The Birth of the Messiah: Introduction
Luke: 1 Zechariah and Elizabeth
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast November 30, 2008. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this first Sunday in the season of Advent. Millions of Americans are traveling today after spending time with family and friends over Thanksgiving. We offer prayers for safe travel as well as prayers for patience for everyone in crowded airports and on the highways. I spent much of the weekend raking leaves and grading papers. I offered students extra credit to come over and take care of the yard for me, but apparently that is unethical. Alas. Some of the div students claim they want to become Moravians, but that might be because they think they always get coffee in Moravian worship services. Speaking of students, let me invite all of you to our lessons and carols service for Advent, which will be in Wait Chapel on Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. The Divinity School choir is particularly good this year, and I think you’ll enjoy our version of an old Anglican tradition. In the Moravian Church, today is the day that we sing the Hosanna antiphonally. Over the years, I’ve discovered that many children think that we are singing Ho, Ho, Santa! Blessed is he that comes! Here in the chapel of Home Church we have a beautiful homemade Advent Wreath provided by my favorite shepherdess, who has requested that she remain anonymous.
Intro to the Birth Narratives: Advent is a season of preparation, and I thought it might be interesting to take a close look at the stories of Jesus’ birth found in Luke and Matthew. We hear these stories read in worship and see children act them out in Christmas pageants, but rarely do we have an opportunity to examine them in detail. We’ll start Luke because his version fits the themes of Advent so well. Judging from past experience, we’ll still be discussing Matthew’s version in January, which is appropriate since that is the season of Epiphany. I will be relying heavily on the monumental work of the late Raymond Brown, a Catholic priest and biblical scholar, who appears to have read every article on the birth narratives published in the major Western languages. He notes:
“The infancy narratives have an importance far greater than their length. They have offered abundant material for reflection both to Christian and non-Christian, to saint and skeptic. … Nevertheless, these narratives have also been a prime target for rationalistic scoffing. The frequent angelic appearances, the virginal conception, a marvelous star guiding magi from the East, a child prodigiously endowed with wisdom – to many these are patently legendary themes.” (Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 25)
From now until Epiphany (and perhaps beyond), we’ll unpack these stories, looking at their meaning rather than focusing on their historicity. They are important witnesses of the church’s faith in Jesus. The historical facts are less important than the message they communicate about the Lord’s Anointed.
Relationship of Matthew and Luke: To begin with, we should note that the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew are quite distinct. We are so accustomed to nativity scenes and tableaux depicting shepherds and magi around the manger in Bethlehem that we fail to notice that Luke does not mention magi and Matthew has neither shepherds nor a manger. When I was in charge of the nativity scene at Moravian Seminary, I moved the magi a little closer to Bethlehem each week, making sure they did not reach their destination until January 6. By then I had sent the shepherd back to the fields, but no one noticed.
Though the narratives are distinct, there are a few things common to both. Jesus’ parents were named Mary and Joseph, who was a descendent of King David. They were legally bound to be married, but had not yet had sexual relations. An angel announced that they would have a special child whose conception was not by human means, and the angel instructed that the child should be named Jesus because he would be a Savior. Matthew and Luke also agree that the baby was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod the Great, but was raised in Nazareth. That is a pretty long list of agreements between the two gospels, and it seems certain that these things were part of the Christian tradition about Jesus long before the evangelists wrote their books.
Despite the agreement on these details, the stories about Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke are so different that it is unlikely either author knew the work of the other. We’ll look at these differences in detail over the next few weeks, but for now I’ll just note that Joseph hardly appears in Luke’s Gospel and Mary never speaks in Matthew’s. In Matthew, the holy family is already living in Bethlehem when the angel appears; in Luke they travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth because of a census. The two gospels give different genealogies for Joseph, and so on. Each author wrote his account of the birth of Jesus in a way that highlighted the theology of the gospel.
