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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two Responses to God's Interruption

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Savior, but in the Gospel of Luke we read about two important and miraculous births: John (the Baptizer) to Zechariah and Elizabeth and Jesus to Mary and Joseph. Both of these supernatural conceptions are announced by Gabriel the angel. The reactions of those Gabriel tells sound the same at first, but they’re actually significantly different.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife, who has never conceived a child and is past childbearing age, will conceive a child (John) who will be filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb and grow up to act like the prophet Elijah returned. Zechariah’s response is, “How will I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18).

Gabriel tells Mary that even though she is a virgin, she will conceive the successor to King David (Jesus) who will be called the Son of God. Mary’s response is, “How will this be, since I am not intimate with a man?” (v. 34).

In both cases, it looks like the person Gabriel tells is shocked and can’t quite believe that this is going to happen. But Gabriel condemns Zechariah to be mute until John is born “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time” (v. 20), yet Gabriel gives no rebuke to Mary at all. What gives?

I think we see the answer if we look more carefully at what Zechariah and Mary say. Zechariah says, “How will I know this?” Zechariah received a message from an angel in the temple. You would think that that is how he would “know this.” But Zechariah still doesn’t know it, because he doesn’t yet believe the message or the messenger.

By contrast, Mary says, “How will this be?” Mary assumes that this conception will, in fact, happen. She just wants to know how, which gives Gabriel a chance to cite the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 35). Mary believes from the outset.

Zechariah and Mary respond differently to major change wrought by God. Even though the change is for the better, it requires substantial adjustment of life and mindset and has costs that come with it. Even though Zechariah has been praying for years for a son (v. 13), at first he is unwilling to adjust to the reality that now he is getting one. He is skeptical and set in his way (a way that he doesn’t prefer, but he is still set in it) and not ready for God’s disruptive blessing. On the other hand, Mary’s response to God’s interruption has been lauded and echoed in the church for centuries since: “Look, the Lord’s slave. May it be done to me according to your word” (v. 38).

Jesus’ first coming was an interruption. His second coming will be too. And in his grace God interrupts our lives even now, sometimes with things that look like trouble at first. Mary is our model for how to respond to God when he brings disruptive change into our lives: with total, obedient submission to him.

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