Jeannette Scholer is adjunct instructor in communication at two Chicago-area theological seminaries: Northern Baptist and Bethany.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 11, 1987, p. 237. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
What it means to be an obedient servant of the Lord as in the example in which Mary asked a question of God’s angel in contrast to the way Zechariah asked one.
The angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your
prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you
a son, and you are to give him the name John.”. . .
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?
I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”. . . “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
[Luke 1:13,18; 30-31,34 (NIV) ].
The angel brings news of two impending births. Zechariah is told he is to be a father — a message that is unexpected but certainly not undesirable, for Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are old and childless in a society that puts a high value on having children. Mary is told she is to be a mother — news that is both unexpected and undesirable. No pious, engaged young woman would want to learn that she is to become pregnant outside of marriage. Both Mary and Zechariah respond with questions.
Perhaps Zechariah had waited so anxiously, so hopefully, and with so many disappointments month after month in the long years of childlessness that he dared not accept the good news. He wanted intellectual assurance; he wanted to understand how the improbable conception would take place. Gabriel’s answer to his question is a rebuke: “Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words.”
Gabriel’s response makes it clear that Zechariah’s question is one of doubt — doubt that places restrictions on what even God can do; doubt of God’s very messenger.
Mary also raises a question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Yet she is not rebuked. Gabriel simply answers that God will do it. It is the ultimate answer: “Nothing is impossible with God.” But is Mary’s question so different from Zechariah’s after all?
The difference is that Mary asks her question in faith, not in doubt. Mary does not set up her rationality as a standard for judging God — How can I be sure? — even though her curiosity expresses itself as a question — How will this be? Mary’s question does not doubt the veracity of the announcement; she is prepared to accept it, with all its personal consequences. Her attitude of faith is expressed in her final word, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Faith for Mary takes the form of obedience.
Is that not always true? Faith is not simply expressed in obedience — faith is obedience. To be faithful is not to be full of an emotion or a belief; it is to act steadfastly on the basis of a commitment or a relationship. Zechariah’s problem was not that he asked a question; it was that he was not really ready to obey. For it is not in rational explanations about God — explanations that fit our systems of knowledge and our human categories of experience — that we learn who God is and how to love God; it is in the response, “I am the Lord’s servant.”
Contrary to what some people think, God does not forbid questions. God let Job pour out all his agonized questions because it was clear that Job’s heart was prepared to accept God’s will: “Though God slay me, I will trust.” Our Lord himself could not endure the cross without a question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Jesus also realized the need for obedience: “Not my will, but yours, be done.”
It is when our questions turn us from obedience that they must be rebuked. When the risen Christ confronted Peter three times with the question, “Do you love me?” and spoke what appeared to be a prophecy of Peter’s death, Peter immediately raised a question about John (for no one likes to be a martyr alone) : “Lord, what about him?” It was a question of doubt, a question that deflected Peter from the task of obedience; it was the unacceptable question. “What is that to you?” Jesus asked. “You must follow me.”
Shortly after arriving at the Keller household, Sullivan wrote, “I am convinced that obedience is the gateway by which knowledge, yes and even love, enter the mind of the child.” With this remarkable insight, Sullivan had the courage to teach Helen to obey — to sit at the table, to eat properly, to fold her napkin. It was by first learning obedience that Helen learned the concept of language — and also grew to love her teacher.
Annie Sullivan’s words speak to us as we reflect on Zechariah’s and Mary’s questions. “Obedience is the gateway by which knowledge, yes and love, enter” our minds. It is in acts of obedience that we grow in the knowledge and love of God.
So our text is indeed appropriate for Lent. For what is Lent but a time to join in a journey with the One
Who being in very nature God
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death —
even death on a cross
We will not be called to be obedient in the way Mary and Jesus were called. But our obedience will be called for, not only in major decisions — what job to take, where to live and serve, whom to marry or not to marry — but in dozens of daily opportunities to do what is clearly God’s will: to seek justice, to be merciful, to put others before ourselves. This is true of even such simple tasks as making tea or running an errand for another person when our own schedules or preferences would run counter. Each day provides the occasion to say, “I am the Lord’s servant. ‘We may ask, How can I love this student who expresses such hostility? How can I refrain from responding sharply to a contentious parishioner? How will I maintain patience with my irritable supervisor? How will I care for the needs of this aging congregation? How will I raise the funds for this project of mercy? How can I balance the demands of ministry and family? How can I find courage in the face of a terminal diagnosis? But God will accept the questions when our intention is to obey: then we hear the enabling response, “With God nothing is impossible.”
Like Mary, may our questions — even in our asking — express our faith, and our determination to be obedient servants of the Lord.