Living with Luke (5): 1:56-80

            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.

1:56-80: The Birth of John and Zecariah’s Restoration

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.
57 When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58 Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59 On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60 But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”
61 They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.” 62 Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.
63 After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.” 64 At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.
65 All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66 All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.
67 John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,
68 “Bless the Lord God of Israel
    because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70     just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies
    and from the power of all those who hate us.
72 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and remembered his holy covenant,
73         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted 74 that we would be rescued
        from the power of our enemies
    so that we could serve him without fear,
75         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
            for as long as we live.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
    through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”
80 The child grew up, becoming strong in character. He was in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.

Elizabeth delivered her son in due time.  Friends and neighbors celebrated the news that Elizabeth and Zechariah’s disgrace had mercifully been removed by the Lord.  However, Elizabeth baffles her community’s expectation that the boy would be named after his father by declaring, “No, his name will be John” (v.60)!

Here is something new and unexpected.  “None of you relatives have that name,” they object.  And they turn to Zechariah, hand him a tablet on which to write his choice for a name.  Astonishingly, he too says the boy is to be named John (v.63).  With that, his tongue is released and he can speak again, praising God.

Perplexed friends and neighbors sought to decipher the meaning of this oddity and the character of this newborn’s life.  For “the Lord’s power was with him” (v.66).

Something about this child and his name signaled that more was up with him than simply the reputation of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  There was more here than meets the eye.  John knew what it was.  He knew there was another disgrace, the disgrace of the nation still in exile in its own land, that this child would be involved in undoing.  What he could not believe about the birth of his own child and the removal of their personal disgrace, he now believes about the larger disgrace of the nation he will help remove.

Believing Zechariah now joins the ranks of the prophets being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.67) and utters an oracle.  This oracle, called the Benedictus from the its first word in the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, shows how thoroughly Zechariah has now embraced the full significance of Gabriel’s announcement to him. Its two parts make this clear.  The first, in vv.68-75) focus on the great savior God will raise up for his people.  Indeed, so certain is God’s deliverance that Zechariah speaks of it in the past tense, as a completed action:

-“raised up” (v.69)
-“brought” (v.71)
-“shown” (v.72)
-“remembered” (v.72)
-“granted” (v.73)

This anticipated yet certain deliverance of Israel is due “to the solemn pledge (God) made to our ancestor Abraham” (v.73).  It always come back to the promise to Abraham (Gen.12:1-3) and the covenant that flowed from it.  In that covenant, God committed to make Abraham and Sarah’s offspring a blessed people who would in turn bless the rest of the world.  So serious about this is God that in Gen.15 God enacts a covenant ritual in which he alone assumes the responsibility for all he has promised to and through Abraham and makes himself liable for their non-fulfillment!

Further, Zechariah alludes to the exodus from Egypt as precedent for such a certain hope (see Ex.5:1-3 for example).  “He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear (vv.73-74).  

In the second part of the Benedictus Zechariah turns to his son and the God has for him to play in this great deliverance of the people.  He is to “prepare” (v.76) for the messiah by announcing to the people that God’s light will dawn to draw them and his messiah will lead them on the great New Exodus promised long ago and long-awaited, especially in chs. 40-55 of the prophet Isaiah.

This “light” will entail the forgiveness of the people’s sins.  Forgiveness of sins sounded a quite different note for Luke’s readers (and for Isaiah’s readers too) than it often does for us.  We are so used to hearing this good news as good news “for me.”  That is, we hear it as my personal sins have been forgiven and I am assured of a relationship with God now and in the hereafter.  Biblical readers, especially a people enmeshed in a terrible exile on account of their sins as a people and from which they could not extricate themselves, would hear such a declaration as astonishing good news – their God was about to graciously forgive their failure to be the people of Abraham (see above) and reclaim them from exile and restore them to their divinely appointed vocation!

Personal forgiveness and new life are an implication of this good news but not that good news itself.  The latter is addressed to the people of God and tells them God is doing a new thing.  He is acting to set all things right again, and this new thing begins with John the Baptist preparing them for messiah’s arrival.  He is the one who will “guide us on the path of peace” (v.79).  And “peace” is the great Hebrew ideal of “shalom” – the dream God had for his creation from the very beginning.  That’s what God is up to in and through Jesus and his offer of forgiveness is the call for his people to reclaim both the privilege and the responsibility (and the response-ability!) of their part in this cosmic drama!


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