“Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas: The Annunciation of St. John the Baptist” (Luke 1:1-25)

Midweek Advent Vespers
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas: The Annunciation of St. John the Baptist” (Luke 1:1-25)

In a few weeks we’ll be hearing one of the most familiar and well-loved passages in the Bible once again, and that is the Christmas Gospel, from Luke chapter two. But the fact that there’s a chapter two must means that there’s a chapter one before it. There is. And Luke chapter one is Luke’s lead-up to Christmas, his account of the events leading up to the birth of Christ. That’s going to be our theme for this series of midweek services, as well as for the last Sunday in Advent, namely, “Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas.” We’ll look at four events that take place in Luke chapter one: Today, “The Annunciation of St. John the Baptist” to Zechariah. Next week, “The Annunciation of Our Lord” to Mary. On Wednesday the 16th, “The Nativity of St. John the Baptist,” and Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus. And on Sunday the 20th, “The Visitation” of Mary to Elizabeth, and Mary’s song, the Magnificat. That’s where we’re going this month, as we work our way through Luke 1 on our way to Luke 2 and Christmas.

But even before the events leading up to Christmas, St. Luke the Evangelist opens chapter one with a general introduction to his gospel as a whole. And as we have just started a whole year of Gospel readings from Luke’s gospel, it’s good that we take a moment to look at that first. Luke begins: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

This is Luke’s introduction to the book, in which he tells how we went about writing it, and why he wrote it. He’s writing about “the things that have been accomplished among us,” and that gives it a weighty tone from the outset. These are important events that Luke will be describing, monumental events, divine things that have been accomplished and fulfilled among us. The fulfillment of God’s plan for history has just now been accomplished in our midst, Luke says, in these events I’m about to describe. And how does Luke know about them? He himself was not a participant in these events, but he has talked to the people who were, the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Luke the Evangelist likely talked to, interviewed, the apostles of Christ and probably also his mother Mary. Many of the events in Luke 1-2 involved Mary, of course. We’re told that she “pondered” these things and “treasured them in her heart.” And Mary would still have been alive when Luke sets to writing his gospel–she would have been the age of many of you ladies here today. All of Luke’s writing would have been under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to be sure, but that does not preclude him from talking to the people involved.

So why does Luke write this gospel? He tells the man he’s addressing the book to, a “most excellent Theophilus,” who may have been the literary patron for the publication–Luke says he’s writing it “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” And that’s true for us, too. We’re all “Theophilus” in that regard. By reading and hearing Luke’s gospel, you and I will be strengthened in our faith. We will grow in our depth of knowledge and our certainty in the Christian faith, the faith we have been catechized in. This is a good thing. We need a solid and strong faith, a firm foundation for our lives, and that comes through the Word of God, the gospel, especially as it is focused on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

So now we’re going to hear those events that have been accomplished. And the focus will be on Christ. But the first account that Luke records is not about Jesus, not directly at least. Oh, but it is about Jesus, as we shall see. It is the account of “The Annunciation of St. John the Baptist” to Zechariah. And since it’s about John the Baptist, that means it’s about Jesus, because John is all about Jesus. That’s his whole purpose in life, to be the forerunner of Christ, preparing the way before the Lord. So John comes first. Before there’s an annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary, there’s an annunciation of John’s birth to Zechariah. That’s how Luke structures his narrative in these first couple of chapters. It kind of runs on two tracks: some of John’s story first, then switching over to the Jesus story, back and forth it goes.

Luke’s narrative opens in Jerusalem, in the temple. Jerusalem and the temple will be the orientation for much of this gospel. The main section in the middle will be Luke’s travel narrative, when Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem and heads toward the Holy City. And then the Passion narrative takes place in Jerusalem, during Holy Week. After Jesus rises from the dead and ascends into heaven, the book will then close with the apostles returning to Jerusalem and worshiping in the temple. So for Luke, it’s entirely in keeping with his outlook that the book would open in Jerusalem, in the temple.

We are introduced to a man by the name of Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth are portrayed as righteous people, devout, and now getting up there in years. The way they’re described reminds us of that Old Testament couple Abraham and Sarah, even down to the fact that they have not been able to have children, and now the wife is well past childbearing age.

