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Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah's Song

Sermon / Homily on Luke 1:57-80

Exegetical Notes on Luke 1.57-80 - The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

by Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Tannehill (Luke) offers this outline for the Infancy Narrative (1:5-2:52).

A. Preparation for the Births (1:5-56)

1. John (1:5-25)

a) Angelic annunciation 1: Gabriel to Zechariah (1:5-23)

b) (Limited) human recognition of God's saving work, with focus only on the end of Elizabeth's barrenness (1:24-25).

2. Jesus (1:26-56)

a) Angelic annunciation 2: Gabriel to Mary (1:26-38)

b) Human recognition of God's saving work: Elizabeth's praise of Mary and Mary's praise of God (= hymn 1, the Magnificat) (1:39-56)

B. The Births

1. John (1:57-80)

a) Birth, circumcision, and naming, with response of joy and wonder (1:57-66)

b) Human recognition of God's saving work (= hymn 2, the Benedictus) (1:67-79)

c) Concluding refrain of growth (1:80).

2. Jesus (2:1-52)

a) Birth, circumcision, and naming, with response of joy and wonder. Also contains angelic annunciation 3: angel to shepherds (2:1-21)

b) Presentation in the temple, with human recognition of God's saving work (= hymn 3, the Nunc Dimittis) (2:22-39)

c) Refrain of growth (2:40, 52), with the growth in wisdom illustrated by the story of the youthful Jesus in the temple (2:40-52)

Our text is the birth, circumcision, and naming of John and Zechariah's recognition of God's saving work uttered in his song [B.1.a) & b) from the outline]. These events occur in fulfillment of the angelic annunciation given to Zechariah earlier on the chapter.

The angel had said to Zechariah, "Your wife Elizabeth will bear [gennao] you a son..." (1:13b).

Our text begins by stating that Elizabeth has born [gennao] a son (1:57).

The angel had said to Zechariah, "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice [chairo] at his birth" (1:14).

At the birth, Elizabeth's neighbors and relatives ... rejoiced [sygchairo] with her (1:58b).

However, the reason for the rejoicing is not just the birth, but the Lord's "great mercy". God's mercy [eleos] is a theme that occurs throughout this opening chapter of Luke (1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78) and only once afterwards (10:37).

This word for "mercy" is defined by Lowe & Nida as "to show kindness or concern for someone in serious need." Who is in "serious need"? It might be that the barrenness of Elizabeth had put her and Zechariah in need, but that wouldn't have been the case with Mary. The "needy" are defined in 1:78-79. They are "us." People sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. People who are not at peace. Although in v. 58, God's great mercy has been shown to Elizabeth, the end result is that his mercy will be given to the needy world.

In the birth/infancy narratives, Luke emphases the Jewishness of our Christian origins. Zechariah is a priest serving the temple in Jerusalem. Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron -- the first priest. They have a priestly heritage. They are also both described as being "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (1:5-6).

In the book of Acts, we read about the difficulties the Jewish believers had in accepting Gentile believers. However, I think that Luke, in writing to Theophilus (and his friends who were probably Gentiles), is encouraging them to look favorably upon the Jewish believers (and perhaps even Jewish non-believers?). The Christian faith grows out of Jewish heritage and piety, especially illustrated by the parents of John and of Jesus. We have not always been cognizant of the Jewish roots of our faith.

As we would expect from such a couple, they follow the law and have their son circumcised on the eighth day (see Lev 12:3; Gn 17:12; see also Lk 2:21). Besides fulfilling the law, this event is also when a child is named. Also, by naming the child, the father claims him/her as his own.

"Zechariah" is the name of more than thirty people in the Bible. Frequently it is a name related to the priestly Levite tribe: a Levite gatekeeper (1 Chr 26:2, 14), a Levite harpist (1 Chr 15:18, 20; 16:5), and a trumpet-blowing priest who led David's procession accompanying the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (1 Chr 15:24). There is also a prophet Zechariah, who was the son of a priest, who was stoned by the people (2 Chr 24:20-23; probably also referred to in Mt 23:35; Lk 11:51). The name means "Yahweh remembers" -- a name that would be quite appropriate for Zechariah and Elizabath as God had remembered them in their old age and given them a son.

