Monday, August 23, 2010

Faith and Doubt 10: Luke 3:21-22

Luke 3:21-22

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

----> The One Who Comes After, Part 1

Now that John has gone before, it is time for Luke to draw his focus to Jesus—the one who comes after. John has captured the attention of the people in dramatic fashion, urging them to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, that the Messiah has come and is going to lead his people out of captivity. This event had been long-awaited by the Jews and Luke's narrative of Jesus' entrance is nothing short of triumphant, glorious, miraculous—with all the expectation and hype surrounding the Messiah's coming, one would expect nothing short of what actually happened when he was "christened," if you will, as the Messiah. Jesus descended into the water of the Jordan River, and when he had come up from his baptism, the clouds parted, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and Jehovah declared, "You are my Son, in you I am well pleased."

Can you imagine the magnitude of this event? The glory of it all? And Luke uses this moment to introduce the world to Jesus' official ministry.

There are some key elements here I'd like to bring attention to, but the most important to note is God's endorsement of Jesus' ministry. When Jesus came up out of the water, his Father's voice came booming from above, "You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased." This declaration is crucial to Jesus' ministry as it actually validates his ministry—Jesus came as the Messiah, not just another priest, not just another prophet, but as the Messiah. The only entity that could possibly announce his arrival as the Messiah is Jehovah Himself, and He does so by proclaiming "You are my beloved Son..."

Secondly, Luke informs the reader of the Father's relationship to His Son—Jesus is His "beloved Son." To me, this is a kind of affirmation of Jesus' elect status and echoes the sort of "election-speak" that is found in the Old Testament (like Isaiah 41:8: "But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend..."). By affirming Jesus as His "beloved Son," the Father is speaking encouragement and validation into Jesus' life and ministry.

The third way the  Father validates His Son is by proclaiming that He is "well pleased" in His Son. This is equally important as the first proclamation because this is the only time that God validated someone in such a way. We know that David was a "man after God's own heart," and that Adam was made in His likeness, and that Abraham was His friend, but at no other point in human history—not before this event, nor since—has God proclaimed that He was "well pleased" in someone. Again, this an echo of Isaiah's prophecy as found in chapter 42:1: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations."

I really enjoy the way one commentary puts it:
So in this short event heaven places its endorsing stamp on Jesus. He is the promised regal Son, the chosen one, unique in his call. He reveals the will of God and serves him. This is the one for whom John prepared the people. Anointed with the Spirit, Jesus is truly the Christ, a term that means "anointed one" (4:18) [("The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed...")]. He is ready to minister and carry out his call.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Faith and Doubt 9: Luke 3:1-20

Luke 3:1-20

1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight and the rough places shall become level ways, 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

7He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

10And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?" 11And he answered them, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise." 12Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13And he said to them, "Collect no more than you are authorized to do." 14Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages."

15As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16John answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

18So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

----> The One Who Goes Before

If you recall, in Faith and Doubt 5, we discussed the idea of being a "forerunner" for Jesus—being the one who goes before to prepare the way for the Kingdom. John the Baptist is the original forerunner that we, as Christians, should model ourselves after. Sure, there were the prophets that foretold of the Messiah's coming, but John the Baptist was the man who was sent to prepare the hearts of Israel for the Messiah's coming.

John's only mission was to preach the good news of the Messiah's coming, to preach repentance, and to baptize the people; in many ways, Jesus's message is an echo of John the Baptist's. They preach the same topics (baptism, repentance, and morality), and they have the same attitudes—their relation is obvious. What should be noted here, however, is that John's baptism is different from the Christian baptism: John's baptism was a symbolic gesture to prepare to the Jews for the Messiah, the Christian baptism is a symbolic gesture of accepting Jesus as the Messiah. John's baptism anticipates the Spirit's coming, while Christian baptism reflects the Spirit's arrival through Jesus. The washing aspect of John's baptism allows it to be associated with forgiveness of sins, as its connection to the Ezekiel 36 imagery suggests. Here are people of contrite heart, looking to God expectantly for what he will do in the days to come. Acts 19:1-10 reinforces the picture that John's baptism is anticipatory and not an end in itself: when some disciples appear in Ephesus who only knew John's baptism, they are led by Paul to experience what John's washing anticipated—the experience of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. When an Israelite takes John's baptism, he or she is declaring openness to God and his ways.