Other Gospels: It is interesting that Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels in the New Testament that include stories about Jesus’ birth. Scholars today generally agree that Mark is the oldest gospel we have. There may have been earlier gospels that have been lost, but Mark appears to be the first genuine gospel to incorporate the teachings of Jesus in the story of his ministry and passion. The opening line Mark’s Gospel says this is the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” but it begins by discussing the preaching of John the Baptist.
In other words, the life of Jesus before his baptism by John was relatively unimportant for understanding Jesus as the Son of God, according to Mark. As we saw in our study of the Gospel of John, that book does not have a birth narrative either. It also begins the story of Jesus’ life with the preaching of John the Baptist, but that evangelist included a prologue about the eternal Word of God having become incarnate. Though most scholars think John is the latest of the four canonical gospels, it betrays no real interest in the birth of Jesus.
There are several gospels excluded from the New Testament have stories about Jesus birth and childhood. Most of these were written in the 2nd or even 3rd century, and some of them are quite outlandish. In the Protoevangelium of James, for instance, there is a great deal about the Virgin Mary and the problems caused by her unexpected pregnancy. Some of the material in that rejected gospel became part of Catholic teaching about Mary, such as the claim that her parents were Joachim and Anne. It is also a very anti-Semetic gospel.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas includes stories about the miracles baby Jesus performed, such as making clay pigeons come to life. According to that gospel, he was definitely not a human being like the rest of us. These late gospels are more like tabloid newspaper stories than gospels, and they have little value for the Christian life. Scholars point out, though, that the rejected gospels demonstrate that over time, Christians tried to fill in the missing parts of Jesus’ biography. Where facts were missing, they relied on imagination. Matthew and Luke were probably written about 80 years after the birth of Jesus, and the authors had to sift through stories, memories, and legends that were told in the church of the time. Luke begins his gospel with a wonderful little prologue that acknowledges that he consulted multiple sources in writing his gospel.
A Scholar at Work: I love the prologue to Luke’s Gospel because it tells us that Luke read other gospels. Scholars are certain he read Mark’s gospel since he copied much of it word for word. It is unlikely that he read Matthew or John, but he may have read gospels that are now lost to us. Scholars call one of those lost gospels “Q” from the German word Quelle, which means “source.” Matthew also used Q since there are many places where Matthew and Luke appear to be using the same source. Assuming this was the case, we can conclude that Q did not have a birth narrative since Matthew and Luke have radically different accounts of Jesus’ birth. In other words, Luke had access to sources and traditions that Matthew, Mark, and John did not.
In his prologue, Luke tells us that he also used stories passed down by the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, meaning the apostles and evangelists. Luke also tells us another important detail; he intended to write an orderly account of the good news about Jesus. This does not mean he was writing a modern, scholarly biography of Jesus with all of the details of his life. He was writing an orderly account of the life and teachings of Jesus for the use of someone he calls “Theophilus,” which means “lover of God.” Luke tells us from the very beginning that he has crafted his Gospel carefully to enhance its meaning, and scholars agree that it is a beautifully written and complex piece of Greek literature.
The Birth of John the Baptist Like Mark and John, Luke begins the story of Jesus with John the Baptist, but unlike them, he begins with a long story about the birth of John. Each of the gospels situations the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with the work of John the Baptist, and there is little doubt that Jesus and some of his first disciples had followed John, perhaps until John was arrested. John’s Gospel, as we saw, goes out of its way to diminish John and make him subordinate to Jesus. Luke was written about the same time as John, but Luke highlights the importance of John as a way to increase the status of Jesus. The prophet who prepared the way for Jesus was also chosen by God before his birth and was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke presents the births of John and Jesus in parallel fashion, but with Jesus as the superior figure.
Read Luke 1:5-17
Zechariah the Priest Luke claims that the father of John the Baptist was a priest named Zechariah. There is no evidence for this outside of Luke’s Gospel, and scholars are divided over whether it is accurate. John Baptist is mentioned in several ancient Jewish sources, but none of them say that he was the son of a priest. According to I and II Chronicles, there were at least seven priests were named Zechariah, one of whom was stoned to death in the courtyard of the Temple on the orders of the king (II Chr 24:21). It is possible that Luke chose the name Zechariah for the father of John the Baptist because John was killed at the command of an unrighteous king. Later Christian legends claimed that John’s father Zechariah was actually the High Priest, but that is far-fetched. It is also possible that one of Luke’s sources had recorded the name of John’s father and that he was indeed a priest of the division of Abijah and that his wife was also a descendent of Aaron.