However, the name given to Zechariah by the angel is "John," short for "Johanan" or "Jehohanan" meaning: "God shows favor" or "God has been gracious". These are also fitting names for this miracle child.

The angel in 1:13b had given Zechariah the name "John," for his son. Apparently he (or an angel) had communicated this to Elizabeth. She is the first at the circumcision to state that their son's name would be John.

The fact that the relatives had to "motion" to Zechariah, suggests that he might also have been deaf. He also attests to the name of John for their son. They angel's message is fulfilled.

The angel's message to Zechariah also declared: "But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur" (1:20).

"These things" have all occurred. Elizabeth became pregnant and bore a son. They have named the son John. Zechariah can now speak again.

Throughout Luke, the theme of promise/fulfillment repeats itself. This theme begins in chapter one with the promises spoken by the angel to Zechariah and their fulfillment in our text, in spite of the couple's old age, Elizabeth's barrenness, and the pressure of the crowd to give a child a different name. God's purposes happen.

One could emphasize the difficulties of holding one's convictions amid the pressure of family and friends to act or believe differently than what God has said. Note that the pressure or "temptation" from the people was not to do anything evil. They just wanted to name the child Zechariah after his father. However, that was contrary to God's will in this particular case.

In typical Lukan fashion, the responses of the people are (1) amazement (thaumazo, v. 63) and fear (phobos, v. 65). Both of these words occur more often in Luke than in the other gospels. They are not words of faith.

In addition, there is a possible contrast between Zechariah's reaction and his neighbors. "He was speaking [laleo -- something he couldn't do in 1:20, 22]. What was he speaking? Praises to God (v. 64b). The neighbors talk about or discuss [dialaleo] these things with one another (v. 65). The only other time this second word is used in Luke, it is the Pharisees who are filled with anger and discuss what they might do to Jesus (6:11). My impression is that the neighbors are bit like a group who gathers in the parking lot after a meeting and "discuss" everything that happened (or didn't happen) in the meeting. How much better would it be if we spent more time speaking in praise to God for what happens (even if we don't understand it all) rather than discussing all the details with one another?

Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) writes about our text: "The passage provides a hinge in the infancy narrative. It has the fulfillment of one prophecy and the declaration of another" [p. 47]


Zechariah's song has traditionally been called the Benedictus from its first word in Latin. It is the NT canticle sung at Morning Prayers (Matins).

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) writes:

The progression of thought in the Benedictus shows, however, that the true end of God's redemption is not merely deliverance from political domination -- as important as that is -- but the creation of conditions in which God's people can worship and serve God without fear. As Schweizer perceptively observes [The Good News According to Luke, p. 43]: "The ultimate purpose of God's salvation presupposes deliverance from the enemy but is in fact undisturbed worship." Deliverance makes worship in peace -- unhindered worship -- possible. [p. 59]

Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) says much the same thing:

The canticle gives the reader the first sure sense of what "liberation" means for Luke. It is defined in specifically "religious" rather than political terms. Negatively defined, freedom means release from the power of enemies. But its positive content is worship and holiness of life. Thus John's role in preparing the people for "restoration" involves the forgiveness of sins rather than the rallying of troops. Likewise the Messiah's role is not one of violent revolt but rather of leading the people "in the path of peace." [p. 48]

Previously, Johnson had noted how Zechariah fulfilled this canticle: "Luke has thereby made the experience of Zechariah a miniature enactment of his canticle: God's mercy liberates the people to worship fearlessly; Zechariah's release from muteness is expressed in praise" [p. 57].

What would "fearless worship/service [latreuo]" look like in our day? Who or what are the enemies that may keep the people from such worship? from whom we may need to be "rescued"?

