The first two questions in Luke’s Gospel are both asked to the angel Gabriel, and both of these questions are in response to the angel’s unexpected, life-changing news. The first question is asked by Zechariah after he is told that would become a father, to John the Baptist. The second question is asked by Mary after she is told that she would become a mother, to Jesus the Messiah. But Zechariah’s question is met with judgment, while Mary’s question is met with compassion and assurance. Why? What is the difference in their questions? The answer lies in the questions themselves. Here they are:
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” – Luke 1:18
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” – Luke 1:34
“How will I know?” or “How can this be?” Do you see the difference? Zechariah’s question comes from a place of doubt and cynicism, Mary’s from a place of confusion and curiosity. Zechariah wants the angel to prove it. “How will I know that this is so?” Not, how will this happen, or how is this possible, but how will I know? As a result of his question, Gabriel causes Zechariah to become mute, unable to speak, until his son is born. After John is born, and filled with a repentant faith, Zechariah’s mouth is opened and his tongue freed, and he sang the beautiful Benedictus, which ends with these Spirit-filled words:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79.
Even after doubting, Zechariah can see the dawn from on high breaking upon him and his world. It is a beautiful, redemptive arc that concludes in song and praise.
Mary, on the other hand, needs no such redemption. Her question to the angel does not show a lack of faith, but an openness of heart and a curiosity of mind. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” A fair question! Gabriel explains to her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and then gives her a sign – Elizabeth’s pregnancy – to show her that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary didn’t doubt this, and so showed a greater faith and confidence in God than the priest, Zechariah. And Mary’s response to the angel is one that never fails to inspire:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” – Luke 1:38
Imagine being visited by an angel, and being given an extraordinary, life-changing message, like both Zechariah and Mary once did. What would be your reaction? What would be your first question? Would it come from a place of faith, or of doubt? Would you want the angel to prove it, or simply show you how it will happen? Would you respond, “How will I know?” or “How can this be?”
When we face unexpected detours on life’s journey, may we meet with them with curiosity, faith, and openness; not asking God for proof, but simply asking God to show us the way forward. And then? May we say “Yes” to God’s call with all our heart, soul, and strength.
This is another in my series exploring scripture’s most compelling questions. I share more about this series here: What Are Scripture’s Most Compelling Questions?