Luke was a doctor. He had possibly been a slave, the family physician of a wealthy family, but he was educated in the Greek medical tradition. At some stage in his life he met Paul and the focus of his life changed, becoming the traveling physician of Paul’s missionary band. It may have been that the family in whose service he had lived his life until then had decided to adopt the faith that Paul preached and that Luke was freed as a result. Luke went on to have an exciting life in which he saw much of the known world, and witnessed some amazing and world changing events. But the fact is that we do not know the details of Luke’s life, because he never wrote an autobiography, at least not one that has survived the last two millennia, and no other contemporary ever wrote his story. What we know of Luke’s life comes from his writings about someone else, Jesus, the person who had changed his life.
In the first two chapters of Luke’s account the story revolves around a few relatively insignificant and unknown people in the occupied nation of Israel two thousand years ago. We meet Zechariah, an ageing priest in an unnamed town in the hill country near Jerusalem. We meet his wife, Elizabeth, and we learn a little of their family situation, and get a glimpse into the kind of people they were. We meet Mary, a teenage girl who gets pregnant under mysterious circumstances, and we are made aware of Joseph, the man to whom she is promised in marriage. There are a whole lot of others too, all normal people – worshipers and onlookers in the Jerusalem temple, friends and neighbours in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s hometown, shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem. There are even random prophets, Simeon and Anna. The setting for the drama is Israel under the Romans, two thousand years ago, and the historical context is provided by the census which the Roman emperor Augustus (who ruled the Empire from 27BC to 14AD) demanded. The story unfolds in and around Jerusalem, and in Nazareth, a town in the north of the country. In the second chapter another town enters the story, Bethlehem, also close to Jerusalem. The drama narrates the birth of two boys, the first to whom is given the unexpected name of John, and the second who is named Jesus.
Ordinary people and ordinary events, but from the very beginning the story has an anything but ordinary twist; Luke records a whole lot of things that range from unlikely to impossible, immediately challenging our worldview, our comprehension of the way things are. First, he mentions angels, not just in a the modern cute, cosy, new age sense, but as if they are real, tangible beings who communicate the words of God. Second, he speaks of another phenomenon which is clearly supernatural, which he calls being filled with the Spirit, when people speak words that are somehow beyond normal insights, which like the words of the angels reveal the heart and mind of God. Third, he makes us aware that the normal people of his narrative get caught up in supernormal experiences: Elizabeth gets pregnant when she has passed her childbearing years, and Mary gets pregnant without having sex. Luke’s ordinary story becomes extraordinary, and we, the readers, are drawn into a proposed reality that is foreign to many of us, making us vaguely uncomfortable, challenging us to think in ways not generally accepted in contemporary western society.
All these extraordinary, supernatural phenomena point to one person, the baby that is born in Bethlehem at the beginning of the second chapter. The words of the angels, the words uttered by people under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the boy born to Elizabeth – all speak about Jesus in one way or another. Luke clearly believed that these words spoken about Jesus were really from God, the creator of the universe, and his matter of fact statement of these events indicates that he wants us his readers to also hear what the eternal God has to say about this baby born to Mary. The two chapters are an introduction, like a film trailer, giving us tantalising glimpses into what is to come. The words are like names, and names tell us something about the identity of the person who bears them: saviour, rescuer, king, transformer, light, the Son of God. The characters of our story must have wondered what this child would be, with God speaking out about him in such amazing ways. Luke must have been excited to hear what God had said about Jesus before his birth, especially as he put it together with all he had seen and heard of the effects of Jesus life in Paul and others who followed Jesus.
Luke, at the end of his exciting life, could have written a book about himself and his experiences. Instead he wrote a book about a person who had so influenced his life that he had become his hero. As a doctor myself I listen to peoples’ stories every day and they can be profoundly moving. Like all doctors I have become an observer, a student, of people. I am amazed often by the things people have been through, their resilience, their perseverance, their toughness. At times I am dismayed by their weakness. My days are filled with the lives of others who though strangers to me share their deepest hopes and fears. Luke too was a keen observer and he filled his books with amazing stories. But of all the people he encountered one stands out as the chief protagonist: Jesus. He captured Luke’s heart and mind, and Luke couldn’t help talking and writing about him. It was surely Luke’s desire that we would see the same amazing person as he saw, and would choose to put our trust in him just as Luke had.