Last week we studied Luke’s theology of history – the superficial veneer of power politics overlaying the actual outworking of God’s longing to redeem the world. In the coming of Jesus, those two dimensions are going to collide with violence from the politicians and love from God.
The intersection of these two dimensions is described in the first verses of Luke 3. First, the Lukan author firmly anchors us in the calendar and geography of Imperial politics and administration. Then we hear John announcing that a new realm is bursting forth, a reign through which “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The Lukan theology of history is “layered,” as is the case, for example in the Book of Revelation (put into written form in a different location but perhaps relatively close in time to the Lukan account). But this theology of history is also segmented. Hans Conzelmann proposed this segmented schema in his 1960 work on the theology of the Gospel of Luke.
According to Conzelmann, the Lukan author sees history from Creation through the ministry of John the Baptist as the time of Israel. This is followed by the time of Jesus’ ministry, the period covered by the Lukan gospel proper. The comes the period of the Risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, which lasts until the Second Coming of Christ. This period is described in the Book of Acts and continues until the End of the Age.
The Lukan author is not, according to Conzelmann, primarily an ancient historian or biographer. Instead, Conzelmann argues, the Lukan author is a theologian of history. The author is presenting the history of salvation, not merely the history of the cosmos. There are exceptions and contradictions to this schema within the Lukan texts, but they are primarily elements which have become fixed in the tradition by the fourth quarter of the first century.
These apparent contradictions (such as Luke 10:9,11; 18:8; 17:20; and 21:32) seem to indicate that the Lukan author expects the Second Coming at any moment. However, in the early church (the time of the Spirit), the New Age is both now and not yet, both present time and future time, thus the “layered” view of historical events. While the End can come at any moment for an individual Jesus follower or community, the End of the Cosmos is still in the future.
In this Lukan Advent, we move toward the Magnificat. We move toward the song that proclaims those “up” as down and those “down” as up. It is a song, as Richard Swanson notes, about the “right-side-uping” (sic) of the world. “John’s entry into the story out of the wordless wilderness,” Swanson writes, “begins with a listing of those powers who hold the world upside down” (page 60).
He notes that this listing is closely connected to the washing which the Baptizer proclaims. He writes that “this change, this preparatory washing, aims to shape faithful Jews for a more thorough living of their identity. All of this prepares them, and all of God’s creation,” Swanson continues, “for the moment when the world will be turned right-side-up” (page 60).
So, John the Baptizer comes on the world stage at an historical inflection point – no, at the historical inflection point. On one hand, the Baptizer is the final and fulfilling voice of Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah and the End of the Age. On the other hand, he points to the beginning of the New Regime in the One who is to come after him. “When John appears, he is pointing to that unattainable moment,” Swanson writes, “to the culmination of all things. Those powers that hold the world upside down are listed,” he concludes, “but John represents their limit” (page 61).
We preachers could take this text as an opportunity to look at our own lives in historical and personal context. What are the forces and structures that continue to hold our lives “upside down”? Who are the people and what are the institutions that benefit from an “upside down” world? What factors keep my life and world “upside down” (and what part do I play in that topsy-turvy way of living)?
In other words, if I were to create an historical context to describe the investments in the “upside-downness” of the world as I experience it, how might I construct that description? We would surely do it differently based on our social, economic, and political positioning and privilege. That in itself is instructive, because the Lukan account offers a description developed from the viewpoint of the least, the last, and the lost.
We get two weeks of the Baptizer in the Lukan Advent, so we can go slowly and carefully in reflecting on the details of the account. And we can spend some time on the supporting texts offered to us by the Revised Common Lectionary. The portrait the Lukan author paints of the Baptizer in chapter three demands that we attend to the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, that serves as the psalmody for this Sunday. This canticle demonstrates the whole theological sweep of John’s birth, ministry, and even death, in light of the redemption of Israel.
