Luke’s gospel is my favourite of all the gospels. As a Doctor, his writing style is factual and researched. It is also written with a gentile audience in mind – it is user friendly. Luke’s writing is the Biblical equivalent of a great documentary.
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. (Luke 1v5-13)
An example of this is found as early as in Chapter 1. Verse 5 sets the scene by naming names and links, “a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah…” Luke does this so that readers of the text can go and check. By simply tracking down the priestly division of Abijah, a gentile reader of around 70AD, when Luke’s gospel was written, could confirm for themselves that there was, indeed, a member of the division called Zechariah and that he had a wife named Elizabeth from the line of Aaron.
With all these facts and reference points punctuating the passage, it is very easy to lose yourself in the emotional journey of the story. Zechariah, it says, was “chosen by lot” to burn incense inside the temple of the Lord (verse 9). This shows us that he is a dutiful man that serves tradition. He is not necessarily a maverick or a leader amongst his group. It makes his actions later in the chapter more believable, as they are so out of character – not just believable to us today, but believable to Zechariah’s peers at the time.
Inside the temple, where Zechariah is “gripped with fear” at the sight of an angel of the Lord (verse 11), we see yet more detail from Luke – the angel was “standing at the right side of the altar…” I always imagine Luke asking his eyewitnesses, like a modern-day reporter, “Do you remember what side of the altar the angel was? And were they sitting or standing?”
The angel’s message for Zechariah is beautiful. Firstly, he tells him not to be afraid, showing the compassion and understanding of the Lord; then he reveals the power of the Lord by assuring Zechariah that his prayer has been answered and his wife “will bear … a son”, then he gives this dutiful man an instruction from God, “you are to call him John” (verse 13).
John’s role in history, of course, is to make way for another. It is enormously gratifying to see how seriously God takes the duty of simply paving the way. One of our callings here on earth is to pave the way for the next generation, it is an important part of God’s plan; one we should all remember as we gather with the different generations of our families this Christmas.
Written by Alasdair Mackay, who is a member of Hope Church Newham.