When Elizabeth gives birth to John, her neighbors and relatives gather around in joy. This is the second gang of people we’ve seen in Luke’s Gospel, the first being the crowd at the temple who gathered around Zechariah after he emerged from his encounter with an angel. I think it’s fair to say that they were a random assembly, not a true community. It’s the true community that comes together after John’s birth, and the true community that responds to his birth with rejoicing.
Anyone who’s lived in a community knows that communities are complex, as full of willful hurting as they are of spontaneous rejoicing. But with this first real community in Luke, we’re shown what they should be like when they’re authentic. The communities that Luke will portray throughout his two books are often a little awkward, confused, and stumbling. Sometimes they’re downright funny. And this first community of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s relatives has all of those qualities. They think of themselves as the keepers of tradition, maybe even without realizing it. Of course the boy should be named after his father! That’s how it’s done. And Zechariah, if he could speak, would say the same. I find it hard not to imagine Elizabeth’s frustration with this, and the frustration of any woman reading this story and remembering those times when what she’s said has been ignored or discounted. This community of loved ones is stumbling through its joyfulness, getting things wrong. They don’t know that they’re dealing with the Holy Spirit, and that things are about to get weird.
No wonder they’re fearful after Zechariah writes John’s name on a slate, and then begins to prophecy. It’s obvious that during his nine months of silence, he’s been pondering some things. The Holy Spirit directs his words, and what comes out of his mouth is so rich and profound that it’s become a canticle of the church, said or sung during Morning Prayer or Lauds. The most surprising thing about Zechariah’s prophecy is that it’s not about things that will come true, but about something that already has come true. God has already redeemed the people of Israel, has already made good on the divine promise that was given to them. Zechariah is speaking about Jesus, of course, but Jesus hasn’t even been born yet. It’s as if the very promise of Jesus, the very possibility that God would become human and show us how to approach divinity through our lives and actions, is enough. And this promise is already working in us. Because of it, we will be able to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness all of our days. Because of this promise, our sins are forgiven, and we will know how to walk in the way of peace.
Imagine being part of the community that first heard those words. Some of what Zechariah’s saying makes sense, you might say to yourself. We are descended from Abraham, and we have been waiting for certain promises to be redeemed for quite awhile. And we get that John is going to be a nazirite, like Samuel was, and live in the wilderness and never cut his hair. It’s a little old-fashioned, but we remember when people used to do that. But what about this new thing, this mighty savior that he’s talking about? Who is this person? Where will we find him? What will he be like? And why are Elizabeth and Zechariah packing their bags and moving to the wilderness with their baby?
That last question is the most immediately important one to Luke’s narrative. This portion of his Gospel, that starts with a community coming together to rejoice, ends with Zechariah and Elizabeth choosing isolation from community. And this points to one of the things that Luke wants to say about community in general. Community is a good and important thing. But it’s not the most important thing. Sometimes it will hurt and betray you. Sometimes you will need to leave it behind. In fact, if a new community, full of holiness and righteousness and hope is to be born, it’s necessary that the old community scatter so that bad habits will be broken, good habits regathered, and new practices ushered in.