(Alexander Ivanov’s “Archangel Gabriel Striking Zechariah with Muteness”)
One of the things I regularly encounter in ministry is the unanswered questions of both saints and skeptics.
Non-Christians sometimes perceive Christians as those who don’t wrestle with their faith. Let me tell you: they do. Sure, there are those who never really pause to reflect, who have an unreasoned, non-rational faith, so to speak. But on the whole many Christians have questions, big questions, questions that are usually not “academic” or esoteric.
And actually in a very similar way longtime Christians sometimes perceive non-Christians as never really wrestling with Christianity. But, again, let me tell you: they do. And, yes, there are those who never give Christianity a moment’s consideration (partly because they have received a view of Christianity that is a caricature, which does not deserve a moment’s consideration). But many non-Christians also have questions, big questions–especially those who have had some sort of exposure (usually in childhood) to religion in general, or Christianity in particular.
What is one to do with these questions?
Luke’s gospel begins with an old, barren couple: Zechariah, who is a priest, and his wife Elizabeth.
While fulfilling his priestly responsibilities in the temple, Zechariah, Luke tells us, encounters an angel, who announces that his wife Elizabeth, in spite of her old age, will give birth to a son.
Such extraordinary births would not have been unknown to Zechariah: as a priest, in addition to fulfilling his responsibilities at the temple, he would also have had the responsibility of teaching God’s people their ancient Scriptures (In fact, in the Old Testament the closest equivalent to what the New Testament calls an elder, or shepherd, is the priest.)
Therefore, Zechariah especially would have known that within Israel’s Scriptures were accounts of such extraordinary births. And he would have known that such stories were not just a random “wow, isn’t that a cool magic trick” event or a “that was great for them” Hallmark moment.
Rather, such extraordinary births were watershed moments in the history of Israel that signaled that Yahweh was doing something entirely new for His people. That is, such births marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of God’s people. The original extraordinary birth is the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham (and, in fact, the angel’s words to Zechariah deliberately echo words that God speaks to Abraham).
The angel’s words to Zechariah make it clear that through the extraordinary birth of his son, whose name would be John, God would bring many of his people to repentance: “many of the sons of Israel shall he bring back to the Lord their God.”
Therefore, as extraordinary as it the angel’s message may have been, there was precedent. And so, when Zechariah responds to the angel’s words with a skeptical question (“How can I be sure of this?”), the angel isn’t exactly thrilled:
“The angel answered, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to announce the good news of these things. Behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day that these events come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper season.'”
Importantly, the angel responds not with an explanation but with his own identity and origin: “Given who and what I am–Gabriel, a servant in the Creator’s throne room, a mere messenger dispatched to speak the words of my Master, you really should have regarded my words as in every way trustworthy.”
The angel then provides Zechariah with a sign, a punitive sign, but a sign nonetheless: because of his unbelief, Zechariah will now serve as a negative sign that God is in fact up to something big, really big.
Zechariah’s response to the angel’s message can be summarized as follows: “I want all my questions answered before I’m willing to really believe and align myself with what God is going to do.”
But the angel’s response invites him to ask a different question: “Who is the one speaking to you? What is his character?”
The angel’s response is a subtle rebuke that asks, “Zechariah, do you think you can even begin to understand all that God is doing? There is so much more that you will not–and, let’s be honest–cannot understand. The important question is this: whom will you trust and why?”
The angel’s refusal to answer Zechariah’s question directly signals that Zechariah is asking the wrong question. Zechariah wants an explanation; he desires to figure it out, so he can be “certain,” so that he can be in control. God’s great plan must be comprehensible to him.
(“Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, late 15th-century Italian fresco.)
But Zechariah’s question, if answered, would bring only temporary relief: in this specific situation, Zechariah would have certainty: “How can I be sure of this?” But, when the next situation arises, a similar question will arise in his mind: “How can I be sure of that?”
But the better question–the question that will bring permanent relief, lasting peace–is this: “Who is this angel and who has sent him?”
As I interact with many 20-somethings struggling with questions about Christianity–both Christians and non-Christians–I will at times enter into the ring, so to speak, to wrestle with their questions alongside them, and, indeed, at times I share their questions (or have questions of my own).
But I will always call them back to the central question, a question that is tailored to the specifics of each person’s story and yet essentially the same question for all:
Who is Jesus?
There is simply no more important question that a person can wrestle with.
The reason that it is such an important question is twofold. First, Jesus himself claimed an unparalleled authority. He claimed to be ‘in the know’ about everything–well, everything that really matters. Second (but in every way related), Jesus was completely confident that he knew the Creator.
That is, he knew the Creator, whom he called his Father. And, crucially, he trusted the Creator. He believed that the Creator was good. Really good. And he believed the Creator was gracious. Ever so gracious.
He believed the Creator knew exactly what He was doing at the level of his own personal life–i.e., a life characterized by poverty, loneliness, singleness (and celibacy), manipulation, abandonment, rejection, betrayal, public humiliation, leading up to divine forsaking.
But he also believed that the Creator knew what He was doing at the level of macro-history–i.e., that His Father was orchestrating the fates of kings, nations, the great and the small, forces economic, social, and cultural–all so that they would serve His purposes.
This is what Jesus believed.
So, first, Jesus himself claimed to be ‘in the know’ and, second, he was confident that He knew the Creator. That’s why the question “Who is Jesus?” is the most important question a person can ask.
And the answer to that question will inform every other important question we can ask.
In the Advent season we celebrate the willing self-humiliation of Jesus: he wanted to come all the way down to be among us. He wanted to come and lose everything, to humble himself and to serve and to give his life. Why?
Because he truly believed and, therefore, embodied the following promise of his Father, a promise that lies at the heart of not only his incarnation but his crucifixion, a promise celebrated in Mary’s Magnificat and found in the Gospels, in various forms, no less than fourteen times.
Mary sings, echoing Hannah’s song (in 1 Samuel 2), of how God…
“…has brought down rulers from their thrones,
but has lifted up the humble.”
And Jesus himself declares to us:
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus bet everything on that promise. And it all began at Christmas.