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St. Luke the Stylist

Scripture tells us that Luke was a physician and an Apostle. For much of my adult life, I have also thought of Luke as a forerunner of my tribe of journalists. My whimsy will not become the template for all of Covenant writers’ reflections on Luke and Acts, but it will shape this first column on the first four chapters of the Gospel of Luke.

Luke provides us with exquisite and subtle details, the kind that an engaged reporter either observes or discovers through interviews. In the weeks that follow, especially in the Book of Acts, Luke often becomes the first-person narrator as he describes accompanying Paul on his missionary journeys. He provides drama, humor, and poignant moments. Amid all his other achievements, Luke is one of the most elegant stylists in the pages of Scripture. I am in awe of his writing.

Now to Luke’s texts for the week: After a brief word to Theophilus, Luke opens his narrative with the story of John the Baptist’s conception. The angel Gabriel’s discussion with Zechariah is similar to the Lord’s visit with Abraham and Sarah, except that in this case the husband expresses befuddlement at the idea that his barren wife will conceive a child.

Throughout the pages of Scripture, God shows a tender concern for barren women: Sarah, Rachel, and Elizabeth are primary examples. There is something primal, even for men, in the pain of barrenness. We wonder about how our child would have looked and sounded, how our child would show traits of both parents, and how our child would become an autonomous human being, with a mind, will, and personality given as a gift by God.

Mary’s visit with Elizabeth is one of the more compelling moments in this chapter. A most beautiful detail is of John the Baptist, the last great Old Testament prophet, leaping in his mother’s womb simply on hearing the voice of the Messiah’s mother. What wondrous thoughts must have filled the souls of Elizabeth and Mary as they compared accounts of angelic visitors telling them of who their sons would become.

Here is one glory of the Incarnation: the God who transcends space and time interrupts the lives of two holy women in Israel going about their quotidian lives, and the world is transformed forever.

Monday — In today’s reading there is early pathos, and even a bit of humor, as Elizabeth’s busybody friends and relatives try to commandeer the name she will give her newborn boy. Elizabeth insists on naming him John, as the angel Gabriel had said, and the interlopers attempt to override her decision by appealing to Zechariah.

But Zechariah also proves faithful to Gabriel’s direction, and the baby will be known as John. Zechariah, after months of being muted by supernatural force, bursts forth with a paean to God for this first step toward the arrival of the Messiah.

Imagine speaking words like these over your newborn child and knowing that his role has been revealed to you by God: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

Imagine being the parent of a child like that. Imagine the holy responsibility of teaching him the basics of life as a servant of God and a citizen of Israel. Imagine knowing that this helpless baby, once he has grown into a young man, will realize what he is called to be and step willingly into the lonely role of prophet.

Tuesday — One of the delightful aspects of Scripture is its understated tone in describing visits to earth by angels. To people living amid widespread secularism and high-tech wonders, stories about angels must sometimes sound as fantastic and otherworldly as fairy tales. But open your mind to the notion that Luke is describing events that occurred in real time and you find ever-deepening layers of beauty and truth to explore.

Here we have another instance of angels as God’s liaisons to the lowly, people who do hard work with their bodies, who sleep in the outdoors, and who do not move along the elites of their day. To these simple men, who devote their days to moving their flocks across the land and protecting them from predators, God offers the deep privilege of being the first people other than Mary and Joseph to behold the newborn Messiah.

Wednesday — Time after time in these early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, God speaks to Mary through angels and prophets to tell her about the Messiah’s future, but also to prepare her for the pain she will know as Jesus fulfills his calling: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

It is difficult to grasp, even partially, how Simeon’s words must have rested in Mary’s soul. She hears of how her son’s path has been foretold for centuries through the prophets, and how he will redeem Israel, but she also must face the sharp edge of a sword. Could Mary have known even a slight indication of the pain she would feel when seeing her son beaten, flogged, spit upon, and subjected to the most barbaric form of capital punishment devised by the Roman empire? Could she have anticipated the joy that would follow, on discovering that Jesus was stronger than even a horrifying death?

Thursday — Today we have the cameo appearance of John the Baptist as a grown man and a prophet in full. He is spellbinding, and several films have attempted to depict his dynamic presence. The most bizarre depiction comes in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which leaves the incongruous impression of John as presiding over a Canaanite fertility cult.

There is no need to add a gothic layer to John. A man who has lived in the wilderness throughout his boyhood is enough of a nonconformist already, and he speaks blunt words of conviction and repentance to the crowds who gather.

There is something of the manic street preacher in John. When I encounter street preachers, especially those who speak in confrontational tones, I try to remind myself of John the Baptist. Blunt speech is not a sure sign of being called by God, but neither it is a sure sign of being psychotic. God has spoken through unlikely characters throughout history, and I want to listen attentively, especially when my sense of decorum tells me to dismiss a person with a Frenchman’s wave.

Friday — Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is spare. We do not have his discourse with John about why John should perform the baptism. Instead, we plunge right into the baptism and the words God the Father sends for all to hear about him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Here I simply dwell on the thought that Jesus, entirely free of sin, submitted to a rite that cleanses us from sin. It is a powerful symbol of what his whole life and ministry achieved for us.

Saturday — One film director did an amazing job of depicting Satan’s final temptation of Jesus. In Jesus of Montreal (1989), an actor depicting Jesus in a Passion play rides on an elevator with another character, and it is only as the elevator reaches the top that the other character’s evil identity becomes clear. Not all efforts to tell Jesus’ story through film are doomed to fail. They all fall short of the Messiah described in the Gospels, but that is inevitable.

In Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, we see Jesus at one of the most vulnerable chapters of his life. Both at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and at his trial and crucifixion, Satan comes at him with every power he has: he distorts Scripture, he tries to steal Jesus’ commitment to God, he appeals to the human desire for power. Yet Jesus stands in the fire, both for his future ministry and for our redemption, and at last angels help him recover from the ordeal.

What a Savior we have.


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