God at Work (Luke 1, 2, and 4)
Zechariah’s Surprising Day at Work (Luke 1:8-25)
Luke’s Gospel begins in a workplace. This continues Yahweh’s long history of appearing in workplaces (e.g., Genesis 2:19-20; Exodus 3:1-5). Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel on the most important workday of his life — the day he was chosen to minister in the holy place of the Jerusalem temple (Luke 1:8). While we may not be accustomed to thinking of the temple as a place of labor, the priests and Levites there were engaged in butchery (the sacrificial animals did not kill themselves), cooking, janitorial work, accounting, and a wide variety of other activities. The temple was not simply a religious center, but the center of Jewish economic and social life. Zechariah is impacted deeply by his encounter with the Lord — he is unable to speak until he has given witness to the truth of God’s word.
The Good Shepherd Appears Among the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
Albert Black of On Target Supplies & Logistics says he’s watched God “break into the midst” of his work, as the shepherds did long ago. God wants people to have jobs, so Albert started a business in his boyhood neighborhood where unemployment was high. Just like the shepherds in the fields, Albert’s people do work that serves people, in Albert’s case delivering whatever people need whenever they need it.
The next workplace encounter takes place a few miles down the road from the temple. A group of shepherds watching their flocks by night are visited by an angelic host announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:9). Shepherds were generally regarded as disreputable, and others looked down on them. But God looks down on them with favor. Like Zechariah the priest, the shepherds have their workday interrupted by God in a surprising way. Luke describes a reality in which an encounter with the Lord is not reserved for Sundays, retreats, or mission trips. Instead, each moment appears as a moment of potential in which God can reveal himself. The daily grind may serve to dull our spiritual senses, like the people of Lot’s generation whose routines of “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” blinded them to the coming judgment on their city (Luke 17:28-30). But God is able to break into the midst of everyday life with his goodness and glory.
Jesus’ Job Description: King (Luke 1:26-56, 4:14-22)
If it seems strange for God to announce his plan to save the world in the midst of two workplaces, it might seem even stranger that he introduces Jesus with a job description. But he does, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to give birth to a son. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
While we may be unaccustomed to thinking of “king of Israel” as Jesus’ job, it is definitely his work according to Luke’s Gospel. Details of his work as king are given: performing mighty deeds, scattering the proud, bringing down rulers from their thrones, lifting up the humble, filling the empty with good things, sending the rich away empty, helping Israel, and showing mercy to Abraham’s descendants (Luke 1:51-55). These famous verses, often called the Magnificat, portray Jesus as a king exercising economic, political, and perhaps even military power. Unlike the corrupt kings of the fallen world, he employs his power to benefit his most vulnerable subjects. He does not curry favor with the powerful and well-connected in order to shore up his dynasty. He does not oppress his people or tax them to support luxurious habits. He establishes a properly governed realm where the land yields good things for all people, safety for God’s people, and mercy to those who repent of evil. He is the king that Israel never had.
Later, Jesus confirms this job description when he applies Isaiah 61:1-2 to himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). These are political and governmental tasks. Thus, in Luke at least, Jesus’ occupation is more closely related to present-day political work than it is to today’s pastoral or religious professions. Jesus is highly respectful of the priests and their special role in God’s order, but he does not primarily identify himself as one of them (Luke 5:14; 17:14).
The tasks Jesus claims for himself benefit people in need. Unlike the rulers of the fallen world, he rules on behalf of the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and those who have fallen into debt (whose lands are returned to them during the year of the Lord’s favor; see Leviticus 25:8-13). His concern is not only for people in desperate need. He cares for people in every station and condition, as we will see. But his concern for the poor, the suffering, and the powerless distinguishes him starkly from the rulers he has come to displace.
Note the men in the parable who refuse the invitation to the wedding banquet because they need to look at their recently purchased field (Luke 14:18) and oxen (Luke 14:19). Rather than being open to find God in their work, they use work as a means to avoid God.
Even those books that call Christ the “head of the church” — that is, Ephesians (4:15, 5:23) and Colossians (1:18) — also speak of him as the “head over everything” (Ephesians 1:22, NIV) and the “head over every ruler and authority” (Colossians 2:10). Christ is the chief of state, the head of all things — or will be, when the redemption of the world is complete — of which the church is a special subset.