We’re in the third week of our four week series looking at each of our four primary sources for the Jesus story. We looked at Mark’s gospel without a Christmas story. We looked at Matthew’s gospel with its version of the birth narrative. And today, we’re in Luke with a completely different birth narrative. Other than part of both stories being set in Bethlehem and both stories naming Mary, Joseph and Jesus, nothing’s the same … well, and God!
And today is actually more than the other half of the story we love to tell. Compare Matthew’s 47 verses to Luke’s 127 verses. It’s more like the third of the story we love to tell and the other two thirds of the story we love to tell. And lo! There are seven parts to Luke’s stories (a Christmas present to me!): (first) the introduction of Zechariah and Elizabeth; (second) Gabriel’s encounter with Mary; (third) Mary going to visit Elizabeth; (fourth) the birth of John the Baptist; (fifth) the birth of Jesus; (sixth) the presentation of Jesus in the temple; and (seventh) Jesus as a boy at the temple—which, I know, isn’t part of a birth narrative, but is a story Luke chooses to include preceding the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an adult.
There’s too much material here for us to look at it all carefully (127 verses!). We could look at it sequentially—a quick overview of the seven parts in their order, but part of what we would come to find out is that Luke writes to undermine sequence.
You want sequence, go back to Matthew’s story. Matthew gives us sequence. He’s invested in sequence. You remember he starts with that genealogy, and genealogies are all about sequence. What with the story unfolding from one person to another—one person’s story leading to another’s. And the genealogy leads to the birth of Jesus which leads to the arrival of the magi which leads to the escape to Egypt which leads to Herod’s horror. All in sequence.
Mark actually creates a similar impression of narrative sequence with his rather well-known extensive repetition of the adverb “immediately” (used almost 40 times throughout the gospel). We’re driven through Mark’s gospel along with Jesus—from place to place, encounter to encounter. One effect of such an emphasis on sequence is that at the end of each of their gospels, Mark and Matthew both leave us wondering how (or if) we continue the sequence—how (or if) the sequence—the narrative—the story continues in us.
Luke’s not as interested in how we might continue the gospel—because he continues it—in the Acts of the Apostles. And if he’s not interested in sequence at the end of his gospel, he’s certainly not interested in it at the beginning either.
He does, as carefully and as deliberately as Matthew and Mark, also locate his stories in time. But to look at the chronology (the timing) of his stories is to see something very different from what we see either in Mark or in Matthew. It’s a much more subtle use of chronology than sequencing.
First, the writer of Luke’s gospel shapes the way we perceive chronology by using different verb tenses all in a relatively short passage. Sounds innocuous, I know, but Mary, in the Magnificat, for example, sings that her soul magnifies the Lord (present tense) for God has looked on her with favor (past tense) and surely from now on all generations will call her blessed (future tense). It’s just not as straightforward as following a simple linear sequence as the story has us jumping back and jumping ahead. And it’s not just a matter of time either, because to look at Mary’s past present and future is also to see something about her relationships in time as Mary is identified (in her past, present, and future) in relationship to God, by implication Jesus, and to all future generations.
And that’s not all. Consider this passage introducing Zechariah. “Once when Zechariah was serving as priest before God (now that’s a time frame—a one week time frame) and his section was on duty (that’s another time frame—possibly the same one, that one week—possibly a time frame within that week), he was chosen by lot (that’s a specific event within those time frames) … to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering (another event within the time frames), the whole assembly of the people was praying outside (a concurrent event in another place). Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord (another event)” and there’s a conversation with the angel (that conversation involving, like the Magnificat, all the verb tenses—the angel was sent (past event), and Zechariah doesn’t believe (present) and won’t be able to speak (future)) “Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary (and there’s another concurrent event).” So we’ve got that mixing of the verb tenses going on again, but there’s also this sense of concurrence—of different things all going on at the same time—different people, different places, but somehow connected. Yes? But wait! There’s more.
Because the more you think about this—the closer you look at it, the author here isn’t just using past, present and future tenses—isn’t just creating some sense of concurrent stories, but also molds the chronology by taking one story and breaking it up into pieces and taking another story and breaking it up, and another and another … and then interweaving all the parts of all the stories. Chopping up narrative sequence such that one story is not just about that one story’s set of characters, but about some kind of resonating web of relationships—past, present and future.
