Luke 1:57-2:7 – The Births of John and Jesus
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 21, 2008
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this fourth Sunday of Advent. Today is the shortest day of the year, but we light our candles as beacons of hope in the midst of darkness. I hope that these final days before Christmas are a blessed time for you and those God has given to you to love. We’ve finished our decorations at home, which include a wooden partridge in our pear tree in the front yard. We have no chimney so the stockings are hung on the stairs with care. I want to thank all of the people who made donations in our name to local charities. That is a wonderful way to remember people during this season of giving. The demands on food banks and homeless shelters are much greater than they have been in years. If we truly love our neighbors, we will share what we have so that they will have food and shelter. We had a great time on Friday night here at the church as we made garlands and hung them in the sanctuary. Each year I love how young and old, men and women, come together in this common project. I hope you will join us at one of the lovefeasts on Christmas Eve. They tend to be full, so come early, and remember that we have apple cider at the 11:00 a.m. children’s service.
During this season of Advent, we have been studying the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. Every year we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, in part so I can hear Linus recite Luke 2 in answer to Charlie’s plea: can someone tell me what Christmas is all about. But we have seen in our study that Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist alongside the story of Jesus’ birth.
The Birth of John the Baptist At the end of chapter one, we read that the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and all of neighbors and relatives rejoiced that a woman thought to be barren now had a son. Celebrations were probably even more joyous in ancient days than they are now because childbirth was much more dangerous for mothers and babies then. The birth of the first-born is especially a time of rejoicing. Years ago when my oldest daughter was a toddler she ran toward the street. I raced after her to catch her before she went into traffic. A friend of mine from Africa saw my concern and said solemnly, “Yes, indeed. The child who opens the womb is very precious.” In the case of Elizabeth, the birth of the first-born was even more significant because she had lived for decades with the shame and heartbreak of being barren. Now she had helped bring new life into the family and into the world. It was a time for dancing, singing, and feasting.
But the father was silent during the celebration. Zechariah had been struck dumb nine months before. During the whole time his wife was pregnant, he was unable to express his joy, hopes, and fears, or his love for her. Eight days after the birth it was time for the ceremony of circumcision. The boy still had no name because it was the father’s right to name the child. Finally, the family decided to just name the baby Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth protested. She insisted that the baby’s name was John, just as the angel had instructed.
Naming John Was this a confirmation of prophecy or was Elizabeth following her husband’s commands? Luke does not tell us. The family objected to Elizabeth’s name for the child, even though John was a common name in priestly families. She does not relent, and so they asked the father what name he wanted. The text says that they had to communicate by signs, which may indicate that Zechariah was deaf as well as mute. They eventually bring him a writing tablet so he could write the name. We are so accustomed to writing in place of speech that we are not surprised at this, but the ability to write was rare in the 1st century. The written word was almost magical, and Zechariah had that special ability.
Zechariah wrote that the boy’s name was to be John, just as the angel commanded, and as soon as he named the child he was able to speak again. There is something powerful in this image of a father who rediscovers his power to communicate once he bestows the right name on his child. I wonder how many fathers in this world have metaphorically lost their ability to communicate because they have never known the true identity of their sons. Zechariah resisted the pressure to make his son a copy of himself: a priest named Zechariah. Instead he gave him the identity chosen by God. The boy would be John. “The Baptist” got added later.
Rather than rejoicing with Zechariah, the people were afraid. Fear is the natural human response to unusual events. We think we want to see a miracle, but real miracles frighten us. We are disoriented when the mute speak, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the evil repent. We think it would be nice to know someone truly exceptional, but it usually makes us uncomfortable to be near those filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the reason John left his father’s home and lived in the desert was because of the lingering suspicion that he wasn’t normal.
Zechariah’s Song Last week we discussed the Magnificat, and I mentioned that there are several such hymns in the first two chapters of Luke. One of them is placed on the lips of Zechariah at the end of chapter 1. It is more plausible that a priest would sing a hymn of joy on the spur of the moment than a young woman like Mary, but scholars generally agree that it was Luke who chose this song for Zechariah. Like the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song sounds like it could have come from the Old Testament. In fact, scholars have shown that many of the verses closely parallel verses throughout the OT, especially the Psalms and prophets. This should not surprise us. Though it is less common today to borrow language from Scripture, this used to be a common practice. Many of the sentences in our Moravian liturgies are taken directly from Scripture.
Read: Luke 1:67-79
A Jewish Hymn of Salvation? Like the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song is about God saving Israel, but Zechariah’s song focuses on Israel being rescued from the hands of her enemies. It specifically mentions the prophets of old who promised that God would redeem his people and remember the covenant with Abraham. Once again, Luke is connecting the story of Jesus to the old covenant with the children of Abraham, but the song introduces a new and important theme: the house of David. Zechariah sings of a “horn of salvation in the House of David.” The image of the horn is used several times in the Old Testament, usually as a symbol of potency and authority.
