There are two surprising things in Luke 1. The first is that the Gospel and the nativity story starts not with Mary and the birth of Jesus but with another baby. It starts with the angel of God appearing to an aging priest called Zechariah and telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a child called John. This child will grow up to be the way maker, the one who prepares the way for Jesus, the saviour.
Then the story of John the Baptist’s birth is interrupted. The interruption is made by the angel also visiting Mary to promise her that she too will have a child. Whilst Mary too has questions about how this is possible (it is tricker for her because she is as yet unmarried raising a moral dilemma as well as a biological one), there is a greater sense of trust and acceptance of God’s word with her than we see with Zechariah. Mary then visits her relative Elizabeth and then sings her own song of praise, The Magnificat.
What is the purpose of this interruption? I want to suggest that it serves in two ways to get our attention where it should be. First of all, by moving on so quickly in the plotline, Luke signals that the announcement about John is the warmup announcement. We are not to get too settled in and focused on John. He is important in the story but not that important. Indeed, the six month and the end of Elizabeth’s seclusion is the signal for the announcement to Mary. John is already acting as a forerunning in the womb, pointing as a sign that the miracle working God is active in Israel.
Similarly, by returning to the birth of John after introducing Mary, Luke in effect puts brackets around the appearance to Mary. The way maker, sign pointer is wrapped around the central details. It is as though the Zechariah – John narrative acts as two arrows pointing inward to the main detail . Our focus is meant to be on the coming of Jesus. Furthermore, it is only because Jesus is coming that all these other amazing events are possible.
Where is your focus at the moment? Is it on the great political events, a presidential election, the next phase of Brexit? Is it on what is happening with the virus? Is it even on church politics: who is meeting and who isn’t, what scandal is unfolding right now, how you feel about your own pastor? Look again, lift up your eyes and put your focus where it needs to be. At this time of year, we are reminded once again, oh so forcibly in the Christmas story that our focus needs to be fixed on Jesus.