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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Comparing the Births of John and Jesus, Luke 1:57-80 and 2:1-38

Thoughts and meditations on this section of Luke's narrative could well occupy us for ten or more blog postings! This will have to be extremely summary today. But sometimes it is an advantage to be forced to see the big picture of a scripture passage instead of getting preoccupied with small details.

I mentioned earlier that Luke has deliberately narrated the events surrounding the birth of John the baptizer and Jesus the messiah in an interleaved form, in order to compare and contrast each of the stages in the unfolding of the event. And since John's birth came six months before Jesus', and John was to be Jesus' forerunner, at each stage Luke tells the story of John followed by that of Jesus.

In some ways I am reminded of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Esau was the older of the fraternal twins, and emerged from the womb first. But Jacob, emerging later and grasping Esau's heel, would eclipse him. John later would say of Jesus: "He must increase, but I decrease." Yet John's being eclipsed was not unpleasant to him: rather he rejoiced in the one who would come after him, yet be ranked above him—one whose sandal latchet he declared himself unworthy to loosen for him. The greater one came second and in greater glory. But would the greater one's mission have been possible without the lesser who faithfully went before?

Since Luke deliberately counter-posed each phase for us to compare, let us compare the story of John's birth and circumcision (1:57-80) with that of Jesus (2:1-38).

In a single verse (1:57) Luke tells of John's actual birth, whereas seven verses (2:1-7) are needed to describe the birth of Jesus. John was born in Zechariah and Elizabeth's home town. Jesus was born in the town where King David had been born, but it was not his parents' own home town, which was Nazareth in the north. As a result, John was laid in a cradle in the home he would grow up in. Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a feed trough used for oxen, because there was no room for the couple and their baby in the inn.

In 1:58 Luke tells of those in the town who rejoiced with John's parents at his birth. Luke says that they rejoiced at God's mercy to Elizabeth who had previously been barren, and now they rejoiced with her. These neighbors "heard" about the birth through ordinary human channels. In 2:8-20 Luke tells of shepherds who heard of Jesus' birth not through ordinary human channels, but by the appearance of an unnamed angel who announced the birth of "a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord" (2:11). This Savior, born on this night, was for "all the people", i.e., Israel, which included these shepherds ("for you" v. 11-12). It was "good news of a great joy" (v. 10). Suddenly the sky was filled with a "multitude of the heavenly host" who praised God for this wondrous gift. When the shepherds arrived at the scene of Jesus' birth, they saw him lying in the feed trough and his parents caring for him. Luke says nothing about what they might have said to Joseph and Mary, or what questions they might have asked them, or what gifts they might have left for the child. Such matters didn't interest Luke. For him what was important was that the shepherds obeyed the message they had heard and came by faith to the birth scene. This allowed them to see and understand the promise and to make "known the saying which had been told them concerning this child," which was that he was to be Israel's Savior, the messiah, and the Lord (v. 11). People who heard the shepherds' witness were amazed (v. 18), and the shepherds themselves returned to their work, but with praise to God for what they had heard and seen.

The shepherds provide in Luke's account a picture of the typical believer's experience when he or she comes to faith by hearing the good news ("gospel") from God's messengers ("angel" in Greek means "messenger"). The world doesn't stop. It doesn't necessarily mean they quit their current jobs or leave their hometowns and families. Quite often they simply return to their jobs and careers, but the world is different to them. Now they know God and his Son. Now they are forgiven and reassured about what life is really about. Before the office, desk, cubicle, counter, studio or kitchen where they spent their workdays was a place of drudgery. Now it is filled with joy and praise. Before they worked for a paycheck and sought to satisfy a supervisor. Now they work to please a Lord who loves and protects them.

Both John (1:59) and Jesus (2:21) were circumcised. This is theologically, as well as historically, important to Luke. For it shows that God did not forget his covenant with Israel or his promises to Abraham, to whom he first gave the command to circumcise his sons on the eighth day (Genesis 17:10-14).

