Luke 1:1-38 – Hope in Barren Times

Notes from a sermon preached on 30.11.08

Having looked at Mathew’s account of the birth of Jesus, it’s now time to move to Luke’s. Remember Matthew’s began with the genealogy, a grand pronunciation of the royal lineage of Jesus, Luke’s has a very different feel.

Luke is writing his Gospel for a certain Theophilus, presenting it as a piece of history, an account of the things that have been fulfilled amongst them, as handed down by eyewitnesses and servants of the word. As we explore what Luke has to say to us, we have to bear in mind what it is he’s trying to do with his Gospel. On the one hand it’s a piece of history – an orderly work based on eyewitness accounts – but its not just a chronological record, he’s trying to make a point. Its about the things that have been fulfilled amongst us, its content has been handed down by servants of the word – it deals with faith and theology – and Luke is telling it in order to persuade Theophilus that what he’s been taught is true – it’s a piece of evangelism.

Unlike Matthew, he takes us straight into the historical situation of the time. It’s the time of Herod, king of Judea. This is a time of frustration for the Jewish people. Their glory days are behind them, their land is ruled by the Romans who have put this puppet king on the throne to rule over them. As we learnt in Matthew, this Herod was a political wheeler and dealer, doing whatever he had to stay in power – including killing the firstborn boys after he heard that one of them might have a claim on his throne.

The story centres on a couple called Zechariah and Elizabeth. The sense of frustration and unproductiveness of the nation is echoed in their lives. They are old couple, and yet they have no children, in a time when there was great stigma to being unable to have children, and also concern – who is going to look after us and provide for us when we are unable to care for ourselves.

There’s the history if you like, but Luke also adds this comment about Zechariah and Elizabeth being upright in the sight of God. I wonder why he puts that there? The fact that he makes a point of doing so makes me wonder if it marked them out. Was it unusual for Jews at this time to have this desire to serve God? Not only was this a politically and physically barren time, but maybe it was also a spiritually barren time, a low point in the faith and life of God’s People.

But for Zechariah on this particular day, there is something to lighten up proceedings. He has been chosen by lot to go into the Temple and burn incense. This was a great honour and one he would have hoped for and looked forward to for all his life as a priest. There were so many priests that many did not get to do this at all in their lifetime, and it was restricted so that you got to do it only once – a bit like being invited to one of the Queen’s Garden Parties! He and the other priests would have gone into the Holy Place, but when the time came, the rest would leave him with the incense whilst they prayed outside…

But before we go any further, I want to step back in time to tell three other stories. It’s a bit like Matthew with his three loose women making sense of Mary becoming pregnant. Here we have stories of three other couples who met with God with amazing consequences, and their stories will make sense of us of what happens to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary…

The Story of Abraham and Sarah
Let’s go back to the time of Genesis. The Jewish people don’t exist yet – to be honest, God is really unknown at this point. There’s a man called Abram – we now know him as Abraham. Out of the blue, God appears to him and calls him to leave his home of Haran behind and travel to the land he shows him where he’ll make him into a great nation, and through him all people on the earth will be blessed.

There’s a catch though, he and his wife are childless. They are both old, and Sarah past the age of childbearing. This leaves an awkward question hanging in the air – how can they start a nation with no children. Nevertheless, they up sticks and travel to Canaan.

Sometime later a truly extraordinary event happens. They receive a visit from three men. Panic as there always is when guests turn up unannounced. Rushing around they prepare some food for them. At one point, whilst Sarah is in the tent, the guests now identified as the LORD, announce that she will bear him a son during the coming year. Sarah over hears this and laughs – but is rebuked by the visitors for this – is anything too difficult for the LORD!

It happens as the messengers predicted. Sarah bears Abraham an impossible son, Isaac. Isaac is the Father of Jacob and Esau, and through the descendents of Jacob come the 12 tribes of Israel – a great nation!

