Beyond the Lectionary Text: Luke 1:5-25

by Marc Nelesen

Introduction of important themes – teeing up the text

Luke’s gospel begins with his acknowledgement that he is not an eyewitness but a researcher, corresponder and narrator of what he will share with us. The author has done his homework. Seen as a unit, Luke and Acts reveal a keen awareness of important theological themes that are deeply grounded in the first testament of scripture. For example, the author knows and articulates that in the age of the Messiah, Elijah comes first. So Luke’s author spends even more real estate on the birth of John than on Jesus. John’s birth signals that we are close to entering the age of the Messiah. Matthew specifies that John is Elijah; Luke’s vision however, is far more reaching in that John is but one of many who might be Elijah-esque in this age of the Spirit (4:23-26 and Acts 8:26-39).

Perhaps the story he tells of John’s advent is a dress rehearsal for the birth of Jesus or perhaps he is lengthening the drama to build suspense. More likely, he is reminding us that God has been setting the stage for some time and has worked in the narratives of a huge cast of characters whose faith and stories loom large for people of faith. For people of faith who are grounded in the old stories, this story is delightfully familiar and has God’s movements – God’s fingerprints – left all over it. Israel has long been pregnant with God’s Son. If the creation is groaning with Braxton-Hicks variety pre-contractions and convulsions for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed, imagine how eager we are as readers to see and hear that God is once again on the move.

Second, the author reveals that we are now in the age of the Spirit. For him, that age is anticipated and announced (in both books) by angels. Both Luke and Acts begin with some degree of “faithful-emptiness”. In Luke, this is expressed by the sturdy fidelity of an elderly couple which in the line of Aaron, yet is barren. Verse 7 has heavy redundancy to make a point: no children, barren, and getting on in years. Translated this means: triple whammy, dead end. End of human possibilities and end of human initiative; only God could do something new. In Acts, it is a small group of disciples who are eyewitnesses to resurrection and ascension, but who have no idea what to with it. Live Messiah, but humanly speaking, another dead end.

Both narratives reveal ripeness for the Spirit of God to hover over emptiness and speak and do something new. That newness cannot be brought to birth without God’s intervention. This leaves the church at the kind of dead-end where all you can do is pray. While at prayer, the church is free to wonder when and how God’s next intervention will take place. A practical implication here is that the modern church tends to fear the small, the quiet and the empty; we also have real doubts whether prayer is of productive value. Our experience with God and our texts teach us that these are exactly the places in which God often prefers to work. Will we ever get used to the way God likes to show up among us in surprising places, with such odd and unexpected people, in utterly absurd ways?

Story summary - reading between the lines

The need for pastoral sensitivity

Entry points to the text and sermon