It is not clear if Zechariah is singing about John as the horn of salvation who will deliver the people. We discussed earlier that John the Baptist is depicted like Samson the Nazarite, and it is possible that this hymn of praise was originally about John the Baptist as a savior. But Luke has adapted it for his gospel by adding a line about John being a prophet who would prepare the way. Verses 76 and 77 are more clearly Christian than the rest of the poem since they speak of forgiveness of sins and the knowledge of salvation, important themes in Luke’s gospel.
One of the most beautiful parts of Zechariah’s song is the end, which speaks of a light rising in the darkness to guide our feet in the way of peace. It is not clear if this was part of the original Jewish hymn or is a Lucan reference to the appearance of Jesus. Either way, it is a beautiful image of salvation as release from fear and death. The Greek word anatole in this stanza can refer either to the stars rising at night or to the rising sun. We Moravians draw on this idea when we sing about Jesus as the Morning Star. As we sing that hymn, we should keep in mind Zechariah’s prayer that the Messiah will guide our feet in the way of peace.
Caesar Augustus It may be significant that Luke inserted a song that refers to the enemies who hate Israel just before beginning his narration of the birth of Jesus. He moves quickly from the birth of John the Baptist to a statement that an edict went out from the Roman Emperor. Luke wrote his gospel just a few years after the first Jewish War when the Judeans rebelled against the Empire and were brutally crushed. Jerusalem was besieged for more than a year, and the residents were starving. After they surrendered in 70 AD, the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple. Titus’ triumph was well-known throughout the Empire, especially in the cities where there were large Jewish communities. The original readers of Luke’s gospel would have had no difficulty identifying the enemies of Israel as the Romans.
We miss all of this context when we start the Christmas story with the first verse of chapter 2. That is one of the most famous sentences in the Bible, and it sounds best in King James English: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” Luke was providing a date for the birth of Jesus; he was placing the birth of the Messiah in the context of both world history and Jewish history. Augustus was the first and in many ways the greatest Roman emperor. All subsequent emperors were called either Caesar or Augustus. As late as the 20th century, European emperors called themselves Kaiser or Czar in imitation of Augustus. Long before Luke wrote his gospel, Augustus called himself the son of God, and after his death he was deified by the Roman Senate. Luke’s gospel addresses the question of who is the true Son of God: Jesus Christ or the emperor? Which is preferable the Pax Romana or the Peace of Christ? Luke begins the story of Christianity with a decree of Caesar, and he ends his account with Paul arriving in Rome, symbolizing the victory of Christ over Augustus. Those of you who think religion has nothing to do with politics should ponder this.
Read Luke: 2-1-7 (KJV) And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Quirinius Luke says that Jesus was born during the time when Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, called a census in order to tax the people of Judea. That would seem to be conclusive evidence for dating the birth of Jesus since we know from Roman records that Quirinius was appointed the legate of Syria after Herod Archelaus, who had succeeded his father, Herod the Great. In 6 AD the Romans removed Archelaus and appointed a governor named Quirinius. He had been a successful general in Asia Minor, and the emperor gave him the task of disposing of Archelaus’ property and restoring order.
Luke’s statement that Augustus decreed that “all the world” should be enrolled does not mean that one day the emperor launched a world-wide census. The “whole world” meant only the Roman world, and even then there was no general census recorded in Roman history. What Luke probably meant was that it was the policy of the Empire to account for the property of all subject people. Such censuses were handled on an ad hoc basis as governors asserted authority over subject people, thus Quirinius conducted the first census of Judea under Roman authority.
The trouble with Luke’s statement about the census is that disagrees with an earlier statement that John the Baptist was born during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BC, ten years before Quirinius’s census. Matthew agrees that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. Though there have been many ingenuous attempts to harmonize the data about the birth of Jesus, none of them work. Either Jesus was born around 4 BC during the reign of Herod the Great or during the reign of Quirinius in 6 AD. This discrepancy shouldn’t bother us too much. We have to remember that Luke did not have access to the archives of the Roman Empire nor could he check back issues of the Jerusalem News and Record on-line. Written three quarters of a century after the events, it is not surprising that Luke’s chronology was a little fuzzy. He knew there was a controversial census around the time Jesus was born, and so he wrote that into his account. What was important to Luke was not the precise year of Jesus’ birth, but the fact that Mary and Joseph were two ordinary Jews who were subject to Roman authority. They were pushed around by the Romans like everyone else.