It is also a vivid illustration of what Paul meant in Galatians when he wrote:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:3-7 NRSV)
For by undergoing circumcision Jesus was truly "born under the law," even though Abraham's circumcision antedated the giving of the law of Moses. And Jesus' "under the law" status was emphasized by the second act of his parents: offering a sacrifice required by Israel's law in the temple for his "purification" (2:22-24). By being himself circumcised, Jesus made it possible through his redeeming death for both Jews (circumcised) and gentiles (uncircumcised) to receive adoption into one family as as children of God.

It was at John's circumcision that his father was able to express his confidence in God's promises through the angel and the giving of the name John (1:59-66). The miracle of Zechariah's faith and the return of his speech caused amazement and praise to God among the witnesses to the circumcision. This then was followed by Zechariah's Spirit-inspired hymn of praise called the Benedictus (1:68-80). Luke doesn't say that John was circumcised in the temple in Jerusalem. It may have been a private affair in his home town. Joseph and Mary had their firstborn son circumcised also on the eighth day and named Jesus, as the angel had directed them to do. This may also have occurred in Bethlehem.

But Luke closely associates the circumcision with an event which occurred shortly thereafter.  The couple traveled north from Bethlehem to make a sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It is said to have been a sacrifice required by the law of Moses for the purification of mother and baby. "Purification" here simply means the clearing of the obligation to make the sacrifice, not that mother and child were actually defiled, as Luke makes clear by citing the passage from the law (2:22-24). It was a sacrifice required only at the birth of the firstborn male child.

In the temple area they came upon a holy and devout man of great age, who spent his days worshiping in the temple, and to whom God had revealed that he would see the Lord's messiah before he died. Although Luke doesn't say so, Simeon was probably a retired priest (see the law for retirement of Levites at age 50 in Numbers 8:23-26).  Seeing the baby Jesus, he took him in his arms and uttered the inspired words of Luke's final canticle, called the Nunc Dimittis "Now let your servant depart in peace (i.e., die happy), because my eyes have now seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." Here it was not shepherds, but an old man who affirmed God's good news, and instead of the townspeople who marveled at the shepherds' words, it was the parents themselves. "Revelation" to the gentiles, to whom the only revelation previously available was that through nature (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-32))—for they had no inspired Scripture as Israel did (Psalm 19:7-13)—and "glory" to Israel, because the Savior was the capstone of all the revelation and salvation that God had given through them for the world.

Have you said your Nunc Dimittis to God? If you have heard the gospel of Christ, the good news of his life, death and resurrection, which offers to you forgiveness of your sins and eternal life, then like Simeon you have "seen" the Lord's messiah before dying. It is something for us all to thank and praise God. "Now I am at peace, O God. Now I am ready to depart and be with Christ. But while I live, I will sing your praises and declare what a marvelous God and Savior you are." Is this your song as well? I truly hope so. This is a good season in which to sing such songs. It is the season that we remember the greatest birth ever.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good News for Mary, Luke 1:26-38

I mentioned in a previous posting how Luke interleaved the stories of John the Baptizer and Jesus, because they were interdependent. This soon becomes obvious, if you try to tell one story without reference to the other—which was my original intention! When you do, you suddenly realize that it can't be done! There is too much reference in each of the two stories to what is contained in the other. And so I will have to summarize briefly at each "seam" what has been told in the other story, the story of the conception and birth of Jesus.

We often say that Christmas was made for children. There are many ways in which we mean this. On the most obvious level, children are thrilled and fascinated with the gift-giving and gift-receiving side of the day, especially when what is given to them is something that they badly wished for.

But it is also a time for wonderful stories about mysterious and marvelous people and happenings. On the secular side there is the fairy tale about Santa Claus, which many parents like to perpetuate so that their children can tell them what they want Santa to bring them, and then secretly "play" Santa to the great joy of their children.

It is also a season in which many Christmas movies (sadly, now called just "holiday movies") are shown on TV. These usually tell of unhappy people discovering happiness at Christmas time through rediscovering what it means to love and to be generous to others. The archetype of these stories is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. But today there are scores of such stories on TV at Christmas.

