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Friday, December 22, 2017

Two Questions

The first chapter of Luke is the beginning of the Christmas story. In reading it over, I was struck by two very similar questions with two very different outcomes.

The first question comes from a priest. "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias." (Luke 1:5) Described as "righteous" and "walking blamelessly" (Luke 1:6), Zacharias encountered the angel Gabriel in the middle of his priestly service (Luke 1:11). His wife was barren, and Gabriel came to give him the good news. "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John." (Luke 1:13-17) Zacharias asked what was, on one hand, the most obvious question in the world and, on the other, perhaps the most stupid: "How will I know this for certain?" (Luke 1:18) He was old; she was old. Zacharias, understandably, had ... doubts.

Gabriel's answer was, seemingly, harsh. "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time." (Luke 1:19-20) So, his question was one of what Gabriel termed unbelief, and for that unbelief he would be dumb for something like nine months.

The second question is in a different encounter with an angel. The angel was the same -- Gabriel -- but the conversation was with the virgin, Mary. We're all pretty familiar with this one. He calls her "favored one" (Luke 1:28) and tells her that she would bear a son whom she would name Jesus (Luke 1:31) who would be "the Son of the Most High." (Luke 1:32-33) Mary had her own question. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34) Gabriel didn't censure her. He didn't silence her. He answered her plainly. "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." (Luke 1:35-37) And Mary's response? "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord." (Luke 1:38)

Two similar questions with two different outcomes. Why were they so different? The reason is that one question was from unbelief and the other from faith. Zacharias didn't ask, "How can I know this?" because he had faith that he wanted bolstered. He asked it because he found it unbelievable. Now, you and I might see why. He and his wife were old. On the other hand, he was talking to the angel Gabriel. That was the angel's response. He declared that he stood in God's presence, that God told him what to say, and he had said it. The counter question, then, should be "How can you not know this?" And Mary simply asked about the mechanism. She said, "There's an apparent problem with the plan; I'm a virgin. How are you going to handle that?" And he told her. She wasn't disbelieving; she was wondering.

It is not a problem for us to ask God questions. Mary did it without any difficulty. She saw a problem, asked what God intended, and learned the answer. It is a problem to doubt God. And we see this all the time. "Did God really say?" We see it in self-identified Christians who seem to think that uncertainty is a virtue. "You can't really know for sure." That's exactly the position Zacharias took. "How can I know this for sure?" When self-professed Christians look at the Word of God delivered by God's messengers and ask, "How can I know for sure?", they're playing the Zacharias card. "It's there, breathed out by God, plainly written, clear as day, and understood by believers for centuries," the response might be. "How can you not know?" Zacharias might warn you that a doubting question for God is a dangerous kind of question. Don't be a doubting Zacharias. The better response is "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord."

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