The Priest and the Girl
As Christmas approaches, we know that we are celebrating the coming of Immanuel, God with us. That statement that God, the holy God of Sinai that could not be approached face to face, the God of Isaiah 6 filling the heavenly temple with glory, the God who hid behind a curtain in the temple because he was so holy and could not be approached by sinful man, that God has come to dwell with us and draw us near to himself.
And we cannot ignore the personal aspect of this truth. God has come to dwell with us and, by faith, he has come to dwell with you. He has come to save you from your sins if indeed you have believed the Gospel. While many are quick to celebrate the coming of Christ as a historical event, this season should also lead us to see how God approaches you with the Gospel and the promise of his presence. Will you embrace that truth by faith? Or will Christmas remain a distant and impersonal celebration?
The Faithlessness of the Blameless Priest
The Faithlessness of the Blameless Priest
The book of Luke begins by introducing us, not to the characters we were introduced to in the other three gospels, but to a Priest named Zechariah. For Mark, John the Baptist is the first figure to make an appearance and so it is not strange for the beginning of the longer and more detailed Gospel account. However, Zechariah is not placed in this story simply to give the backstory of a character we are familiar with from the other Gospels, but rather like everything else the Biblical writers write, it is meant to show us more of Christ and how we may know God through faith. The appearance of Zechariah is not only for the purpose of telling a more detailed story, it is here to teach us about God.
So what does Zechariah teach us about God? Only a few details are given to us about this man and his wife. One, they were blameless. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, what it means is that they were strict adherents to the law of God as it was written in the Torah. They took the law seriously, and took care to go above and beyond in how they obeyed it. In short, to be blameless means to be an example of one who is an outstanding example of obedience to the law of God. This does not, however, imply faith or love for God in that obedience. In Phil 3:6 Paul tells us that he was blameless even though he was a persecutor of the church. Now, that is not to say that Zechariah and Elizabeth were spiritually in the same place as Paul before he was converted, but walking in the law blamelessly is not necessarily the same kind of blamelessness that God calls his people to. We actually know that their blamelessness was a legitimacy about it that was not true of pre-converted Paul because of another phrase that describes the character of this priestly couple: righteous before God. Now, does this mean that they had worked up a righteousness of their own before God? Absolutely not. They aren’t righteous because of their blameless walk, in fact it is the other way around. As we saw in the life of Abraham, God counts faith as righteousness, faith that comes only as a gift from him, and genuine faith produces a blameless walk. Had no righteousness before his conversion because he had no faith. He trusted in his imagined blamelessness before the law to produce for him righteousness before God, but that is not the case. So we know that, not only are Zechariah and Elizabeth following the law, but they are following the law on the basis of faith in God’s Word and promises. They are true believers.
The second thing we learn is that they had no children due to Elizabeth being barren and because they are both advanced in years. For those of you who have been following our journey through the book of Genesis, this whole situation should sound very familiar. The parallels between Zechariah and Abraham are very intentional in how Luke is setting up his narrative. Zechariah is an Abraham-like figure in this story. He knows God, he believes God, but as we will see, that faith is still infantile and weak. Another thing we learn concerning their lack of children is that, despite Elizabeth's barrenness and their old age, they have been praying for children (vs. 13). The theme of God using barren women to give birth to his chosen people appears yet again here. The way that Luke has set up this story, we don’t even really need to keep reading to know what happens next because of these striking similarities in order to know that God will answer their prayer. However, there’s something much more important to learn about Zechariah.
God had elected Zechariah for the role he would play, and although he is chosen by lot to enter the holiest place and offer the incense we know that things we throw up to chance are all in God’s hands (Proverbs 16:33). While a multitude of people are praying outside, Zechariah enters this holy place for this holy duty and an angel from God appears to him standing on the right side of the alter of incense. Zechariah’s response of fear at the sight of this heavenly messenger is appropriate even though he is told to not be afraid. We aren’t told much about the visible appearance of this angel, but the very fact he is in the Holiest place without being struck down by God is enough to capture his attention. The holiest place was somewhere only a priest chosen by God through lot could go after being cleansed and purified in a special ceremony commanded by God. He stands on the right side of the alter as a sign of him being high in God’s heavenly counsel. This is backed up by verse 19 where the angel identifies himself as Gabriel and says he stands in the presence of God. While the presence of God is a place Zechariah might only see once in his life, Gabriel dwells there. His closeness to the throne of God is used as a statement of authority. What he has to say is indeed from God and his ability to stand in the presence of God in the way that he does proves this.