Barren Bearers of the Covenant: Luke tells us that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were old and childless. Barrenness was commonly grounds for divorce in ancient Israel, but Zechariah and Elizabeth had grown old together. The fact that Zechariah had not taken another wife is a testament to his love and faithfulness. There are many couples today that know the sadness of not having children and grandchildren who bring life and joy into the world. This is felt especially during this season of the year, but in the ancient world lack of children was more tragic than sad. Elderly people depended on their children for the necessities of life.
It was commonly believed that barrenness was a punishment from God, but Luke makes it clear that Zechariah and Elizabeth were blameless. They observed the Torah and were as faithful to God as they were to each other. It is almost certain that Luke wants us to remember other couples in the Old Testament who did not have children. There are many parallels between the story of Elizabeth and that of Hannah in I Samuel, as we shall see. Even more important for the meaning of Luke’s Gospel is that the birth of John recalls the story of Abraham and Sarah.
They were the great patriarchs of Israel who did not have a son until they were too old to have children by natural means. Their only son, Isaac, was the child of the promise who was conceived through the power of God. In many ways, the birth of John the Baptist connects the story of Jesus with the story of Israel’s covenant with God. Luke is elegantly informing us that John is the transitional figure between the Old Covenant of Abraham and the New Covenant of Jesus. The fact that birth of John is announced in the Temple indicates the continuity between the covenants.
Lots of Incense It appears that Luke had some accurate information about the priesthood in the Judea in the 1st century. One Jewish source from the 1st century claims that there were four major priestly families with about 5000 priests in each family (Brown, 258). That means that there may have been as many 20,000 priests and Levites around the time of the birth of Jesus. Priests only served in the Temple for a week or two every six months. Luke includes the authentic detail that they cast lots to decide who had the great honor of burning incense in the sanctuary. Typically, a priest would have this privilege only once in his life. So this was Zechariah’s once in a lifetime moment as a priest.
Several times in the Old Testament, God makes an appearance to a priest in the Temple, such as when the prophet Isaiah saw the throne of God and an angel took a piece of burning coal and placed it on his lips. With this beginning, we can expect that something special is going to happen to Zechariah in the Temple. We are like the crowds gathered at the Temple in the afternoon, waiting for the priest to bring a blessing from the Lord, but this time, something unexpected happened.
Angelic Messenger: Luke says that an angel appeared to Zechariah. He does not describe the angel, and we should not necessarily assume that he was a winged figure of ambiguous gender. The word Angel means “Messenger,” and there are several angels in the Old Testament. Luke does not dwell on the physical details of Zechariah’s vision, but he does give a detail common to most theophanies; Zechariah was frightened. The German scholar Rudolph Otto discovered that in most cases when humans encounter the Holy, they experience both attraction and fear. Holiness is marked by a sense of the uncanny; that strange sensation that something does not belong in our world. Even mystics who long for union with God are frightened by their experience. A God who does not leave you trembling on the floor is probably not the real God.
Like most angels through the ages, this one tells Zechariah not to be afraid. These are words that have to be said by the Holy One or they have no meaning. It is the Holy One who has to remove the fear that we feel in his presence. Do not be afraid. Without those words of reassurance and encouragement, we cannot hear what comes next. Fear is the natural response of a creature in the presence of the creator, but fear cannot be allowed to dominate our lives or our relationship with God. Do not be afraid, the angel says soothingly to Zechariah, and Zechariah is able to listen to the angel’s promise that Elizabeth will bear a son who will be named John. “The Baptist” gets added later.
Unfortunately, it appears that we are out of time, and so I will leave you with that note of anticipation as we prepare to enter our modern temples and offer our prayers to God.