Book Excerpts: “The Voice of Luke: Not Even Sandals” (Jan-Apr 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Brian McLaren
September – December, 2007

Luke 1: For Those Who Love God

What are your assumptions as you begin this amazing document? What do you assume about Luke as an author—his motives, his agenda, his assumptions? Any constructive experience of reading involves an amazing interaction so complex that it’s a wonder it ever works at all. First, there are readers across time and space, each reading with certain questions, certain assumptions, and a certain worldview. Then there’s an author, located in another specific time and place, embedded in his own context and worldview. The author and the readers also come from communities or traditions—groups of people who share their basic worldview and who teach them to think, write, read, and respond in certain ways.

In all my years of reading (and writing), I’ve concluded that we as readers have the obligation to try to enter the writer’s world, to understand him on his own terms and in his own context, rather than requiring him to enter ours (something he can’t do!). That means that we need to try to imagine Luke’s world. Fortunately, we have Luke’s sequel to this Gospel to help us understand more about him. (It’s called the Acts of the Apostles, and the two documents shed light on each other.) Tradition tells us that Luke is a physician, active in the early church in the years around A.D. 60. He travels widely with the emissary Paul; so he is a sort of cosmopolitan person, multicultural in his sensitivities, understanding both Jewish culture and the broader Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire. As a physician, he is more educated than the average person of his day, but I think you’ll be impressed with his ability to relate to common people—and especially his skill as a storyteller. Remember that Luke isn’t presenting us with a theological treatise (as good and important as theological treatises may be); he’s telling us the story of Jesus, gathered from many eyewitnesses. Based on the intended audience of his book (Theophilus—literally, God-lover), we can assume he wants to help people who love God to love Him even more by knowing what He has done through Jesus.

1-3For those who love God, several other people have already written accounts of what God has been bringing to completion among us, using the reports of the original eyewitnesses, those who were there from the start to witness the fulfillment of prophecy. Like those other servants who have recorded the messages, I present to you my carefully researched, orderly account of these new teachings.

4I want you to know that you can fully rely on the things you have been taught about Jesus, God’s Anointed One. 5To understand the life of Jesus, I must first give you some background history, events that occurred when Herod ruled Judea for the Roman Empire. Zacharias was serving as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem those days as his fathers had before him. He was a member of the priestly division of Abijah (a grandson of Aaron who innovated temple practices), and his wife, Elizabeth, was of the priestly lineage of Aaron, Moses’ brother. 6They were good and just people in God’s sight, walking with integrity in the Lord’s ways and laws. 7Yet they had this sadness. Due to Elizabeth’s infertility, they were childless, and at this time, they were both quite old—well past normal childbearing years.

In the time of Jesus, Jewish life was centered in the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was staffed by religious professionals, what we might refer to as “clergy” today, called priests. They were responsible for the temple’s activities—which included receiving religious pilgrims and their sacrifices (cattle, sheep, goats, and doves). Animal sacrifices sound strange to us—we often associate them with some kind of extremist cult. But in the ancient world, they were quite common. It may help, in trying to understand animal sacrifices, to remember that the slaughter of animals was a daily experience in the ancient world; it was part of any meal that included meat. So perhaps we should think of the sacrifice of animals as, first and foremost, a special meal. This meal brings together the Jewish family from near and far, seeking to affirm their connection to the one true and living God. Their gift of animals was their contribution to the meal. (The priests, by the way, were authorized to use the meat for the sustenance of their families.)

The presentation of the blood and meat of these sacrifices was accompanied by a number of prescribed rituals, performed by priests wearing prescribed ornamental clothing, according to a prescribed schedule. As the story continues, we see these solemn rituals interrupted in a most unprecedented way.

8One day, Zacharias was chosen to perform his priestly duties in God’s presence, according to the temple’s normal schedule and routine. 9He had been selected from all the priests by the customary procedure of casting lots for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the sacred precincts of the temple. There he burned sweet incense, 10while outside a large crowd of people prayed. 11Suddenly, Zacharias realized he was not alone: a messenger of the Lord was there with him. The messenger stood just to the right of the altar of incense. 12Zacharias was shocked and afraid, 13but the messenger reassured him.

Messenger:
Zacharias, calm down! Don’t be afraid!

Again and again, when people encounter God (or when they receive a message from God, often through a vision of a heavenly messenger), their first response is terror; and so they need to be calmed down before they can receive the message. We might think Zacharias shouldn’t be surprised to hear from God; after all, he’s a priest working in the temple. But priests didn’t normally hear from God. Those who heard from God were called prophets, not priests.

