Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard and Matt Skinner.
Article written by Matt Skinner.
I’m drawn to biblical passages that make me see differently. My capacity to imagine what’s possible for the world is limited, and my ability to perceive the true nature of things is sometimes overly pessimistic. This makes me grateful for the Bible’s potential to urge me toward viewing my experiences and events around me in light of God’s grand intentions for humanity’s well-being and the world’s salvation.
In that regard, nothing else in the New Testament comes close to the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke.
No other passages sing quite like these do, reverberating claims and promises from the Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament) to orient our outlook on new, unfolding events. The people we meet in Luke 1-2 prepare us to read the story of Jesus, describing his coming as nothing less than the pivot point in history. They remind us of venerable and familiar truths about God and encourage us to see those truths shaking up, and ultimately benefiting, the whole world through Jesus Christ.
The poetry of Mary, Jesus’ mother (1:46-55), reminds us that the Gospel, with its talk of a God who acts in human history, sits in the middle of a larger story. God is at it again now, in Mary’s pregnancy, present in the moment and poised to grant justice and hope to the poor and lowly.
When John the Baptizer enters the world, his father, Zechariah, contributes a poem of his own (1:67-79). He extols God’s faithfulness to promises, promises of deliverance and security. He remembers prophecies and covenants of old and sees them coming to fruition in the salvation, forgiveness (or deliverance), and light that will show themselves in John’s ministry and in Jesus Christ.
Angels arrive on the scene to announce the birth of “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” to terrified shepherds (2:8-20), and both parties can simply offer praise to God in response. How fitting.
Eight days after Jesus’ birth, two extraordinary individuals, Simeon and Anna, meet the baby and tell us what the rest of the story is going to be about: salvation for all peoples, light to the whole world, glory for God’s people, and redemption…as well as conflict and loss (2:25-38).
Maybe these scenes and their claims sound commonplace to you. If so, that’s only because these chapters have had widespread influence on Christian worship, song, theology, and not a few Christmas pageants. They have great and enduring importance for how we make sense of the Gospel according to Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. Here are four ways in which they also guide us in our life of faith.
First, Luke 1-2 gives us language and themes to describe the salvation God accomplishes through Jesus Christ. Salvation means God remembers God’s people and comes to be with them to deliver and forgive them. As a result, we belong to God and have a secure future. Human empires and their rulers (see 2:1-2) do not save; they subjugate. By contrast, God will not leave the world oppressed by spiritual powers, ignorance, hopelessness, or dehumanizing conditions.
Second, these chapters remind us that there can be no New Testament without the Old Testament. The prophecies uttered by Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna (the first three of which have been interpreted and re-performed as song or canticles throughout the church’s history) look backward to look forward. That is, they situate us in God’s promises and ask us to see Jesus not as a new thing but as the next thing -- or the ultimate, final thing -- in God’s activity on behalf of the world. All three songs include many quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament (compare, for example, Luke 1:46-55 with 1 Samuel 2:1-10). Even the narration of Luke 1-2 uses a syntax that recalls the style used in Greek translations of the Old Testament’s historical writings. The message is clear: Luke will not tell a story about “God’s Plan B” but rather a story of God’s ongoing faithfulness and committed intention to bless the whole world through God’s chosen people Israel.
Third, the opening scenes in Luke’s Gospel instruct us in worship. The people in these scenes do not praise God as an abstraction or an idea. They celebrate a living God who can be glimpsed and known in human experience. Mary and all the others offer praise that holds the whole scope of God’s plan in view, speaking of a God who removes the powerful from thrones or rescues the people of Israel from national enemies. Notice all the “He has…” statements, speaking about God in 1:46-55. But these truth-tellers in Luke 1-2 also see signs of God at work in more personal or localized ways. Mary speaks of what God has done and is doing for her -- and through her. Likewise, when we worship God, we seek to express how God’s large-scale, cosmic ambitions connect to our individual, perhaps out-of-the-way experiences. This isn’t about putting ourselves in the center of the universe; it’s about realizing that God still speaks and still acts. Our worship must always be more than remembrance or nostalgia.
Fourth, these chapters characterize Christian faith as an expression of hope. There’s a humility, or a smallness, about these chapters. We encounter otherwise insignificant characters: an unwed mother and her thought-to-be-infertile relative, an obscure priest and earthy shepherds, plus two devout and elderly people who frequent the temple in hope that God will finally make good on longstanding promises. But still these individuals express profound and global hopes -- hopes that are still emerging and learning as Luke’s narrative takes flight. These faithful witnesses represent a world eager to welcome Jesus and yearning for God’s salvation to break in. The story to follow will have its own twists and turns, but here -- at the very beginning -- these people’s hopeful words and postures teach us how to look at Jesus. He is the advent, the arrival, of God’s promised future.
It’s a shame that we sometimes relegate these chapters only to Christmastime. They can open our eyes and stir our dreams in every season.
Matt Skinner is professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.
Image credit: "Annunciation and Nativity Ivory," 11th-century (?) ivory in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.