As I sat down to look at this passage in preparation for writing this, it occurred to me that I’ve never really read this passage before. It comes up in Advent from time to time, but I think I’ve only used it, and seen it used, as a kind of set up or transitional piece to getting to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Reading it more closely and independently, a few things stood out to me.
First of all, this is the first story we get in Luke after his set up of telling about the life of Jesus, but it’s about a guy named John. As someone who gets distracted easily, that kind of writing drives me crazy! I imagine myself watching this like a movie: I’ve just been given this intro leading me to believe that I’m going to see a movie about Jesus and the opening scene (which isn’t exactly short) goes on about a guy coming named John. I might already lose interest. I want things nice and clear and easy, like a Disney movie. Why not do this like the Lion King. The opening scene jumps right to Simba. All of this begs another question for me: Why is John the Baptizer so important that he gets this much ink in the early chapters of Luke? As I wonder about this, I think it may be further evidence for the idea that we short-change our view of Jesus when all we get is Christmas and Easter. There is a whole life he lived, and that life matters, not only narratively but theologically. John the Baptizer is part of that life. The Baptism of Jesus will be a crucial event not just in the story of his life but the meaning of his life, and what is good about Luke is that his baptizer, John, is more than just a Rafiki like one-dimensional medicine man who’s a bit quirky. He too has a story, and it will intersect with Jesus’ story. It makes the baptism (more on that in weeks to come) all the more rich.
The other thing that occurs to me in this story is just how important it is to the gentile Luke to make sure that his readers know that, though he is a gentile, he knows the Jewish faith and customs. He is credible. He knows the priestly order to which Zechariah belongs (verse 5). He doesn’t merely note that Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous, but he adds, “according to all commandments and regulations” (verse 6). He notes that Zechariah was “chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood” (verse 9). Right away Luke wants us to know that he knows about more than just Jesus. He knows the faith, its history and its customs, and is, I think, hoping right away to gain credibility in the ears of the Jewish faithful.
Finally, after reading this story closely, it occurs to me how odd and seemingly unfair it is that Zechariah is rendered mute for having the same doubts that Abraham did when he doubted Sarah becoming pregnant with Isaac (Genesis 17:17). These are the things of God that I wrestle with. It in no way ruins my faith in and love for God, but I do have questions about why we humans are so often punished for simply being humans.
Read this story closely. What captivates your imagination in it? What questions does it spark in you. And finally, what might God be calling you to through it?