I enjoy such stories, and like to settle down to watch one of the Christmas TV shows which tells one. But for me this is not really what Christmas is about. For Christians the really exciting story isn't about Santa Claus, or about finding true love during the holiday season, or about an unhappy person finding happiness through a new resolution to change. Instead, it's about the birth of Jesus, who came to save us all from our sins and give us eternal life with God.

Some people would say that the Bible's story of the birth of Jesus is just as fictitious as the holiday TV stories. They think that it tells something that isn't real. It may be good enough for naive children, who are also able to believe in Santa, but offers nothing to grownups. This is a sad commentary on the way many adults view life and reality today. Each year Christmas offers us all an opportunity to change the way we think about reality. What is real isn't a job promotion, a new car, a paid-off mortgage, or an election won. What is real is God loving us and making a huge sacrifice in order to win us back to himself. This is the reality that Christmas points to: "for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life" (John 3:16). The birth of Jesus was the first step in history of God's greatest gift to us. He who was born in Bethlehem is the same person who died on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem, and then rose again a few days later, overcoming sin and death, and able to give life and immortality to all who trust him.

Let us now consider in Luke's narrative how God announced to Mary what he intended to do in order to bring the blessings of salvation to all humanity.
26   In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.  (Luke 1:26–38 NRSV)
The story of the announcement to Mary of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38) has to backtrack a bit in what has just preceded, since she learns of the miraculous conception of Jesus within her virgin womb six months into Elizabeth's pregnancy with John ("sixth month" verses 26 and 36). At the time, Mary was living in the town of Nazareth far to the north of Jerusalem and even farther north from Bethlehem. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth. He was descended from King David, and some think that Mary too was a descendant of David.

The promised messiah was supposed to  be a descendant of King David. But since the prophet Isaiah had predicted that the messiah would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), there could be no biological descent on the father's side with David. And so it was, that before Mary and Joseph had begun to live together and consummate the marriage, before Mary had ever had sexual relations with any man, God did a miracle and himself fertilized the egg in her womb, that would develop into the baby Jesus.

When the angel Gabriel told her how this would happen, Mary asked what any woman in her situation would have asked: "How can this happen without my having sexual intercourse with a man?" It was not a rebellious question, or indicating a refusal to believe. It was an innocent one. And so the angel answered, giving her the information that the Holy Spirit of God would miraculously cause her to conceive a child without a human father. To reinforce her faith, Gabriel also informed her that her aunt Elisabeth, who had been barren all the way into advanced age, had now too miraculously conceived. What had happened to her and would happen to Mary both showed what every Israelite ought to have known: the God can do anything. So with a childlike and obedient heart Mary believed the words of promise, and in the process became the model of every believer's faith: "May it happen to me just as you have said" (v. 38).

At this point in the gospel narrative Mary has not been told what the one  born to her would accomplish: nothing yet about saving his people from their sins—that would be told to her fiancé Joseph according to Matthew 1:18-25. The message to Mary was that he would be holy, the Son of God (v. 35). Of course, later on she would be told many other things. But for now she merely believed on the basis of what God chose to tell her, an excellent example for us all.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  (Luke 1:39–45 NRSV)
Since the angel had told her (v. 36) that six months earlier God had caused her childless relative Elizabeth to become pregnant, shortly afterwards ("in those days" v. 39) Mary made a journey south toward Jerusalem to the village where her relative Elizabeth lived. Had Mary shared the angel's news to her with anyone else in her family? Her mother, her father, her siblings?  If so, Luke is silent about it. Did she think her own parents or siblings would not believe her? Apparently, she had not told Joseph yet, since God did that directly through a dream (Matthew 1). Perhaps she thought that Elizabeth, who was herself the recipient of a pregnancy believed to be impossible by others, would be in a better position to believe Mary's own miraculous story.

What reason did she give to her parents or relatives for this trip? Probably that she had heard a rumor that Elizabeth, their relative, was pregnant and elderly, and that she might need some help with domestic chores in her final three months of pregnancy. It could be explained as a mercy mission.

