Dr. Mary Foskett
Wake Forest Kahle Professor of Religion
Director, WFU Humanities Institute
Having recalled God’s covenant promise to bless “all the families of the earth” through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and how Israel was called through the covenant with Moses to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” we come now to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth that opens Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah is a priest in the order of Abijah and Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron (Lk 1:5). Both are described by Luke as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Lk 1:6).
Yet all is not well. All is not well with this family, with this people, with the world in which they live. Zechariah and Elizabeth, despite their advanced years and their seemingly long marriage, are without children. In a time when bearing children was an early form of social security and infertility was taken as a sign of divine displeasure, being childless was akin to having no future. At the opening of Luke’s Gospel, the future seems uncertain on a larger scale, too, with the everyday lives and future of the people of Israel, being determined, in large measure, by the power and will of Rome. Luke’s Gospel, with its heightened attention to the symbolic world of Empire, begins by remarking that, “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah” (Lk 1:5). Likewise, Luke opens the story of Jesus’s birth by noting (albeit a-historically) that “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus . . .” (2:1). Such allusions are more than rhetorical attempts at verisimilitude. Throughout the Gospel and its sequel, the Book of Acts, Luke shows understanding of, and concern for, the political context in which earliest Christianity emerges. Luke is attuned to the political and social realities – including the remarkable inequality — that shape everyday life at this time. It is in this Gospel, after all, that we find the parables of the Prodigal Son, the good Samaritan, the woman searching for a lost coin, the widow who refused to stop seeking after justice, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and more. Behind all these stories looms a social and political context shaped largely by Rome, with its military and economic power, its widespread imperial ideology, and its occupation of the land that had been promised to Abraham and to his and Sarah’s descendants. Luke’s Gospel is particularly known for both its consciousness of its imperial context and its self-conscious and careful representation of a fledgling Christianity. Thus throughout Luke and Acts, Luke struggles to speak prophetically to the needs of the poor and oppressed — and against the unjust exercise of power and wealth – while at the same time making the case that the followers of Jesus are not, in fact, enemies of the state. Luke walks a delicate line, making his case for Jesus and the Kingdom of God in the face of an imperial ideology that views Caesar Augustus himself as a savior and son of God, the embodiment of the Roman empire and its values.
As representatives of Israel, Zechariah and Elizabeth are emblematic of a people facing an uncertain future in a politically charged time. What does it mean to live as a people of covenant when the people are surrounded by thwarted expectations, widespread political, economic and social oppression, and normalized violence? How do the people withstand the threat of despair and the lure of resignation, and keep the harsh realities of the world from eclipsing what they have known as God’s vision for the world? How can a people see beyond what is to what might be possible? The challenge can be great even among the most righteous, like Zechariah, who simply cannot fathom the message that takes him by surprise in Luke 1, when he learns from the angel Gabriel that his wife, Elizabeth, though well along in years, is to conceive and give birth to a remarkable son, a prophet of the one God of Israel.
For doubting the angel’s word, Zechariah is rendered mute, leaving the people to surmise that he has seen a vision. But Elizabeth’s delivery and naming of their son, John, shows Zechariah what the young Mary already knew — that truly nothing is impossible with God (Lk 1:37). At that moment, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and with prophetic insight. What he witnesses in the present enables him to recall all that Israel has seen and known and experienced of God throughout the ages. Remembering God’s redemption in the past inspires Zechariah to envision a future again, and to perceive God’s unmatched power and purpose at work through, and in spite of, it all. Zechariah recalls the Davidic Covenant and how God raised up a “horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Lk 1:69). He recounts how God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and. . . remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham” (Lk 1:72-73). Zechariah sees that the very impossibility of God’s past deeds of redemption — renders a seemingly impossible future all the more plausible. Thus he is able to proclaim, in the most sublime terms, that “(b)y the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:79). His words invoke the God who — at the dawn of Creation itself – brought light into being in the midst of chaos and darkness (Gen 1:2-4). Zechariah knows that this God — according to whose vision and in whose image all humankind was made — is the same One whose covenant promises are sure and to whom the world still matters, and always will.
For Zechariah, the “way of peace” is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. It is an ages-old, earth-bound vision of universal salvation, which we glimpse in Micah and the prophets, and hear again as Good News in Luke. Let us see anew, with Zechariah, that the way of peace is where God meets us in covenant relationship. God meets us to renew and repair our vision for the world and to call us to renew and repair the world itself.
Delivered at 2015 NBC Summit