Easter V: Lk. 1:5-25
[Note: the audio for this sermon can be found here.]
Luke writes so that Theophilus and others like him would have certainty of the things he has been taught. The first episode in his gospel is the story of an uncertain old man. He has lived a long, faithful life of ministry, but when an angel unexpectedly shows up and announces that his prayers and the prayers of Israel have been heard and are about to be answered, he is unsure, doubtful, uncertain.
The Angel Gabriel
We’re rather accustomed to Gabriel showing up due to annual Christmas readings and carols, but it’s actually a pretty big deal that this particular angel named Gabriel shows up here. He is only named in one other place (outside of Luke) in Daniel where he arrives twice to announce the coming political turmoil of empires rising and falling (Dan. 8:15-27) and in response to Daniel’s prayer answering how Israel’s temple will be restored (Dan. 9:20-27). Gabriel told Daniel that God will put an end to sin, and atone for iniquity, and bring in everlasting righteousness, and anoint a most holy place (Dan. 9:24). This will include the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, but at the end of seventy weeks, it will also include Messiah being cut off and a war and the city and sanctuary being destroyed (Dan. 9:25-26). This is the same context in which Gabriel shows up four hundred years later: In the days of Herod, in the temple, in front of the most holy place, to a priest offering incense (Lk. 1:5-9). This means that Daniel’s prayer is being answered, and Gabriel has shown up to fulfill what he promised. When Gabriel says that Zechariah’s prayers have been heard, he is speaking about Elizabeth’s barrenness and this prophecy (Lk. 1:13).
A Warrior Priest
Not only does Gabriel announce that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son, but he also says that this son will be a Nazirite (Lk. 1:15). A Nazirite was a temporary office that men or women could hold based on a vow not to eat or drink anything from a grape vine (Num. 6:1-4). It also included the prohibition of cutting hair and going near a dead body (Num. 6:5-8), both of which applied to priests in Israel (Lev. 10:8, Lev. 21:11, cf. Num. 19:11). The priests also wore turbans on their heads, and it’s likely that the long hair of the Nazirite was meant to picture that (Lev. 8:9, 13). In other words, a Nazirite was a temporary priest. Two famous Nazirites were Samson and Samuel who were also both born of barren women (Jdg. 13:2-5, 1 Sam. 1:11). Men who went to war in Israel sometimes took Nazirite vows (e.g. Jdg. 5:2), and it’s likely this is why David argues that his men can eat the holy bread from the tabernacle (1 Sam. 21:1-6). Elijah was also probably a Nazirite since he is described as a “lord of hair” (2 Kgs 1:8). Putting all of this together, Nazirites always seem to play a preparatory role. They are always ushering in new eras, breaking out of old systems, old worlds, and breaking into new worlds: Samuel and Samson transitioned Israel from judges to kings. Elijah transitioned Israel from kings to prophets, preparing the way for Elisha. And Gabriel shows up and announces to Zechariah that John will transition Israel into a new era fulfilling Daniel and Malachi’s prophecies (Lk. 1:16-17). Even though Jesus comes eating and drinking, he takes a Nazirite vow at the last supper in preparation for his priestly war on the cross (Lk. 22:18). Gabriel says that this transition that John will usher in will be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:15). It was the Holy Spirit that often filled Samson for his mighty works, and the same Spirit filled Elijah and then a double portion rested on Elisha. Just as John is an “Elijah” for Jesus, Jesus is also an “Elijah” for all who would receive a double portion of His Spirit.
It’s worth pointing out that Luke’s gospel opens and closes in the temple (Lk. 1:10, 24:53), but the contrast is also striking. In the opening scene, Zechariah is struck silent and most commentators believe this would mean that he could not perform the Aaronic blessing upon coming out of the Holy Place as was the custom (cf. Lev. 9:23), whereas at the conclusion of Luke, Jesus blesses His disciples and they are in the temple and their mouths are full of rejoicing and blessing (Lk. 24:50-53). Luke moves from silence to song, from silence to blessing. One of the covenant blessings the Lord had promised was fruitfulness and children (Dt. 28:2-4ff). In this way, Zechariah’s silence corresponds to Elizabeth’s barrenness. He is unable to pronounce the blessing just as Elizabeth is unable to conceive it. At a couple of points during Ezekiel’s ministry, the Lord caused him to be mute as a sign to Israel of God’s judgment (Ez. 3:26, 24:15-27), but when his mouth is opened it is an opportunity for Israel to hear and repent. When Zechariah’s mouth is opened at the birth of John, something similar is happening.
- We might wonder why Zechariah and Mary receive such different answers to very similar questions: How will this be? Part of the answer seems to be that Zechariah should have known better. He was a well-trained priest who had studied and taught for many years. Luke also seems to indicate that Zechariah simply couldn’t bring himself to believe the message, while Mary is blessed for believing. This sets up a strong theme in Luke and in all the gospels that God often chooses the weak things, the childish things to shame the strong and wise. This may also be something of a reassurance to Luke’s gentile audience that the gospel was not a well-orchestrated inside job.
- Perhaps part of Zechariah’s doubt and uncertainty is actually a combination of cowardice and fatigue. Zechariah is an old man who has prayed for many years and eeked out a faithful existence in a politically tumultuous world while bearing many burdens. There is a temptation for all the faithful to develop the wrong kind of thickness in the midst of hardships. It’s tempting to think that since you’re doing the right thing God owes you something. You may start to do your good deeds with a certain snarl. On the one hand, you’re tired and worn out, and on the other hand, you’re afraid that it won’t matter. Our struggles against sin and evil and injustice are life-long battles and there are temptations to give up or settle all along the way. This is why the Lord’s Supper is here for you. Every week it’s as if we finish one Nazirite vow and then take up a new one, to bring the New World of Jesus here to this place.