Was it dangerous for a woman to travel that far alone on the roads of Palestine? There is no mention of anyone accompanying her. But perhaps she traveled with a group of others from Nazareth, going to Jerusalem on business. There would be safety in numbers, especially numbers of acquaintances (or even relatives) from a home town. Mary herself was just in her first month of pregnancy, so it would not have shown yet in her body. And when she shared the good news with Elizabeth, there is no indication that it was anything but a private exchange (v. 40-55). It is true that Elizabeth's response to the news was uttered in "a loud voice." But even so, Mary's travel companions—if she had any—need not have been within earshot. It is at this point that Luke records the first of several "canticles" (1:46-55; 1:67-79; 2:14; 2:29-32): poems—some quite short—that the text says were spoken ("said" v. 46), but which were early set to music and have become part of the Church's liturgy at Advent and Christmas.

The first of these, Mary's, is called after the first word of its Latin translation the Magnificat, which means "(my soul) proclaims the greatness (of the Lord)." A beautiful musical setting of a paraphrase of this poem can be found here. I recommend that you listen to it after you have read the text below.
46 And Mary said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One, whose very name is holy, has done great things for me. 50 His mercy is extended to all who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, being mindful of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our forefathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (Luke 1:46–55)
This poem—which draws on themes from the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1–10—is a beautiful expression of Mary's thanksgiving to God for permitting her to carry and give birth to the Son of God. She rightly addresses God as "my Savior" (v. 47), not just the nation's Savior, since she too will be saved from her own sins by this Son of God. In vv. 48-49 she first focuses on the mercy and undeserved favor that God has shown to her personally, and in vv. 50-55 she praises God for what he has done and will do for her people Israel. According to v. 56 Mary remained with Elizabeth for the last three months of her pregnancy, and returned to Nazareth after John was born. In this way, Luke assures us that Mary was present—although unmentioned and in the background—during the events he will now describe in vv. 57-66, the birth of John the Baptizer. But these we will reserve for our next posting.

Mary's Magnificat is also a model for us in our prayer life. All our prayers should include praising God for his character—not just his power, majesty, and glory, but his mercy and justice. Mary praised him that he feeds the hungry and turns the rich away empty (v. 53). This doesn't mean God has no love for all his creatures, including rich ones. It means that he does not prefer the rich over the poor, but fills needs where they exist, not where they do not. As Jesus later on said, "It isn't the healthy who need a physician, but the sick" (Mark 2:17). When we pray, we should confess our needs to God, remembering that, however much we may feel physical or economic needs, the deepest needs that we have are for God's forgiveness of our sins and God's help in showing his love to others. And finally, like Mary, we need to keep God's promises in our minds and hearts ("according to the promise he made," v. 55), believing them and trusting that God will always fulfill them for us. Those promises are in the Holy Scriptures. If we do not read the Bible, we will not know those promises and will not be able to rely upon them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Birthdays Before Christmas: John the Messiah's Forerunner, Luke 1:5-25

John Grisham wrote a popular novel entitled Skipping Christmas, which among other things was intended to remind us of how far from its real meaning the modern, secular and materialistic Christmas has come. Since I don't think my own celebration has departed quite so far as that of most people, I can truthfully say that I love Christmas and the many ways in which through its traditions my spirit is able to worship God and to thank Him for the Savior He sent us.

But I do not deny that most of us play down the message of the Advent season—the four weeks leading up to Christmas—which in many liturgies precedes and gives added meaning to Christmas Day itself. The scripture verses read from the pulpit during the weeks of Advent highlight not just the longing for the coming of God, but also the felt need for repentance. This is a concept that many Americans (and moderns, period) find difficult to "get a handle on." But it is fundamental to Christian experience, and to the true celebration of Christmas.

I have been reminded of this most recently through my daily Bible reading schedule. For my Advent and Christmas Bible reading this year, I decided to do a study of John the Baptist, beginning with the account of his conception and birth, and continuing through his entire career—or at least as much of it as I can follow in the interval between Advent 1 and Epiphany (January)! Since John's birthday came before that of his cousin Jesus, his was a "birthday before Christmas."

