December 3 – Luke 1:5-25


This week begins Advent, the month-long season that leads up to Christmas. Let me remind us of what we encounter every year with Advent—because these stories are familiar, they can often be hard to study. We can struggle to be inquisitive with 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 visiting these stories like old friends.

This year for Advent we’re looking at the Nativity, the unassuming community of people most immediately impacted by Jesus’s birth. Ultimately, the arrival of Jesus is for everyone and everything, but Advent is the celebration of the humble beginnings of God in the flesh, which from the start implicated old and young, rich and poor, human and spirit. People. Animals. Angels. The Messiah changes life for all, and this little series embraces the range of stories and characters for whom baby Jesus meant an entirely new way of life.

First we’ll read about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet who would prepare Israel to receive her King. His father, Zechariah, was one of many priests who served in the Temple in Jerusalem, and was married to Elizabeth, also a descendent of priestly families. That’s an impressive pedigree, but one that, by Luke 2, they’ve yet to pass on; verse 7 explains that they were childless, which lets us in just a little on the social stigma they’d been living under for some time. People in that time often assumed being childless revealed some failing, weakness, or sin; Elizabeth calls 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 God’s divine purpose to usher in the Messiah through their soon-to-be-born son.

In verse 8 we find Zechariah in Jerusalem for 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. Then he was chosen at random for the privilege of offering incense (a reminder that God purposes even what we perceive to be random). While there offering incense, a moment when Zechariah would’ve been absorbed with performing the ritual correctly, the angel Gabriel appeared to deliver a message.

What followed is quite typical of interactions between humans and God and his angels: Zechariah saw Gabriel and it scared the pants off him. When people encounter angels they’re almost always troubled and afraid, which is why angels often say in these stories: “Fear not” (cf. Luke 1:30, 2:10). But after getting over the scare, Zechariah had another typical response: he didn’t believe God’s message. This is basically straight out of Genesis 17:17, when God promised a child to Abraham and he asked God, “How can this be?” But unlike Abraham, Zechariah gets rebuked and muted for his unbelief since, as a priest, he should’ve known better. Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to receive these things quietly and reflectively as they happen to her, which contrasts quite sharply with Zechariah’s hesitation and unbelief. Either way, both Zechariah and Elizabeth, and their family and neighbors to boot (1:63-66), all had their lives shaken up because of this coming Messiah and the disruption that attended his arrival.

Continuing in discussion, 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. Zechariah knows this is about more than this specific alleviation of sorrow, being childless, but an even greater work of deliverance, salvation for God’s people. In this we can see how Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives, and the life of their son, intersects with the great big story of redemption.

And this instructs us on how that story intersects with our own lives, which can teach us 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 this 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 and the arrival of our Messiah, which changes everything.

Questions for Discussion

• Could someone read Luke 1:5-25 for us?

• What stood out to you from the passage?

• What do you think all this was like for Zechariah and Elizabeth?

• Would someone read Luke 1:67-80 for us?

• How did God answer Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers?

• How does this passage help us understand the significance of Jesus’s birth?

• How can this passage help us celebrate Christmas this year?