John's role is also to prepare the hearts of the Jews by preaching the same message of practical living that Jesus will later preach (verses 7-14), and he really doesn't hold back any punches—he calls it exactly how he sees it (which is exactly what Jesus does during his ministry). His message is very simple too: 1) judgement is near (verses 7-9), and 2) true repentance will lead to fruits of the spirit (verses 10-14). This sentiment is later echoed by Paul in Galatians 5:16-25.

"If our hearts are right with God, if we are truly walking by the Spirit, then the fruits of the Spirit will be evident in our daily lives."

What are we doing to let people know about the Messiah? Are we being forerunners? Are we holding back when people ask us "What then shall we do?" Jesus is coming again—what are we doing to prepare the hearts of the people for his return?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Faith and Doubt 8: Luke 2:41-52

Luke 2:41-52

41Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress." 49And he said to them, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?" 50And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

---->There are so many perplexing stories in the Bible, so many stories that make you scratch your head and say, "What!?" Luke's account of the 12 year-old Jesus in the temple, teaching the rabbis, is certainly one of the more exceptionally bizarre stories. For one thing, Luke writes the only Biblical account of this story—for whatever reason, Matthew, Mark, and John all decided that this particular happening wasn't of much consequence. Therefore, it stands as the only account of Jesus's transition from babyhood to adulthood. And, in typical Luke fashion, it is written tremendously when read at a more critical level, as it is the "median," if you will, of his life and combines elements of his infancy and elements of his adulthood. The implication here, of course, is that this is the exact middle of his life, when he is a child, but putting away childish things; he is not yet an adult, but he is starting to develop the worldview of an adult and a more adult image of himself.

First of all, and I'll never understand how this happened, Joseph and Mary managed to lose their son after their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That's the part of this story that makes it so wildly bizarre—how in the world do you lose your son? How in the world did they manage to lose the Son of God!? Can you imagine the sheer panic that must have been coursing through their veins on Day 2 of the journey home when they suddenly realized, "Oh, wait—where's Jesus??" So they have to go back to Jerusalem and, after three days of searching for him (don't you love foreshadowing...?), they find their 12 year-old son, Jesus, preaching to the rabbis! What!? Furthermore, according to verse 47, the rabbis were actually "amazed" at his understanding of the Scriptures!

Mary, as we can imagine, is relieved and disappointed at the same time, and asks, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been worried sick about you!" Obviously! As parents, they had every right to be mad at Jesus (even though their anger seems more like a projection of their own guilt—they're the ones, after all, who somehow managed to leave the Messiah behind).

Isn't it amazing how quickly we get angry at God, even when our struggles are of our own doing?

Then, in stark contrast to Mary's hysterics, Jesus very calmly answers her, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house" (other translations read "about my Father's business"). This is significant for three reasons: 1) they are Jesus's first recorded words, 2) he refers to God as "Father" and, thus, creates a new way for humanity to view God, and 3) they provide an element of the "discipleship" concept, what we will find become one of Jesus's main preaching points.

The fact that they are his first recorded words tell us this: Luke wants his readers to know that doing his Father's work is at the forefront of Jesus's mind. There was no allegiance to things of the world on his part, and there was no hidden agenda on his part. He wasn't concerned with what people would think of him, he wasn't concerned with the reactions people would have to him, and he wasn't concerned with the repercussions that would come from separating himself from his family. His one and only concern was being about his Father's business.

And it's absolutely critical to note that Jesus refers to God as his "Father" when Mary says, "...your father and I..." Here, Jesus is clearly separating himself from humanity, separating himself from familial ties, and separating himself from societal norms. Here, Jesus is explaining to his parents that they are not his ultimate authority, and pleasing them, or even obeying them, is not his ultimate goal. His ultimate goal is to be doing the work of his heavenly Father. Jesus will bring this concept up again later in Luke as he addresses it more directly:
" 49I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (Luke 12:49-53)
What Jesus is talking about here is discipleship—it is a foreshadowing of things to come on Luke's part. By telling the story of Jesus staying in Jerusalem, separating himself from his family, and then answering them so casually and matter-of-factly, and by making his response his very first recorded words, Luke is illustrating that ministry—being about our Father's business—should be at the very forefront of our efforts. No matter what we do in life, we should be doing it with the mindset "How does this further the Kingdom? Is this me being about my Father's business?"