The first part of Zechariah’s song could be a portrayal of John himself as the “mighty savior of Israel,” descended from the house of David. But verse seventy-six makes plain John’s role and his relationship to Jesus. Zechariah announces to the infant that he “will be called the prophet of the Most High.” He will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways…” The Lukan author takes advantage of the ambiguity in the Greek title, “Lord,” here to show that John will prepare the way for the Lord Jesus.
The Benedictus answers the question fueling the gossip network in the entire hill country of Judea. “What then will this child become?” John is the child of promise to an elderly and infertile Jewish couple. He is the culmination of that narrative which drives the book of Genesis from beginning to end and rumbles in the background of all the Hebrew scriptures. John is in the line of the prophets who promise rescue from the hand of all who hate the Chosen people. He will enlighten the people regarding the forgiveness of sins that leads to their salvation.
All of this information comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which equips Zechariah to testify. This theme runs from the Lukan account through Acts. We have a bit of a foreshadowing of Pentecost here, just as we did in the Lukan Apocalyptic Discourse last week. Old people see prophesy here. The “hand of the Lord” is with John, and he will become “strong in spirit.” As he grows, he heads off into the wilderness to await his cue on “the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”
Levine and Witherington point out that the word translated in the NRSV as “looked favorably” (Luke 1:68) is better translated as “visited his people.” Yolanda Norton makes the same observation in her workingpreacher.org commentary. What happens here is more than an approving glance from God. Rather, “Luke gives the impression of direct divine presence,” Levine and Witherington write.” In addition, the verbs in the song are primarily in the past tense, not the future. Zechariah “sees the victor and the redemption as a fact of history, not a promise yet to be fulfilled” (page 45).
Norton connects the verb to the Septuagint report of God’s response to the barrenness of Sarah in Genesis 21. “God’s visit is something more than simple presence,” Norton writes, “it is about more than merely seeing. When God visits God’s people, God makes God’s self manifest in their lives. God shows up,” she continues, “to interrupt misery and lack with an intention to restore and sustain the people.”
Norton’s concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full. “All of this theological reflection in Luke 1:68-79 happens outside of time. Prior to this text and following it there is a narrative chronology. However, in this moment the author breaks time to speak to God’s amazing capacity to operate across and within chronological time. This brief text takes its reader through the exodus, into the monarchy, across the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel and into the hope for a new promise fulfilled first through John the Baptist and then through Jesus. As such, the text reminds us that we live in a cycle of both the declaration and fulfillment of God’s promises in prophetic utterances.”
Zechariah goes from the silence of (temporary) deafness and muteness directly into this prophetic canticle. “The old priest has been unable to speak for months,” Adam Hearlson writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “and as he finally fulfills the angel’s demands from earlier in the chapter, he bursts like a dam.” I wonder how much the Lukan author intends Zechariah to be a metaphor for Israel.
The voices of the prophets have been silent, at least in the first-century theological understanding, for nearly five hundred years. The seventy weeks of years prophesied in the Book of Daniel were coming to an end. This is why “the people were filled with expectation” (see Luke 3:15) and were wondering if John the Baptizer was actually the promised Messiah.
In any event, just as the prophetic voices had been silenced, so was Zechariah. But now the announcement burst forth out of his mouth – both about his long-awaited son and about Israel’s long-awaited Messiah and Savior. Just as John was soon to move into the wilderness for his mission, so Israel was to move into the new territory of life with the Savior.
“For Luke’s audience,” Hearlson writes, “the presence of war, the destruction of the temple and the daily indignities of living under occupied rule did not feel as if the promises of God had been fulfilled. Yet, Zechariah’s song announces that God is trustworthy, and the promises of God will be fulfilled. That the fulfillment is coming,” he continues, “is an invitation to live as if it is already here. From this posture, John is given his vocation: prepare people to live into the fulfilled promise. John is responsible for helping people repent,” Hearlson concludes, “so that they might see the breaking dawn of the promise.”
The Advent invitation is to live “as if.” Zechariah’s prophecy, with all of its past tense verbs, is an “as if” song. Sing and dance, live and love, celebrate and serve as if the “not yet” is already “now.”
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.