Easter III: Lk. 1:5-7
We saw last week that Luke wrote this account in order to show how the gospel of Jesus makes sense. This “sense” is not based on pure human reason, but is like the good sense of a great story, full of mystery and tension culminating in deep, surprising joy and certainty.
Most human beings have a sense of “ought,” a sense that certain things ought to be a certain way. For many this is a sense of justice, of equity or equality, and even moral standards of right and wrong. Frequently, it is some aspect of what “ought to be “ that drives antagonism or unbelief in God, Jesus, Christianity, etc. This may be framed in terms of the problem of evil, or more concretely, something like the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Luke introduces this universal question in the characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth who are righteous before God and walking blamelessly in all His commandments and yet she is barren and they are now too old to bear children (Lk. 1:6-7). In the Bible, this tension in the world, this sense of what “ought to be” is centered in what it calls the covenant. A covenant is essentially an agreement, a relationship with promises, obligations, and benefits. There was an implicit covenant in the Garden of Eden, a relationship between God and Adam and Eve, guarded by a code of conduct, and this is the basis upon which the Lord sends Adam and Eve out of the Garden after they disobey. But while that original covenant has been broken, a new covenant was introduced in God’s promise that there would be enmity between the woman and the serpent, and that ultimately her child will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Adam understands this promise as significant and names his wife “Eve, the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20). But the following chapters in Genesis make it clear that there will be no immediate fulfillment of the promise. The human race limps out of the Garden and is very quickly full of violence and bloodshed. In other words, while the Bible does clearly bring charges against the human race for our role in evil, the whole story is set up with God’s promise haunting everything.
Not only is Luke raising a universal question about justice, he is also intentionally beginning his story with a famous Jewish “type scene.” In western films, an empty, silent town with tumbleweed rolling across the street is a type scene that will culminate in a shootout. Here, Luke introduces this elderly couple, and they are both described as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (Lk. 1:6-7). If this were a movie, we’d call it a remake. Most of the story of Abraham is wound around this same setup. Abram’s name means “exalted father,” and God calls Abram and promises to give the land of Canaan to his children, but the obvious question is: what children? And God keeps bringing it up: “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” (Gen. 13:16). At one point Abram points out that he is childless, and God insists that he will have a son and his offspring will be like the stars (Gen. 15:4-5). It’s exactly at this point that Genesis says that Abram believed God, and God counted this faith as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). A little later, God tells Abram to walk before Him in covenant and be blameless (Gen. 17:1). Zechariah and Elizabeth are another Abraham and Sarah.
But that isn’t all. The rest of the Old Testament keeps bringing this story up: Isaac’s wife Rebekah is barren (Gen. 25:21) and Jacob’s wife Rachel is barren (Gen. 29:31). And God seems pleased to underline the tension: as He brings Israel out of Egypt at the Exodus, He promises that if the people walk with Him in covenant, there will be no barrenness in Israel (Ex. 23:26, Dt. 7:14). But then we meet the wife of Minoa in Judges, and she is barren (Jdg. 13:2); and Hannah the wife of Elkanah in Samuel, and she has no children (1 Sam. 1:2). It’s actually in Hannah’s song that we begin to see more clearly what God is up to. She says that her barrenness and conception is a cosmic symbol. She says that her barrenness is about the pride of wickedness and the arrogance of the powerful, and yet somehow it is also about the poor and the weak and the hungry (1 Sam. 2:3-5). She sings that the Lord is at work in the world; He is the one who saves and heals and gives life and He deals out justice to the wicked (1 Sam. 2:6-10). In her context, Hannah is talking about the barrenness of the leaders of Israel (the priests are worthless men) and their weakness before their enemies. In other words, the story of the barren woman in the Old Testament is the story of human inability and futility. The same root is used several times to describe hamstringing war horses (Josh. 11:6, 9, 2 Sam. 8:4, 1 Chr. 18:4). Hamstringing a horse is to cut its legs in such a way as to make it immobile and utterly useless. It is to take from the horse every capacity, every potential for any kind of work or warfare or pleasure; everything is taken but its life. The barren woman represents barren humanity, barren hearts, the grave itself (cf. Prov. 30:15-16). This is why Elizabeth describes her barrenness as a “reproach” (Lk. 1:25). But Luke says that now that reproach is being taken away, and this is why when Elizabeth conceives, many will rejoice (Lk. 1:14).
Even with all the reversals and happy endings, we are left wondering why God does this, and we ought to wonder why Luke is introducing his story with this theme. The first thing to note is that this is central to why the gospel of Jesus really makes sense. Christianity looks at human suffering and evil and doesn’t flinch, and just as importantly, refuses to make peace with it. But secondly, the point has always been to tell the story of human inability, human powerlessness. Despite any moral similarities with other world religions, Christianity is unique in insisting that we cannot fix ourselves, and we cannot fix this place. Even “good people” aren’t good enough. And this is because the kind of life we were meant for is truly selfless. If goodness and justice could come through “being good” then there would be room to boast. This is why God loves the righteousness of faith, the righteousness of hope in the promise of God, the justice that only comes through resurrection from the dead.