Beyond the Lectionary Text: Luke 1:5-25
by Marc Nelesen
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?
The author’s introduction of the aged couple and their pedigree is important to him. Luke is the only gospel where the couple is named and he goes out of his way to narrate their story in light of the story of Israel. They are an impeccable couple; observant, part of Aaron’s line, righteous, blameless, and barren. If the priestly rotation cited in 1 Chronicles 24:1-19 is active here, it was Zechariah’s district’s turn to serve. Although selected by lot (a practice cited again at the beginning of Luke’s sequel, Acts 1:26), Zechariah by no means drew the short straw.
Although living in the hill country (vs. 39), those who served lived for a time in the temple’s parsonage. Reminiscent of Moses, Zechariah did his priestly work inside while the people prayed outside. While living with and pondering this text, it might be a good exercise for the preacher to ponder what that might have been like for the one inside and the ones outside. Were they all praying the same thing? Were they praying for Elijah or the Messiah? Whatever it was he or they were asking for, the appearance of the angel and the words that follow signal, “your prayer has been answered.” What a moment and what a miracle; but like us, when a prayer is actually answered, he – and we – are dumbfounded either that faith makes a difference or that God responds.
The angel is named and brings news that is too good to be true. We know Gabriel only from the book of Daniel (9-10) and Luke’s Gospel. He stands in the presence of God and is sent by God to bring interpretations and messages and does so now to Zechariah and later to Mary. His message of answered prayer has five components:
1. You will have a son named John
2. He will give joy and gladness to you because he is great in the Lord
3. He will be stand in the tradition of the Nazarites
4. He will have the Holy Spirit before birth
5. He will be in the Spirit and power of Elijah and turn people back and prepare them for God’s coming
Zechariah’s seemingly innocent question, “How can this be and how can I know this?” is heard as doubt and a need for some other sign. Informed readers will hear echoes of the dismay and the astonishment of Abraham and Sarah. Gabriel regards it as no laughing matter and the question earns Zechariah silence until the day he writes John’s name on a tablet. Zechariah’s muted voice – and undoubted look of astonishment as he emerged from the temple – told other worshippers something was afoot. The text ends with their return to the hill country in seclusion and Elizabeth’s own statement of faith that God has taken away her disgrace (recall Psalm 113).
I am convinced that the only thing harder than preaching on Mother’s Day is preaching a text that has a barren woman in it. One of the homiletical tragedies of our time is that most preachers will only touch it by saying, “In those days, a failure to have children was seen as the absence of God’s favor and a threat to a woman’s future without heirs to care for her.” Many of us have heard it; worse, many of us have said it. Yet anyone who knows first or secondhand the experience of barrenness and its accompanying lost dreams (and unanswered prayers) would never speak of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s darkness so glibly.
I think it best if preachers just acknowledge the elephant that is in the text that is there for anyone who is trying (or has tried) to get pregnant and cannot. Texts like this one awaken old feelings for those who have lost a baby – or child – or wishes that they could have one, yet cannot. Texts like these stir deep pains and deeper yearnings. Naming it ahead of the scripture reading can defang some of the potency of the venom of loss and disappointment.
Nonetheless, preachers would do well to go there and not avoid naming the deep wound of God’s ever-bleeding-and-yearning –to-conceive people. The barren woman in scripture is the powerful starting point for the Spirit of God to begin working in his people. Hearers cannot help but bring to mind Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah, and Samson’s mother, each of whom pleaded with God to fill their emptiness. God’s Spirit seems to hover over places that are humanly-hopeless. These empty voids seem to draw God’s attention in ways where he speaks and announces something new. In this story, we hear the familiar refrain of old people who need to blush with the embarrassment of a promise that is in the midst of its fulfillment.
Faithful Christians are often bored and tired with what seems like the unchangability of our lives and circumstances. The text before us is a reminder that everyday faithfulness matters and it matters much. In what could seemingly be the dull routine of the ordinary, God shows up and lives are changed – forever. This is particularly relevant when this text has the feel of a first testament story that reads, “In those days, the Word of the Lord was rare.” This story has that kind of feel to it as God is beginning again.
Second, it seems that any revolution, historical renovation, reformation, or renaissance seems to be anticipated by prayer. Like us, Zechariah is astonished when his prayers are answered, but perhaps his variety of persistent prayer is what is needed. This suggests that seemingly hopeless prayers for recovery, healing, and even pregnancies are not out of place.
Third, another point of contact with text and the congregation is the heaviness of fatigue and exhaustion. Israel had prayed its heart out and nothing happened. They had waited for a sign of the coming of God to change their circumstances; circumstances that were not only beyond their control, but much larger than they imagined were repairable. Many of the established churches in the US and Canada are tired and weary in the face of epic social, technological, and cultural change in the last few decades. More than ever, once thriving churches wonder about their survival. This text brings a bit of news; news that is too good to be true. The news is too good to be true that God’s promises are reliable and unpredictable.
The news reveals is God’s Spirit is hovering and speaking over places that are dead or dying and speaking a new word. The news promises that “even before he is born he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is unbelievable, laughable, and absurd – but that is the way God moves. And when he does, that movement stirs, silences, and mobilizes. It removes shame and disgrace and replaces these with wonder. God’s interruptions fill emptiness with hope and promise where there is none. Only God could do that. The best illustrations for a text like this one will likely be “home grown” ones from the life of the local congregation. It is there – in the small and unexpected places – that the ancient promises of God are made fresh and new.
Rev. Marc Nelesen is the Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, Hudsonville, MI.