The Story of Samson
Fast forward. After a time of living in slavery in Egypt, Moses rescued them and with Joshua brought them back to Canaan. They’ve conquered the land – it is now called Israel. The Promised People now dwell in their Promised Land.

Theres a catch though. They’ve fallen away from God, and their land has been taken over by the Philistines. During this time lived a man called Manoah who’s wife was sterile and childless. One day an angel appeared to her, delivering a surprising message,

Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” Judges 13:4-5

This is just what happens, she has a son. They call him Samson, and it says that God blessed him, and the Spirit of the LORD stirred him. God gave him amazing strength and determination, and he led Israel for 20 years, in life and death working to deliver them almost single-handedly from the Philistines.

The Story of Samuel
Fast forward a bit further. Although Israel have continued to grow, they still aren’t what you’d call a great nation yet. They aren’t secure or particularly prosperous. The Philistines continue to trouble them. In these days the word of the LORD was rare and there were not many visions. At this time lived a man called Elkanah with his two wives Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none – a source of great sorrow for her, because she desperately wanted children and was made to feel like a second-class wife by her rival.

Every year Elkanah and his wives went to worship at Shiloh. This particular year Hannah prayed desperately for a son, promising that God gave her one that she would give him to the LORD and never use a razor on his head. In fact her prayers were so emotional that the priest thought she was drunk.

God hears her prayer, and Hannah remembers her promise. She takes the boy to that same priest, Eli and leave him to be brought up by him, and history is never the same again. In the time when God never seemed to be heard by his people, Samuel hears him calling. Eventually, it is through Samuel that David is chosen to be Israel’s King, defeating the Philistines, bringing them peace, unity and prosperity. Then they do indeed become a Great Nation.

Time to return to Luke’s story. Can you see the echoes of these three stories in the visits of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and Mary?

· As in the time of Samson, their land is occupied and controlled by foreigners.
· As in the time of Samuel and Samson, it would seem that on the whole, God’s people have strayed from God and his ways.
· Elizabeth is old and beyond childbearing age, and Mary is a virgin, neither of them can have children – just like Sarah, Samson’s mother and Hannah, and yet as in these three stories, God promises them a child through his messengers – just as he does to the barren Elizabeth and the virgin Mary.
· Like Samson, the angel says that when John is born he is to never take wine and the Spirit will be on him from birth
· Like Samuel, John will grow to be one that will call people back to God, and will pave the way for the coming King
· Like Sarah, Zechariah is unable to believe that all this is possible – she laughs and is chastised, he voices his disbelief and is struck dumb.

Not only Luke making a record of what has happened, he is clearly trying to tell us something through these echoes.

All these children have been great saviours for their people. They have been born in times of trouble and barrenness. They have been born as the result of God’s promises, his direct intervention in miraculous ways. They have been born to bring deliverance. These two boys promised by the angels, are to continue this tradition. But more than that, remember how the Gospel starts – ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled amongst us’ (1:1). They are not just following this tradition, but they are fulfilling it – theirs is the ultimate intervention. Theirs is the ultimate promise. Theirs is the ultimate salvation. The others may have played their part in bringing the People of God to a Great Nation, but listen to the titles of Jesus given here: he will be great, Son of the Most High, he’ll be given by God the throne of David, his reign will be eternal – conceived by the Spirit, he is the Son of God!

With all the talk of recession, it feels like there’s a barren time ahead of us.
Living in the West, it can seem as if the church is going through a barren time – whilst all around the world the church is growing, here we’re struggling to hang on to what we’ve got at best.
At times like these, its good to hear these stories that remind us the God can and does intervene in seemingly impossible ways. Its good to be reminded of his actions of the past, but most of all, it is good to hear of the miracle baby, born Jesus, The Lord Saves, who sits on the throne even to this day.

As we light the first candle on our Advent wreath today and pray, in some way we are mimicking Zechariah lighting the incense and the priests praying behind him, lets pray knowing that our God reigns!

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