Updated: Jan 24, 2021
At the end of this paragraph, I want you to close your eyes. When you do, imagine the perfect destination for your next vacation. Focus on the details. Think about where you would go, who you would like to travel with you, the time of year, where you would sleep at night, and even the kinds of food you would enjoy. Ready? Sit back, relax and… 3, 2, 1, go. (Don’t forget to come back.)
Now, let’s wind the clock back to the 48-hour period before you leave for your ideal vacation. Did you make arrangements for your mail? Who will take care of your pets and plants? Did you set an automated response for your work email? Can you eat all of the leftovers in the fridge before you leave? Did you stop the newspaper delivery? (Just kidding.) Oh… and don’t forget to finish the laundry, buy travel-sized toiletries, confirm your reservations, and pick up everything that is still missing from your packing list. You made a packing list a couple of weeks ago, right?
How we prepare for a journey can tell us a great deal about ourselves. What we pack defines those things that we deem to be so essential to our survival and comfort that we have to carry them with us when we leave home. How we travel provides some important insights into our priorities, what we define as essential and even our identity.
The story of Jesus begins with a collection of journeys.
The Magi left home to follow a distant star,
The shepherds were in the field when they were told to travel to Bethlehem,
Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth, and
Even the angels traveled.
Some of these Christmas travelers had time to prepare, like the Magi. Others were immediately on the move. But, regardless of how much time they had to pack, each of them had to ask two questions before they left.
1.) Where am I going?
2.) How do I get there?
These are not irrelevant questions when we are preparing for a journey. Also, the first question really determines the answer to the second, at least in part. Therefore, the first priority is locking down a definite answer to the first question. Let’s get back to that vacation planning exercise. You might begin by asking your traveling companions where they want to go. If this is a family vacation, as a father of three, I strongly suggest making this a very limited and very specific, multiple-choice question. I apply this same rule to choosing a restaurant. By limiting the options that I present to my kids (or wife), I can protect my wallet and avoid any restaurants whose portions could be defined as “bite-size.”
Once we have chosen a destination, we can turn to the second question. It is this question that begins to reveal a bit more about ourselves. When we decide to travel and leave the security of our home, how much of our home do we need to take with us to feel comfortable? Imagine that you are pulling out of the garage like the U.S.S. Enterprise leaving space dock. The luggage is packed, passengers are safely strapped into their seats, the gas tank is full, but you never told your “crew” where you are headed. They had to pack for an unknown destination, an “undiscovered country.” With each passing mile, the crew begins to wonder how far into the final frontier they will be traveling. Are you heading to the airport or the interstate? Did they pack enough clothes? Should they have brought more snacks? And most importantly, who is wearing a red shirt?
How long do you think it will take them to ask some version of our first question:
“So, where are we headed?”
Followed quickly by,
“Are we there yet?”
I can’t blame them. Most of us want to know the details of any journey we embark upon. We want to know our destination, the road we will travel and any obstacles we might face along the way. We want to ensure that we will arrive safely and that our journey has some purpose. It’s logical.
So, what happens when God invites us to pile into the car to join Him on a little trip? Do we ask these same questions about the journey’s destination and details? Do we sit back and search the passing landscape and flashing road signs for clues to our destination? To quote the troubadour William Joel, the questions we ask are really a “matter of trust.”
Since everyone in the story of Jesus’ birth traveled to Bethlehem, we would expect that similar questions must have come up a time or two along the way. And, when we read Luke’s account of the Christmas story, we are not disappointed. In fact, how two people ask these questions provides us with one of the most important insights that we can carry with us along our life’s journey.
• • •
Before the official Christmas story in Luke 2, an angel named Gabriel travels to earth to announce the coming of the Messiah to two people: Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Zechariah, a priest serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. Most of us are probably at least a little familiar with the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary. After all, Mary plays a pretty central role in the birth of Jesus. However, Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah, which is often overlooked as background information, is just as important.
Zechariah is not just serving at the Temple when Gabriel visits him. He is standing inside the Temple, beside the altar of incense and just outside the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies. This was a tremendous honor for any priest, so I imagine that Zechariah was already a bit nervous and maybe even a little anxious being this close to the Holy of Holies.
Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:11-17, NRSV)
A number of worship songs, including many of my favorites, ask God to be present with us. But, when I read passages like this, I wonder if that is always the best idea. Nearly every time God or one of God’s messengers arrives on the scene, the recipient ends up face down on the pavement. This action is followed by some form of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” Instead of raised hands, the response is typically, “hit the deck.”
We don’t know if Zachariah ended up on the floor of the Temple, but we do know he was terrified. And, by the way, Luke says that Zechariah was blameless! Yep, blameless… So if a blameless man reacts this way when a messenger from God shows up, I can’t imagine what I would do if Gabriel showed up while I was praying. (Probably realizing now that I need to vacuum a bit more often.)
