Luke's Christmas

Luke was not writing to me, or you. Jesus lived in a country occupied by the Roman Empire. He was of a people who were deeply resentful of the Romans. By the time of Luke’s telling of the story, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and there was much resentment of those who had supported the uprising of 66-70AD. The Christians were increasingly alienated from their Jewish roots.

Luke 1:1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. 

Today the Jewish people of Israel are the oppressors in many ways, with the Palestinian occupants of the land treated very badly. We Australians do not have the military or economic might of the USA, who are the Roman Empire of our time, but our country is firmly on the side of the Romans. As Australians, this book is not our book; in some senses it is written against us! As Christians, how will we change so that it becomes our book, rather than speaking against us?

Theophilus means Lover of God. He (the name is in masculine form) may not have been an actual person; “he” may be a literary device  something like that person Victorian authors called “Dear Reader....”  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, Dear Reader and Lover of God..

The Gospel is not written to a new comer, as an evangelising document; it is to one who has been instructed. Perhaps this is me. I have been instructed in the story of Jesus. Does Luke have anything to say to me, given that I live in such a different age? How will I respond?

My understanding of the gospels is that they are written with great economy; nothing is present without a reason. I need to avoid reading this like a nove, racing through the chapters, and then looking for another book. It is to be read, and reread, in the way I taste wine, slowly, letting the flavours reveal themselves. So as we begin,  I ask what the names of the characters might tell me.

King Herod of Judea gives us a place in history. The careful naming of the characters also seems to do this, but the names themselves carry a message.

The priest is named after one of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Scriptures which wrote of the end of times. The book in his name begins with a call to repentance; such will soon be heard from the son of Zechariah.

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Abijah, the priestly order to which Zechariah belonged, means my father is Yahweh. Zechariah is a character loaded full of meaning. He is a portent of what is to come in the book; remember the reader already knows the story!

The figure of the priest’s wife is also loaded with meaning. She, too, is of priestly lineage. We will learn she is related to the Messiah. The meaning of Elizabeth is not entirely clear. It may mean "my God is an oath" or perhaps "my God is abundance".  It was, however, the name of Aaron’s wife. Aaron is the first of the high priests of Israel and the older brother of Moses.

The portent is underlined: like her husband, she is righteous before God, and blameless. But she was barren! Childlessness in Jesus’ time was a sign of God’s disfavour! Knowing what is coming, we understand something more about Zechariah: Zechariah means Yahweh has remembered. 

We see the beginning of the world being turned on its edge, and God beginning to move. The first of the great prophets of Israel was Samuel, (1 Samuel 1) whose mother Hannah was also barren, until God intervened. We will remember Hannah again, shortly.

And they were “both getting on in years.” Here we have an allusion the story of Abram and Sarai, the parents of the nation. (Genesis 16:1) The tradition of the childless woman where God intervenes also applies to the mother of Samson, (Judges 13) and Rebecca the mother of Jacob and Esau. (Genesis 25:21) We will hear more of Samson.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.

So before anything at all has happened, we are filled with expectation. 

Luke is making sure we get the point. God’s messenger comes to Zechariah in a holy place. John Lightfoot suggested that the mention of the angel standing on the right side of the altar of incense suggested to those in the know that he had come out of the Holy of Holies, but I notice  Fitzmeyer (The Gospel According to Luke 1 pp 324) does not seem to mention this. He thinks it is a sign that the angel is not “ominous” as the right side of the altar is the favoured side. It would be “sinister,” I suppose, if the angel was said to be standing on the left side! 

13But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

If we use the meanings of the names, the angel says, "My God is abundant will bear a child to be called God is gracious" or Yahweh has show favour. (Fitzmeyer p325) This is the beginning of one of the themes of the beginning of Luke: Joy! It also says he will be great in the sight of the Lord which leads on into the next Old Testament echo Luke has woven into the tapestry of his introduction to Jesus.

It is easy to overlook the significance of the brief statement about wine or strong drink.  It reminds me how little I know the background culture from which Jesus came! As a child growing up in a Methodist church it just seemed natural that a holy person would not drink--which led to problems explaining Jesus' behaviour-- and so I completely missed the message Luke was giving me about the Nazarites.

He must never drink wine or strong drink (1:15b)

The Nazarites are mentioned in Numbers 6 as people who take a special vow before God, but if we know our Hebrew scriptures,  Samson is also brought to mind here.

4Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazarite to God from birth. (Judges 13).

Samson was certainly great before the Lord!

When Hannah prayed she dedicated her child Samuel as a Nazarite.

11She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite ntil the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’ (1 Samuel 1:11)

The readers of Luke would also remember that Samuel was the one who anointed David as King. In a time when the word of the Lord was rare “the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (1 Samuel 3:1, 19) Our expectations of this child are growing by the line, and that’s before he is also compared to the great prophet Elijah. (Luke 1:17)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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