Introduction to Luke
First off, I love the personality of Luke that comes through just in the opening. He is a very detail oriented, research-minded, fact-based, objective reporter on the life and ministry of Jesus. He isn’t coming at this from an emotionally charged, feelings centric perspective. He is interested in what is true and reliable based on verifiable evidence. In short, he’s writing as a natural skeptic to supernatural ideas. Luke is cognitive in his orientation and his narrative should be read and understood with that in mind.
Furthermore, I really appreciate his clarity of purpose in v. 4. He is writing an account of Jesus’ life and ministry in order to substantiate apostolic teaching and eye-witness testimony to the truth of the gospel. Luke knows that there are doubters and skeptics who struggle to believe and live in light of the claims of the biblical gospel, and so he’s writing as a predisposed doubter to doubters in order to alleviate their doubts. He wants them convinced of the gospel as ultimate reality, but only because he himself, against all odds has become convinced of gospel realities. The defined purpose of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life is so that we may be certain of the real Jesus and the true gospel as the surest footing for our whole lives.
And that’s why I keep reading the Bible diligently as I do… and it’s why I hope you’ll commit yourself to reading the Bible personally too… to grow in your understanding of the gospel, your trust in Jesus, and your certainty that he is worth reordering all of life around.
Right out of the gate, Luke sets the stage with the difficult-to-resolve tension of a godly and righteous couple who were suffering the anguish and pain of childlessness into their advanced age. This deep desire of their heart, in spite of their devotion to God, had been withheld from them. And their hearts did not waver from the Lord in their suffering. Zechariah remains faithful to the Lord, and while serving as a priest, Luke, the medical doctor, oriented toward scientifically rooted causes and natural explanations for the things we experience, says something utterly supernatural occurred.
An angel appeared to Zechariah while he in the temple. Right away, Luke is telling us that we don’t even have the right categories and our worldview needs to be expanded to include spiritual realities which certainly influence and may actually physically manifest even within the material world we inhabit. He’s telling us our thoughts and ideas are too low, too small, too narrow, too limited, too restrictive, and if you want to understand truth, you have to willfully open your heart and mind to some new possibilities.
That message underlies the narrative here, and it’s threaded and reinforced throughout Luke’s gospel. Now, the message the angel delivers itself is super uplifting news, if not unbelievable, for Zechariah. Their dreams are coming true… their prayers are being answered. They’re going to have a son. And attached to this son is all kinds of breathtaking stuff about his impact on others, his purpose in the world, his calling before the Lord, and the direct connection to generationally anticipated promises God has made to Israel.
And Zechariah, as if it’s too good to be true, like many of us probably would, wants a way to know this isn’t some joke, or hallucination. And so the angel introduces himself personally, says he stands in the presence of God and has been sent by God himself with this news, and the confirmation of its authenticity will be that he won’t be able to speak until the child is born. God will bolster Zechariah’s belief with a constant and nagging reminder of his unbelief. God will strengthen his faith by keeping him aware of his natural bent toward faithlessness. These supernatural things are taking place in a ruggedly human space. There’s weakness, struggle, disbelief, doubt, confusion, anxiety, hope, and astonishment all swirling here.
I wonder how much of my own frustrations in life are God’s response to my lack of faith… I wonder if my grinding, groundhog day-esque struggles aren’t His gracious and obvious reminders that I’m dependent on Something and Someone outside of myself… that I’m living under the governing and authority of God and apart from his involvement, total dysfunction invades every part of my life. In Zechariah’s case, he had to compensate for his loss of speech and learn to live for some months with crippled communication, as if being a man wasn’t enough in that regard. But this is symbolic of how unbelief in God causes such disintegration.
But God delivers on his promise. Elizabeth, even in her old age, does conceive. Though it seemed so improbable and unbelievable, God’s word had merit. It was true. It was reliable. And it came to pass. God’s word spoke of a reality that was not yet and which seemed as though it never could be and yet all things were eventually conforming to His word and aligning to His purposes. That is the trajectory of all things… inevitable alignment with God’s declared word. Good for unto get on board.
A Prayer for Awareness:
Father, heighten my awareness of you moment by moment. Let every breath be drawn with mindfulness of your involved, not just generally in this world, but personally in my life. Deepen faith in my heart, even if you must use earthly frustrations to make me aware of my desperate, even if foolish, attempts at self-sufficiency. Give me confidence in your word over and above my own wisdom and the ways of this vain world. Let my thoughts, emotions and will converge on Christ today and every day, with full assurance of the emptiness of any alternative. Let me be persuaded of the truth of the gospel and all it’s implications for me and the world you’ve sent me into.
