New Testament in 6 months – day 40

3 Sep

When I started this I never realised how hard it would be to resume after various breaks due to work and being on camps!

Luke 1:1-38
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

This passage is very interesting on 2 counts. The first is the miracle of 2 women who are unable to have children, one because her body is incapable and the other because she has not had sex yet, both becoming pregnant. The second is the reactions that we see, first by Zechariah and then by Mary, and the contrast between them.

In those days, when the only methods of birth control would have been withdrawal or rhythm and when it was the custom to have a son who you can train up to replace you and pass your inheritance on to, it was pretty safe to say that Elizabeth was incapable of having kids. You wouldn’t get married and then avoid the possibility of getting pregnant, that was not the way that marriage worked in Jewish culture at that time. You would get married and then look to start a family, ideally with at least 2 boys so that you had a “back up” if the eldest died and however many girls came along in the process. The fact that both Elizabeth and Zechariah are “well along in years” means that they have tried to have kids for many years and it hasn’t happened. Even if it was not a physical problem on Elizabeth’s part, but on Zechariah’s, as a monogamous couple they were still incapable of children.
Mary was a young teenager, between the ages of 12 and 14 if the custom of marriage ages was kept to for her and Joseph. One of the things that happened in the culture was the checking of the bed sheets after the first night of marriage, where the proof of virginity was found by the appearance of blood. This was a time when celibacy before marriage, particularly for women, was seen as the norm. We only have to look at how people treated prostitutes to see how they viewed women having sex outside of marriage (yes, it was much different to how men were treated, which was amazingly hypocritical but sadly the way people were) so it is safe to assume that Mary would have been a virgin until after Jesus’ birth, as the gospel accounts tell us. As a result, she could not, by human means, have a child.
Both women experience a miracle, and the joy that comes from this is clear for all to see. Elizabeth is overjoyed because the disgrace of not having children (which society then put on all married women with no kids after a certain age, usually assuming that they were being punished by God or not a “real” woman) had been lifted, even in her later years. And she acknowledges God’s part in it, giving Him the glory. Mary, as we see in the next bit of Luke, sings a song about how amazing God is. And even though there will have been the fear of how Joseph and society would have reacted, given that unfaithful women were usually stoned to death, she was still happy to be blessed by God and to do His will.
It is interesting how these miracles clearly illicit joy, yet society now seems to want to ignore the possibility of miracles. In fact, it goes so far, in some cases, as to say that it is better to kill yourself than to hope for a miracle that would see you healed. In a society where hope can often seem lost, surely the message of these stories, one of hope to the barren and the other of hope for all humanity, is more important now than ever before.

The reactions of Mary and Zechariah are very interesting, particularly in how they differ. Zechariah, as a priest, would know the story of the birth of Isaac inside out. He would know about how she was unable to have children and then, at the age of 99, conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the child of promise. He would know about the way they were told it would happen, of how Sarah reacted in disbelief because of her age and how she was proved wrong. He would know that when God says you are going to have a child then you are going to have a child. And yet he still reacts by saying “How can I be sure of this?”, saying it to the face of Gabriel no less! I don’t know about you, but I would like to think that if a heavenly being appeared to me then I would believe what they said to be true, rather than questioning it!
Mary, on the other hand, is the first virgin to be told she will give birth to the “Son of the Most High” in recorded Jewish history. The most obvious question to ask is how can someone conceive without having sex, but as soon as this is explained she accepts it as truth and says “I am the Lord’s servant”, showing she will do whatever God asks of her. It is the opposite to Zechariah’s reaction, who doubted despite his years of studying the Scriptures, because she asks the 1 obvious question that the situation demanded be asked and then accepts it as truth from God.
Surely it is the challenge for us all, whether we receive direct contact from God or “merely” gain understanding from the Bible, to know God’s hand is in it and follow unquestioningly. Yet again it is better to be Mary, only this time it is better not to be Zechariah rather than Martha, and trust in God with all our heart.

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