What student at seminary has not heard the old joke about attending “cemetery,” the place where faith goes to die? Academic study of the Bible often has been connected to a dry, dead faith. But this danger is not a new one, nor is it inescapable. Even in our Advent stories, we see characters who struggle with keeping a vital faith.
We see this tension play out in Luke 1 when the angel Gabriel first proclaims the miraculous births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Both Zechariah and Mary question the announcement they each hear, but they receive different responses. Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute, whereas he sends Mary to her relative’s house to experience evidence of God’s miraculous power at work. Is Gabriel capricious in his response? Or do deeper issues underlie the unique answer he gives to each query?
Although it may appear on the surface that these two ask the same question, the context and the wording are different. On the one hand, there is Zechariah, an elderly priest. He knows the stories of God’s faithfulness because he was trained to know and remember them. He knows the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Manoah and his wife, and Elkanah and Hannah. Zechariah knows that God has a history of giving children to barren wives when they pray in faith. And Zechariah has been praying.
On the other hand, there is Mary, a thirteen-year-old girl with limited education. Nonetheless, she knows that having a child is impossible before she has sex with a man.
So both Zechariah and Mary ask the angel for more.
Zechariah says, “According to what will I know this?” In other words, what sign will be given to confirm these words? Then Zechariah gives the reason for his question: he and his wife are too old to have children.
Mary says, “How will this be?” And then Mary gives the reason for her question: she doesn’t “know” (she hasn’t had sex with) a man.
The verb for knowing appears in both responses to the angel, but in different ways. This word has the connotation of knowing through experience. Zechariah asks for an experience that will verify the angel’s promise (apparently, experiencing an angelic visitation wasn’t enough!), whereas Mary asks a question based on her current lack of experience. Her question implies faith that it will happen — it “will be”; she’s just not sure of the mechanics of it.
Zechariah wants more evidence. Mary just wants to understand.
Zechariah knows the stories of barren wives having children, but he doesn’t know them. He has learned them, but he hasn’t experienced their power. His head is full of knowledge, but his heart hasn’t experienced the power of God. And when it stands right in front of him, he has a hard time embracing it.
Mary may not have as much education, but she is willing to experience whatever God wants to give her.
So the irony plays out. Gabriel takes offense at Zechariah’s question, and gives him a sign he won’t soon forget. The one who learned the stories of old won’t be able to tell them. The young woman with the childlike faith will herself proclaim the great blessings of God, as will her relative Elizabeth, who understood that “the Lord has done this for me.” The women who were faithful thus preach the gospel of the coming Christ. Only belatedly will the highly educated Zechariah be able to join their chorus.
For those of us with seminary training, we must take care not to become Zechariahs who know God’s word so well that we forget to know God’s word. Effective study of the Bible not only gives us deeper understanding of the historical and literary contexts of Scripture, but it also draws us nearer to God. The stories of old are not just stories to learn. They are testimonies of God’s faithfulness across the generations — testimonies we are meant to experience.