The heavenly messenger gets right to the point: Zechariah will have his prayers answered. What prayers? We can determine what prayers by the way they are answered, the angel says that his wife will have a son that they are to name John. Now, as I’ve already noted, we can expect this child to be no ordinary child because of the parallels between this couple and Abraham and Sarah. What is so special about this John?
First, we are told that he will bring great joy, first to him and then to many. It is no surprise that a baby boy would bring much joy to an older couple who had been praying for years, but why does this boy bring joy to many? The reason the angel gives is that he will be great before the Lord. He will never drink alcoholic beverages as a way to align himself with figures like Samson and the prophet Samuel and the nazarite vow, a vow of consecration to the Lord for his purposes. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth just as Jeremiah was consecrated in the womb. In essence, John the baptist is meant to be a type of all the prophets that came before him. He is a representation of their common message and experience, and God uses him the way he has used all of them: to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Christ. His purpose is singular: he will turn people’s hearts back to God in preparation for God calling a new people for himself. Look at verses 16-17
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
The last description, “to make ready a people prepared,” is very interesting, because this is what Israel was supposed to be. Those who come to John in faith are the ones that will be included in this new prepared people. They are generally the humble and poor, those of no account. They are the tax collectors and sinners, not the Pharisees, priests, and scribes in general. This is a theme that Luke develops throughout his entire book, something theologians call the great reversal and something we will see in this story. John is going to call a new people to God, a remnant of the ethnic people of Judah, and prepare them for God. This is indeed what John means later when he says that he has come to prepare the way of the Lord.
But it is the response of the old priest that is important. He asks how he can know that this will indeed happen. Gabriel's response is to identify himself. Essentially he says, “is my appearance not enough for you?” Zechariah is reprimanded for his unbelief and told he won’t be able to speak until all these things will be fulfilled. Now despite what may seem obvious, Zechariah is not reprimanded for asking a question, he is reprimanded for demanding evidence before he will believe. He is reprimanded for something that is going on in his heart. As if the appearance of the angel was not evidence enough. The Jews during Jesus’ ministry will likewise seek for a sign even after they had been fed by Gabriel knew that Zechariah did not truly believe him in his heart. Despite his prayers, his blamelessness, and even his faith in God, that faith is small. How can a man who spends his whole life serving God, obeying his commands, and walking in righteousness by faith fail to believe at this crucial moment when it counts? And yet he is no different from his forefathers. Abraham in Genesis 15 was counted righteous by faith and then in chapter 16 was sleeping with his wife’s servant in order to have a son his own way. In other words, Zechariah’s faith is at about the same level as other men chosen by God has been, even the best of them. But like them, God has no intention of leaving in him a place of wavering belief. This curse that he will not be able to speak keeps him from speaking any words of unbelief until he will admit that God was faithful. So Zechariah is given a sign, his inability to speak, and the sign is of such a nature that he is forced to believe the promise if he wants to ever speak again.
The Faith of a Young Girl
The Faith of a Young Girl
After this, we turn to a very similar incident with some very sharp contrasts. Like the episode with Zechariah, an angel appears to someone who cannot possibly have children, at least not lawfully, with the promise of a miraculous child. But there are some stark differences. Instead of a priest with a spotless reputation, its a young girl probably 16 years old or younger. One went through vigorous ceremonial cleansing before his encounter with God’s messenger, but not her. And as part of the great reversal, the girl receives a promise greater than the priest, in an even more impossible situation than the priest, and yet her response is also very different. She, like Zechariah, is also fearful and like him she is told not to be afraid. The title Gabriel gives her is noticeably more lofty. While the angel simply told Zechariah not to be afraid, verse 28 shows Gabriel talking to Mary:
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
Not only is she favoured among women, she is favoured over the priest. Of the two children promised, she has the more important promise and is more honoured as a result. So not only is she afraid, but she is confused. No one has ever spoken to her like that before. When Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, he completes the the sentence by saying that she has found favour in God’s eyes. Just like Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are called righteous, she does not fine this favour because of her own holiness and obedience to God, which is what Roman Catholics would say. Her favour is based on a simple, childlike faith that Gabriel already knows is in her heart. This faith is highlighted in the contrast between her question and Zechariah’s. This contrast is not so plain in english, but essentially Zechariah’s question was akin to saying, “prove it! If you really want me to believe that me and my wife will have a baby, prove it to me.” The attitude savours of pride and faithlessness, a slowness to trust God just as Abraham was slow to trust God at times. But the way that Mary’s question is written shows that her question wasn’t, “how can I know this will happen,” but rather, “how will this happen?” Her question assumes that the angel is speaking the truth and merely questions the details of the event. This Gabriel is happy to answer. Mary’s response is then one of submission and humility. This, too, is a clear sign of faith. She knows who she is, she makes no attempt to cling onto her autonomy. She has no thoughts to her rights. She certainly isn’t saying, “my body my choice.” She submits to God as her master who has graciously chosen her to bear the holy son of God in impossible circumstances. True faith means believing what God says about who he is and worshipping and submitting to him as a result. This leads to obedience. Mary submits this way because she believes God’s Word to her.
