Reading for Luke 1:5-13, 57-80
This is the assigned reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent, which also coincides with Christmas Eve. Later in the evening we’ll hear Luke 2:1-20, which gives us the traditional birth narrative including angels making the proclamation to shepherds out in the field about Jesus being born in Bethlehem in poverty. Everything about the story flips what is expected on its head. We have a baby who is king who has titles that are attributed to Caesar, the king, military leader, and high priest of the Roman empire and the Roman pagan religious faith. We have a savior born in squalor among animals and a lack of resources in contrast to a “savior” who ruled the known world in Rome – again Romans attributed this title to Caesar since it was he who brought about the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome, which came through military conquest and subjugation. The two could not be further apart. We have the proclamation being given to shepherds out in the fields, not a grand parade with trumpets and soldiers and enslaved enemies who were defeated and on display for mocking before the crowds in the capitol of the empire.
Sunday morning’s Gospel reading is part of the set up to prepare us for this stark contrast. We hear about Zechariah and is wife Elizabeth. The passage goes out of its way to show their lineage, just so we know they are legitimate. We hear about Elizabeth’s barrenness in her old age, making a clear connection to the story of Sarah and her barrenness in her old age. The child she will bear, much like Sarah’s child, will be important thanks to God. While Sarah’s child will be one of the patriarchs of faith, Elizabeth’s child will be a prophet who will be faithful to God – someone we should listen to.
Zechariah, for his part is doing his priestly duty in the temple when an angel appears before him and proclaims that his wife will bear Zechariah a son and he will name him John. In verses 14-25 we hear about Zechariah questioning all of this and as punishment, he can’t talk until the child is born. This muteness, along with the delay in the temple, is a signal to the people that something divine has happened.
And as we proceed further in the passage, to the time of the birth and the naming of the child, we hear Elizabeth and Zechariah (who writes the name down due to his muteness) name the child John, which means “Yahweh is gracious.” And it is at this point that Zechariah’s punishment is lifted and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks a prophecy about God and John. And the chapter ends by telling us that John won’t be following the path of his father by being a priest in the temple, but rather will be out in the wilderness. God is clearly up to something remarkable.
It is at this point that Luke 1 ends and we see Luke 2 build on the same sequence of events – The birth of a child under unusual circumstances, angels making proclamations, and instead of pointing to the established institutions, we find ourselves out in fields and in a small town where royalty would never find itself. God is clearly not only up to something but is flipping the script. Or maybe humanity flipped the script of what God had designed long ago, and now God is actively making it right-side-up again? This is what the birth of John proclaims and what the birth of Jesus is really about – God is reestablishing shalom (wholeness, completeness, peace). How truly radical this is.
Questions for reflection
What are the titles that we pay attention to and why? How about the circumstances of a story? What makes something legitimate? And how does God take all that and flip it around in our world today?