The Announcement and Conception of John

Luke tells the stories of the annunciation and conception (1:5-56), naming and birth (1:57-79; 2:1-18) of John and his cousin Jesus in interleaved parallels: John (1:5-25), Jesus (1:26-56), John (1:57-79), Jesus (2:1-18). This is because he rightly sees the two parallel events as inseparable parts of God's plan to reveal his salvation to Israel.

About John—his role and significance—all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) quote the prophet Isaiah:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:2-3 NRSV)
The quotation that immediately follows comes from Malachi 3:1 combined with Isaiah 40:3. Mark cites the source of only the second part. All three gospel writers cite the text with the pronouns "you", referring to the messiah, although both the Hebrew and Greek versions of Malachi 3:1 have "me" referring to God. This was their way of indicating that they knew Jesus was God. But more important, for our purposes, is the role assigned to John here: he is to be God's messenger to prepare the way for Jesus the messiah. How does he do this?

We will find the answer, as we study the stories of the announcement of his conception, his naming as a newborn, and the beginning of his public ministry. Let's begin with the announcing of his conception.

This episode is only recorded in Luke's gospel,
“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” (Luke 1:5-7 NRSV)
Being the historian that he was, Luke ties the incident to a known period of Jewish (and Roman) history: it happened during the reign of Herod the Great (74-4 BC). Modern historians would have liked Luke to have been more specific and indicated which year of Herod's reign this occurred in. Most scholars today have settled on 6 BC as the year. Of course, the irony of the "BC" should be apparent to anyone who knows what those letters stand for: "before Christ"! But the devisers of the Julian calendar simply didn't know the precise date of Jesus' birth.

We are introduced to a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was not a "chief priest," but a minor or ordinary one. This accords with other ways in which God prepared for bringing his Son into the world—using humble folk, low-level priests, carpenters, and shepherds. The only characters who play a positive role in this event who are not lowly and humble folk are the Magi, whom tradition makes into three "kings." But we do not know that they were royal at all, merely eastern scholars.

Zechariah was married to a woman named Elizabeth who like him was descended from the first high priest, Aaron, the brother of Moses. Since they would both play a decisive role in raising John to be the prophet to prepare the messiah's way, it was important that they both be "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (1:6). "Blameless" living is not the same as sinless living: it means that they were conscientious about obeying God's law. And if they lapsed into a sin, they would confess it and make the proper repentance and sacrifices. This is the kind of example these two would provide as a model for their son John.

But there is another reason why Luke stresses their blameless living. There is an apparent contradiction between their blameless lives and the fact that God had withheld children from them into their old age. You see, in ancient Israel childlessness was not simply attributed to a genetic fault—in fact, people knew nothing of genetics—but to a decision of God's to withhold children, usually because the childless persons were unfit. This was a heavy burden for Zechariah and Elizabeth to carry! But God had waited long in order to give them the highest privilege—next to that given to Mary and Joseph—of parenting the prophet of the messiah! Sometimes God waits to give you and me privileges late in life. I have had a fulfilling career as a university scholar. But in my retirement God has blessed me with the free time to involve myself in Bible teaching and counseling, which has been more rewarding than any academic pursuit.
“Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:8-13 NRSV)
There was a kind of rotating duty for minor priests to offer incense in the sanctuary. The "sanctuary" was not the "Holy of Holies" which only the high priest could enter on the Day of Atonement, but it was a part of the temple that only the priests could enter; so the worshiping Israelites had to remain outside in the temple courtyard. And since incense was symbolic of the prayers of God's people, the worshipers in the courtyard were praying while Zechariah inside was offering the incense.

In any event, Zechariah was as human as you or I, and the sudden appearance next to him in the sanctuary of a mysterious figure—did he know immediately that the figure was not human?—thoroughly frightened him!
“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”” (Luke 1:13-20 NRSV)
The angel assures Zechariah that his prayer has been heard by God. He doesn't say what the prayer was, or even if it was an old prayer repeated daily over a period of years, or one voice only in the sanctuary that day. But at least part of the answer will be in the gift of a son to the old priest and his wife. He must be named "John"—Hebrew Yohanan, which means "God has shown grace (to his people)." The choice of the name was important, or God would have left it up to the parents.