Again today, we read Luke’s reporting of altogether remarkable and otherworldly developments. But how could it be otherwise? Redemption was lacing up it’s boots. God was coming to earth. The longing of every heart, and the yearning of all creation was being met. The reign of sin and death was coming to an end. The old world was beginning to deteriorate before us as the new world started its descent upon us. Of course God was using extraordinary means for this extraordinary event. Any eye roll from us at the thought of the divine activity around the Jesus’ birth should be distrusted and interrogated. That response from me and you is testifies to our efforts to shrink the world and our existence to a size and space that we can comfortably control. We reserve judgement over whether God chose reasonable means to come to our world or if he actually came to our world at all. But make no mistake… the Christmas story corrects our backwards thoughts… the truth is that we’ve parachuted into God’s world.
And whereas we mostly respond like Zechariah, thinking God should involve himself with us on our terms, Mary gives us an alternative and exemplary response of surrendered willingness to receive God on his terms. “I am a servant of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.” That’s the reply of one who knows who they are and whose world they’re in.
Mary’s response to the Angel, Gabriel, is not one of simple minded adolescence either. It’s not that Zechariah was just more experienced and wise so he had better questions. Luke says about both that they were “troubled”. It’s worth acknowledging that God’s presence with us and his speaking to us is just as likely to be unsettling as it is comforting. Maybe more likely. She wasn’t any more expecting this new development or ready for what was coming than was Zechariah. But she was more quickly and gladly ready to rearrange her life based on the reality of God showing up and doing something unexpected.
I must confess that I not only more rigid and closed off like Zechariah, but that I also don’t have much desire to be so flexible like Mary. My natural instinct is to be set in my ways, to resist change of direction, and to find reasons to keep the status quo. Truthfully, my gut tells me the Holy Spirit is too much of a “free spirit” and to adjust my life to His leading would allow for too much upheaval in my life. But the Scriptures say that God is a God of order… so what if the free-spirited nature that I perceive in the Holy Spirit is actually just a higher order that is for me good and the glory of God.
A Prayer of Surrender:
Lord, I confess my own desire to rule my own life and determine my own path, but I acknowledge that is a sinful and self-reliant impulse that robs me of your presence and power in my life. And though I don’t always, or even often, want to be surrendered to your whims, I do want to want a heart surrendered to your whims. I definitely fear that your whims will take me to crazy places like the mood swings and fickle felt needs of men, women, and children, but in that same breath I know you better than that, and that your whims are not silly or fanciful or wasteful… but they are life-giving and soul-enriching. Would you teach me to say with Jesus’ mother, Mary, “I am your servant. Let it be to me according to your word.”
I love the beautiful and succinct way that Luke captures the energy and expectation in both Mary and Elizabeth which is so real and normal for pregnant women. Even the nervousness and uncertainty they might feel individually that gets settled and then transitions to sheer excitement and giddiness when 2 new moms are sharing their experiences of pregnancy. There is just so much humanity that jumps off the pages of Scripture in these brief little windows into the lives of these people. It reminds us they are not characters imagined and contrived for a story… they are real people going through real life and real moments with real reactions and emotions. v. 29-35 draw us in to the personal nature of Jesus coming into our lives… there’s something about this passage that serves as a microcosm of what Jesus wants for each of us as he enters into our lives…
I wonder if there’s excitement, expectation, uncertainty, and energy in your life surrounding the reality of Jesus and the gospel… I wonder if there’s fear and doubt in you, as would have crept in most certainly for both Mary and Elizabeth. There is something about sharing that raw and vulnerable stuff internal to us, with others, that serves to help resolve the tensions and actually free us to enjoy the reality that God has brought us into… I wonder if you are willing to open your internal world and the mixed emotions and thoughts that you wrestle with, in relationship with others who likely share them. The honest opening of our deepest selves with each other is one means God has given to us of actually maturing our faith and deepening our connection to Him and His purposes for our lives and our involvement in His greater story… I wonder if you’re sharing life that way with people. I wonder if your a safe enough, real enough and honest person that others are sharing their life with you that way… surely the openness and encouragement shared by Mary and Elizabeth is a indicative of the kind of relationships God intends His people to risk and enjoy with one another.
If this is not your experience, maybe this is the year you step out and take risks to nurture this kind of friendship. If you have this experience, maybe this is the year you invite others in and create space for those who have never had that to join in with you. This kind of spiritual friendship is a needed part of our discipleship.
A Prayer for Spiritual Friendship:
Heavenly Father, as you gave Mary and Elizabeth to one another to share such personal experiences with each other, I ask for you to give me safe, life-giving friendships to me. I acknowledge my deep need for such friendships, and that my fears, insecurities, anxieties and hurts have kept me from them. Give me the courage to risk more and trust more so that I might experience more. Help me be friend to others that gives encouragement and strength, and help me to in my own willingness to be more vulnerable, draw the strength and encouragement I need to keep drawing closer to you and being more fruitful for you.
