In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel visits Zechariah, who would be the father of John the Baptist, and Mary, who would be the mother of Jesus, to announce two extraordinary births. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are described as “righteous” and “blameless” (Luke 1:6), and Mary is described as “favored one” and “the Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) Clearly, Zechariah and Mary both loved and trusted the Lord. Yet, both Zechariah and Mary have legitimate concerns about Gabriel’s announcement. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were already well past the normal age of childbearing. And Mary was a virgin. I’ve always found these dialogues fascinating.

First, Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the temple, as he is carrying out his priestly function of serving in the sanctuary, with the exciting announcement that the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6 is going to be fulfilled through the birth of a son to him and his wife in their old age. Malachi’s prophecy is the cliffhanger at the end of the Old Testament that the nation of Israel had been hoping to see fulfilled for 400 years. As a priest of Israel, Zechariah undoubtably knew that prophecy by heart. Now, Gabriel has appeared to him with the unbelievable news that he and his wife would give birth to the one who would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” (Compare Luke 1:17 with Malachi 4:5-6)

I think it’s fair to say that most of us would ask for some kind of sign at this point, and that’s exactly what Zechariah does. “Prove it,” he essentially says. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18) Gabriel honors his request and gives him irrefutable proof. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:19-20) Don’t be too hard on Zechariah. I think most of us would respond in a similar way, and probably receive a similar rebuke.

The angel Gabriel’s next announcement was to Mary about the coming birth of Jesus. Note that Mary questions Gabriel as well: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) This is the question of a young woman with a tender heart toward the Lord, who is simply asking, “How?” Gabriel’s response to her is quite different from his response to Zechariah. Instead of a sign and a rebuke, Mary receives an explanation and a promise.

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:35-37)

Clearly there are two types of doubt illustrated here. One is a doubt that says, “Prove it.” (Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Luke 1:18). This type of doubt exalts human ingenuity above God’s ability and says, “this doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t believe it.” We have to be careful with making judgments based on what “makes sense” to us when it comes to God. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”  Look at Mary’s response, and I think you’ll see the difference. Mary isn’t saying to Gabriel, “Prove it.” She is asking, “How is God going to do this?” That is obvious from her later statement of belief, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) In response to her legitimate question, Gabriel gave her a legitimate answer, and then reminded her, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Simply put, these two dialogues illustrate the difference between cynical doubt and sincere doubt. As Gabriel’s responses to Zechariah and Mary illustrate, God will entertain our sincere doubts and questions all day. God will not entertain cynical questions that put human ingenuity above His ability.

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