Monday, January 19, 2015

Thoughts on Mary and Zacharias’s experience with Gabriel

I had a few thoughts about the stories of Mary and Zacharias in Luke 1 during the Sunday school lesson this last week.

When we talked about the story of the Annunciation, when Gabriel came to announce to Mary that she would conceive, I asked myself the question, “What does it tell us about the character of God that He sends a messenger to tell Mary ahead of time that she will conceive instead of just making it happen without any warning?”

It was an intriguing question and I came up with a few answers.

I think it tells us the Lord wanted her to understand the significance of what was going to happen and wanted to prepare her.  There is also in her submissive response the suggestion that she saw it as an implied request for permission, which permission she gave.

Just to pursue for a second that idea of asking permission, this suggests that the Lord was respecting Mary’s agency.   But then we have to wonder what the Lord would have done if Mary had refused.  The Lord’s plans are not frustrated, so He would have a backup plan ready.

Who was Mary’s backup?  It would have to be a woman named Mary, also of the house of David, for Old Testament and Book of Mormon prophesies to be fulfilled.

Oddly enough, it seems Mary had a sister also named Mary (which is rather weird), but it could have been a half sister.  “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene (Luke 19:25).  Of course, this is a bit speculative and depends upon how you interpret the meaning of that comma, whether it attaches “Mary the wife of Cleophas” to “his mother’s sister” or whether it continues the list with more people.  Still, I think it highly likely that the Lord had a backup in place in case Mary chose to refuse.

A point was made in the lesson that I hadn’t thought of before.  It is likely that Mary wasn’t so very popular among her peers because of her righteousness and it would have been startling to her to be told she was highly favored among women, thus her troubled feelings at the greeting, and thus the need for Gabriel to clarify that she was favored of God.  I think the experience she had standing strong against the temptation to seek for the world’s favor would have been important to her development for when she would find herself in a position that would look wrong, but be okay—pregnant, yet not having known a man.   It takes a spiritually strong person to stay faithful while everyone around them thinks they have done a very wrong thing when they haven’t.

Moving on to the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth..

The case of Zacharias and Elizabeth is interesting as well.  They were barren, and both well stricken in years, implying Elizabeth is into menopause.

The angel Gabriel, when he comes to tell Zacharias he will have a son, says something interesting: “…for thy prayer is heard.”  (Luke 1:13)  This makes it seem like this son is what Zacharias has been praying for that day as he offered incense.

Yet Zacharias is very old and his skepticism is opposite what his response would be if he’d been praying for it that day.

I think it is likely that Zacharias and Elizabeth had prayed for children for a long time, but that they (or Zacharias) had given up that particular petition once Elizabeth had moved into menopause, thinking it wasn’t going to happen.  That fits more with his skepticism.

So this brings us to some interesting questions now about how the Lord works when Gabriel says, “thy prayer is heard.”  Why tell Zacharias this now?  Why not visit him at the beginning of his prayers back when he was young and tell him, “Thy prayer is heard, but you’ll have to wait for years.”  It tells us that there may be long times when God is silent and doesn’t give us our petition.   And why?   It becomes a test of our faith whether we will continue to follow Him when we don’t know why He is not giving us immediately a righteous thing we ask for.   We’re probably pretty good at waiting a long time for things if we know why.  But can we wait a long time when we don’t know why?  It’s hard.  We have to trust that God is still good.

Another question that occurs to me is, “Why did John the Baptist have to be born so late?  Why not earlier?”  I think we don’t know much at all about why John had to be born so close to Jesus.  Perhaps if he were born earlier, he might have been martyred before Jesus came on the scene.  Perhaps his prophetic testimony of the coming Savior was meant to be witnessed very soon after it was given in order to show that God was moving fast and so there was necessity for quick repentance.

At any rate, the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was used by Gabriel as a sign to Mary that God could do impossible things.  If God could help a menopausal woman conceive by her husband, then God could certainly cause a virgin to conceive without coitus.

But back to this declaration, “thy prayer is heard.”  Sometimes we don’t know our prayer is heard until it is answered and the thing we pray for comes to pass.  It takes a lot of spiritual sensitivity to know the Lord has heard, even when our requests aren’t granted.  Granted requests are the biggest way we know prayers are heard, yet the angel’s pronouncement also teaches us that God hears our prayers all along, even if He can’t grant them yet according to His plan.

It also teaches us that God remembers and may answer our prayers far past the time that we’ve prayed them.  It teaches us something about the emotional strength of God, that He can hear our prayers and enter into the deeps of our yearnings and pains, and love us so, and yet refrain from granting our petitions for a greater purpose known to Him.  How badly He must want to bless us, and yet He can’t yet.  How many parents can stand that long a wait along with their children?

If I were to summarize the principles from the story, it would be this way:
--God respects the agency of His children, even those who are linchpins in His plan.
--Formative experiences often become a big part of our life purpose.
--God delays answers to prayer to try our faith
--God delays answers to prayer to fulfill His greater purposes.
--God’s miraculous answers to prayer are often used to help strengthen others’ faith in His power.
--God remembers our prayers even if we’ve forgotten or think it is past time for them to be answered.
--God hears our prayers all along, but has the emotional strength to delay answering and to lovingly wait along with us.

What else do you see in these stories?


Ramona Gordy said...

Hi Michaela
I" have loved teaching these records in Gospel Doctrine. One thing I suggested to everyone was that they take the story out of it's "Christmas context. That we place it in the context of the end of the record of Isaiah and Malachi. That these four people, and also Anna and Simeon, were "signs" and their experience was a "testimony" of the validity of the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. Joel states that "in those days, I will pour out my spirit upon my handmaids and my manservant's. And old men shall see visions and young men will dream dreams. And upon my handmaids will I pour out my Spirit (paraphrase).
We had an opportunity to do a character profile of Mary. Her dialogue with Gabriel attests to a spiritual maturity beyond her years. But also it attests that she considered all of the lessons she may have been taught in the synagogue and what her parents taught her too. She asked the right questions, she submitted her will unto the Lord.and she trusted in the Lord. She was filled with gratitude and she praised the Lord.
I would be hard pressed to find many young people in church today who could embody all of those qualities at once.

Michaela Stephens said...

It is wonderful to read about all those signs in the scriptures and how they show how Heavenly Father orchestrated things so carefully.

How exciting for you to teach Gospel Doctrine class! That is a great opportunity for some very focused study.