When Our Dreams Die: Reflections from Luke 1-2

snowy forest and mountains

How do we console ourselves when our “dreams” die?

I’ve just begun re-reading through the book of Luke and have noted some fascinating elements that have been speaking to me on this question.

Scholars have long pointed out that the gospel of Luke is a book focused on the gentile audience—the Greeks and Romans that were starting to hear about Jesus in the first century. Considering that these empires were culturally and militarily dominant at the time of Jesus, God’s message, as told through Luke, does something peculiar—it focuses especially on the small and the weak, even moreso than the other gospel accounts. Luke seems to realize exactly what his powerful Roman and Greek listeners need to hear.

Just look at how the book of Luke starts.

1)    First, God’s miraculous plan for the world is told only to a mute man.

This detail is almost humorous.

At the time of Christ’s birth, expectant Jews had been waiting approximately 400 years from the last utterances of the Prophet Malachi for God to reveal his next great act in the world. And God was about to do something marvelous yet completely unexpected: enter this world as Jesus and die at the hands of the humans he would save.

So how does God begin? How is this great work announced?

The plan is announced to Zechariah, a small-town priest who is selected by lottery to minister inside the holiest part of the Temple. The Jewish scholar Alfred Edersheim notes that Zechariah did not live in one of the great priestly centers of his day, Jerusalem or Jericho. Rather, Zechariah lives in the rural hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39), the text further emphasizing the fact that Zechariah is not a prominent man. And as the coming of the Messiah is revealed to Zechariah in the Temple, he is struck mute.

What does it mean that God begins the story of his coming to Earth in such an understated way?

2)    Second, the Gospel of Luke focuses on women moreso than any other gospel, and not just as characters in the plot but as actual heroes.

In just the opening chapters we sense that Elizabeth is more wise and righteous than her husband Zechariah. Then we meet Mary, a pregnant unwed teenage girl, whose trust in God is unparalleled. And in just the second chapter Anna, an elderly woman with the gift of prophecy (a gift usually only mentioned of men), blesses the baby Jesus. For his era, Luke has already focused tremendously on women as central figures in the narrative.

Beyond these women, scholars note that Luke mentions 13 women not mentioned in other gospel accounts.

3)    Third, Jesus’ parents offer only doves—the sacrifice of the poor.

In what is one of my favorite details of the entire Bible, Luke 2:24 records that Jesus’ parents bring him to the temple for a dedication ceremony and offer a sacrifice of two doves or pigeons. The Old Testament Law in Leviticus 12 includes the provision that if a family is too poor to offer the sacrifice of a lamb, two birds can be offered instead.

So Jesus’ parents, the text tells us, are too poor to offer the standard sacrifice.

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Luke’s Gospel opens with the unexpected at each turn. God’s great plan of salvation is told only to a mute man. The book opens with women as some of the leading characters, remarkably provocative for its era. And God is born to a family in poverty.

This brings me back to the question of how do we handle unexpected changes in our lives, when we are forced upon a new course, when what we had held as goals and expectations dissolve?

I think the answer lies, partly, in understanding that we really don’t know what’s best for ourselves. And that sometimes the big thing we think we want is tremendously far from what’s important. Just as the Christ story begins with insignificant people in insignificant places, so too must we remember that the way God writes history (including with us) is far different than our worldly minds expect.