It was self-evident that the parents themselves would be happy with this child, but not evident that "many" (v. 14) would rejoice at his birth. Perhaps the thought here is not just the neighbors at the time of his birth, but the many down through history who would be grateful to God for providing his Son with such a faithful and humble forerunner, for the angel rightly predicted that "he will be great in the sight of the Lord" (v. 15). In fact, John became great also in the sight of men. Although his fearless preaching of repentance and obedience to God's laws turned Herod Antipas and his wife against him and led to his martyrdom, he was remembered as a great prophet by his Jewish countrymen, including the great Jewish historian Josephus.

John was to become what in the Old Testament Hebrew is called a nazîr, a nazirite. Although this sounds a little like the name of the town Nazareth, it has nothing to do with that place name. It means a kind of monk or hermit, who in his devotion to God and striving for maximum obedience and purity took vows to abstain from many of the pleasures of life such as wine. Some nazirites were "temporary" ones, vowing to abstain for a short period of time—a few months. The apostle Paul once took a nazirite vow (Acts 18:18).

Advocates of "abortion rights" do not like the angel's statement about John: "even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit," for it implies that the pre-born are real persons capable of a relationship with God and whose lives Christians should protect. But later, when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, while both women are pregnant, pre-born John leaped for joy in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41-45), showing that he was filled with the Spirit and recognized the messiah still in the womb of Mary!

The next verses are the heart of John's ministry: "He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." And John did just that! Subsequent chapters in the gospels show that he prepared not only his intimate circle of disciples, several of whom became part of the twelve apostles of Jesus (John 1:35-40), but through his powerful message and his baptizing the repentant he prepared the entire people of Israel so that they would have a better understanding of who Jesus was, the promised messiah.

Zechariah's words to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” do not sound like a refusal to believe. But the angel's reply indicates that he heard in them the voice not of faith but of doubt. "Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
“Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”” (Luke 1:21-25 NRSV)
All of this was going on inside the sanctuary, where no one but John was hearing and observing. In fact, even if other priests were in the area, it is possible that only John sw the figure and heard what he said. Outside the sanctuary the people continued to pray, but were worried at the delay, for priests were known to drop dead during their service, especially elderly ones like Zechariah. Then some other priest would have to go in and recover their bodies. But Zechariah came out all right. The problem was that he came out unable to speak, which led the observers to conclude that he has seen a vision.

But the words of the angel came true, for Elizabeth became pregnant and remained in seclusion for five months, grateful to God, as was her speechless husband.

Sometimes God does things for us that leave us "speechless"! It is good to experience how God can literally "take our breath away" with his marvelous mercy and grace, but it is not good when this leaves us "speechless" in the sense that we do not thank him! I can imagine that both Zechariah and Elizabeth did that repeatedly during the following months, and that Zechariah, unable to tell his wife what God had in store with the child in her womb, prayed repeatedly for the ability someday to relay this vital message not only to her but to others who needed to know that God was about to save his people from their sins.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Beginning of the Gospel According to Luke, Luke 1:1-25

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. (Luke 1:1-7)
It is instructive to compare the opening of each of the four gospels, for it shows the differing intentions of each writer. Their beliefs about Jesus are unified, but their ways of presenting him differ in characteristic ways.

John focuses on his eternal pre-existence as the Word, the expression of the true character of the Triune God. He was not always "Jesus," for that was his human birth name. But he was always the Word. Even before his incarnation as Jesus, the Word was both "with God" and "was God" according to John 1.

Matthew presents him as the "son of Abraham" and "son of David." As the "son of Abraham" he inherits the promises to Abraham, and "all nations" will find true "blessing" in him (Genesis 12:2-3).
Mark introduces him as "Jesus, the Messiah ('Christ'), the Son of God" (Mark 1:1), whose announcer—prophesied by Isaiah (1:2-3)—was the prophet John the Baptist (1:4-11).

