Isn’t it hard to understand why Luke spends so long getting to the birth of Jesus? If you wanted to write an account of Jesus’ life, wouldn’t you start with Luke 2, with the journey to Bethlehem? Or perhaps, at a push, you might include Mary’s visit from the angel Gabriel. But Luke doesn’t start there – he takes the first twenty five verses to take us to the point where John the Baptist is conceived! Why?
He starts his book with a clear declaration of what he’s trying to do:
“It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4 ESV)
So, how does this episode help us to have confidence about what we’ve been taught about Jesus?
Why don’t we put ourselves in the position of Zechariah? A priest, married in the priestly family, doing his bit according to the rota. The name had been pulled out of a hat and thrusted him forward to burn incense in the temple, and everyone is waiting outside. We know from Luke’s commentary that he is a righteous man, walking in God’s commandments (v6), so his reverence would be unquestioned. But nothing is likely to have prepared him for the appearance of an angel of the Lord on the right of the altar. He would surely have been mentally prepared for one of the most intimate things that Jewish society could do to get close to God, a significant part of their relationship with God, and his expectation would have been for very little beyond a sweet smell filling the temple. The appearance of a heavenly Gabriel would not be high on his list – and so we have sympathy for this man, poised with match in his hand, quivering to alight the wick, now gripped with terror as a heavenly being appears next to the altar!
But this moment is even more monumental. We’re told of a miraculous birth – a birth to the barren couple who had given up hope on having a child. But Gabriel goes beyond a simple announcement of a birth:
“… he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:15-17 ESV)
Any Jewish reader should be thrilled by this point. The only moment standing between now and the arrival of God’s King has been the return of Elijah, who will prepare people for the greater arrival to come next. Passages like Isaiah 40:1-5, or Malachi 2:17-4:6 speak in terms of ‘making ready for the Lord a people prepared’, or ‘turning the hearts of fathers to the children’. Now we see this angel announcing that such a child, paving for God’s descent to earth, is to be born to this priestly family! Excited yet?
No great surprise, then, when Zechariah is punished for his doubt. You can almost hear the incredulity on Gabriel’s voice when he says, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (v19). But of course, they are to come true, and Zechariah is sent away speechless.
Luke has thrown in, from the very first episode in his account, great reason to get excited about Jesus. But we reel a little from the rebuke Zechariah gets. He’s laid down the gauntlet: something incredibly great is going on, and the response matters.