Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A God of Transformations: The Dynamic Presence of God in The Gospel of Luke - Part 2

Zechariah's Story – Luke 1:1-25; 57-80

          Let us begin, then, with the very first chapter of Luke's Gospel, specifically with the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Who was Zechariah? What was he like before his personal encounter with God? Zechariah, as a descendent of Aaron's oldest son Eleazar, came from a high ranking Jewish family, and as a priest in the order of Abijah, the eighth of twenty-four orders in the Levitcial priesthood, he was specially consecrated to offer the prayers and sacrifices of old covenant worship. (3) He was also a pious and devout man, “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (1:6). In other words, he lived his Jewish faith; he kept the moral and ceremonial laws to the best of his ability, and even if he sinned sometimes, he still fulfilled his duty toward God and neighbor as well as any fallen human being could do. (4) Zechariah's life, however, was not perfect. There was a defect in his world that only a miracle, a transforming touch from God, could correct. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were childless, for Elizabeth was barren, and they were “both advanced in years” (1:7). The Jews cherished children as a gift from God, a source of great happiness, and their parents' legacy to the world. (5) Zechariah and Elizabeth must certainly have been saddened by their lack of heirs. They may even have thought themselves forgotten by God. Their friends and neighbors, despite the couple's righteousness before God, wondered, perhaps, what Zechariah and Elizabeth had done to miss out on such such a great blessing. Were they being punished for some secret sin? Such reproachful whispers would have echoed in Zechariah's ears (see 1:25). The stage was set for God to break into Zechariah's world, to touch and change the mind, heart, and life of His priest.
          What happened to Zechariah, then? How did he encounter the dynamic, transforming presence of God? We might say that Zechariah experienced God's touch in two “installations,” first, during his priestly service in the Temple and, second, at the circumcision of his son. Zechariah was chosen “by lot” to burn incense in the Temple's “Holy Place,” the area just outside the sacred “Holy of Holies” where God dwelt (1:9). (6) This task would have been the “crowning moment” of Zechariah's priesthood, for a priest was typically selected, in effect called by God, for this office only once in his lifetime. (7) As he was performing his duty before the altar of incense, Zechariah was startled by the sudden appearance of “an angel of the Lord,” who was standing at the right side of the altar (1:11). He was more than startled, in fact; he was terrified. John Chrysostom explains, “No matter how righteous a man be, he cannot look at an angel without feeling afraid; that is why Zechariah was alarmed; he could not but quake at the presence of the angel; he could not take the brightness that surrounded him.” (8) Zechariah need not have been quite so fearful, for he angel brought a message of great hope and joy. Zechariah's prayer had been heard; Elizabeth would bear a son (1:13), and not just any son, either, a son who would be “great before the Lord” and “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb” (1:15), a son who would “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God” (1-16) and would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” converting the “hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (1:17), a son who would “make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (1:17). The angelic messenger of the Most High, Gabriel, who stands in the very presence of God, had just promised Zechariah that all his hopes, all his dreams, were about to be fulfilled (1:19). The Lord was going to come among His people, and the priest's own son, himself a miracle, would prepare the way for this new presence of the divine. What a message! Zechariah, however, did not seem ready to hear it. He doubted. He forgot God's almighty power; he forgot that nothing would ever be impossible for God, even making a barren couple fertile. (9) Moreover, he asked for a sign. “How shall I know this?” he demanded of the angel, or, in Luke's original Greek, “according to what” shall I know this? (10) Essentially Zechariah was asking, “What sign will you give me so I can be sure that this will happen, that what you say is true?” Despite his righteousness and his priestly office, his faith was weak. He did not fully trust that God could do exactly what He said He would do. Neither God's presence in the Temple nor in His messenger had as yet transformed this priest's mind and heart. Zechariah received his sign. He was literally struck dumb, and probably deaf, too, since his friends later resorted to making signs when they asked him what he wished to name his son (1:20, 62). Zechariah's loss of speech was both a judgment upon his unbelief and an indication of the truth of Gabriel's announcement. (11)

