Luke dates the stories that follow to "the days of King Herod" (1:1). That's not very specific, since Herod was king over Judea as well as Samaria, Galilee, and Perea from 40 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. Jesus would have had to be born in the last year or two of Herod's reign to square with the chronology cited in 3:1 and 3:23. Sounds good to us—after all, it's consistent with Matthew 2:1 and 2:19.
Enter Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who belong to a priestly caste. Are you an overachiever? Then check out the order of Abijah for yourself in 1 Chronicles 24:1-19 and Nehemiah 12:1-26.
These two are good Torah-following Jews, blameless and just in God's view.
But bad things can happen to good people, too, and these guys have grown old without a child because of Elizabeth's sterility.
Zechariah has to go into the holiest room of Jerusalem's temple to burn incense while everyone else prays outside.
Sounds easy enough, but he's approached by one of God's messengers ("messenger" is the literal translation of the Greek word for "angel").
This pretty much freaks Zechariah out, but in ancient literature lots of people respond like Shaggies in the presence of otherworldly beings. Wouldn't you?
The messenger reassures Zechariah that he's not in danger, but that God is answering his prayer for a child: his wife Elizabeth will bear a child, despite her sterility and advanced age. Then the angel tells Zechariah to name the child John. Good choice.
The angel launches a prophetic description of John's future significance. As a rule, these kinds of statements are important clues into Luke's overall intentions and perspectives. So, yeah, you might want to start taking notes.
While still in Elizabeth's womb, the "Holy Spirit" will take possession of John. NRSV's "Holy Spirit" is probably better than KJV's "Holy Ghost" (1:15) for our contemporary ears. We don't know about you, but Holy Ghost makes us think of A Christmas Carol.
Poor John's never allowed to drink wine, beer, or hard liquor. This is a rule for the Nazarites according to Numbers 6:3. The rules say nothing about Red Bull.
John will help many people in Israel turn back to God, and his work will be reminiscent of none other than the prophet Elijah. That's like saying he'll be the next Michael Jackson.
Fathers will turn to their children, and in general rebels without a cause will re-learn the wisdom of justice.
Everyone will be pumped up for the Lord who will come after John. John's just the warm-up band for a big-time headliner.
Zechariah reminds the otherworldly messenger of a few earthly facts.
A little perturbed by Zechariah's disbelief, the heavenly messenger reminds him who he is: "I am Gabriel" (1:19), an angel, who works a few steps from the Oval Office, sent by the President of the Cosmos (i.e., God).
Does Zechariah want proof? Okay, he won't be able to speak until the kid's born. Lesson: arguing with an angel is as dangerous as arguing with your mom.
Meanwhile, the people praying outside (Remember them? Rewind to 1:10) start to wonder what's taking Zechariah so long. Did he fall asleep on the job or something?
Zechariah finally comes out of the temple, and unable to speak, he gestures wildly to communicate what happened. We dare you to imagine and then perform for your friends a version of Zechariah's mime here. The people are certain that he saw a vision.
Zechariah completes his priestly tasks for his assigned period, then clocks out and returns home.
Soon enough, his wife Elizabeth becomes pregnant, and keeps it private for five months.
She is super happy because she knows that God has checked all the negative gossip about her sterility.
Now it's Mary's turn. In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sends Gabriel to Nazareth in Galilee.
The two most important things about Mary here are as follows: (1) she has never had sex before, and (2) she is engaged to Joseph whose father, grandpa, grandpa's grandpa and so on trace their roots all the way back to none other than David, the long-ago king of Israel.
And don't forget that Mary has never had sex. We promise that's important.
Gabriel greets Mary: "The Lord is with you" (1:28 NRSV). The KJV adds, "blessed art thou among women." Why the difference in translation? Well, the two translations are following different Greek manuscripts here, some of the more important of which lack this phrase (compare 1:42, where the manuscripts agree).
Mary is disturbed and puzzled. What in the world does this mean? Her response is similar to Zechariah's (remember 1:12).
Gabriel puts Mary at ease just as he did for Zechariah in 1:13—he's got good news for her.
God likes her, and she's going to be pregnant soon. She will give birth to a child that she's supposed to name Jesus.
Jesus will be a serious power-house, and will even be called the "Son of the Most High" (1:32), a.k.a. God.
God's going to make him king like his ancestor David, and his empire will last forever. Yep, that's forever.
Like Zechariah in 1:18, Mary thinks Gabriel needs a reality-check. These people are very practical.
Mary's problem? She's never had sex before. No sex = no baby. Hasn't Gabriel seen the after-school specials?
Gabriel explains how it's going to happen. The Holy Spirit will "come upon" you and the Most High's "power" will cast its shadow over her (1:35). This is a little vague, but suggestive. Yeah, use your imagination.
By the way: for you mythology buffs, the God of Israel is not the only divinity in the ancient world said to have impregnated a mortal woman. Zeus was a real player.
Back to the story. The end result of Mary's pregnancy will be a holy thing who will be called the Son of God.
Gabriel informs Mary that Elizabeth, who happens to be her relative, is also pregnant even in her old age. How's that for proof that the impossible is possible when God is involved?
Mary finally gives in—she's at God's service.
Aware of Elizabeth's pregnancy (see 1:36), Mary joins her in an unnamed city in the hilly region of Judah to the south of Galilee.
When Elizabeth hears Mary's greeting, the unborn child inside her womb leaps with joy. For serious.
Elizabeth is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, which gives her uncanny knowledge of Mary's incredible situation.
Not only are she and her child blessed, but Mary is called the mother of the Lord. Mary is psyched about it and launches a sizeable prayer praising God, known as Mary's "Magnificat" (1:46-55).
God is a mighty one who has accomplished some big things for Mary, but Mary's story is actually fairly typical. After all, God extends his mercy to everyone who fears him: grandmas, grandpas, sons, sons' sons, and so on.
One other thing: God is all about equality, which means that he scatters arrogant jerks, rips rulers off their thrones, lifts up the people at the bottom of the totem pole, fills the hungry with good things, and banishes rich people with nothing. Whoa. This is serious stuff.
God has also come to the aid of Israel, his special child (hey everyone has one).
Mary stays with Elizabeth for the whole of Elizabeth's third trimester and returns to Nazareth.