Advent Week 1 – Luke 1:5-17
This week begins Advent, the month-long season that leads up to Christmas. Here I’ll remind us of what we encounter every year with Christmas—because these stories are familiar to us, they can often be hard to study. We can struggle to turn new eyes on a text we’ve read dozens of times, especially when we have an assumed narrative for Christmas already playing in our heads. So I’d encourage you and your group to study these passages carefully, to look for new things that you’ve never noticed before, but to also enjoy the practice of repeating back this story to yourselves.
This year for Advent we’re looking at the four times an angel visited someone in the lead up to Jesus’ birth and said “Fear not.” We’ll end up looking at Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but first we’ll read about Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Luke includes the account of the foretelling of John’s birth since John was the prophet who paved the way for Jesus. You might say he was Jesus’ opening act, growing up to preach about the coming Kingdom and preparing Israel to receive her King. But here in the story we start with Zechariah, one of many priests who serves in the Temple, who is married to Elizabeth, also a descendent of priestly families. Surely when they were married there had been priestly expectations on their family and future progeny, but the Bible explains that they are childless, letting us in on the the social stigma they had been living under for some time. People in that time would often assume being without children indicated some failing, weakness, or sin in a couple; Elizabeth called this her “reproach among the people,” in verse 25. But note that the text specifically tells us about their righteousness, revealing that they were childless not because of some failing on their part but because of a specific purpose on God’s part.
So Zechariah traveled to Jerusalem to take up his yearly duty of serving in the Temple (groups of priests would serve in the Temple two weeks out of the year, on a rotational basis). And then Zechariah was chosen at random for the privilege of offering incense in the Temple while he was there (a reminder that God purposes even what we perceive to be at random). While there offering incense, a moment when Zechariah would’ve been absorbed with performing the ritual correctly, the angel Gabriel appeared to deliver the message he was sent to give. In Jesus’ birth and resurrection accounts we see this pattern, that when people encounter angels they are almost always troubled and afraid; something about their appearance makes them shocking to human beings (likely the glory of the Lord, cf. Luke 2:9). Thus the common phrase they say in these stories, “Fear not.”
Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth’s prayers have been heard, that they will have a son, and that their son will be a prophet proclaiming the coming of the Lord and preparing Israel for him. We’ll take a moment to read Luke 1:67-80, when Zechariah sings for the birth of his son, to see what this answer to prayer actually was. Notice that Zechariah doesn’t just thank the Lord for his son; he thanks God that he would redeem his people. Zechariah knows this is about more than this specific alleviation of sorrow, being childless, but an even greater visitation of joy, deliverance for God’s people. Surely Zechariah saw the part he and his family would play in that, but he doesn’t just rejoices for his personal privilege. This makes us suspect that Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for more than just a son, but were likely begging God to make a way of salvation all those years. And this is what Zechariah rejoices in.
This should instruct us on how to celebrate Christmas this year. For all its talk of celebrating togetherness and unity, an American Christmas tends to revolve around the self, how to get what you want (either experiences or stuff), and how to impress others (either with what you get or what you give). But look at the gospel story in Zechariah’s life—he rejoiced not just in receiving what he longed for, but in the far grander story of God’s grace and covenantal love towards his people. For him, what God was doing was paramount, and called him out of fear and worry over his own life. Similarly, we can celebrate Christmas not principally thinking about how good of a Christmas we or our families will have, but rejoicing in God’s grand story that envelopes our lives.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Luke 1:5-17 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• Why do you think Zechariah was initially afraid of the angel?
• What was so important about this angel’s message?
• What do you think it was like for Zechariah to receive this news?
• Would someone read Luke 1:67-80? How did God answer Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers?
• How does this passage help us understand the significance of Jesus’ birth?
• How can this passage help us celebrate Christmas this year?