Commentary on Luke 1:5-13 [14-25] 57-80
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are a richly woven tapestry of interlacing stories replete with allusions to the Old Testament.
Of the four Gospels, only Luke begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth—the story of a couple getting on in years, the wife thought to be barren, any hope of having children all but gone. Then comes the incredible promise of a child to be born to them. If this plot sounds familiar, it should, for it is very similar to the beginning of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis.
From the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke reminds us of an even earlier beginning, the beginning of the story of God’s relationship with God’s people Israel. Luke places his story within this larger story of faith—the story that began when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and go to the place that God would show them, when God promised them a child and many descendants.
From the outset, the biblical story is one of God choosing unlikely candidates and unexpected ways to accomplish God’s purposes. Both Abraham and Sarah laughed when they first heard the promise that they would have a son. With Sarah 90 years old and Abraham nearly 100, the promise seemed utterly absurd. They had long before given up hope of having children of their own. Sarah had given Abraham her maid-servant Hagar so that he could produce a child by her.
Despite Abraham and Sarah’s skepticism and their attempts to take matters into their own hands, God’s promise proves true. Sarah conceives in her old age and gives birth to a son, who is named Isaac, which means in Hebrew, “he laughs.” Sarah exclaims, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).
Similarly, Zechariah and Elizabeth are rather unlikely candidates to play a crucial role in the fulfillment of God’s promises. They, too, are old and childless, and Elizabeth is thought to be barren. (In biblical times, the absence of children in a marriage was always assumed to be due to the wife’s “barrenness.”)
Zechariah is a priest from the hill country near Jerusalem. Two weeks out of the year his division of priests is on duty at the Jerusalem temple. This is where we find Zechariah at the beginning of Luke’s story, faithfully going about his ordinary priestly duties. But when he is chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer the incense offering, his service quickly becomes anything but ordinary. The angel Gabriel appears to him to announce that Elizabeth will conceive and bear a son, to be named John, who will bring them joy and gladness. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit and set apart for a special purpose—to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:13-17; see also Malachi 3:1; 4:5).
Like Abraham and Sarah before him, Zechariah is skeptical when he hears the promise of a son to be born. “How shall I know that this is so?” he asks. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18). This question results in Zechariah being rendered mute until the time when these things will be fulfilled—perhaps not exactly the sign that Zechariah was hoping for!
Nevertheless, the speechless Zechariah goes home to his wife Elizabeth, and she conceives. Elizabeth, like Sarah, recognizes the Lord’s hand in these events. She exclaims, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me to take away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25).
It is not until his son is born, circumcised, and named that Zechariah is able to speak again. In his long silence, Zechariah has had plenty of time to ponder Gabriel’s words. And when he does finally speak again, the first words out of his mouth are words of praise, the words known as Zechariah’s song: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them” (Luke 1:68)
Zechariah recognizes that in the birth of his son John, God has looked with favor not only upon him and Elizabeth, but upon the whole people of Israel, to fulfill the promises made long ago to their ancestors (Luke 1:70-72). God is raising up a savior for his people (1:69), and Zechariah’s son John will go before this savior to prepare his ways, “to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:76-77).
The entire story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, beginning with the promise to Abraham and Sarah, is coming to fulfillment in this story Luke tells—this story that begins, once again, with a promise and a birth against all odds. Fulfillment has been a long time coming. Israel has been through wars, captivity, exile, and domination by foreign rulers, and in Luke’s time has been crushed by the Romans.
But remembering how God has proven faithful in the past—even when all hope seemed lost—builds confidence that God can be trusted in the present and the future. Even while Herod and Caesar rule with an iron fist, God’s reign of justice and mercy is breaking into this world in the unlikely births of two infants in obscure Judean villages—John the Baptist, and then, of course, Jesus.
How might this text speak to communities of faith today, particularly in the season of Advent?
There are times in our lives, and in our life together as God’s people, when problems mount and it is difficult to see a way forward, when it seems as though all hope for the future has reached a dead end. But in the Bible, we are encountered by a God for whom there are no dead ends—detours, perhaps—but not dead ends. In Scripture we are encountered by a God who always works for good, even when we mess things up, a God who specializes in making a way in the wilderness, opening up a future when none seems possible.
Often we don’t understand God’s ways or God’s timing. Often we are filled with doubt and tempted to despair. Yet our story of faith reminds us that God always proves faithful in the end, turning despair to hope, doubt to faith, sorrow to laughter and rejoicing. God proves faithful by working in unexpected ways and through unlikely candidates, even such unlikely candidates as you and me. God works against all odds—despite our weaknesses, despite our doubts, despite our resistance, to create faith in us and to accomplish God’s purposes.
In this Advent season, we look for God to come once again in the unlikely form of an infant born in a stable, through an unlikely mother and a birth against all odds. And against all odds, we look for God to birth new life in the barren places in our lives, our community, and our world, as we share in word and deed the good news of the coming Savior.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the prophets, you sent John into the world to proclaim the coming of your son. Give us ears to hear the proclamations of your promises and eyes to see your presence in this world. Amen.
Gabriel’s Message, Stephen Paulus