In the days of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.Luke 1 (selected verses)
This is the first scripture lesson we’ve shared since September that was written after the birth of Jesus. Although you might not be able to tell by the vocabulary or flow of the reading that something new is going on here, I’m here to tell you otherwise. This passage was written by Luke, a gentile, from the Greek city of Antioch in present day Syria. We also know that Luke was a physician, and that in itself informs us of much more. Luke’s profession rubs off on his story in indelible and significant ways. We also know that Luke knew the story of Jesus in its entirety, from Christ’s birth to death and resurrection. And though the topic of this passage is prelude to our celebration of Christmas, it is also a revealing reading in and of itself.
They say that the “most difficult step of any journey is the first one.” And Luke is very intentional in presenting this first story to us in a way that sets up the remainder of the good news of God With Us (Emmanuel), in Jesus of Nazareth.
Doctors are methodical souls; often cautious, curious and always inquisitive. They want to follow a trail from beginning to end. “When did you first notice the problem?” “Given where you are now, how did things start?” “How did the issue progress?” Getting a patient’s history is crucial to making a correct diagnosis, one of the first things a doctor is taught. How well a doctor listens and puts the case together makes a big difference in a patient’s healing.
The gospel writer Luke hears a story like a doctor listens. It is a story of salvation (which in Hebrew means healing). So it is a story about healing, the casting out of demons (illnesses) and the restoration of all creation. It’s a story about God; how things started and where they are headed, diagnostically speaking.
Luke’s ordered approach to history and events, his writing style and vocabulary, reveal the attention to detail of one who makes a case based on verifiable evidence. Luke is the only non-Jewish writer of a gospel, and his writing style reveals layers of sophistication we haven’t seen before; not that they are new, but that they are so carefully organized to support his central thesis: that God sent Jesus, at the right time, in the right way, ultimately, for the ‘healing of the nations.’
There are more healing stories in Luke than in the other gospels, for Luke looks to Jesus as one who can summon the powers of heaven to do what the powers of earth cannot.
At the very beginning of the gospel he describes what he is trying to do.
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
(Theophilus, incidentally, is literally translated “Lover of God.”) So maybe this is Luke’s friend, or maybe this is all of us who are Luke’s friends and therefore Lovers of God.
Luke’s purpose is to set down an orderly account from a perspective that is uniquely his own.
Luke is full of stories about reconciliation and healing and more than any other gospel writer notices the women who play a key role in the community of faith.
In Luke we hear the story of the healing of the Widow’s son, the story of the Widow’s mite, the woman who implores the unjust judge, and it’s the women in Luke’s gospel who bring the first report of the empty tomb to the apostles.
As a physician, Luke is also interested in delivering babies; in fact his gospel has not one but two birth narratives, one about John the Baptist and one about Jesus of Nazareth. He portrays Jesus as born with Davidic birthmarks, linked to Bethlehem, the hometown of David, and welcomed by shepherds; common, every day folk.
But unlike David, Jesus is the son of an anawim, a poor woman, and a father whose paternity test results announced by an angel is a puzzle to all.
From the outset of the gospel, peace is a central theme, carefully woven in and through Luke’s account. Take Zechariah’s words offered as a blessing at the birth of his son, John. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
These words are echoed by the chorus of angels singing on the eve of Jesus’ birth. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those of good will!”
But with all of Luke’s attention to detail, honoring women, seeking peace, pointing to Jesus’ healing gifts, Luke does not ignore the drama of the political situation in which Jesus is born. Remember how he describes the setting of Jesus’ birth? This is where the diagnostic report gets interesting.
Jesus’ healing presence occurs in the midst of the collective corruption and illness of the body politic. Jesus is born during the reign of Emperor Augustus, who is fiddling with the tax laws. Quirinius was Governor, responsible for the census, a way for more taxes to be paid to Rome. Pontius Pilate will later play a crucial role in the story.
Luke invokes the names of Philip, ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Annas and Caiaphas, high priests and part of an array of earthly opposition.
The powers that be have metastasized, and Luke, in orderly fashion, is sure to categorize each and every presenting issue.
But if there are all these complications, chaotic and disorderly powers set against God’s power, there is also an orderly account that Luke wants us to hear about a Messiah heralded by angels and predicted by prophets who would draw heaven and earth ever closer together.