And by clearly differentiating between Jesus's earthly father (Joseph) and his heavenly Father (Jehovah), Luke is illustrating a point that Jesus will bring up later—being about our Father's business means separating ourselves from all things of the world. It means having no reservations about the sacrifices we have to be willing to make. It may mean separation from our families (Luke 12:49-53, 14:25-26), it may mean facing unjust hardships (14:27), it may mean losing everything (14:33, 9:25), and may it even mean losing your life (9:23-24)!

This is the sort of discipleship Jesus was calling himself to, and this is the cost of discipleship that we are called to.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Faith and Doubt 7: Luke 2:22-40

Luke 2:22-38

22And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29"Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation 31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." 33And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."

36And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

--->We're not even through chapter 2, but once again, we find Luke still dealing with the topics of faith and doubt. As I'm sure we all well know, Israel was waiting for the promised Messiah to come and deliver them, or free them—to this day, they're waiting for that same Messiah. At this point in their history, they had been enslaved, lost in the desert, enslaved again, had a few military victories, and had once again been taken over, this time by Rome—all of this happened over the course of five or six thousand years. The Jews, however, were still faithful that their redeemer, the one who had been prophesied of and promised, was still on his way, and they demonstrated their faithfulness and loyalty to God by obeying the Law of Moses. This, of course, is evident in verses 22-24, when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for "the time of purification according to the Law of Moses."

Another faithful follower who went to the temple this particular day was an old priest named Simeon. Now, imagine this—Luke informs us that Simeon wouldn't see his death until the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately, Luke doesn't inform us exactly how old Simeon is at this point in life, but he does let us know a few hints that we can use to infer his age: in verse 29, Simeon says, "Now you are letting your servant depart in peace," so we know his near his death (which, at this point, could've meant he anywhere between 70-100 years old (or older!), and in verse 25, Luke informs us that Simeon was a "righteous and devout" man, so we know he had been a priest for a long enough time that he had garnered the respect of Israel.

We can also infer from his exclamation in verse 29 that he had a long, long life and was ready for it to be over. His life had been filled with wars and violence, slavery and oppression, destitution and poverty. His friends and loved ones had more than likely passed away, and he lived a life of loneliness and longing, forever waiting for the Messiah to come and ease his pain. His grief is indicative of the way his entire nation felt for thousands of years. So one can only imagine the sweet, wonderful relief that swept over him when he took up the baby Messiah in his arms, and praised God.

From verses 36-38, Luke then tells his readers about another very old, faithful follower—a prophetess named Anna; from the information Luke shares about her age, we can guess that she's at least 90 years old. Much like Simeon, Anna had been waiting and longing for the Messiah's arrival her entire life. In her later years, she never even left the temple—she just stayed there, worshiping and fasting and praying day and night, every single day. This woman was hopelessly devoted to God's promise to His people and lived out her faith with reckless abandon. When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple, she gave thanks to God, turned to the crowd of people "who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem," and informed all of them that the wait was finally over—that the Messiah had finally come.

Until I started reading Luke's gospel more critically, I had always wondered why Luke bothered mentioning Anna's life story, or even mentioning her at all! It seemed to me that just telling the story of Simeon was powerful and convincing enough for his readers, and that Anna's story was just overkill. It'd be like telling the story of one of Jesus' miracles, then telling the same exact story again from a different perspective a couple verses later. Not until I read this book with the training I received to read a book critically while an English major did I truly appreciate what Luke is doing here by telling her story—he's simply reinforcing something he had mentioned earlier with a practical, real-life example.

Let me explain.

As discussed in my last blog, Luke writes in 2:10 that the birth of Jesus was "good news of a great joy that will be for all the people." He revisits this sentiment in Simeon's exclamation in verses 30-32: "my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." Telling the stories of both Simeon and Anna really goes to reaffirm these promises.