Responding in Faith to the Coming of the Christ
Responding in Faith to the Coming of the Christ
This text shows us two different followers of God, both believers in God, both righteous by faith alone. But the one who you would expect to be given the greater calling and to receive it by faith because he is a priest gets second-best and meets it with doubt. The Spiritual elder is here a child in faith while the teenage girl is a spiritual giant. He struggles to believe in the miraculous birth of a prophet, she gladly embraces the coming of the messiah through her own body.
So what do we learn from this story? As Christmas draws near and we celebrate the very birth that the angel Gabriel foretold, it is important to consider how we receive that birth ourselves. Mary was the first to rejoice as the coming of Emmanuel. Others had looked for that coming in faith from a distance, she saw it up close and embraced it by faith, submitting herself to whatever God’s will in the matter was. The question I want you to linger on is this: what do you think of the coming King?
There are Christians that love the celebration of Christmas, the decorations and festivities, and even the carols and the Christmas story. They go around celebrating the coming of Christ, but how often do you take hold of the reality of “God with us” in affectionate and submissive faith? Do you not know that the one you read about in the manger being praised by angels is the one who’s presence is available in secret prayer and in the physical gathering of the body? How many Christian take this season to delight in the coming of Christ and yet rarely delight in Christ himself. How many Christians pray for a closer walk with God, just as Zechariah prayed for a child, and yet do little to stimulate their spiritual senses or grow in the graces that God uses to build us up? Christmas is a time, not only to celebrate the coming of Christ, but to draw near to him with a faith akin to Mary’s faith, not the doubtful insecurity of Zechariah. How may we do this?
In humble prayers of faith.
I emphasize humble prayers because it is possible to pray wrongly. God opposes the proud but gives his infinite grace to those humbled before him. A humble person may ask a question of God, but they do not question God. There is nothing wrong with telling God, “I don’t understand why your Word says this, or how I am supposed to practice it in this situation please help me.” But there is something wrong if we have the attitude that we need God to explain himself before we will believe or obey him. Coming before God in humility and submission, recognizing that he is our God and we exist to glorify him is the kind of faith that pleases God. It is the kind of faith that gains his favour. This faith comes only from the Spirit, and we grow in the Spirit when we commune with Christ in prayer.
Prayer does not need to be elaborate, it doesn’t need to to be elegant, and it doesn’t need to be long. But it must be humble, it must be regular, and it must be focused on the worship and adoration of Jesus Christ. John Knox called prayer the breath of the Christian; it is the way the Holy Spirit brings us life in him. Simple prayers of submission, adoration, and love for Christ go a long way in drawing us near to him and creating in our hearts that humility and submission that we see exemplified in Mary here.
In reciting and trusting in God’s promises for us.
If our prayers are to be prayers of humble, submissive faith, they must also be prayers based on the promises of God. Both Mary and Zechariah were given promises from God, and their response to those promises showed how strong their faith was. Christians who pray but never invoke the promises of God may think they are being humble by not demanding things of God, but in reality they are praying without faith. They act as if God does not want to keep the promises he made, or like God didn’t give us those promises for us to take hold of and trust in. Mary’s words were, “let it be done to me according to your Word” She references the promise and submissively calls upon it. Calling on God’s promises means we believe those promises and therefore we believe God.
In submissive obedience.
But calling on those promises without obedience is not faith, it is entitlement. Mary does not protest God’s right to use her to bring the messiah into the world. Faith in God means believing that God is God and we are his servants as well as his children. Believing that means that we will walk in obedience, knowing that God is glorified when we obey him in faith. This is not a self-righteous obedience, it is a trust in who God is and his promises.
In all these things, drawing near to God by drawing near to Christ.
But in all these things, as we pray and submit in humility to God while we trust him and his promises, our aim in all of it must be to draw near to Christ. May we never be those who celebrate a saviour that we keep at a far distance. May we never celebrate Christmas as the birth of a hero of old rather than a Saviour and friend for today. As the season comes upon us, my hope is that you would be drawn to Christ: to know him more, love him more, adore him more, and enjoy the submissive faith of Mary. You who know Christ, you elect of the Lord, have found favour in his sight. Glory in that favour, in the excellency and joy of knowing Christ.