Priests worked “the family business,” so to speak. One became a priest by being born in a priestly family line. Prophets, on the other hand, arose unpredictably. Prophets had no special credentials except the message they carried. So Zacharias had no reason to believe his duties would be interrupted in this way.

Often in the biblical story, when people receive a message from God, after getting over the initial shock, they start asking questions. They push back; they doubt. However, when the word of the Lord comes to people, it doesn’t turn them into unthinking zombies or robots; it doesn’t override their individuality or capacity to think. Perhaps many of us in some way hear the voice of the Lord, but we don’t realize it because we’re expecting lightning flashes and a voice with a lot of reverb, a voice so overpowering that we are incapable of questioning and doubting it.

Messenger:
Zacharias, your prayers have been heard. Your wife
is going to have a son, and you will name him John.
14He will bring you great joy and happiness—and
many will share your joy at John’s birth.
15This son of yours will be a great man in God’s
sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form; instead
of alcoholic spirits,
he will be filled with the Holy
Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s womb.
16Here is his mission: he will stop many of the children of
Israel in their misguided paths, and
he’ll turn them
around to follow the path to the Lord their God instead.
17Do you remember the prophecy about someone
to come in the spirit and power of the prophet
Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents
back to their children;1someone who will turn
the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the
just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill
this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the
one who will prepare the people and make them
ready for God.

We mentioned that Luke was a master storyteller, so we’ve decided to contextualize his method of storytelling to our own culture in some creative ways. First, we’ll highlight dialogue (as you’ll see we do in this episode), rendering Luke’s account in the form of a screenplay. Second, from time to time, we’ll have Luke say, “Picture this,” or “Imagine this.” Then we’ll use present tense to help you enter the story imaginatively, as if you were there yourself.

Zacharias:
18How can I be sure of what you’re telling me? I am
an old man, and my wife is far past the normal age
for women to bear children. This is hard to believe!

Messenger (sternly):
19I am Gabriel, the messenger who inhabits God’s
presence. I was sent here to talk with you and bring
you this good news. 20Because you didn’t believe my
message, you will not be able to talk—not another
word—until you experience the fulfillment of my
words.

21Meanwhile, the crowd at the temple wondered why Zacharias hadn’t come out of the sanctuary yet. It wasn’t normal for the priest to be delayed so long. 22When at last he came out, it was clear from his face something had happened in there. He was making signs with his hands to give the blessing, but he couldn’t speak. They realized he had seen some sort of vision. 23When his time on duty at the temple came to an end, he went back home to his wife. 24Shortly after his return, Elizabeth became pregnant. She avoided public contact for the next five months.

Elizabeth:
25I have lived with the disgrace of being barren for
all these years. Now God has looked on me with favor.
When I go out in public with my baby, I will not
be disgraced any longer.

26Six months later in Nazareth, a city in the rural province of Galilee, the heavenly messenger Gabriel made another appearance. This time, the messenger was sent by God 27to meet with a virgin named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David himself. 28The messenger entered her home.

Messenger:
Greetings! You are favored, and the Lord is with
you! [Among all women on the earth you have been
blessed.]2

29The heavenly messenger’s words baffled Mary, and she wondered
what type of greeting this was.

Messenger:
30Mary, don’t be afraid. You have found favor with
God. 31Listen, you are going to become pregnant.
You will have a Son, and you must name Him
“Liberation,” or Jesus.3 32Jesus will become the greatest
among men. He will be known as the Son of the
Highest God. God will give Him the throne of His
ancestor David, 33and He will reign over the
covenant family of Jacob forever.

Mary:
34But I have never been with a man. How can this be
possible?

Messenger:
35The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Most
High will overshadow you. That’s why this holy
child will be known, as not just your son, but also as
the Son of God. 36It sounds impossible, but listen—you
know your relative Elizabeth has been unable to
bear children and is now far too old to be a mother.
Yet she has become pregnant, as God willed it. Yes, in
three months, she will have a son. 37So the impossible
is possible with God.

Mary: (deciding in her heart):
38Here I am, the Lord’s humble servant. As you have
said, let it be done to me.

Luke is very interested in the ways that disadvantaged people of his day—the poor, the sick, and women—respond to God. Already, we see a fascinating interplay between Zacharias’s response to God and Mary’s. If you compare them, you’ll see how their responses are similar in some ways but very different in others.