For one thing, Simeon and Anna are incredibly similar to one another; in fact, they're almost mirror images of one another: they're both very old Jews, for one thing, both of them being over the age (presumably) of at least 80; secondly, they're both very revered by their community as religious leaders/figures, Simeon being a priest and Anna being a prophetess; lastly, and most importantly, both of them have been waiting their entire lives for the Messiah's promised arrival.

The one difference between them? Simeon is a man, and Anna is a woman. As far as we can gather from Luke's description of them, their genders are the one quality they don't share. However, this one difference is the most important aspect of Luke's story, because it reaffirms that Jesus's birth and the salvation he came to bring was for "all peoples" (verse 31). Both man and woman celebrated his arrival, and, according to Simeon, both Jew and Gentile were to benefit from his arrival (verse 32).

I wonder if, at any point, Simeon and Anna struggled with doubt. I know Luke tells us that they both spent their entire lives waiting on the Messiah's arrival, which means they were faithful people all the way to the end; but I wonder if there was ever a moment, a day, or an even longer stretch of time in their long, long lives that they doubted God's promise. I wonder if they ever lost hope.

It's easy to lose hope, unfortunately. I've been in a predicament for the past year and a half where I've been legitimately starting to believe that I am completely and totally unemployable. I lost my job in January 2009 and have been searching high and low for work ever since. I took a couple part-time jobs last year and did a wee bit of substitute teaching, but nothing permanent (or at least nothing that I could see myself doing for an extended period of time). Last month, as I described in another blog that I write, I quit my job and moved to another town, believing that God was calling me here, and having faith that God would provide for me. I still believe that I'm supposed to be here, and I still have faith that God will open up doors for me, but I have to be honest—I've had my fair share of doubts over the month of June.

I'm still unemployed and very quickly running out of money. I have dealt with a tremendous amount of stress since living here. The trials I have been going through would make almost any person throw in the towel, move back home, and beg for their old jobs back (and, unfortunately, if things get any worse, that might be a possibility for me as well). If some of my friends saw what I've been going through, their advice would echo the advice that Job was given: "Curse God and die" (Job 2:9); they'd tell me to just throw in the towel and some of them would say, "See? I told you there's no God. Your faith is driving you to insanity."

Now, I don't mean to give away the ending, but at the end of Luke, Jesus dies. He is arrested, he is beaten, he is crucified, and he dies. When that happened, so many thousands of Jews hung their heads and said to each other, "Well, I guess he wasn't the Messiah after all." And say what you will about Jewish people being wrong for not accepting Jesus as Messiah, and say what you will about their initial loss of faith after Jesus's death, but the Jews still believe, 2,000 years later, Jehovah's promise that their Messiah is on his way! You can't convince me that in those 2,000 years, there weren't many devout Jews that had moments of doubt.

Look—doubt isn't all bad. In fact, it can be quite beneficial in some situations. There's a phrase I like to use to describe this kind of doubt: "healthy skepticism." I like to read the Bible with a healthy skepticism, I listen to people's stories with a healthy skepticism—it is a healthy skepticism that leads me to research the Bible even further, or to press further into God. It is a healthy skepticism that leads me to pray more, to trust God more, and to come to a better understanding of God.

What isn't healthy is a doubt that consumes your spirit and absolutely paralyzes you, a doubt that prevents you from trusting God and, ultimately, prevents you from having a healthy relationship with Him.

 Luke 2:39-40

39And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

These last two verses seem to have very little meaning to them; they're just a continuation of Luke's narrative of Jesus's life: "First this happened, then this happened, then this happened..." However, this is not the way these two verses, however insignificant they seem, are meant to be read—verse 40 is filled to the brim with foreshadowing of Jesus's ministry. These two verses are the leaping point for Luke to tell the rest of Jesus's story.

Having obeyed the Mosaic law, Jesus' parents return with him to Nazareth. There, Jesus grows in strength and wisdom, receiving the favor of God. There he awaits the ministry that will fulfill what Mary, Zechariah, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna proclaimed. These were not empty proclamations, nor were they void prophecies.

God will fulfill his word and perform his plan. God will live up to His promise to the Jews and the Gentiles, to man and woman, to you and me.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Faith and Doubt 6: Luke 2:1-21

Luke 2:1-21

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

---> The inconvenient Truth.

