As Luke prepares the stage for John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-13, 57-80), he picks up familiar themes – a woman who longs for a child becomes pregnant through God’s intervention, an older couple see a long-awaited dream fulfilled and an angel comes with a terrifying message.
As Luke introduces Zechariah and Elizabeth, he wants us to understand that we’re talking about religious royalty. They both have an impressive priestly lineage. Adding to that, Zechariah is serving in the temple, alone, when the angel comes to him. Surprisingly, Zechariah is startled to have an encounter with God in this holy place, while doing religious work. He doesn’t seem to be expecting anything other than the usual routine duties.
Zechariah wants more assurance than the angel is willing to offer, and the angel makes him mute. Often this is seen as a punishment for his doubts, but it is also God giving him space to ponder all of this. Silence is the place where new understanding takes root, and where our spirits expand to meet God’s plans. The story says that Elizabeth, too, enters a period of quiet, as if both of them need the stillness to become ready for this unusual child. Silence allows the angel’s words to sink in, and creates a season of preparation for what’s coming next.
The verses selected for the reading leave out the part where the angel gives delightfully practical instructions about the child to be born – the name, and the prohibition against strong drink, since the child will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the beginning. Naming the baby was a traditional privilege of the father, but the angel is the one who provides a name for this child. (Similar to what happens to Joseph in Matthew’s gospel.) The angel is clear that this is not just good news for this couple, but for all the people whose lives will be touched by their child. “Many will rejoice at this birth,” and the child will be a messenger to the people from God.
As an adult, John the Baptist has a spirit of urgency and clarity, but here the promise is one of rejoicing in his presence. A spirit of joy will travel with him, the angel says. His life is part of God’s plan to infuse the world with justice. These events are apparently the most entertaining happenings for the Judean hill country in some time, and cause a lot of gossip, as “all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.” People begin to wonder who John will become.
After John is born and named, Zechariah’s voice comes back, and he makes up for lost time with a long song of praise to God. His song, the Benedictus, is one of three such songs in Luke’s gospel, each one speaking of how God reverses the ordinary in human life.
Luke begins to tell the story of Jesus here, and introduces themes he will pick up again and again – reversals, God’s appearance to the lowly instead of the exalted, and a consistent drumbeat for justice for all people.
- How does your faith community offer an alternative way of being in the world? James Hanson at Working Preacher observes, about Zechariah’s song of praise, “Forgiveness; compassion; mercy; peace. These are not states of being, but actions…God shows faithfulness to God’s promises when the gospel so envelops us through the Holy Spirit that we live out these actions in our daily lives, and form communities characterized by them. It is an alternative way of being in the world…” Communities of faith offer us a way to live that alternative vision together, giving each other strength and wisdom for that out-of-the-ordinary way of living. How do you see that happening where you are?
- Zechariah is a “religious professional” and he has trouble taking in the message from the angel. Later in Luke’s gospel, Mary will have an easier time with an unexpected message from God. How do position, privilege, and power keep us from hearing God in our lives? Where has our faith become so routine that we don’t really expect a message from God to show up?
- If Zechariah’s silence is not a punishment, but a chance to take in what God is doing, do you have similar silences in your life? Your congregation’s life? Our lives are filled with words, but are there things that can only happen in silence? And how do we separate the silence of injustice and complacency from fruitful, birth-giving silence?
- Zechariah, Elizabeth and then Mary all become objects of public conversation as God’s plans unfold in their lives, in ways that don’t fit the usual patterns. What is it like to be at the center of this kind of scrutiny? To be watched so carefully? Is there are a parallel with Muslim people in our society? Immigrants?
- Where are your thoughts taking you? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.
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