Luke 1:5-57 (5-25, 26-57)
December 20, 2020
— The times in which we live point to our Christ
There are two people you will never see at any nativity scene – the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge. Just kidding, you may have been expecting me to say something like Elizabeth and Zechariah after what I just read. Yes, that is correct. You will never see them in the gathering of folks around the newborn baby Jesus, but Luke the Evangelist is convinced you cannot have the story of Jesus’ birth without the two. In Luke’s mind, the story of Jesus’ birth cannot be told without serious time in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Isn’t that interesting? Mathew does not mention them, but Luke spends considerable time in their story concerning the birth of their son, John, who became famous for preparing the people for Jesus and bringing baptism as a regular practice of spiritual preparation for Christ. Are they really that important?
Well, John really is that important. John is there in all four gospels, and Jesus himself says no one greater was ever born. John is the herald of Jesus, his promoter, his guidepost, his cousin, and his brother in faith. John is huge in the story of the gospel, and it turns out that John’s birth was very special, too. As it turns out, John’s literal entire existence was to point to Jesus. I doubt any of us has ever had that clear a sense of devotion where you were literally born with a mission – a mission that cost John his life as a prophet for God. His entire life was for this single purpose, to get people ready for God’s Kingdom in the Christ.
So why do we need to know John’s backstory?
Luke is purposefully linking the birth of John to the story of Abraham and Sarah and others who had trouble conceiving like Hannah in 1 Samuel. Those persons all could not have children without God’s help, and God helped them all, but those children all had a special purpose in God’s plan. John is also one of the rare group of Nazarites who had a severe lifestyle and dietary restrictions. The biggest one is that they could never drink alcohol, and you may remember Samson, another Nazarite, was not allowed to cut his hair. John is also known for his exotic wardrobe sense and diet of wild foods.
And that’s just the beginning.
The three characters here – Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary – are all in times of great distress. The world all around them was crying out for help, salvation, redeeming, and healing. King Herod was a Roman appointed puppet king who was not even Jewish. The Romans crushed the people with monstrous taxation and abuse. Poverty was widespread and rampant. In the midst of it all is a people crying out for God’s help. Their hope was that God was still listening. It was dark in those days back then. And they had literally one solution – God’s messiah to come and set everything straight.
You would think Zechariah might be ready for God. He is a priest, after all. You would think he might expect God to do something to help his people. You would think he would welcome an appearance of God’s messenger. As it turns out, on the day it is his turn to enter the holy places, he is undone when God promises him a son who will introduce the Messiah. Zechariah cannot believe it at first and looses the ability to speak for nine months. Just imagine how tumultuous that must have been to be unable to speak for that long. And to know that you would have a son who would introduce the world to the long-awaited Messiah.
Elizabeth did not know what was coming, but she was painfully aware of what she had missed. Sorry, ladies, but a big part of why you were in a family back then was to have children. If you could not have children, for whatever reason, YOU were the one who was assigned the blame, the guilt, the sin. Something was wrong with YOU if you did not produce any children. The others would talk about you, certainly pity you, maybe joke about you. Eventually, they would quit and forget, but the pain and shame would live with you forever. That was Elizabeth’s curse. She had lived with that scandal, that stigma, for her entire married life. Now, the way of children seems to be done for her. There was no longer any hope… until God found a way.
Elizabeth takes Zechariah’s news very well, even though her husband is not able to speak it too her. The scandal, the talk, the face of public notice, however, is still too much. She goes into hiding for five months. Rather than shout it from the rooftops that she is having a baby, she retreats into privacy for her pregnancy. She is not ashamed at all with having a child now. She is very grateful, but the scars and being an object of public discussion seem to be too much.
This brings us to Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. You probably remember her passage better than the others in Luke 1. It is one of the regulars in the Christmastime readings, but I wonder if you ever stopped to consider Mary’s crisis in the middle of all of this. I’m not talking about her becoming pregnant before she was married. Sure, that is a serious crisis in itself, but I’m looking specifically at Mary’s song. Luke’s Gospel is known for its songs. It is the only gospel that includes these hymns of praise to God. We know Mary’s hymn as the Magnificat. The song is where her heart is.
There is nothing in Mary’s song that specifically mentions the baby. Go ahead and read it yourself again later. Mary speaks boldly about being blessed, but she sings about what the blessing means to the people. It is not about her having a miraculous baby; it is about her having the Messiah, God’s anointed, the Christ, the one who will turn the world on its head and set things straight.
That is the crisis Mary sees. She is young, somewhere around 14 years of age, but she is well aware of how messed up the world is. She knows how hard the rich press the poor. She knows how the little people get squeezed until they pop. She knows how lives of decent people are thrown away like they don’t matter. What is absolutely amazing to her is that God is using some backwater country bumpkin girl to bring about the Kingdom of God. She doesn’t seem to be conflicted about having a child before she is married at all. That’s how hard her world is and what this opportunity means to her. The Kingdom of God, God’s salvation, is everything.
All three of these family members were invited to venture out on the limb, to confront their worries, their fears, and their histories. With the coming of John the Baptizer and Jesus, the world was going to change, and they all had to choose how they would receive that change. No one embraces change unless they have to. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary all had their lives as they knew them come to an end. Change came to them, and they got through it as a family. Zechariah and Elizabeth had each other and Mary had Elizabeth.
It has never been in the interest of God’s people to create divisions. We sometimes feel like we are helped by walling off this people or that. The world is simpler or easier if we cut off the people who make us nervous or uncomfortable of offend us. The poor, the weak, the people of other faiths, the people who love differently, the people of another color, there is always someone we try to make the enemy, someone we make the “other.”
The world is already hard enough without making more enemies. The world is already difficult enough without working together. The last 9 months has exposed more and more about how divided we can be. Just this week, Bedford and Campbell Counties tried to throw off the governor’s new round of restrictions and oppose this authority. This has already happened with the 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries, but now there is talk of 1st Amendment Sanctuaries. Where does it end? Eventually, I wonder if the counties will all declare themselves completely independent of the state government because they don’t like the governor and don’t share his policy priorities. What we should be focusing on is saving as many lives as possible.
There are ways to go out on a limb, but it is not carrying a saw to cut the limb off behind you. Strengthening our ties and building up community is the only way we will get through these days and weather this storm. This is the only way we will be able to reach out and expand our church family. We must face the crises of this day, the difficulties of our lives, as a family in faith.
When Jesus came and was born in a cave, he did not do it so that we could fight each other or make each other the enemy. He did not come so that we could make ourselves better than others. He did not come so that we could diminish the humanity of anyone different from us. He came so that we could have more life, better life, abundant life, life in love together.
To God be the glory. Amen.