This is going to sound a little weird, but I love how inconvenient the arrival of the Messiah was. It was "an inconvenient Truth," if you will.

Mary and Joseph led normal, everyday, middle class lives. They worked, they tended to their families, they paid their taxes, they worshiped their God; there was nothing out of the ordinary about their lives. That is, until Jesus appeared in their lives.

First of all, as already mentioned in a previous blog, Mary was an unmarried virgin. Her pregnancy very well could have led to public chastisement, alienation from her friends and family, ridiculed, labeled "insane" -- she even could have been disowned by her parents! "Excuse me?" they'd ask, "You say that Jehovah impregnated you with the Messiah!? That's blasphemy!" Who would believe such a ridiculous story? There is a good portion of the world's population that refuse to believe such a fantastic story even today!

...Jesus' arrival brought with it criticism, insults and slander.

And Joseph wouldn't have been spared from such ridicule either. People would have called his bride-to-be a slut, a whore -- who would've believed Mary's tale? I'm sure even Joseph was skeptical at first! His first thought was probably "My fiance cheated on me."

....Jesus' arrival brought with it skepticism, doubting and suspicion.

Now, Luke doesn't go into as much depth as Matthew does, but there were a lot of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. For one thing, as Luke does mention, Caesar Augustus instated a registration, so that all of the taxpayers in the area would be on file. This, of course, is why Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem (Bethlehem was Joseph's native city). Furthermore, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is no easy feat -- it was long and treacherous, over mountains, into valleys, across rivers and deserts. Joseph, of course, had to walk while his young, pregnant bride rode safely upon the back of a donkey.

...Jesus' arrival brought with it a long, dangerous journey.

When they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary suddenly went into labor. Now, this was a time without hospitals, so Joseph, in the middle of the night, had to find a place that would allow for the birth of his child. Can you imagine going door to door in a city you haven't visited in years and asking complete strangers if they'll let you use their homes or facilities so your wife can give birth? I'm guessing you wouldn't have much luck -- Joseph didn't. There wasn't any room for them in the local hotel, either, so they had to use a stable. A stable! An unclean, unsanitary, smelly, cold barn!

...Jesus' arrival brought with it desperation, destitution and refusal.

After his birth, King Herod got mad with jealousy and paranoia -- when the wise men told him that the King of the Jews was soon to be born, he suspected there would be an uprising that would remove him from the throne. To prevent it, he sent out an order to soldiers to kill all of the sons under the age of two (Matthew 2:16-18). So, in the middle of the night, with a newborn baby and a weakened bride, Joseph had to pack up and leave Bethlehem for Egypt so that his family would be safe (Matthew 2:13-15).

...Jesus' arrival brought with it condemnation, danger and persecution.

I wonder if Joseph and Mary anticipated any of it? I wonder if they were excited at the prospect of parenting the Messiah, if they romanticized it at all? I wonder, if they knew the troubles they were getting themselves into, if they would have rejected all of it?

Jesus was an incredible inconvenience to his parents. After his death and resurrection, he was still an inconvenience to all those associated with him and all those who followed him -- all of his disciples (save for Judas) were martyred and his followers were martyred by Rome, being stoned, beaten, crucified, boiled, burned at the stake, beheaded and even fed to lions. Such treatment of "Christians" -- Christ followers -- continued even into the Middle Ages (consider Joan of Arc, for example).

Jesus, even still, is an inconvenience as Christians are still being persecuted all over the world -- we are slandered, ridiculed, made fun of, chastised, belittled, even murdered in some countries. One need look no further than a Bill Maher interview, or a Richard Dawkins book, or a philosophy major at some liberal university to see evidence of this.

I, for example, will be disrespected by my peers just for writing this blog and posting it here and on my Facebook. If nobody outright criticizes my faith with a nasty comment or email, it is either because this blog is going to be entirely ignored or because people "aren't going to dignify it with a response."

And that's fine.

