable sign of his authority and power, using his words alone to stop all words for Zacharias until the truth was borne out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what is different about Mary? She, too, asks a “how” question.

The difference is that her question is one of “means”, not “verification”. She was perplexed at the appearance of Gabriel, not terrified. Gabriel declares the upcoming conception, birth, and kingship of Jesus, and Mary does not express doubt at the announcement. Rather, she asks how this is to come about, what is she to do? She knows she is virgin. Is that to change for this miracle? How should she obey the will of God?

Gabriel responds to the “how” of the question… that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” [v. 34-35] (By the way, that word “overshadow” only appears 5 times in the New Testament. Once here; then three times referring to the Cloud around Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the time of the Transfiguration that came upon (and terrified) Peter, James and John, from which came the Voice saying “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”[Luke 9:34-35]; and third when Peter’s shadow heals the sick [Acts 5:15].)

Unsolicited, Gabriel offers Mary the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary yields unconditionally to God’s will and embraces Gabriel’s words, the hurries off to aid Elizabeth in her first pregnancy. Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth had only “come out”, publicly acknowledging her pregnancy in the month before Mary’s arrival? No way was Elizabeth going to endure the risk of disappointment had she miscarried, or been merely deluded into thinking she was pregnant. She would not face either the jibes or the condescending looks of other village women as her face began to round and her figure became more full. She was an elder of her town, disgraced by the curse of barrenness perhaps, but nonetheless righteous and dignified of demeanor. She would not be mocked.

But by the time Mary arrives, Elizabeth KNOWS. She knows for sure that she carries life within her. The baby has quickened, and for the first time she has the glorious sensation of life moving inside her as he responds to her motions or sounds around them. No words describe the joy of hugging new life with your very self, as a woman can in this time.

Mary comes, calls out in greeting, and the Holy Spirit already filling John [v. 15] now fills Elizabeth as well, and her joyful encounter with Mary as they attend to one another’s needs for the next three months (Elizabeth’s third trimester, Mary’s first), offers blessing to them both. Even as I type those words, I can only pause and wonder in awe at what those months must have been like. What would evenings have been like in such a home? Zacharias silent (no choice there), Elizabeth growing ever more excited even as getting around gets more difficult and stilted, and Mary finding her appetite less predictable, perhaps napping now and again, and sensing the changes in her body as the Christ waxes in form…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What does all this mean to us, Gentle Reader?

Well, God does the impossible all the time. For those who are ready and seek Him, miracles are all around.

When they come, sometimes they are hard to believe in. That’s just the truth. But! When one is willing to yield to them, God grants. When one is willing if and only if there is a sign attesting to the truth… well, God accommodates and a sign will be given. We see this over and over again throughout the Scriptures (Gideon, etc.) However, as we see from this text, while faith that may be, it is a flawed sort of faith. (I, for one, have engaged in such flawed faith countless times, so no judgment here!)

But there’s another kind of faith. There’s a faith that takes a truth on the authority of the speaker, and simply says “Yes!” before it asks “How?”

There, I think is both the difference between the two Gabriel missions, and the significance to us today.

Zacharias wanted proof before he would act. Mary was willing to act before any proof was offered.

Both were engaged in astonishing blessing and miracle. Zacharias just had to go about it with a bit more inconvenience. That and, frankly, their lingering doubts certainly would have robbed him and Elizabeth of months of joy and consolation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Holy Spirit, the overshadowing Power of the Lord Most High, certainly wins out in every miracle. Let us simply say “Yes!” first, ask “How?” afterwards, and watch events unfold!

Grace to you, Gentle Reader!

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Posted by on July 16, 2017 in Quiet Time, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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Questioning an Angel – Part II

WisdomThe angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:30-38]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It is always interesting to find “pairs” in Scripture. Mary asks a question of the angel in this conversation. Zacharias did so a few months earler. But while Zacharias’ question resulted in criticism and a “proof response” of becoming mute for more than nine months, Mary’s does not.

Why not? Favoritism… or her youth… or perhaps she was just better looking than her cousin’s husband? What is the difference between what she said and did, and what he said and did?

No, none of that really makes sense, does it? After all, there are other differences in the encounters, besides the announcement of a pending birth. The angel comes to her having sought her out, she does not show fear but wonder, she is confused as to what all this means.

But both of them ask a question of their angel when told that they are going to have a child. At first glance, the questions may look the same.

Zacharias asks: “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Mary asks: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

I mean, just LOOK at that. They look like equivalent questions, don’t they? Astonishment, followed by the reason for the astonishment?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This time of year brings out the best in So many commentators and devotional bloggers, that I’m not going to apologize for neglecting all the wonderful, warm, reverent and loving observations and musings prompted by this astonishing passage. The recent poem quoted from Juan de la Cruz of “If You Want” certainly elevates the soul to ponder one’s personal conception of Jesus.

So I want to share just the single laser-specific gleam that God focused my heart on time and time again right here this year. It was this contrast/comparison thing between Zacharias and Mary in their angelic encounters. Most specifically, the spotlight falls on these two questions and their responses.

My question arose: What made the difference here? Rather like the offerings of Cain and Abel… one was “acceptable” and the other “not”. But why?

Here are my conclusions, and should your own ponders bring new petals to light, I’d love to hear them.