Interestingly enough, Luke doesn't actually describe Jesus in his opening words, which are mainly about his intention to write an orderly and accurate historical account about "things" that his primary addressee, Theophilus, has been taught. Those "things," we will soon learn, are in fact the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. But like a good suspense writer, Luke delays that information.

Since in his opening lines Luke declares his intention to present an "orderly account," which certainly includes all necessary background information: dates, regions, rulers, etc., he immediately sets the stage for the story of Jesus' birth, by telling us when his forerunner John and he were born. It was "in the time of Herod, king of Judea." Actually, "Herod" was a family name borne by several rulers of Judea during this era. The man referred to here was the first of these, often called "Herod the Great." Theophilus would not know Herod's period by the dates we use today, "so-many years BC," since that calendar (the "Julian Calendar") only came into use a century or more later. He would know the period by Herod's contemporaries, and in particular by the Roman emperor ruling at the time, who was Octavian, better known by his epithet "Augustus." Alfred Edersheim dates the event described here in Luke as October of the Roman year 748 AUC (Latin ab urbe condita "from the founding of the city [of Rome]"), which corresponds to 6 BC.  Most Romans of the period would not have referred to the AUC numbering, but to the two consuls who held office that year, or by the regnal year of the emperor.

The Announcement of the Birth of the Forerunner.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” 21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.  25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:8-25)
From the first introduction of the priest Zechariah, Theophilus would know that the child to be born lived in Judea, the southern of the two principal regions of Jewish Palestine, since the priests lived in the same general area as the world-famous temple of the God of the Jewish people. Depending upon whether or not Theophilus was Jewish, he might also know from Zechariah's priestly division, Abijah, where in Judea he resided and when his turn for duty in the temple fell.

Throughout his gospel and its sequel, the Book of Acts, Luke shows a keen interest in the role of women in the mission to spread the good news about Jesus. So right away he also gives us the name of Zechariah's wife, Elizabeth. Furthermore, he then informs us that not just the priest Zechariah, but also his wife Elizabeth, were " were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly" (1:6).  This is only the first of many points in the account that are meant to remind us of the ancient story of the birth of the prophet Samuel, who would eventually anoint Israel's best king, David. Both of Samuel's parents—Elkanah and Hannah—were also described as scrupulously obedient to the laws of God and faithful in making pilgrimage to the sanctuary of God at Shiloh. Yet they, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, were unable to have a child. In Elkanah's case it is made clear that it was his wife Hannah who was infertile, since he had children by a secondary wife, Peninnah. In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth there was no secondary wife, but the scripture itself (that is, Luke) tells us that it was Elizabeth who was infertile ("barren," Greek στεῖρα). Furthermore, by this time both of them were quite old (verse 7), so that even Zechariah may have lost what fertility he once had, or at least his ability to "perform" sexually. All hope for a child seems gone for good.

What first appears to be a challenge to belief in the goodness and fairness of God—this couple was devout (v. 6), yet he denied them children (v. 7)—turns into a gift from God that is truly wonderful. Again as with Elkanah and Hannah, God answers prayers and gives the couple not only a child, and not only a son, but a son who becomes a prophet of the Most High God (v. 15-17), and the forerunner of the Messiah himself! 

Each of the twenty-four divisions served in the temple for one week, twice a year, as well as at the major festivals. But an individual priest could offer the incense at the daily sacrifice only once in his lifetime (v. 9), since there were so many priests. While Zechariah was in the inner section of the temple, offering the incense, which was a visual symbol of prayers ascending to God in heaven, Luke tells us that the assembled worshipers outside were praying (v. 10). Doubtless, Zechariah too was praying (v. 13), although at this late point in his life we do not know if he still prayed for a son. Probably he prayed for God's people Israel to live worthily and faithfully represent God before the pagan world around them. Perhaps too he prayed for the coming of the Messiah, who would bring in God's perfect kingdom of worldwide righteousness and peace.
What happened next was totally unexpected: while Zechariah was still inside the sanctuary of the temple, suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing right next to the altar of incense where Zechariah was! Angels had appeared to Old Testament men and women, and even promised them children, but not inside the sacred precincts of the temple itself. Zechariah was paralyzed with fear (v. 12), probably because he thought that he had committed some terrible sin in connection with his priestly service and was going to be punished on the spot.

