Living with Luke (2): 1:5-17

            Luke the Evangelist is traditionally symbolized by a winged ox or bull –
             a figure of sacrifice, service and strength.                                                                                                        The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following Christ.

Luke 1:5-17 - Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist
5 During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. 8 One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. 9 Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

In our first post we discovered that Luke is writing to Gentile Christians (in the person of “Theophilus”) to reassure or make them confident that their reception into the people of God when many of their Jewish contemporaries were rejecting Jesus did not imply a fickleness in God.  Obviously, it would be difficult to give oneself in love and trust to a God whose reliability or faithfulness and power to carry out his plans were in question.  Would such a deity truly bring them to the good end promised first to the Jews (which had apparently failed in significant measure) and then offered to them?

           Luke begins at the point where faithful Israel was in Jesus’ time.  Zechariah and Elizabeth, John’s parent, are the epitome of faithful Israel (v.6).  Both were born of priestly lines.  They were doing all the day in and day out things that constituted a faithful life and faithful service to their God.  Yet they were barren as a couple.  They had no child and were far beyond childbearing years.  Their sense of disgrace seemed to be unending.  In a similar way, the faithful Israelites of that time felt barren or fruitless. Nothing seemed to be happening for them.  There was great fervor for God’s kingdom to come, many versions of that hope actually, but nothing was happening.

          Zechariah had the privilege of performing the incense offering in the temple according to the process described in 1 Chronicles 24:1–19. On this occasion, Luke tells us, a crowd was gathered outside praying as Zechariah performed his duties (v.10).  Faithful Israel, gathered for worship in the temple, sets the stage for what happens next.

          An angel appears to Zechariah.  Angels often appear to herald the births of important figures (Gen 16:10-11; 17:15-19; 18:10-15; 25:23; Judg 13:3-21) though this announcement to the father rather than the mother is unusual.[1]  This visitation from the divine realm, not surprisingly, frightens Zechariah.  The people’s time of waiting is now over.  God is about to act and the angel announces this news in the place where God and his people meet and commune, the temple (vv.11-12).

          The angel reassures the old priest and tells him his prayers have been answered (v.13).  But what was Zechariah praying for?  It’s not likely for a child.  Luke has told us this couple was “very old” and to think they were still praying for a child is a stretch.  What else could Zechariah have been praying for?  I suspect it’s what all Israel longed for – for God to return to Jerusalem and defeat his enemies (the Romans), reclaim his Temple, and reestablish Jerusalem as the chief of all cities in the world.  That Zechariah and the people are at prayer and worship suggests the prayers God has heard and is ready to act on are those of the people’s circumstance rather than Zechariah’s personal situation. 

          Yet, in the surprising and merciful wisdom of God, both disgraces, the personal shame of childlessness for Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the corporate shame of the “barren” people of God they represent, are taken away.  God’s answer to the people’s plight is the birth of a son to this elderly childless couple!

          Though this child will be born to Elizabeth and Zechariah he belongs to the service of God and his people.  His consecration to God is expressed through his refraining from strong drink and that he will be “filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth” (v.15).  This seems a metaphorical statement stressing the difference between John and other figures in the Old Testament (prophetic or otherwise) who received the gift of the Spirit at particular times and for particular purposes but not as an ongoing “filling” as seems the case here with John.  That’s why Jesus can say later in Luke:  “I tell you that no greater human being has ever been born than John” (7:28).

            Fully consecrated to God and thus filled with the Spirit, John will go forth as the long promised “Elijah” (Mal.4:5) heralding the imminence of the long awaited second or new Exodus (Isa.43) and the Messiah who will lead it.  The angel summarizes his role as to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v.17).

          Who is this people?  This takes us back to near the beginning of the story that Jesus, whose story Luke is telling, is the climax.  After sin has destroyed the good order of God’s creation, God responds by calling Abraham and Sarah as the new parents of a new people through whom God will deal with the problem of sin as well as restore his creatures to their role as his original design for creation.  God promises our foreparents that through them he will raise up a great people, will bless that people, and use them to bless the rest of the world. 

This people is God’s “answer” to what has gone wrong with God’s creation.  Their fate is how God’s faithfulness must be assessed, for their success means the blessing of the rest of the world!

Luke leaves us at this point poised on the threshold of a new chapter in God’s unfolding relationship with his world.  In a sense it focuses the problem he tells Jesus’ story as the answer to.  We now know where to look and what to look for in Luke’s story as we move on.



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