The goal of the census was taxation, which people don’t usually like. When Quirinius started listing property taxes, a man named Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Roman, which was brutally suppressed. The survivors formed a group of resistance fighters called the Zealots who were still active in the time of Jesus. The Zealots helped launch the great rebellion in 66 AD that led to the destruction of the Temple. Luke specifically mentions Judas the Galilean in Acts 5, calling him a false messiah. By linking the birth of Jesus to the census of Quirinius, Luke draws a vivid contrast between the violent uprising of Judas the Galilean and the appearance of the true Messiah, Jesus the Galilean.
Bethlehem There is another problem with Luke’s claim that Joseph took his wife to Bethlehem before of the census. There is almost no historical evidence to support the idea that people had to travel to their ancestral home to be taxed the way Luke has presented it. It is possible, though, that people had to assert their property rights in person. Is possible that Joseph went to Bethlehem in order to verify that he owned property there, probably a piece of land. Scholars are skeptical of this claim since Luke says that Mary had no place to stay in Bethlehem, but owning property does not mean that they had a house. Personally, I see nothing surprising in the idea that a resident of Galilee had to return to Judea to account for family property during the first Roman census of the province. It is even possible that they were actually on their way to register with the authorities in Jerusalem and simply stopped in Bethlehem out of necessity.
Since he took his pregnant wife with him, Joseph was probably planning to be there for several months, which may indicate that there was a dispute about the property. Even if Luke’s account is not historically accurate, Bethlehem plays an important role in the story. You may remember that Bethlehem was the town where Ruth the Moabite settled with her mother-in-law. She was the ancestor of King David. By highlighting Bethlehem, Luke is placing the birth of Jesus in the story of Ruth, David, and the kings of Judah. However, most modern scholars doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew assumes that Joseph was living in Bethlehem when Mary got pregnant and then moved to Galilee after the death of Herod the Great, but Luke claims that Joseph was living in Nazareth and had to travel to Bethlehem for the census.
Scholars assume that this interest in Bethlehem in the gospels is primarily because of a prophecy in Malachi that identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, but that alone would hardly account for Luke and Matthew both going to lengths to place the birth in Bethlehem. There is no indication outside of the New Testament that people placed much weight on this prophecy. There is simply not enough historical evidence to answer the question of Jesus’ birthplace definitively, keep in mind that our faith in Jesus does not rest on minor historical details.
Manger Many of us have nativity scenes or crèches in our homes, and there are countless Christmas pageants in churches around the world. It was St. Francis of Assisi who started the practice of re-enacting the Christmas story in the 13th century, but pictures of the nativity go back to earliest Christianity. Typically you see the Holy Family, the shepherds, magi, donkeys, cows, sheep, and camels. Frequently the setting is a cave outside of town. Oddly enough, the NT does not mention animals or a cave. Those details come from non-canonical gospels, especially the protoevangelium of James. Though rightly excluded from the NT, this gospel provides a third independent tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it claims that Mary delivered her baby in a cave where they were forced to take shelter. By the fourth century, the tradition of Jesus being born in a cave was so well-established that pilgrims regularly visited a particular cave to pay homage to the Christ-child. The Christian scholar Jerome established his monastery in adjacent caves, and today there is a beautiful church built over the cave, but there is nothing about a cave in Luke or Matthew.
All Luke says is that there was no room in the inn and so Mary laid the baby in a manger. This has been the subject of countless Christmas plays and sermons, often with a heartless innkeeper sending an expectant mother out into the cold, but the reality was probably quite different. The word we translate as “inn” does not mean the kind of lodgings we’re familiar with. It was much more like a very cheap youth hostel where people slept in a big room, often on the floor. It is quite likely that Luke meant that there was no room in such a place for a woman to deliver a baby, and we can presume that a more suitable place was found. Luke’s statement that Jesus was laid in a manger probably reflects the fact that animals were often kept in houses in the winter.
When the baby was born, the family used the most suitable cradle available. A manger is simply a feeding trough, which was probably filled with fresh hay to lay the baby in. Luke tells us that Mary swaddled the baby with cloths, which is Luke’s way of assuring us that Jesus was loved and cared for properly. In other words, the Messiah entered this world, much like other babies. This is a good place to end on this Sunday before Christmas. During Advent we have looked at hymns and prophecies about the births of John and Jesus. We have traveled with Mary to Bethlehem where she gave birth to the child that would shake the thrones of the mighty and bring salvation to the world. Let us leave with this image of a young mother, exhausted from her labor, as she lovingly swaddles her son and lays him in a manger. It is tableaux that needs no scholarly exegesis, but is a fit subject for songs: “Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem, twas that gave us, Christ to save us. Not Jerusalem.”