This man Zechariah is a priest, taking his turn at serving in the temple. And like the Lord had had a special announcement for old Abraham, now he’s going to have a big surprise for Zechariah. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to him. Zechariah is frightened, of course, just as everybody in the Bible is frightened whenever an angel appears to them. “Fear not, Zechariah,” the angel assures him. “I’m not here to zap you. No, I’m here because I have good news for you, and it’s going to be of significance for all of God’s people. The Lord is bringing his plan of salvation to fulfillment. And guess what? It’s going to involve you–you and your wife, Elizabeth. God is going to do another ‘Abraham and Sarah’ thing, bringing about the birth of a child where you would think it couldn’t happen. And this time, you guys are the ones he’s going to do it with. You’re going to have a baby! A son, and you’re going to name him John.”

The angel tells Zechariah about this child’s special destiny, his chosen role: “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” Not just you, Zechariah, but lots of folks are going to be blessed by this baby boy. This child will be especially dedicated and devoted to the service of the Lord and empowered by God for his ministry. And this will be little John’s ministry: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Wow! Talk about fulfillment! This description of John’s ministry is a direct fulfillment of the prophecy we heard from Malachi. Another Elijah! Elijah, the great prophet and preacher of repentance. That’s what John is going to be. He will be calling God’s people back to their Lord. Uniting God’s people, fathers and children, uniting their hearts in wisdom and righteousness. Preparing the way for the Lord, before the Lord himself comes and visits them in a special way. That’s what John will do, a most powerful and important destiny for the child that will be given to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age.

But Zechariah can’t believe it. He’s stunned. He’s in disbelief. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Well, yeah, Zechariah. But wasn’t that how it was for Abraham and Sarah? God does these sorts of things, you know. You of all people should know this–you’re a priest, for goodness’ sake! And here is an angel, talking to you in the temple! If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.

So the angel has to emphasize the point: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” Gabriel–the “mighty man of God,” that’s what his name means. Gabriel is the special messenger the Lord is sending to announce these most special events, first to Zechariah, and then to Mary. And the Lord’s messenger comes bringing good news, news of salvation. But Zechariah, who should have known better, doesn’t believe it.

Aren’t we a little like Zechariah at times? Here we are, and we should know better–we’re Christians, after all, we’ve been instructed in the faith. And the Lord even sends a messenger to come and talk to us in the temple–he’s called a pastor–and yet we have trouble believing what the Lord is telling us. God tells us that he is our good and loving Father, who will take care of us in all our needs. And yet we don’t trust God as we ought, thinking he’s holding out on us, and we have to take matters into our own hands. God tells us the right way to walk in, the way that is best for us–the way of devotion to God’s word, the way of loving and serving our neighbor. And yet we want to walk our own way, going down strange paths that God has warned us are wrong turns. God tells us that our life, our true life, is found in Christ, in his life and death and resurrection and his coming again. And yet we find that message boring and not worthy of much attention. How like Zechariah we are! We should know better, but we don’t believe.

Now Zechariah had to be struck mute for a time, for his own chastisement–to teach him a lesson, if you will. But the point here is that God didn’t give up on Zechariah. The angel Gabriel, the mighty man of God, did not strike him down and zap him. And God may discipline us for our good, but he does not zap us. This is a good thing. Thank God for his mercy and forbearance!

Because really, God’s mercy and forbearance is what this is all about. That’s what John the Baptist would come to preach–the forgiveness of sins–and that is what the second child, Jesus, would come to accomplish. Yes, I’ve got good news for you today: Your sins are forgiven, because of the Lord whose way John the Baptist prepared. Your sins of unbelief, your lack of trust in the goodness of God, your balking at the word declared to you in God’s temple–all these are what Christ atoned for, when he went to the temple of the cross and offered up the perfect sacrifice for your sins. Believe this good news today, it is for you!

Dear friends, today in this portion of Luke’s lead-up to Christmas, the Annunciation of St. John the Baptist, what was foretold for John is being accomplished among us: We, God’s people, are being turned back to the Lord in repentance and faith. Our hearts are being united in wisdom and righteousness. And God is making ready a people prepared.

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 10:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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