When Zechariah recovers, Gabriel announces that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a very special child. This child, who will become known as John the Baptist, will be great for many reasons:
John will bring joy and gladness. (I would dare say that there are a lot of us who are looking for a little joy and gladness these days.)
God, Himself, will think John is great. (Let’s not overlook that statement. If God thinks you are great, everyone else’s opinion of you pales in comparison. Again, something worth remembering….)
Before John is born, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. (Note that God does not fill a clump of cells with His Spirit, He fills a person.)
John will turn many people back to God. (John did not need the help of social media or big tech. Instead, he lived in the middle of nowhere, ate insects and dressed like Tarzan. Yet, he was an incredible “cultural influencer.”)
John will have the spirit and power of Elijah, a great prophet who bypassed death’s grip when God took him directly to heaven in a golden chariot.
John will prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah, the One who will come to rescue God’s people.
Later, Jesus will say this about John, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;” (Matthew 11:11, NRSV) That would put John ahead of Abraham, David, Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, and my wife.
Finally, John will be born to parents, who like Abraham and Sarah, were no longer planning on shopping for strollers and designing a nursery.
In short, history-changing events were about to happen. This was incredible news for God’s people who were living under the burden of an oppressive government. Gabriel’s announcement was also an unimaginable honor for Zechariah and Elizabeth. This was a critical moment in Zechariah’s life. How will this blameless man, a priest, standing in the Temple in Jerusalem, respond to Gabriel’s message from God?
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1:18, NRSV)
To be honest, this is not an unexpected question. In fact, I think Zechariah is excited about the possibility of having a child! But there is a problem with his inquiry. Read it again. Did you hear it?
Gabriel did. Because he answered Zechariah by punishing him with a nine-month time-out. Until John is born, Zechariah will be unable to speak. Why was Zechariah punished? What was the underlying problem with his question?
• • •
After leaving Zechariah standing speechless in the Temple, Gabriel travels to a virgin named Mary who is living in the sleepy, backwater town of Nazareth. There, Gabriel gives Mary a message that is very similar to the one just delivered to Zechariah.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33, NRSV)
John will be great, but Mary’s child will be the Son of God! Again, God is moving in a big way, and Mary will be at the center of it. Not only will Mary’s child be special, but His birth will also be…unique.
While John’s parents are well beyond their childbearing years, throughout history, God has granted a child to barren parents more than once. But with Mary, God will give a child to a virgin. If Zechariah — who knew the stories of Abraham and Sara or Isaac and Rebekah — had questions for Gabriel, I would imagine that Mary has even more pressing concerns. So, like Zechariah, she asks Gabriel a question.
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:30-33, NRSV)
In response, Gabriel does not punish Mary with silence. Instead, he gives her a fairly detailed answer. Given Gabriel’s drastically different responses to Mary and Zechariah, what is the difference between their questions. Why does Mary get her question answered and Zechariah get the “silence” treatment?
Let’s look at their questions again:
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:30-33, NRSV)
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 10:18, NRSV)
What is the difference between asking:
"How will this happen?"
"How will I know this will happen?”
Zechariah seems to be looking for some form of confirmation, while Mary is looking at the process. Mary is not asking “if," but “how." She is not doubting that God can do this, but she wants to know how it will all work.
Zechariah’s question reminds us that trusting God is never easy. Not even for the best of us. Remember, Zechariah was a blameless priest, standing inside of God’s Temple and talking face-to-face with an angel. Yet, he is still asking for proof! And, I highly doubt many of us would do much better. It is often far easier to focus on the unknown and the uncertain rather than the blessings which are surrounding us in the moment.
In fact, Gabriel selects a punishment for Zechariah that fits the crime. Instead of looking for confirmation of the future, Zechariah needs to listen a bit more closely to the present. He is not alone. When we are so worried about our next steps, we may never see and appreciate the miracles happening right in front of us.
Today, our world seems increasingly unstable and uncertain. Some things that seemed so predictable that they lived in the background, like a fresh roll of toilet paper or a firm handshake, have become undependable. In the midst of what we believe to be an uncertain future, we might find ourselves asking Zechariah-type questions. “How can I be sure God is in control? How can I know for certain that I can trust God with the journey that I am on?” We begin to focus so intently on securing the future, that we miss what God is doing in the moment. Think of it this way, if God is already on His throne and in control of the present, then what unknowns can the future really hold for us? After all, when we finally prepare to leave this world and move into our eternal residence, I don’t think anyone seriously creates a packing list or stuffs a suitcase. We trust that God has everything taken care of.
If God is already in control, then Mary’s question is the only relevant question for our future. So, instead of asking, “How will I know?”, let’s ask God, “How can we help?”