Luke 1-2: Wait For It

As many times I have now watched and listened to Hamilton, “Wait For It” remains far and away my favorite song from the show. It might have been Luke’s too.

There is so much to say about the Gospel of Luke, and in its first two chapters, so much is said. Tonight I want to focus on just two things: speeches and waiting.

Luke, like Matthew, is trying to make an argument that the God who resurrected Jesus and became so popular among Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) is the same God that claimed the Hebrews as His people, and, even in spite of that seeming change of direction, God can be trusted to be loyal. We think of Matthew making that argument to Jewish Christians, mostly by pulling Old Testament quotes and assigning them to Jesus’ life in a rather formulaic manner: “This happened to prove that Old Testament prophesy.” Luke, on the other hand, writes about the outcasts – the Gentiles like the Samaritans and the women of a patriarchal society, and the poor. But that’s really not the beauty of Luke’s Gospel.

While Matthew cites the Old Testament ad nauseum, Luke writes like an Old Testament writer. This is a reflection of his skill – as evidenced by parts like the introduction that frame the whole Gospel in the genre of a contemporary Greek history using that non-Biblical style. But when he shifts into the story, his language and storytelling doesn’t so much invoke the Old Testament as echo it.*

The first two chapters of Luke are the birth, infancy and youth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus, written in parallel. (I did not remember this, but Luke’s genealogy list of unknown and unpronounceable ancestors to Jesus doesn’t get unfurled until after this opening.) You probably know the Jesus infancy narrative pretty well – the angel comes to Mary and lowly shepherds in Luke (instead of Joseph and wise men in Matthew), but you know the drill. Lots of “Quit being afraid!” messages from angels and so on.

You might not know John the Baptist’s parallel story; if you don’t, read these two chapters to see how Luke almost exactly parallels the story telling of John’s and Jesus’ birth, with obvious key differences.

I want to focus on the speeches Luke has characters give, because I think they reveal a lot about who God is in challenging ways.

The angel Gabriel’s speeches to John’s father Zechariah and Jesus’ mother Mary are exciting, prophetic, and parallel each other; you can see for yourself. And Elizabeth’s short speech to Mary when they meet is ingrained in Catholics, as the heart of the rosary.

But the three speeches that are most striking to me are the Canticles of Mary and Zechariah and the prophecy of Simeon.

Every Catholic priest, religious brother or sister, and some laypeople end each day praying Mary’s song of praise and begin each day praying Zechariah’s. While I am not that disciplined, when I do get around to reading them, I am stunned that a community whose leaders rise and rest on these words isn’t radically different from what we have today. To pray each morning words like these:

“He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.”

And to end each night with:

“You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare the road for him, to tell his people that they will be saved by having their sins forgiven. Our God is merciful and tender. He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.”

Well, it’s hard to make sense of what folks say and do throughout their day when this is the start and end.

Simeon is a cameo role in Jesus’ story. In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple as a baby and run into Simeon, who was living in Jerusalem. “He was a good, God-fearing man and was waiting for Israel to be saved. The Holy Spirit was with him and had assured him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s promised Messiah. Led by the Spirit, Simeon went into the Temple. When the parents brought the child Jesus into the Temple to do for him what the Law required, Simeon took the child in his arms and gave thanks to God:

“Now, Lord, you have kept your promises and you may let your servant go in peace. With my own eyes I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples; a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel.”

After that blessing, he tells Mary “This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.” Mary takes this in, as with the other strange things that happen in Jesus’ early years, “pondering them in her heart.”

One of the motifs running through Luke is about waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth wait a long time for John. Simeon and Anne (who doesn’t get a speech but has a parallel story to his) wait a long time before they can say “Now, Lord, you have kept your promises.” Mary has to wait until the end of Jesus’ life to understand what Simeon was saying.

One of the most troubling verses in the Bible, if you look around right now, is Luke 1:37, when Gabriel tells Mary “For there is nothing that God cannot do.” Because it seems like there’s a lot happening that He ought to have done something about. And even when you go reread the songs of Mary and Zechariah about turning the tables and lifting up the lowly, well, the lowly still seem pretty low.

But when Zechariah tells Gabriel he doesn’t believe him, Gabriel’s retort is that his prophecy “will come true at the right time.” (1:20) Maybe that’s what we hang our hat on, on nights like this when catastrophes abound. Maybe the reason we have these gospels is to remind us that God breaks into our lives in ways that are upsetting and confusing and not the miracle we ordered, but ways that are real and true and loving. We need these stories in the times, not just now, but when they were first written down, that God doesn’t seem to be showing up much at all. Maybe we need the hope that Love wins at the right time, even if we have to stick it out like Simeon and Anna, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like Hannah and Abram and Sarah before them.

Love wins. We just have to be willing to wait for it.

*Incidentally, I broke down for this one and picked up a commentary to walk through this with me. Luke Timothy Johnson was a professor of mine at Candler, and one of the most respected Catholic Biblical scholars of the late 20th century. My understanding of the Bible is a very dim reflection of what I learned from him, as well as a guy he cites in his commentary, Charles Talbert, who was one of my professors at Wake Forest. But I am at best a hobbyist and they are both masters in the field. If you’re used to doing Bible studies, consider some time picking up a commentary by one of them (or Raymond Brown, whose John commentary I may dig out some day) and you’ll get a very different perspective. They are much less interested in questions like “Did Jesus really say/do that?” or “What is God saying to me through this?” than they are in understanding what the author was trying to say and how it would have been understood by the audience he was addressing.

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