But, again, I wonder if people realize what they are getting themselves into when they sign up for this Jesus stuff? I wonder if they realize that Jesus' arrival in their lives is nothing like Joel Osteen or other prosperity preachers promise -- there's no fancy house, no fancy car, no debt relief, no in-ground swimming pool, no money, no grandeur, no praise, no honor, no respect.

Jesus' arrival does not bring with it a silver lining, or a happily-ever-after middle class fantasy and anyone who believes that it does was duped.


Personally, I believe it is one of God's mechanisms of separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12). See, there are many people who will profess Christ with their lips without fully living in him or for him -- they will put on the appearance of godliness, but only because they are interested in the benefits, they believe, God will give them as rewards:

2 Timothy 3:1-9

1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

Persecution, hard times, financial uncertainty, chastisement -- these are all things, I believe (again), are devices God uses to nip false followers in the bud. My friend, Mark Wainwright, once used an image of a strong wind and a tree to illustrate this point: we were discussing the recent reports that came out of Ireland, detailing the thousands of cases of abuse (sexual and otherwise) being perpetrated in the Irish Catholic Church. We discussed what the ramifications of what that report would be and Mark said, "I believe God is pruning the Irish church. He is blowing a strong wind that will shake the dead leaves from the tree so that living leaves will flourish." The dead leaves represented the spiritually dead.

Though that example doesn't best fit with what I'm writing, the basic idea does.

If someone turns to Christ because they are attracted by the glamours promised by prosperity preachers, they are going to be severely let down. They are not truly turning to Christ as much as they are turning to an idol. And when God starts sending the strong winds of life difficulties, their faith is going to be shaken and the leaves of their dead spirituality will fall to the ground, be raked up and burned. God is going to separate the wheat from the chaff and the chaff, "He will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12).

Faith and Doubt 5: Luke 1:67-80

Luke 1:67-80

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

---> Okay.

I honestly didn't think there was enough material here for me to write a blog of any worth. I was almost considering simply copying and pasting the pericope and saying, "Welp -- that was some good stuff, eh?" But, after a second reading, I found two concepts that seem to contradict each other and wanted to pontificate:

One being God's protection, the other being John the Baptist's preparing the way for God. Going before God and, yet, following God.

In the first part of Zechariah's prophecy (v68-75), Zechariah praises God for His mercy and protection. He began his prophecy with the same words found at the beginning of other prayers and prophecies throughout the Old Testament, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel" (1 Kings 1:48, 1 Chronicles 29:10, Ezra 7:27, Psalm 41:13, Psalm 72:18, Psalm 106:48). He then proceeds to praise God for the provisions He has already made and the provisions He is going to make -- he speaks with the voice of the prophetic, calling things that are not as though they are. He praises God for protection and for ransoming Israel.

He then turns his attention to his child, John (v76-79). He prophesies that John will be a forerunner, preparing the way of the Lord and telling the world that salvation is on its way. Of course, Zechariah is merely echoing the words of Malachi:

Malachi 3:1, 4:5-6

1 "Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts... 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction."

In verse 80, of course, Luke informs us that John did, in fact, live in the wilderness and became strong in spirit before he made his debut as "John the Baptist." Then, would come John's ministry: going from town to town, as Jesus's forerunner, preparing everyone for his arrival.

Even today, God is sending out forerunners to go before Him. God is still using us to prepare the way of the Lord for all the people. He is still using us to "turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers" (Malachi 4:6). No, we can't save people -- only God has that ability. But He does use us to spread the word -- to inform mankind that salvation is on its way.

And who are we to be considered able to perform such a task? Who are we to have such a high calling? I must not only call into our question our personal statures, but I must even question our abilities -- what a high calling to prepare the way for GOD ALMIGHTY. I'm talking about the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, here. To quote an old song, we can't even walk without Him holding our hands! How, then, is it that God Himself has enough faith in us to prepare the way for Him?

A: Well. It's because He's got our backs. We have His protection.

Q: But if we have His protection, doesn't that suggest that He is going before us, and not the other way around?

A: Absolutely.

Q: ...?

A: Exactly.

It's such a paradox knowing that not only does God go before us to prepare the way, but He sends us before Him to prepare the way for Him!

