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Jun 24, 2015

John the Baptist's Nativity and God’s Will

Chris Mueller

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a righteous and holy man. The Gospel of Matthew makes that clear. As an observant Jew of his day, he would have had large swaths of the Scripture committed to memory. As a priest he would have known the law intimately. All of that is true, and yet, he was still not prepared when the angel Gabriel appeared to him.

The angel announced to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, and that this son would be the herald of the coming messiah, a prophet who would go out in “the spirit and power of Elijah.” These are weighty words. Incredible words actually. It is a gigantic moment. Zechariah, rather than rejoicing at the scope of what God has planned, gets caught up in the details. “How can it be? I am old. My wife is old.”

Zechariah had probably prayed for the coming messiah for years. He had studied the law, and the prophets. He knew the story of Abraham and Sarah. He should have known that God can do anything, even give children to the barren. All of that knowledge was in Zechariah’s head. Unfortunately, when confronted with God’s plan, in that moment, he looked at his own part and in that brief moment he must have thought the plan was dependent on him.

Too often we fall into the same trap. We feel the tug of God’s will in our lives. Instead of rejoicing that God would call us into his plans, we begin to rationalize. Even something so simple as sharing the truth of our Catholic faith with a family member can seem impossible. Zechariah’s story reminds us that God’s plans are not dependent on us.

Gabriel, upon hearing Zechariah’s objection, replies “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you.” We know from the book of Daniel that Gabriel is a messenger of God’s will. When he announces himself this way the implication is clear. This is not the word of some guy that Zechariah is questioning. It is God’s word, sent through an angel, by God’s commission. Zechariah should have know better.

Do We Doubt Like Zechariah?

That should convict our hearts. How often have we argued in our hearts, minds, and sometimes with our mouths, the Church’s teachings on contraception, or on stewardship, or about going to Mass, or whatever your personal thing is. Just as Zechariah should have known better, we should too. It was foolish for him to argue with God’s chosen messenger. Likewise, it is foolish for those of us who are united in Christ to argue with the Church on matters of faith and morals.

Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel ends interestingly. The angel declares that Zechariah will be unable to speak until the child, John the Baptist, is born. It is fitting. Rather than blurt out why God could not accomplish His will, Zechariah probably should have taken a moment to contemplate what God was saying through the angel. Had he done that he would have given himself time to remember God’s faithfulness. He would have benefitted from the formation he had been given in the Law and the Prophets. Instead of telling God why He could not accomplish His will, Zechariah might have remembered that God can always accomplish His will.

There is another lesson for us here. When we react to God’s will or Church teaching, from the “realistic” position of our culture we are acting in just the same way Zechariah did. Rather than having an angel impose silence on us, perhaps we should imitate the blessed Mother, who when confronted with a mystery of Her son’s incarnation, “pondered it in her heart.” God is constantly speaking into our lives through His Holy Spirit. He does this through what we call public revelation, the teaching of the Church, and private revelation, our personal prayer life.

When we are confronted with a teaching we do not like, or when in prayer we feel God challenging us to deeper conversion on something, we need to learn from Zechariah’s encounter and remember, God can accomplish His will through any means he chooses. We need to quiet our hearts, and ask God to help us more fully enter into His reality.

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  • Recently I commented on your post about Zechariah, but I never got a response and later it appeared that my post was gone as well. I stated that I enjoyed your reflection on Zechariah but you compared his reaction to the angel messenger to Mary’s reaction and stated that they were different and that Zechariah did not trust like Mary did. My question was … I think Mary doubted, too, because she also said “How can this be?” So why do you feel their responses are so different?

    • Hi Marianne, I must have missed the earlier comment. We just brought our fifth child home and needless to say, life has been pretty exciting in the Mueller household.

      Your question is a good one, why did Zechariah receive such a different response than Mary? Did Mary doubt?

      St. Ambrose characterizes Mary’s response this way “It was Mary’s part neither to refuse belief in the Angel, nor too hastily take unto herself the divine message.” She responds, “How shall this be?” She is not refusing to believe. Instead, she asks how it is going to happen. Here is a little more from St. Ambrose, “Mary had read, Behold, she shall conceive and bear a son. (Is. 7:14.) She believed therefore that it should be, but how it was to take place she had never read, for even to so great a prophet this had not been revealed. So great a mystery was not to be divulged by the mouth of man, but of an Angel.”

      Zechariah’s response is a bit different from Mary. He replies “How shall I know this?” In essence, he is asking for a greater sign, or greater authority. The will of the Lord has been declared, and the declaration was not good enough for Zechariah. It as if Zechariah asks “says who?” or “prove it.” In the words of St. Ambrose “He refuses to believe that which he says he does not know, and seeks as it were still further authority for belief.”

      I hope answers your question. Christ’s Peace – Chris

      • Thank you for responding to me! I really appreciate it! Your explanation helps me understand things a little better! I am such a HUGE fan of the Great Bible Adventure! I have done the 24 week study as well as Matthew and James (Pearls of Wisdom). I also purchased the 8 week “Quick Journey” and have held a number of small group studies in my home! Love, love, love these studies! Congrats on the birth of your 5th child! How blest you must feel (and overwhelmed, I am sure). Best of luck!

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