The Narrative Lectionary moves out of the Old Testament this week to point us to Luke 1:5-13 [14-25] 57-80 and Psalm 113. The NL also spends Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Luke 2 (for those who have services on those days). Our journey through Mark’s Gospel begins January 5th. I must admit that even though I enjoy preaching through the Old Testament stories, I’m anxious to dig into the Jesus story as presented by Mark. But for this week we are in the ‘hinge moments’ of transitioning away from prophets into the arrival of the promised Messiah.
Our text is a bit sprawling, covering 45 verses and a multi-layered story about Elizabeth, Zechariah, and the birth of John the Baptizer. Mary’s story is skipped over because, well, that’s the next story in the way things happened. In the Advent themes, I’ll be focused on peace, because that is where Zechariah lands in his song at the end of the text.
We are told right away that Zechariah and Elizabeth are a godly couple with a good reputation for following after the Lord (Luke 1:6). Their glaring issue was that they had no children. This fact was viewed by the Jewish believers as a sign of Divine disapproval, but that’s hard to rectify given what Luke has just told us. Also, the preacher should be careful not to speak about this in such a way as to indicate that there is in our current day any shame or Divine disapproval connected to not having a child.
Luke does not lead us to puzzle over this tension, however. Instead, he encourages us, first, to experience the pathos of this narrative opening, to recognize their pain and shame. Then, for those with ears to hear, Luke provides echoes of earlier storeis in Israel’s past so that we understand that contained within the framework of this tragedy are the seeds of its resolution.Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke.
Indeed, Luke does not linger in this observation because he has a grand story to tell. Zechariah is about his priestly duties, lighting incense in the temple when an angel appeared to him. Terror and fear are the common reactions to angels in the Scriptures (sorry, no chubby cherubs with rosy cheeks or beautiful ladies with long hair and wings – Angels are terrifying creatures!). The angelic message is that Zechariah’s prayer has been heard. Given the fact that both of them were “well along in years” one might wonder how long ago Zechariah stopped praying for Elizabeth to be pregnant? It was a physical impossibility for some time now. But God doesn’t forget our prayers, He simply answers them in his time. Elizabeth is going to have a child. This ends the main section for the NL, but vs 14 – 25 are in brackets, suggesting there’s more to the story the preacher might want to include. The question will be time … how much can one cover in the normal sermonic allotment? But somehow one must explain why Zechariah is breaking an imposed silence when he breaks out in song!
The promised child is not the Messiah, but he “will be great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15). The greatness of John is spelled out in amazing terms with an ultimate purpose that he will “make ready for the Lord a prepared people” (1:17).
Zechariah asks what every elderly male would likely ask – even if he were talking to Gabriel. “How can I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years” (1:18). He just didn’t believe it was possible. No one reading this account could possibly blame him. Was Gabriel harsh by imposing months of silence on the old priest? That’s not for us to say. Elizabeth, on the other hand, accepts the reality of the promise and is grateful for the Lord’s favor and that he saw fit to “take away my disgrace among the people” (1:25).
The NL now hops over the visit of Mary and her song of praise to verse 57. Months have passed and it is time for Elizabeth to give birth. Even though the baby was born, it was not until eight days later, at circumcision, in a discussion about what to name the baby that Zechariah’s tongue is loosed and he can now speak. What must those months of silence been like as he watched his elderly wife deal with all of the joys and pains of pregnancy! None of those conversations about names, dreams for his life, plans for gender reveal party (oh, wait, sorry!). Whatever are the conversations a young mother with child has with the father to be, they just didn’t happen. Luke affirms what we know by nature, everybody was talking about these events!
Verses 67-79 are Zechariah’s song, described as a prophecy (1:67). Sprinkled with references from the Scriptures he knew so well, Zechariah gives praise to God for this way in which this event answers so many of His promises. The last few verses of the song give the purpose of John the Baptizer’s mission:
- Prepare the way for the Messiah (1:76)
- Give people knowledge of salvation and forgiveness (1:77)
- Proclaim the coming of the Messsiah who will guide our feet to peace (1:78-79)
The beauty of verses 78-79 is hard to look away from. Verse 80 is a bit of a mystery in some ways. When did John go out into the wilderness? It doesn’t really matter. John fades from the picture now in the shadow of the other couple experiencing a miraculous pregnancy.
Since so much of this text is about John the Baptizer, it might be tempting to the preacher to focus on his life. But we should, please, let’s let this be Zechariah’s shining moment. He encountered Gabriel! He fathered a child in his old age! He suffered through months of silence! What kind of song would you sing if you had been silent for nine months? What kind of restlessness would you experience in the limiting of conversation? How miserable would it be to want to say comforting words to a discomforted wife, but to be unable? What frustration might you feel if you couldn’t do the work for God that you wanted to do?
Whatever restlessness, misery, discomfort, frustration we might experience in the Christmas Rush, one thing is for sure. The One we worship and adore has come to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79). Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John were near to His coming and watchful for the moment. Are we watching for His return?
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