Apparently, after learning about faith the hard way, Zechariah believed enough to follow through on the angel's message, for Elizabeth became pregnant (1:24). Nine months later, Zechariah experienced the second “installment” of God's transforming touch. Elizabeth had given birth to a son, whom she named John on the day of his circumcision, just as the angel had instructed (1:60). The neighbors protested and turned to Zechariah for confirmation. “His name is John,” the silent priest wrote on a tablet, and “immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God” (1:63-64). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah broke out into a joyful prophesy. He proclaimed the imminent arrival of the God of Israel among His people; he declared the fulfillment of the covenant God had sworn to Abraham, that Israel would be delivered from its enemies and “serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him”; and he predicted his own son's role in preparing the way of the Lord's salvation, forgiveness, and peace (1:67-79). At this point, Zechariah had personally encountered God twice, once through the mediation of an angel and once through the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He was a changed man.
          We may now ask ourselves, “What was Zechariah like after his encounter with the divine?” How had God's transforming presence changed him? This doubtful, frightened man had become a faith-filled, joyful worshiper. This childless old man had become the father of a son who would be called “the prophet of the Most High” (1:76). The priest of the old covenant had become a prophet of the new covenant when, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he witnessed to the entire divine economy, praising God for His promises of the past, rejoicing in His blessings in the present, and proclaiming His salvation for the near future and beyond. (12) Zechariah had stood in God's presence. He had seen His promises come true. He had taken his place in God's plan of salvation. Greeted by an angel and filled by the Holy Spirit, he experienced the divine touch and was transformed in mind, in heart, and in life.
          What do Zechariah's experiences tell us about God? What is God trying to reveal about Himself in the transformation story of his priest? First, we see that God communicates with His people in many different ways. He might send an angel to give a divine message as He did with Zechariah, or He might even fill a person with His Holy Spirit, making him His instrument and witness to speak a prophecy of grace and truth. We also learn that God has a plan for His people, a plan of salvation, of deliverance, of blessing. In the fullness of time, He fulfilled His covenant promises and came among His people to carry out this plan for the good of Israel and the whole world. Further, as we study the story of Zechariah, we recognize God's omnipotence. What is impossible for human beings, like Zechariah and Elizabeth's conception of a child, can be easily accomplished by God, Who pours His graces and gifts upon His people in unexpected ways. Finally, we see that God is faithful and trustworthy. When He makes a promise, He keeps it. When He hears a prayer, He answers it. When He calls on a person to fulfill a task, He gives him the power and grace to do so.
          This leads us to our final question about the story of Zechariah: How can we apply Zechariah's experiences to our own lives in order to encounter the living presence of God in and through this text? Since each of us will answer this question differently according to our various vocations and circumstances, we will offer several reflection questions designed to guide us as we meditate on God's Word and help us open our hearts to receive God's message and allow Him to touch and transform us deep within our souls.

1. What messages are we receiving from God? Are we listening and responding to them, or do we doubt and resist?

2. Is there something in life that we think is impossible? Do we really believe that God is able to change the situation? Do we truly understand God's omnipotence? Do we realize that God is faithful and trustworthy?

3. How has God poured out His gifts in our lives? Do we respond to those gifts with joy and worship?

4. What role are we called to play in the divine economy of salvation? Do we understand that God has an individual plan for each of us? How might we discern this plan, and how would responding positively to our role change our attitudes and behaviors?

5. How might we allow God to use us as instruments and witnesses to spread His Word to others?
3. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible (e-Sword, Version 7.9.8, 2008); Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible (e-Sword, Version 7.9.8, 2008); John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible (e-Sword, Version 7.9.8, 2008); Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (e-Sword, Version 7.9.8, 2008); Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 17. Note: all Scriptural quotations and references are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
4. Gill; Henry.
5. Henry; Gill.
6. Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre, The Navarre Bible: St. Luke's Gospel (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003), 27.
7. Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent's Word Studies (e-Sword, Version 7.9.8, 2008); Henry; Hahn and Mitch, 18.
8. Navarre, 28.
9. Ibid., 29.
10. Vincent.
11. Barnes.
12. James B. Shelton, Mighty in Word and Deed: The Role of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 23.

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