Some examples: because our author intersperses stories in a variety of ways—intersperses the stories being told with some of the great stories of the faith—some of the great stories of the past (which is another interesting way of mixing tenses, isn’t it?!). But seriously, how can the beginning of the story of old Zechariah and Elizabeth who have prayed for children but remain barren not echo into the barren future Sarai and Abram thought they had (Genesis 16 ff.), and Rebecca and Isaac (Genesis 25:21 ff.), and Rachel and Jacob (Genesis 29:31 ff.), and Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1)? And the stories all resonate with each other both in the circumstances of a barren loss of hope, as in the hope—indeed, the expectation that God will change those circumstances. So our unfolding stories are interspersed—interwoven with past stories.
Then the story of Elizabeth that resonates with all those great stories of the past also parallels Mary’s story as it unfolds. And notice how it unfolds. You get some of Elizabeth’s story, then some of Mary’s, then back to Elizabeth, then back to Mary—two stories chopped up and interwoven. And again, the details of the story resonate within the formula—the expectations of the story type: the angelic pronouncements, the fear, the fear nots, the doubts, the assurances, the unexpected pregnancies, the songs of praise and blessing. And the story of Mary with Gabriel’s affirmation (“Nothing will be impossible for God”) echoes Sarai’s exclamation, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord” (Genesis 18:14)? Mary’s acceptance, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” resonates with Hannah’s words (1 Samuel 1:18). the Magnificat, of course, Mary’s song, also resonates with Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
And then the stories of Elizabeth and Hannah and Sarai and Mary as parallel stories of mothers, become parallel stories of babies born: laughter and Samuel and John the Baptist and Jesus. And the promises about these babies echo past promises made to Samuel and—oh, why not, let’s bring in king David—in those old echoing stories (2 Samuel 7:9 and 13-14). And the story of Jesus in the temple resonates with the story of Samuel in the temple (1 Samuel 1:24-28; 2:20-22), and we read that Samuel, John the Baptist, and Jesus are all affirmed as growing in spirit, stature, in favor with the Lord and with humankind.
There’s still more. Because our writer takes the idea of mixing tenses and concurrent stories and interspersed stories, and the sixth month that’s the end of this part of this story becomes the beginning of that story. And then this other story ends in the future so we have to jump back to pick up the next story that’s unfolding in the present. And part of it is, yes, the connection of stories of family—the affirmation that even Jesus, as unique as he is, was absolutely not isolated—not removed from the human condition, but born into it—born into a family system with relatives and relationships and connections and some aunt who liked to pinch his cheek. It’s the affirmation also that Jesus was born into a web of stories reaching back to the very beginning of the stories of God and people. And it’s not just family. Not just Elizabeth and Mary. Nor is it just Elizabeth and Mary and the heroes of their faith tradition. Remember, it was also Zechariah and all the people praying. And it’s not just Mary and Joseph and Jesus either, because meanwhile there were shepherds in fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, and of all people with whom to connect this story! Unknown shifty, presumably dishonest shepherds. Yet concurrent—interwoven.
And so stories of barren hopelessness and Zechariah’s story and Elizabeth’s are interwoven with Mary’s and pregnancies and the births of Isaac and Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and Benjamin and Samuel and John the Baptist and Jesus and with the prayers of the people and the presumably not praying shepherds … and God is in and through them all—God’s messengers sent to them all—less in some linear development—sequence, as some kind of circling—not toward Bethlehem, but including Bethlehem.
So Luke molds the chronology of these stories in his uses of verb tenses, his awareness of concurrence, and the interspersal of stories—stories from the past, stories of different people—interwoven. And as particular as Luke is with time (read those first two chapters and notice how many time references there are)—as particular as Luke is with time, there’s a timelessness to what he writes—something eternally true—then, now, and forevermore. And Luke tells stories that ripple not through time, but out in time, not in sequence but in concentric circles. Time is not so much a line as a circling twisting turning around upon itself.
