Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel…”
Isaiah 7:10-14 NIV
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Luke 1:26-38 NIV
Prophecy in the Bible is a slightly difficult thing to come to terms with, however you view the historicity of the Biblical documents; the one thing, though, that comes through clearly in these passages are the attitudes of those receiving the word. Ahaz, and Zechariah too, earlier in this Gospel (Luke 1:5-25) found it hard to accept. Ahaz didn’t want to “put the Lord to the test”; Zechariah couldn’t believe the words of Gabriel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18)
Mary had more to lose than anyone – her husband-to-be, her good name, perhaps her life – but she received the angel’s message for what it was. Intelligent girl that she obviously was, she asked the obvious question about the mechanics of this unexpected gift, but she accepted Gabriel’s explanation without cavil. She knew an archangel when she heard one, obviously, and she knew that God’s word would never fail. It didn’t.
At the centre of faith is listening, always. To be still enough in ourselves to hear, quiet enough to receive the gift within the silence; to wait in unknowing, as long as it takes, for the Lord’s mercy – to be open enough for grace – is to rest at the still point of the turning world.*
*TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (1935)