Like so many things of God, perhaps the ultimate key lies not in the “words” but in the “heart”. What underlay the questions they asked? It seems to me as if there is a vast difference of heart between the two.

Zacharias is faced with a miraculous angelic apparition, receives wonderful news, and “doubts”. What does he doubt? His own sanity? Does he wonder if he is just imagining all this, whether this is just what we would call “an hallucination of wish fulfillment”? After all, isn’t this the dearest desire of his heart? (I have to wonder, would I do this?) Or does he doubt the identity, the alignment of the celestial being, concerned that this may be a demon rather than an angel? (I know many associates for whom this would be a major concern.)

I think not. It seems that Zacharias measures the angel’s words against what he knows to be fundamental common sense, his knowledge of “science”, and his own judgment… and concludes that being as old as he and Elizabeth are, God simply cannot accomplish this. Perhaps Zacharias’ question comes from his common sense conclusion that God has bitten off more than He can chew, and he seeks some sign from Gabriel that God can back up His boast.

Zacharias will believe this, when he is satisfied by a proof that God can make good on His claim. His question is an expression of “test”, a demand for a “proof”.

God honors this. He always has (and always will). BUT, one would think the “being chosen by lot”, along with the seeing an angel sitting alongside the altar and discussing any/all of this with him would be proof enough. Nonetheless, the angel (messenger) conveys God’s willingness to meet Zacharias’ need. Elizabeth will conceive… BUT since he doubted, he would remain mute until her pregnancy has fully passed.

So, what is so different about Mary’s question? Now, here we have to judge a bit post hoc, propter hoc, I’m afraid. Looking at the full passage, there is no sense at any point of her saying, “I don’t believe this!” Her question to the angel seems more “mechanical” than “interrogative”.

She asks a question of how this will come about, not whether. She does not demand any proof of the angel, but seems to ask more what role she is to play in what is happening. “How can I conceive, being virgin?” Is she to have relations with Joseph? What is SHE to do, not what can GOD do?

The angel answers her question, but then offers what she did not ask for. On his own initiative (at behest of God), the angel offers a proof and sign of his truthfulness. Interestingly, rather than just taking this as a validation of truth, she perceives this as a “call to service”, and once this encounter is finished she goes to minister to Elizabeth until the birth.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Lots more can be said, but we don’t need to.

I question God and my angels. I don’t always mean to, but I do it all the time. (Well, I used to do it more than I do now. Still…) Just as we see in the Psalms, people approach God with a variety of states of mind and heart. I realize, God has no “unaskable questions”, and never forbids this conversation. But as my own faith and trust in Him grow, I find fewer of my questions focus on, “I can’t believe this until You prove it to me.” Rather my questions are more centered on, “This is incredible, but how do I most readily work WITH You on this, rather than not.”

How about you?

Grace to thee — Gentle Reader

 

 

 

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Making an Entrance

WisdomThe people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home.

After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” [Luke 1:21-29]

We see Zacharias, first finishing his duty, his time as a priest in his division.(I cannot imagine what this would have been like for him, unable to speak, yet unable to have relations with his wife (in order to remain ritually clean for Temple service), and having both this tremendous promise from the angel and his constant reminder of its truth through his inability to speak.) Only upon completion of his service does he return home, and John is conceived. Did Elizabeth believe him when he wrote out or pantomimed this incredible revelation?

Elizabeth then shuts herself away for the first five months of her pregnancy. I am struck by her blessing of God, in its focus on her disgrace. How deep must her bitterness have been across those barren years? Her focus is not on the glorious power of God in miracle, or on the joy of a son and heir coming into the world, but on her relief from shame and disgrace. I don’t judge or condemn this… I am simply struck with compassion at how great her suffering must have been up until then. Why, I wonder, did she not allow herself to be seen by the other women during her first two trimesters? Did she fear, I wonder, that this might be snatched away from them and she miscarry? I cannot imagine that she could bear the bitterness, shame, or disappointment of that. Did she fear even greater ridicule if she lost the baby?

It is from there, from that point of Elizabeth’s seclusion, that we see God send forth Gabriel to Mary. Scripture highlights the time, measuring it from the starting point of John’s conception. How interesting! John, as forerunner and herald of Jesus, is the first tick of the clock timing Jesus’ advent.

Then we see an amazing thing. Gabriel is dispatched by God to go find Mary in her own city, and he walks in on her! Now, most angels in the Bible are “encountered” when the person walks up on them… or God sends angels off to “go before” people, leading them somewhere. Only a few times do the angels walk up to encounter people, and even less often is that their primary mission. (E.g. The angels walk up and encounter Lot on their way into Sodom.)

Likely we have seen, read, and pondered the Luke narrative of this encounter many many times, Gentle Reader. So this year, my attention has not so much been drawn to the momentous and incredible wonders of this meeting. For some reason, and I invite you to join me here, the Lord’s spotlights have been focusing on much littler things…

In this case, I’m amazed at the “everyday-ness”… the seeming “ordinary-ness”… of the opening of this Cosmically Incredible Encounter. Gabriel goes to Mary’s city, commissioned to find her and announce this wonder, and he simply “walks in on her” and greets her with the Angelic Salutation… the “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

And her response? Makes me smile… No sign of fear or even questioning words, just simplicity and a bit of confusion… “But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.”

How would we likely respond in similar circumstances? I am struck by the “taking in stride” of it all.

 

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