This text might be a time to stress that we are not just "saved from" something, like from our sin or the deserved punishment for our sins; but also "saved for" something, namely, from this text: worship/service in holiness and righteousness.

A complaint that has been leveled against the "Just say no!" anti-drug campaign is that we also need to give kids something to "say yes" to. I presented a similar critique at a meeting to review a jr. high sex education program. Their goal was to try and decrease pregnancies among their students. I suggested (with a bit of tongue in cheek) that achieving that goal was easy -- sterilize all the students. There would be no pregnancies. If that was too harsh, then hand out free contraceptives. My point was that they needed to create a positive goal for their program, such as, "to help the students have a happy, life-long marriage in the future." Statistics indicate that pre-marital sex decreases the odds of achieving that goal.

Covey, Merrill & Merrill in First Things First have the following bit of wisdom at the beginning of chapter 5: "The Passion of Vision:": "It's easy to say 'no!' when there's a deeper 'yes!' burning inside."

I believe that it is a passion for something that gives life and vitality to congregations or even to individuals.

Tannehill (Luke) presents a slightly different emphasis from the commentators quoted above. He writes: "Although the enemies might include more than the Romans (Herod Antipas and his officials; rich landowners), it is hard to imagine that the Romans would be excluded" [p. 60].

He maintains that political freedom from the Romans is intended by Zechariah, but not necessarily through armed conflict. It may also be assumed that the reason it didn't happen during Jesus' ministry is because Jerusalem rejected him.

He does not believe in a "political"/"religious" distinction in this poem. He writes:

The two understandings of salvation may seem in conflict, the one being "religious" and the other "political." This conflict is a mirage caused by modern assumptions. In the ancient Jewish context, many would admit that Israel's sins were responsible for its captivity. Therefore, forgiveness is necessary for the renewal of its national life. [p. 62]

However, Tannehill also admits that this interpretation brings with it a major conflict among the readers (and perhaps us):

The Benedictus might produce conflicting feelings in the Lukan audience. Zechariah, now that his tongue is loosed, speaks under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (v. 67). Thus the narrator clearly wants the audience to accept the Benedictus as an authoritative statement of God's plan for Israel. The Christian Jews in the audience, perhaps others also, would be sympathetic to this hope. At the same time, they would have the disturbing knowledge that the coming of John and Jesus did not save Israel from its enemies, for many Jews perished in the Roman war, and the temple now lies in ruins. Thus a tension appears in the narrative already at this early point. There would be added difficult for someone like Cornelius, who served in the army of Israel's "enemies." It would be difficult, especially in the Roman-Jewish war, to serve the Roman government while maintaining sympathy for Jews, sharing their prayer life and participating in a sect with Jewish roots. The Benedictus aggravates the problem caused by these conflicting social ties. [p. 63]

How do we deal with the dilemma of unfulfilled prophecies? Or when the opposite of what is prayed for and hoped and expected occurs, e.g., a sick person dies rather than is healed?

It may be that Luke stresses the fulfillment of some of the prophecies so that we might maintain faith and hope that some day all of them will be fulfilled.

Johnson (Luke) presents a couple contrasts in our text when he writes:

If the "dawning from on high" is -- as seems most likely -- a reference to Jesus as Messiah, it is a marvelous metaphor. It balances the brute force suggested by the "horn of salvation." The horn is "raised," in an upward movement; the dawn is "from on high," in a downward movement. The horn is within the house of David, and could be understood as a political force. But the dawn is "from on High" which denotes the power of God for a salvation greater than freedom from enemies, freedom from the "shadow of death" itself. [p. 48]

I believe that one of the great, unique features of Christianity is that it is a religion of God coming down to us, rather than most other religions where we have to raise ourselves up to a godly plane. Christianity is light shining in the darkness, which destroys the darkness. It is not the darkness trying to become light. It is being transformed by God's (de-)lightful presence among us.

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptist

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