And there’s more! Because throughout all this breaking up and interweaving of stories and time lines, Luke’s gospel locates all these different characters and stories amidst the customs, traditions, and rituals of faithfulness and obedience. Notice how often the Temple takes its place in these stories (where Zechariah was working and people were praying, where Jesus was presented, where Simeon came, where Anna lived, where Jesus and his family returned annually).
Think about our characters. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” Mary “found favor with God,” and it’s obviously Joseph and Mary’s custom to be faithfully obedient, having Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, presenting him in the Temple in the sixth week as “was customary under the law,” returning to the temple for the bar mitzvah at age 12. Simeon is described as “righteous and devout” and Anna as one who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” And the stories indicate that John the Baptist and Jesus will grow up in such a manner becoming “strong in spirit,” increasing “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Surrounded by the examples of the faithful, they’ll grow up faithful. What a celebration. What an affirmation. Our text manifests a deep, profound and abiding respect for the routines of the faithful.
It’s interesting, Matthew’s identified as the Jewish Christian, Luke as a Gentile Christian, and yet in spite of that and, perhaps because of that, Matthew feels the need to point to more of a distinction between what it mean to be Jewish and what it means now that Jesus has come. Along with that emphasis on sequence in Matthew, there’s a division into what was and what is and will be. There’s what righteousness meant, and now there’s something else. There’s the law of Moses and the new teaching of Jesus. It’s not discontinuous, but it is different. Not so much with Luke—whose gospel is what we might call gently disruptive! Celebrating the routine that’s about to be overturned. Respectful of what’s about to change. Not defining his understanding of faith over and against somebody else’s. And how important is that?
So why does Luke tell this story? These stories? This way? There’s actually some question about chapters one and two—about whether they’re original to Luke or were added later. Nothing about them is necessary to what unfolds (Mark’s point). They do serve as invitation into the rest of the story (like in Matthew), but they also suggest what will continue to unfold in the consistency of God’s involvement in time. If Mark deems a birth narrative non-essential and potentially distracting …, if Matthew tells his to invite his congregation into the rest of the story authorizing Jesus as rabbi teaching a new righteousness …, then Luke tells his story because it’s within the establishing of our own routines of righteousness—do you know what yours are? your routines of righteousness? They include prayer and Bible study, fellowship, worship, and service—within our own routines of righteousness—within what’s also called the wisdom of righteousness, in the midst of family and job, routines and schedules and responsibilities—resonating with the faith stories of the past—the stories of our pasts, our presents, our futures—that Jesus comes, to bring joy and wisdom and praise. And whatever is to follow in the story of Jesus, including the cross—can’t take away that joy, that glad and exuberant praise of God.
It’s particularly interesting to me that it’s precisely the particulars of these stories that are so beloved—that are what we think of: the angels appearing to announce the pregnancies, the reactions, the whole Bethlehem no room at the inn, born in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the angels appearing to the shepherds. But it’s precisely the non-particularity of these stories that has been most striking to me this year. Just how many stories get wrapped up into these stories. As if it could be our story—your story—mine. Almost as if there’s one story thrown into time—into history—one story that ripples out in concentric circles—intersecting the ripples of that same story thrown into time at another time—thrown into someone else’s life—but one story of hope and joy—one story of God ….
The stories of the beginning of Luke’s gospel—interrupting each other, falling all over each other and the other stories of the faith, do serve to slow us, as readers, down. Can’t read this quickly. But it’s more than functional. It’s meaningful. Because we find ourselves—we find ourselves—when we know that it’s one story. As if what we’re supposed to notice are not the details that seem so foreign to us (as beloved as they are), but precisely how this story is the furthest thing from foreign. As beautiful as the particulars are, it may be more important, to see the convergence …. God’s story converging into our stories such that our stories might converge into God’s.
And so, to the sadness and the joy of those who cultivate the disciplines of righteousness—to the doubts and assurances of those committed to the routines of faith—to their hopes and fears of the future—and to their faith, come the ripples of this one story—washing over us—baptizing us. And in its wake, we find hope refreshed and dreams anew.
And to the everyday/everynight routines of others—keeping watch over whatever they keep watch over (not routines of righteousness, though)—to the others—comes the pronouncement, you really should come take a look—this is a story you really want to hear. Because it will always meet you exactly where you are, but it will never leave you there.