This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
1 1-4 Dear Theophilus Many people have already written an account of the events which have happened among us, basing their work on the evidence of those whom we know were eye-witnesses as well as teachers of the message. I have therefore decided, since I have traced the course of these happenings carefully from the beginning, to set them down for you myself in their proper order, so that you may have reliable information about the matters in which you have already had instruction.
A vision comes to an old priest of God
5-17 The story begins in the days when Herod was king of Judea with a priest called Zacharias, whose wife Elisabeth was, like him, a descendant of Aaron. They were both truly religious people, blamelessly observing all God’s commandments and requirements. They were childless through Elisabeth’s infertility, and both of them were getting on in years. One day, while Zacharias was performing his priestly functions (it was the turn of his division to be on duty), it fell to him to go into the sanctuary and burn the incense. The crowded congregation outside was praying at the actual time of the incense-burning, when an angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the incense-altar. When Zacharias saw him, he was terribly agitated and a sense of awe swept over him. But the angel spoke to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias; your prayers have been heard. Elisabeth your wife will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. This will be joy and delight to you and many more will be glad because he is born. He will be one of God’s great men; he will touch neither wine nor strong drink and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of his birth. He will turn many of Israel’s children to the Lord their God. He will go out before God in the spirit and power of Elijah—to reconcile fathers and children, and bring back the disobedient to the wisdom of good men—and he will make a people fully ready for their Lord.”
19-20 “I am Gabriel,” the angel answered. “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Because you do not believe what I have said, you shall live in silence, and you shall be unable to speak a word until the day that it happens. But be sure that everything that I have told you will come true at the proper time.”
21-24 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zacharias, wondering why he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out and was unable to speak a word to them—for although he kept making signs, not a sound came from his lips—they realised that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Later, when his days of duty were over, he went back home, and soon afterwards his wife Elisabeth became pregnant and kept herself secluded for five months.
25 “How good the Lord is to me,” she would say, “now that he has taken away the shame that I have suffered.”
Theophilus may be a real person, a Greek known to the author as a believer or at least a sympathiser with Christian belief; but the name, which means God-lover may stand for any young gentile person drawn to Christ. Luke indicates like a good historian that he has done his research, studied previous accounts, sorted events in the order he supposed them to have happened, so that he can produce of definitive new account. Scholars have proven that he used a version of either Mark or Matthew and perhaps a collection of the sayings of Jesus. He almost certainly had other sources also.
All this scholarly referencing may lull the reader into expecting a piece of dry historiography but this is instantly blown away by the first chunk of narrative. The reader quickly realises he’s in the hands of a master storyteller. Luke uses a plain dignified narrative style which might remind a gentile reader of the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint. The reader is not to think of this story as being a factual if biased account of events like Caesar’s “Gallic Wars”; rather he should expect a drama involving human characters and God. Almost immediately the divine element is displayed in the form of an angel. Wisely Luke doesn’t describe the angel but leaves that to the reader. Luke means the reader to understand what’s going on here. If in the outcome of a series of events it was believed that they had been guided by God, then the story would be told of how a messenger of God, perhaps a prophet or even an angel, announced beforehand what was to take place. This way of telling the story emphasises the divine initiative along with human hesitation, misunderstanding, or lack of faith. Does this mean that the story is not true? Doubtless ancient storytellers would insist that this revealed the truth beneath the surface of events.
Luke is good at angels. He gives them brisk and startling messages to convey, in this case the news of a birth which will make a difference to the life of Israel. Zechariah and Elizabeth are typical of the patient, God-fearing people whom Luke sees as the true Israel; those who have placed their trust in the promises of God. If the reader is doubting the existence of angels-and most readers will- Luke deals with this lack of faith by putting in the story! Zechariah, whom we are told can see the angel, doubts the evidence of his eyes and ears because he too knows that angels are not real. Naturally the angel is annoyed but not surprised by this human lack of respect. “I am Gabriel,” he says magnificently, “I stand in the presence of God. I have been sent to speak with you…” The shock of this reply renders the hearer dumb. The reader is duly rebuked also.
At the heart of this divine comedy there is a note of joy; a childless woman will give birth to a child who will lead a whole people towards a meeting with its God. The reader cannot as yet give any real meaning to the terms, God, Israel, Elijah-these will only be defined, and very surprisingly, in the course of Luke’s marvellous story.
If we’re very stupid, we can ask Luke, “But is this what really happened?”
“Yes,” he will say, “This is what really happened, believe me.”