There is a blending of heaven and earth in Luke’s orderly account, a Holy Chemistry at work in presenting the case. Luke is the kind of doctor who you could imagine looking through a microscope who sees more than cells, but also the hand of God and the intentions of a Creator who means well for the earth, intending good will to all people. Luke’s message of the healing of the nations includes clues that God goes where God is not expected.
Luke draws on well-established precedent. The story of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with the promise of a child to old Abraham and Sarah, comes to fulfillment in this story that begins, once again, with a promise of a birth against all odds. Fulfillment has been a long time coming. Israel has been through wars, captivity, exile and domination by foreign powers, and even in Luke’s time is ruled by the Romans.
The mantel of God’s promise is placed on the shoulders of Zechariah, a veteran Temple priest who attends his duties faithfully. When he’s chosen to enter the sanctuary and perform the incense offering, his service 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.
Like Abraham before him, Zechariah is skeptical when he hears the promise of a newborn son. “How shall I know that this is so?” he asks. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 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 presence in these events.
It’s not until his son is born, circumcised, and named that Zechariah is again able to speak. In his long silence, Zechariah 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 faithfulness, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.” These words come at a child’s birth, with a whole life yet to be lived.
Knowing how God has proven faithful in the past — even when all hope seemed lost — builds trust in God in the present and the future. Even while Caesar and Herod rule with iron fists, God’s mercy is breaking into this world in the unlikely births of two infants in obscure Judean villages— John the Baptist, and then, Jesus.
Luke’s orderly account was written against the backdrop of a world of disorder, where the balance of worldly power resided in the might of Roman Legions and justice was hard to find. It was a world where faithful people were asking questions about governance and taxes and the right thing to do.
In the midst of a soulless world, Luke decided to write an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, so that we might know the truth of what we have been instructed. It is a story beginning in the darkness of night, when an angel heralds the birth of a child born who will save all people.
This is a story that reminds us that the world is more alive with God than we may realize and that it is often when the world seems most chaotic, and despair seems the most reasonable emotion, exactly at the time we are ready to give up, when the worst seems to be the norm, precisely at that time is when God is most likely, as well as most needed, to come to us, and does so in a way in which the familiar is transformed into the extraordinary, even in an orderly account.
It’s a miraculous happening in a very ordinary way.
A couple of weeks ago (Dec. 4), I watched on television, live from NYC, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the annual extravaganza where people from everywhere but NYC gather to watch a cavalcade of entertainers dance and sing and eventually light the Christmas Tree at 30 Rock.
And this year, like all the others, the tree was bigger, the lights more plentiful, the gaudy display of colors and dazzle on the surrounding buildings was more than ever before. Except that I noticed something that I don’t think I’ve ever put together in quite the same way.
The stage where the entertainers were dancing and singing was at the East End of the Promenade of Rockefeller Center, or so it seemed, rather than at the West end of the plaza where the skating rink and the tree are located.
And if you knew what you were looking at, beyond the colors and the dazzle and the sprays of light thrown on all the buildings, when the camera gave a momentary full screen view, you could see that the building on the left, across Fifth Avenue, most distant from the tree and the skating rink, set apart from all the very expensive jewelry stores and ritzy hotels and Saks Fifth Avenue… set apart from them all was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, silently, quietly, passively present amidst all the Holly Jolly Christmas being celebrated across the street.
And there you have it, Luke’s orderly account set over and against the world’s disorder and material excess. Christmas expressed in two very different ways juxtaposed on opposite sides of the Avenue.
On the one hand the skating rink, the tree with 50,000 LED lights, seen by ½ million people a day, the very epitome of the indulgence we make of Christmas, the holly jolly merry season located among the most expensive line of stores in midtown Manhattan, celebrating all the excess and commercialism and material things that the world can offer on the one side of the street, while on the opposite side is the High Altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the body of Christ is broken for us day and night, night and day, every day, quietly present to witness to the fact that God is quietly with us in the world, there to be seen by the eyes of faith for those who look to such things, making an orderly account of God’s love for us, poured out in the cup, broken in the bread, and there in every time and season present in word and sacrament and prayer.
Luke wanted us to have an orderly account of the work of One who joined with us, from above, simply, quietly, with no special fanfare.
God is quietly present in the life of the young man from Galilee who joins us on our way, and who is the Savior of the World.
I really don’t think we have any idea how present God really is in this insanely hectic and rude and chaotic world. No idea whatsoever. Except when from time to time we pause, and look, and see, as did Luke, the One who is already here meeting us on our way, if we will only notice what is right in front of us. Amen.