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Gabriel first visits Zechariah, an aging priest, to inform him that his aging wife will have a baby, who will grow up to become John the Baptist:
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.
Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
God then sends Gabriel to Elizabeth's relative, Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph the carpenter, to say that she too will have a child:
The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
How does Zechariah's encounter with Gabriel compare with Mary's - specifically, why does Zechariah's question get him a reprimand whilst Mary's does not?
Zechariah, the Lord's priest, lacks the faith to believe that what God has said will happen.
Mary, an ordinary girl, accepts God's word. Her question concerns the method - up to this point there was no reason for her to think this would not be a natural conception - but Gabriel had said the child would be 'the Son of God'. How can that be, if he is the son of Joseph. Gabriel's response is the answer to Mary's question, not simply a continuation of his speech.
What does this tell us about Mary's character?
God chose to use someone who was young, female and poor - three qualities which in those days would have rendered her completely unusable in the eyes of those around her. But God knows us even better than we know ourselves - if he asks us to do a job, our response should be praise, joyfulness and obedience - not querying the wisdom of the choice!
She was nothing in the eyes of the world - which made her open to God.
Ask yourself how much the world's opinion colours your obedience to God.
Mirrors Hannah's song (first two sections)
Both are the reaction of a humble heart to an act of God that confirms faith in God's character - he does INDEED perform mighty deeds for those who fear him.
Pride fosters doubt, focussing attention on self rather than God which makes you seem bigger and him smaller, -> decrease in faith. God presents us with challenges which our faith is big enough to cope with - Zechariah's faith requirement was small, but he failed. Mary's was huge - and she passed.
Being prideful and wise in our own eyes is what got us into this mess in the first place, through Adam's fall - being humble and obedient to God is the only way out.
Luke was a physician - he knew how babies were made, and would have had as much difficulty with the idea of virgin birth as we do.
The miracle is that a tiny bundle of cells becomes a baby, how the cells get there is just a minor technical problem. In vitro fertilisation isn't a miracle - technically clever, but it's still God that turns the fertilised egg into a baby, not the scientists.
This was no idle miracle either - God wouldn't have put Mary through all that anguish without good reason. When God created Adam he was without sin, but rebelled against God, seeking his own selfish ends. Ancestors were traced through the mother, not the father (since you can always be certain of a child's mother). Legal parentage was traced through the father's line, and the son would inherit all the power and privilege of the father. This would also count negatively against sons, with a father's ill-deeds reflecting badly on succeeding generations. Since Adam had introduced sin into the race, it was inherited by all the sons of Adam through the ages. As a consequence, for Jesus to be born sinless, he had to be born of a virgin. In addition, Mary had willingly submitted to God's plan:
"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." (Pride vs humility)
Nine months or so later, we find Mary and Joseph in a stable in the much too little town of Bethlehem. A flock of shepherds meet a flock of angels & eagerly seek out this new King of Israel. Again these are rather lowly visitors in the eyes of the world, but honest folk to whom God gave a wonderful privilege.
The only visitors to Jesus' cradle were those who, in the eyes of the world, had no right to be there. But would priests and royalty have so readily believed Gabriel and headed of to a stable?
After the shepherds' visit we are told that
Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
The child is to be named Jesus, the Greek form of 'Joshua', meaning 'The Lord Saves'. Names were important to the Jews, and this most important name has special significance, for in the name of Jesus the sick are healed, demons are cast out and sins are forgiven. The Lord Saves.
When Mary and Joseph take the child to be presented at the temple on his eighth day, a man named Simeon speaks these words to Mary:
"This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."
How many times over the years would she ponder just what the old man had meant? Did it prepare her for the blow, when it came? To see your child die before you must be unbearable for any parent. Would this advance warning have made it easier, or worse? All we know is that when the time came, at the wedding feast in Cana some thirty years later, Mary was the one urging Jesus forward into his public ministry.
Whatever her personal feelings, she is obedient to God.
The villa in Cana is a beautiful place, cool and welcoming at this time
I enjoy visiting my friends here, and what better than for the wedding of two of them. It looks as if the whole town has turned out -- it's almost impossible to get in.
Now the steward is telling my mother something about the wine running
And she is looking at me.
Why do I have to be involved? I'm a carpenter, not a wine merchant.
But her eyes contain the message I sensed was coming.
I didn't expect it to be her.
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