Good morning! We’re in one of my all-time sweet spots in the Bible today, having just finished Mark and now starting Luke. These are my two favorite gospels, for differing reasons. We’ve discussed the power and immediacy of ministry with Jesus in Mark, so let’s turn our attention to Luke’s main themes. This is the last of the three “synoptic” gospels (meaning they look at the Jesus story through quite similar eyes). Like other gospels, Luke lifts up recognizable themes throughout this narrative. His favorite emphases include angels, overlooked people (like women and the poor), and the Holy Spirit. We’ll see all these traits even today, just in Luke 1. Finally, Luke writes this gospel as the first of a two-volume set, sometimes called “Luke-Acts”. Today we start the book of Jesus’ life, then Acts will later tell us about the life of the early church started in Jesus’ name.
We only have one chapter today (Luke 1), but it’s packed with action and prophecy. Luke starts out directly addressing the book to Theophilus, whose name means “God-lover”. This could have been an actual person by that name intended as the recipient of the narrative, but I rather believe that “God-lover” is the person reading the text. Today the ancient text addresses each of us personally.
After the opening dedication, Luke begins to tell the story, but he doesn’t start with Jesus. John the Baptist gets many more “column inches” in this gospel than elsewhere. His miraculous conception expands the number of miracles associated with Jesus to even before Jesus’ own birth. Again, we don’t hear anything about John the Baptist’s origins in any other gospel, but here we get an extended temple visitation by the angel Gabriel to his father Zechariah. Gabriel’s announcement of the child’s prophesied birth explicitly connects him to “the spirit and power of Elijah”. I find Zechariah’s disbelief interesting since it comes despite (or maybe because of) his lifelong service in the temple. Institutional loyalty has many benefits (this pastor would be unwise to say otherwise!), but it can also limit the scope of what seems possible to include only what the institution is prepared to provide or bear.
The same angel Gabriel appears again six months later to a young maiden Mary, with the same opening words: “Do not be afraid!” (How scary must angels be??) The messenger again instructs the human recipient as to the nature and name of the child to be born. Mary asks how it could happen that she will come to be with child, but otherwise she demonstrates more confidence than Zechariah. There is a great poem out there somewhere about how many women this angel visited, thousands upon thousands, before finding the one who would say as Mary does, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
When Mary visits her older relative Elizabeth, her presence excites the Spirit-filled baby in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth herself then feels the Holy Spirit and utters blessings, a line of which has made its way into the “Hail Mary” prayer of Catholics. Mary then breaks into praise as well. Her song (known to tradition as the “Magnificat” because that is the first word when this is written in Latin) appears to be adapted in large part from Hannah’s song centuries earlier at the birth of her son Samuel, in 1 Samuel 2. Both praise the upside-down ways of God, turning on its head every expectation of what’s powerful and important in the world.
Still more miracles abound at John the Baptist’s birth, as the speechless Zechariah confirms the unexpected name that Elizabeth gives the child. Then Zechariah prophecies also, “filled with the Holy Spirit” as others in this chapter have been. Zechariah’s “Benedictus” is another often-used poetic song giving praise to God. In it, he sets forth baby John’s vocation: to prepare God’s ways, giving knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. In so doing, he will be called “the prophet of the Most High”, the herald of Jesus. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Luke 2-3. Thanks for reading!