God at work in impossible situations…

Looking at Luke 1:5-7

Luke begins his Gospel Story in an odd way, with a group of slightly quaint rural stories, full of old customs and time-honoured practices. It’s somewhat reminiscent of, say, Maeve Binchy imagining rural Ireland in the days of the potato famine (or, rather, how I imagine she’d imagine it): The bad old days in the “rare auld times.” So are we looking at a simple nostalgie des origines?  No: there’s more to it than that. He needs to take us into the story of Israel to demonstrate that this is the story of Jesus too. Jesus is not an added extra to the story of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or  a new growth sprouting out into a different direction.

That’s what happened when Joseph Smith brought the “new revelation” of the “Book of Mormon” in 1830. The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement, which adherents believe contains writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from approximately 2200 BC to AD 421. That is, it was a new addition that was different from the “Bible”. Luke’s intention is almost exactly opposite. He wants to show that though we have two testaments, we have only one progressive revelation of God. The story of Israel is also the story of Jesus.  See how he starts the story?

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.  Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Luke takes us into the story of Israel, and then narrows his focus into one life, into –say-everyday life, where people bleed and hurt,  but where –according to Luke- God speaks and answers. We are introduced to a couple- Zechariah and Elizabeth- who know the disappointment and the pain of infertility. They were in their sixties, and perhaps their life together had settled into a low level of expectation, if not bitterness . And I’m sure we all know the stupid lines that they had heard and reheard a hundred times: “Just relax.” “Don’t try so hard.”“Take a holiday.” “Why don’t you adopt a child?” “Have faith.” “Just trust God.” “There isn’t any unconfessed sin in your life, is there?” “Maybe God is punishing you?”

Infertile couples often go through stages: they may deny that it is happening to them. They may avoid the subject -or even avoid children altogether! It can become a prickly “issue” with them around which visitors must tread with caution. They may have some anger about the thing as they seek to come to terms with something that seems unfair. Just unfair. Then, at some stage, they resign themselves to the situation as if it is a settled fate.

And yet, according to Luke’s account, the disappointment of infertility was not the defining characteristic of their marriage. There’s something more: they “were upright in God’s eyes.” And that fact alone made it possible for God to work with them.God delights in working through people who listen and seek to follow Him.

Sometimes we get stuck inside a moment –a negative circumstance-  in our lives.

We ask the question: Will nothing ever change? It’s time for a “Spoiler Alert”!

This little passage reminds us that, in God, it will and can.

Even if you are in the “valley of the shadow” right now,

It’s something that you are going “through.”

You don’t live there forever.

Things change.

The important point is:

Are you letting this negative circumstance become

the defining characteristic of your life?

You need not be defined by disappointment.

You may be defined by your relationship with God.

It’s your call.

Both notice how “rooted” the text is inthe ancient stories of God dealing with His people.Zechariah and Elizabeth come from priestly families.  Zechariah belongs to the section that traces its ancestry back to Aaron through Abijah.  Elizabeth is described simply as ‘from the daughters of Aaron’.  We can begin by dwelling a moment on the resonances associated with Abijah, Zechariah’s ancestor.   In 1 Chronicles, the service at the sanctuary of the Lord is being rationalized under David.  The priestly families, descended from Aaron, are divided into twenty-four groups; one of those groups is headed by Abijah. (1 Chronicles 24:7-19)

The work of the sanctuary and of the priesthood led by Aaron is described devotedly from the end of Exodus, and all through Leviticus.  There is much about ornament and dress, but more importantly there is a work of praise and sacrifice on behalf of the people.  The priests mediate the relationship between the people and the presence of God within the Holy of Holies.  There is no separation between things of human concern and divine concern – offences against one another are offences against God, and offences against God have repercussions for the whole people.  The rituals of the sanctuary allow a constant work of reconciliation and a restoration of lost balance, the forgiveness of sins individual and collective.  Furthermore the priests have a role in the physical health of the community.  Sickness is never a purely private or secular affair and the priests again have a role as mediators, allowing back into the community those who have been quarantined.

By naming Mary as Elizabeth’s cousin, Luke implies that Mary and her son, too, share something of the priestly spirit.  As we have seen it is a spirit which not only leads people to God in offering sacrifice and praise, but also mediates healing, reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins.  It is just such a ministry that John the Baptist will take from the Temple into the desert, and Jesus, in his turn, will take out into the streets.

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