Luke chapter 1 contains some questions. They are questions from two different people, each receiving miraculous news in miraculous circumstances. And at first reading, the questions seem remarkably similar, but one set of questions is received favorably while the other set of questions is met with discipline.
As the Book of Luke opens, we are introduced to a priest and his wife. Both lived lives of faithfulness, and yet they both had borne years of disappointment and pain:
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years (Luke 1:5-7).
But things were about to change. Zechariah, during his time of service in the sanctuary of the Lord, received a miraculous message from heaven. He was told that despite their age, his wife would conceive a son. And even more, that this son would have the remarkable life calling to pave the way for the long awaited Messiah. You can imagine that Zechariah had all kinds of thoughts. All kinds of feelings. All kinds of questions:
“How can I know this?” Zechariah asked the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18).
The angel who delivered the message heard the question, received it, and responded with the Lord’s discipline:
“I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Now listen. You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time” (Luke 1:19-20).
If we stopped right there, then we might draw the conclusion that questions are evidence of a lack of faith. Zechariah did not believe, his questions proved that lack of belief, and God responded with discipline. But we can not and should not stop there, because right on the heels of this story we find more miraculous news and more questions but with a different response:
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to 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 him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
The angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:26-37).
See the progression? In both stories, it’s virtually the same:
Messenger… News… Question… but then the pattern breaks. So what was so different about Mary’s response from Zechariah’s? Why was one question met with discipline and the other question met with commendation?
This is a point that matters. Or at least it should matter, because we all find ourselves in a similar situation. True enough, we probably aren’t receiving personal messages from angels. But we are reading God’s Word. Hearing His promises. Looking to both the past and the future as God still speaks. And in the midst of it, we undoubtedly have all kinds of questions. How? When? Why? And more. Those questions are further compounded when we receive the message of God, through His Word, in times of difficulty and trouble.
So what is it that distinguishes these questions? How do we know if our questions are honoring to God or not? It’s surely on in the wording of the question, as if God is parsing out every syllable to make sure we are asking in the right way. No, it must instead be something in the nature of the questions themselves. Something about the posture of the one doing the asking.
There is, in other words, a genuine kind of seeking that is humble and open hearted – a kind of seeking that is not self-focused but God-focused – a kind of seeking that is built on faith itself. And this is what we find with Mary. We do not find an “okay, but…” sort of attitude here, but instead an acceptance of what is and then a genuine seeking to understand. And here is how we know that is so:
“See, I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).
This is the right posture for those who are truly seeking a measure of understanding. Sometimes when we ask questions of God, they only lead to more questions. More and more and more, proving that no measure of information will truly satisfy us. Not so with Mary. She asked in a spirit of humility and submission, and then accepted what came back.
Perhaps another way to say it is that the end of God honoring questions is not more questions; it’s worship. That’s how it was with Mary. That’s how it was with Job. That’s how it was with Paul as he sought answers to some of the deepest questions of the faith in the Book of Romans only to come to this conclusion:
Oh, the depth of the riches
and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments
and untraceable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
And who has ever given to God,
that he should be repaid?
For from him and through him
and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).
So also may it be with us.