What really strikes me in this passage is Zechariah’s response to finally being able to speak. We don’t know how quickly Elizabeth got pregnant after the angel originally appeared to Zechariah, but even if it was that same day, he would have been mute for 9 months. Nine months with that frustration of not being able to communicate, the uncertainty of this lasting forever, the guilt of knowing it his own distrust that caused this, not to mention the joy of a son born to them… his response, in v. 64, is “blessing God”. This is a verbal praise of the favor of God.
Zechariah has had personal and painful consequences for his unbelief which have complicated life and work at a really pivotal time, but he doesn’t dwell on those things. At his first opportunity, he doesn’t complain or go self-pity… he praises God for his goodness and what he was doing in the midst of the struggle. And the result is that his public testimony of God’s faithfulness and grace in response to his personal struggle travels broadly through the witness of others… Zechariah’s joy and praise to the Lord arrested the attention of others and gave credibility to their testimony of all that God had spoken and accomplished.
When God’s people praise him and retain joy in the midst of confusing and difficult times, it always provokes attentiveness to our testimony and makes our witness to God’s grace more believable.
A Prayer for Joy:
Gracious and generous God, give me eyes to see your many kindnesses, and a heart to acknowledge them at every opportunity. When circumstances darken my thoughts and emotions, help my heart to remember my own weakness and to trust your goodness, so that joy might live even there, because of the knowledge that you are at work to achieve your gracious ends in my life. Give me the supernatural ability to praise you fully at the least obvious moments, both internally and outwardly. Keep my joy in you and praise of you from wavering with the desirability of my circumstances. Let it be said of me, by others, that I blessed God even when it didn’t make sense to them.
Zechariah had a very clear word from God about his son’s life and purpose and place in God’s story. We don’t all have an angelic visit to go back to for such insight regarding our own calling or the destinies of our children. But still, this prophecy of Zechariah’s ministers to me as a parent and pastor concerned for the next generation and our calling and positioning to speak a sense of belonging and destiny into and over the children in our lives.
First, do we believe God has created each of them for a purpose? Do we believe they have a part to play in God’s story of redemption and renewal? My kids are not John the Baptizer. Neither are yours or any of the kids you know. But they are known to God. He has imagined them from before their conception; he created them in his own image; he placed them according to his own will; he wired them with particular aptitudes and for certain impact; all of this for his own glory and their highest good. Do we see our children and the children in our lives as intentionally made by God for real usefulness to his purposes above all other things?
Secondly, are we praying for them in accordance with that belief? If we pray for them this way, than our own hearts and minds will be more conscious moment by moment of their development to these ends, rather than as barriers to our comforts and ease of life. I get very impatient with my children and others when they inconvenience me and interrupt my plans… but rightly ordered prayers for them is likely to rightly reorder my heart toward them.
Thirdly, are we speaking this vision into their lives? Are we giving them, by our words, a sense of their place in God’s story? What a privilege it is to have children look to us for the shaping of their identities. Kids will always have a self-understanding shaped by their own thoughts, the words of their parents and families, and what peers and other influential people say and communicate to them and about them.
I’m convicted today that my kids will be fathered by lies or fathered by the gospel. They will either be alive to God’s glory and glorious purposes for them, or they will be alive to a diminished view of God’s glory and a deflated view of their lives. I can’t control outcomes by any means, but my own understanding of God’s purposes for my life persuades me that I do have a shaping influence over how my kids see themselves and their lives. One of those is real and one of them is contrived. So I will either let the lying voices of insanity shape their identity and sense of destiny? Or will I give my voice to silencing those lies?
I want to be a voice of sanity in their lives, grounding them in ultimate reality. Zechariah’s prophetic word about his own son is profoundly connected to John’s place in God’s story. It seems to me that’s a good place to start.
A Prayer for the Next Generation:
Father, you have had a meaningful role for me to play in your story. That’s astonishing and humbling. I am so thankful for the gift of purpose. And I now ask you for the wisdom and clarity to see my children and the children who you have put in my life as those integrally connected to your eternal purposes. Give me resolve in my own heart, and the grace and power, by your Spirit, to with my words and tone and attitude, help the kids in my life to fulfill the purposes of God in their generation, by grounding their identity and destiny firmly in God’s story. Help me to see how integral they are to your redemptive work in the world. And as the world, their flesh and Satan try to sabotage their lives, let my voice be of strategic value, connecting and reconnecting them to your love and grace and purposes.