People gather at tables in our bright, airy sanctuary on Wednesday mornings and Wednesday nights. They are there for a purpose: to study the Bible together. More specifically, to study the story of Jesus from the book of Luke.

And not just to study, like an academic exercise, but to see Jesus, and to listen for his voice, and to understand his culture, and to learn why crowds followed him. What was so attractive about him?

I spearhead this gathering, and every week, there’s something in the story that we don’t really get a chance to flesh out. So I’ll be doing a short series on my blog where I address a question from each chapter of Luke.

In these early chapters, the questions have more to do with God than specifically with Jesus, since Luke doesn’t start telling us about Jesus’ ministry until chapter 4.

So, the question I received from a table leader for Luke chapter 1 is:

“Why does Zechariah have to be silent after asking Gabriel how it was going to happen, but when Mary asks, nothing happens to her? Their words seemed almost identical. Maybe it was tone?”

I think that behind this question, there may be an underlying fear as well – if God did that to Zechariah, will he strike me mute if I question Him?

This is a great question! Here are some thoughts on it:

Zechariah was a priest – an old priest! He was steeped in the Scriptures. Like many priests in his day, he probably had the entire Torah memorized (the first 5 books of the Bible), and many of the prophets, Psalms, and historical books as well. We can tell this by his prophecy at the end of the chapter, which quotes phrases or ideas from every single part of the Old Testament (the Jewish Scriptures). Knowing the Scriptures was his life work. In addition, Luke tells us that Zechariah and his wife were both “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (1:6).

Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah is practically dripping with Scripture prophecies and references. He announces something similar to the stories in the Old Testament of barren women giving birth (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah).

But Zechariah, despite knowing these prophecies and the way God has worked in the past, is skeptical of this angelic announcement in the Temple: “How can I be sure?”

He’s not asking how it’s going to happen; He is asking for a sign. And Gabriel gives him a sign that not only he, but his wife and their entire community will observe. It is a public sign announcing a public prophet for Israel.

After 400 years of silence (since the prophet Malachi), God is speaking again! And the sign of this is that Zechariah will not speak for months because despite his knowledge, he did not believe.

But even in the sign to Zechariah there is grace: “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place… which will be fulfilled in their time.” The sign of Gabriel’s prophecy to Zechariah assures Zechariah that the promise will surely be fulfilled, at which time he will be restored to speech. We have no indication that being muted upset him or made him angry; on the contrary, once he is able to speak again, he blesses God (1:64).

Mary, on the other hand, is a young woman. She is devout, but she would not have the same knowledge of Scripture that Zechariah had. Her responses mainly come from the songs of the Old Testament: Hannah’s song and the Psalms. These would have been sung in worship, so they would be as familiar to her as our own worship songs are to us.

Mary’s response is not one of skepticism, but of wonder: “How can this be, since I’m a virgin?” What Gabriel is announcing to her is different from any other story in Israel’s long history. Instead of a child being born out of barrenness, a child will be born out of virginity! It’s as astounding to her as it would be if it happened to one of us.

What we see is that God interacts with Zechariah and Mary according to their own hearts and stories. These accounts are not prescriptive; they are not a formula telling us how God works. They are descriptive, meaning Luke is just telling us what happened.

So – is it ok if we question God? Well, yes. And like a good parent, God interacts with us based on our hearts and attitudes. As Mary sung in chapter 1, He scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts… and exalts those of humble estate.