Questions of How

Luke 1: 18-25
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.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

I love the comeback from the angel.
‘I am an old man!’ objects Zechariah. So? ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God…’ (The emphasis is on the ‘I’. The Greek has the equivalent of bold here!) Of course, it’s not unexpected to get a statement of slight incredulity to such incredible news. Indeed Mary (in the following verses) asks how on earth her conception would take place, since she was a virgin. Zechariah doesn’t say this however. He asks ‘How will I know?’ Not the verb ‘to be’ but the verb ‘to know’ (I’m amazed I can still recognise this in the Greek. It must be coming back a little.) He is asking for proof, not an explanation.

He gets his sign, but not one he probably would not have chosen himself. ‘You will be silent…’ This is not so much proof of what is going to happen but the consequence of not believing the words of the angel. Zechariah’s attitude is disbelief (‘You did not believe my words’) and a demand for a sign to show him the truth of it. Gabriel doesn’t need any more backup than the fact of who he is, one who stands in the presence of God, and has been sent to deliver this very special news. Thus, Zechariah comes out of the temple, trying to explain by the power of gesture and body language, what had happened.

Elizabeth comes off in a better light. On discovering her pregnancy, she is filled with wonder. And she has no doubt who has done this for her. ‘The Lord has done this for me…’ and, at last, she is released from that shame she has carried for so long.

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