“How shall I know this?” aging Zechariah asked when told him he and his barren wife would conceive and bear a son.
“How will this be?” asked young Mary, a virgin, told she would give birth to the Son of God.
Both questions seem similar on the surface, yet Zechariah was struck mute for nine months, until his son, John, was born, while nothing happened to Mary.
Why such a disparate response from Gabriel, God’s messenger? It’s all in our heart’s posture before God.
Zechariah was cynical, demanding. “I won’t believe you until you give me some kind of proof,” is a more accurate interpretation of his question to Gabriel.
Mary, on the other hand, believed. Her question was one of curiosity, and maybe a bit of bewilderment as to the “mechanics” of how she would conceive, since she had never been intimate with a man. Once she was given more clarity, her immediate response was one of faith and utter obedience. “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Their responses hold a lot of application for us today, particularly Mary's? How so?
First, it is wrong to put God to the test, as Zechariah did. Of all people, as a priest, he should have known better. He knew his history, of how the Israelites tested God at Massah by quarreling with Moses and demanding water (Exodus 17:1-7). That should have guided his response. Yet it didn't.
From Zechariah, we understand that God will not tolerate being tested with demands, since they typically come from a place of cynicism and mistrust. And like with Zechariah, God may be forced to discipline those who do.
On the other hand, God does not mind being asked questions, as long as they are honest, humble questions, born out of genuine doubt or confusion or bewilderment, from a heart that truly is seeking wisdom and understanding. He does not mind clarifying Himself, either—as He did for Mary—when we are sincere in our wonderment.
From both responses, we see that God takes into account a person’s heart-posture. Is it one of humility and child-like faith? Is it one that is willing to obey, even when it doesn’t perfectly understand God’s plan and how it will all unfold?
We would do well to follow Mary’s example when faced with something that is seemingly impossible in our eyes. But nothing is impossible with God, so our response should echo Mary’s, “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”