Luke 1: Standing Where?

A few days ago I read on Facebook a suggestion that we all read a chapter from the book of Luke every day from now until the 24th. That by doing so we would become more aware of who and why we are celebrating during this wonderful season. I thought it was a great idea! So I dove in, and have been fascinated by Luke’s story-telling.

I imagine you know people who tell a story and insert so many unnecessary details that your eyes begin to glaze over. I am one of those people. I actually love stories that set up the scene for me, letting me see pictures in my mind. Sometimes, I’m sure, the tidbits I add are needful only to facilitate my “flow”, not the enjoyment of the hearer.

In this reading of the gospel of Luke, I became suspicious that Doctor Luke might be a detail fan, just like me.

Sometime in the AD 60s, Luke decided to write a letter to his friend, the most excellent Theophilus, giving him a clear account of Jesus’ life. It isn’t, of course, a first-hand account, but rather a sort of documentary based on the accounts of those who were there, “eye witnesses and ministers of the word”.

I didn’t get far into reading the first chapter before a small detail popped out at me. A seemingly out-of-the-blue piece of information. Luke wrote that the angel that appeared to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was “standing on the right side of the altar of incense.”

That detail might have some significance to the offering of incense. I don’t know. But what impressed me about it was simply the fact that such a small detail would be included in a letter, the purpose of which was that Theophilus might “know the certainty of the things which you have been told”.

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Luke was so precise!

It occurred to me that he had heard stories, perhaps over and over, by many witnesses who had told him with great detail the things they had seen and heard. The kind of detail you remember and tell, over and over, about an event that has been etched in your memory. We all have them. Some happy, some sad. The first time we laid eyes on our child, the day we met our spouse-to-be, the death of a loved one.

Some details Luke’s contributors shared with him might have been different, much like two witnesses of a car accident today might have somewhat different details. Perhaps they focussed on different things in the moment, so their remembrance reflects their focus. But, maybe, Luke heard “he stood on the right side” many times. So he added it.

But here’s why this detail impressed me so strongly: I realized that in reading the book of Luke at Christmastime, I could easily fall into reading it merely as a sweet Christmas tradition. Far better, of course, than Hallmark movie fare of gingerbread houses, snowball fights, and love found or problems resolved at the last minute. But, still, not as it should be read.

So I have resolved to read it as Luke intended, to know and to feel the certainty.

In this age, that “certainty of the things which we have been told” by the writers of this Book, is a most excellent commodity. One that is challenged more and more. That is not to say we can’t learn more and more about what it tells us, but to have its value in our lives weakened by a lack of certainty will weaken us.

And the Word of God is meant to bring life and strength. It’s all in there.

Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this?…’ The angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.” (Luke 1:18-19)