But the angel calmed his fears, reassuring him that this visit was in response to his prayer for a son (v. 13). But if God was going to answer his prayer, why was it necessary for him to tell him about it first? Couldn't God just make Elizabeth pregnant? Why the big show? The answer was that this child wasn't going to be just an ordinary one, but would have a role in God's plan for human history that would dwarf even that of such greats of Israel's past as Abraham and Moses and David! And because of his extremely important role, he must be given a name chosen by God, "John" (v. 13), and properly raised by his parents (v. 15).  Zechariah and Elizabeth must know in advance that this child will be filled with God's Holy Spirit even from his time in Elizabeth's womb (v. 15; see v. 44 where John leaped for joy in the womb when he heard Mary's greeting), and they must respect that.

John would be a source of great joy both to his parents and to "many." The word "many" is often used in Old Testament prophecy (Hebrew rabbîm) and in the New Testament (polloi) as a reference to the worldwide community of those who believe in Jesus and are saved from their sins (see Isaiah 2:3-4; 53:11-12; Matt 8:11; 19:30; 20:28; 26:28).  John's greatness will be appreciated mainly by God himself ("in the sight of the Lord") and by those who honor and love the Lord. Zechariah is not told how his precious son will end his life, brutally decapitated at the request of a lustful young woman and the command of a lewd and godless king Herod Antipas. But the Savior himself will attest how "among humans there is none greater than John" (Matt 11:11 = Luke 7:28).

His ministry is described (v. 16-17) as: prophesying in the manner and power of Elijah the prophet, bringing Israel back to the Lord their God, and making them ready for the Lord. You recall how Elijah functioned. Israel in his times was living a compromised faith: half faithful to God and half worshiping Baal, the god of the pagan Phoenicians (Tyre and Sidon). Elijah not only scorched them with fiery rebukes of their paganism, he announced a lengthy drought and famine from God as their punishment. And when the nation had reached the end of its patience and desperately sought Baal to bring rain on their crops, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18): which of their "gods" was the real God. Which one could withhold rain and then bring it again after repentance? The contest showed the powerlessness of Baal, and the stupendous power of Yahweh, the God of Israel. One of Israel's most wicked kings, Ahab, sought to have Elijah killed, but God saved him. Ironically, John the Baptist, who called Israel to repentance and rebuked another wicked king, Herod Antipas, was not spared death at his hands. But, foreshadowing the very ministry of Jesus himself, it was through death at the hands of the wicked that John's ministry showed itself to be most successful.  No true prophet of God should be welcomed by wicked and powerful people.
Zechariah was a good man, but his faith was frail. So he asked for a miraculous sign to assure him that this was really God's intention (v. 18). The angel's initial response (v. 19) was to identify himself by name ("I am Gabriel, who stands in the very presence of God"), and his mission ("I was sent [by God] to bring you this good news"). The word of one permitted to stand in the very presence of God ought to be trustworthy. But both in order to grant his request for a sign, and to discipline him for not believing without such a sign (v. 20),  Zechariah would lose his power of speech until the fulfillment of the promise.

After the angel departed, Zechariah came out of the sanctuary, where the worshipers awaited him, worried at his delay. Perhaps he had suffered a stroke and was lying dead in the sanctuary, for he was known to be a very old man. When he was unable to speak to them, they knew that God had appeared to him in the temple. After Zechariah returned to his home, in due time his wife became pregnant, and the priest knew that he had been foolish not to believe the angel. Elizabeth was overjoyed, because her lack of a child had brought criticism upon her by others, thinking that this was God's punishment on her for some wickedness or flaw in her character. Now she would be able to raise a child of her own!