And the heavenly messenger was gone. 39Mary immediately got up and hurried to the hill country, in the province of Judah, 40-41where her cousins Zacharias and Elizabeth lived. When Mary entered their home and greeted Elizabeth, who felt her baby leap in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth (shouting):
42You are blessed, Mary, blessed among all women,
and the child you bear is blessed! 43And blessed I am
as well, that the mother of my Lord has come to
me! 44As soon as I heard your voice greet me, my
baby leaped for joy within me. 45How fortunate you
are, Mary, for you believed that what the Lord told
you would be fulfilled.

Mary is deeply moved by these amazing encounters—first with the messenger and then with her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary’s response can’t be contained in normal prose; her noble soul overflows in poetry. And this poetry isn’t simply religious; it has powerful social and political overtones. It speaks of a great reversal—what we might call a social, economic, and political revolution. To people in Mary’s day, there would be little question as to what she was talking about. The Jewish people were oppressed by the Roman Empire, and to speak of a Liberator who would demote the powerful and rich and elevate the poor and humble would mean one thing: God was moving toward setting them free! Soon we’ll hear Zacharias overflowing in poetry of his own.

Mary:
46My soul lifts up the Lord!
47My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
48For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.
Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.
49For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!
50From generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.
51God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.
52The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.
53The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in
their hands.
54To Israel, God’s servant,
God has given help,
55As promised to our ancestors,
remembering Abraham and his descendants in
mercy forever.

56Mary stayed with Elizabeth in Judea for the next three months and then returned to her home in Galilee.

57Three months later, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. 58News about the Lord’s special kindness to her had spread through her extended family and the community. Everyone shared her joy, for after all these years of infertility, she had a son! 59As was customary, eight days after the baby’s birth the time came for his circumcision and naming. Everyone assumed he would be named Zacharias, like his father.

Elizabeth (disagreeing):
60No. We will name him John.

Her Relatives (protesting):
61That name is found nowhere in your family.

62They turned to Zacharias and asked him what he wanted the baby’s name to be.

63He motioned for a tablet, and he wrote, “His name is John.” Everyone was shocked by this breach of family custom. 64They were even more surprised when, at that moment, Zacharias was able to talk again, and he shouted out praises to God. 65A sense of reverence spread through the whole community. In fact, this story was spread throughout the hilly countryside of Judea. 66People were certain that God’s hand was on this child, and they wondered what sort of person John would turn out to be when he became a man.

67When Zacharias’s voice was restored to him, he spoke from the fullness of the Spirit a prophetic utterance.

Zacharias:
68May the Lord God of Israel be blessed indeed!
For God’s intervention has begun,
and He has moved to rescue us,
the people of God.
69And the Lord has raised up a powerful sign of
liberation for us
from among the descendants of God’s servant,
King David.
70As was prophesied through the mouths of His
holy prophets in ancient times:
71God will liberate us “from our enemies”4
and “from the hand of our oppressors!”5
72-74God will show mercy promised to our ancestors,
upholding the abiding covenant He made with
them,
Remembering the original vow He swore to
Abraham,
from whom we are all descended.
God will grant us liberation from the grasp of our
enemies,
so that we may serve Him without fear all our
days
75In holiness and justice, in the presence of the
Lord.
76And you, my son, will be called the prophet of the
Most High.
For you will be the one to prepare the way for
the Lord,6
77So that the Lord’s people will receive knowledge
of their liberation
through the forgiveness of their sins.
78All this will flow from the kind and compassionate
mercy of our God.
A new day is dawning:
the Sunrise from the heavens will break
through in our darkness,
79And those who huddle in night,
those who sit in the shadow of death,
Will be able to rise and walk in the light,7
guided in the pathway of peace.

80And John grew up and became strong in spirit. He lived in the wilderness, outside the cities, until the day came for him to step into the public eye in Israel.


1 Malachi 4:5-6
2 The earliest manuscripts omit this portion.
3 Through the naming of Jesus, God is speaking prophetically about the role Jesus will play in our salvation.
4 Psalm 106:10
5 Psalm 106:10
6 Isaiah 40:3
7 Isaiah 9:2
New Wineskins

See Catching Up With Brian McLaren Before the Conference
See A Conversation with Brian McLaren (2006)
See A Conversation with Brian McLaren (2003)

Brian McLarenCalled “the guru of younger evangelical pastors” by Robert E. Webber in the book The Younger Evangelicals, Brian McLaren is at the forefront of the Emergent Christianity movement. He is a senior fellow in Emergent (www.emergentvillage.com), an organization dedicated to developing new approaches to Christian theology and new forms of faith communities. McLaren is the founding minister of a nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. He is author of several books, including The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2003), and A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Jossey-Bass, 2001), winner of Christianity Today‘s Award of Merit for Best Christian Living Title for 2002.

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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