I just had an interesting conversation with Joshua Riley a couple hours ago and, in this conversation, it was mentioned that "God justifies the ends to His own means." When people ask, "Why are things this way?" the only answer, really, is "Well... God." Sometimes, the only answer we can give for life's mysteries is, "God is obviously working on something."

Even John the Baptist recognizes the backwards logic of this situation! In Matthew's gospel account, he writes:

Matthew 3:13-14

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

Even Jesus recognizes the backwards logic of this situation! Unlike John, however, he also understands there's something bigger than both of them at work, here. Check out his response:

Matthew 3:15

15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then [John] consented.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Faith and Doubt 4: Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:57-66

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, "No; he shall be called John." 61 And they said to her, "None of your relatives is called by this name." 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him.

---> I'm most intrigued by the word "fear" in this section. Luke informs us that "fear came on all their neighbors," (v65) -- why "fear?" What was it about this particular event that inspired "fear" in the hearts of their neighbors?

The word "fear" is used all over the Bible -- mostly in the phrases "fear of God" or "fear of the Lord." In my understanding, in such contexts, this word denotes an awe-inspiring respect for God. But I don't believe that is the context for "fear" in this passage -- I have to believe these people were legitimately afraid of what was happening. Here, Zechariah was muted for at least nine months for questioning God. When his neighbors start questioning Elizabeth's name choice for their baby and even going to Zechariah about it (I can only assume to nag), he blurts out, "His name is John!" (Luke tells us that he actually wrote that on a tablet since he was mute and, since this is the only account we have of this event, that must have been what happened. My imagination, however, prefers the possibility that Zechariah boldly proclaimed it silence his naysayers)

Whatever happened, it made everyone stop questioning the name immediately. I can imagine them throwing up their hands and slowly backing away, saying, "Whoa -- easy now, Zach. His name is John -- that's a good choice. Strong name," then walking away and murmuring to each other, "Well that reaction was a little unnecessary!"

But Luke tells us that they were fearful. I'm fascinated about how quickly their attitudes change from one moment to the next; one minute, they were rejoicing and praising God for His mercy (v57-58), the next minute, they're freaked out and, probably, a little offended at Zechariah's outburst.

But, consider the two events they were reacting to: when they were cheerful, they had just seen a birth. There was a cute new baby to join their little village and they were excited that God had allowed such a thing to happen. Then, when God's will, His word, is boldly proclaimed by Zechariah, they are suddenly silenced and fearful.

I find this in the church today: we get excited about the miraculous, we get excited about God's goodness and mercy and love. When we hear about forgiveness and liberty and freedom, we, rightfully, rejoice and praise God. Then the preacher comes at us with a hard gospel, with a high calling, and we are suddenly offended. When there was a cute new baby, -- possibly, for some in the village, symbolic of a new beginning -- there was something to rejoice about. But, when Zechariah comes to them and says, "You people are perverting God's will and tempting my wife to pervert God's will -- his name is JOHN!," suddenly there's nothing to rejoice about anymore. Now everyone is solemn, fearful and a little offended.


Luke tells us that they, then, walked away and talked amongst themselves about John's destiny, for they understood that if such miracles took place, surely John had a high calling on his life (v65-66).

And this leads me to ponder callings:

1) Everyone knew John had a high calling because of the miracles that surrounded his birth: Elizabeth gave birth at a very old age, Zechariah was muted for doubting God and his speech was restored for declaring God's word. If these things happened, surely God has something big in mind for John! God made these things happen for a reason; He re-aligns the stars and the planets to make His will happen.

2) The ball was in Zechariah and Elizabeth's court to facilitate God's will, His master plan. I find this to be one of the downfalls of Calvinism and open theism: Zechariah and Elizabeth had to be willing (free will), first of all, to carry out God's plan; He wasn't going to force them to do anything they didn't want to do. I believe, when Gabriel came to Zechariah and told him what was going to happen, Zechariah could have said, "Absolutely not," and flipped Gabriel off. But he didn't. And who's to say what might have happened had that happened? It was up to them to live their lives in His will and act accordingly.

The same goes for us, I think. For example, I believe I am called to be a missionary: guess what -- it's up to me to keep my passport up to date, to buy plane tickets, to learn another language if necessary, to find a place to live, to have some sort of plan. I believe I am called to be a worship leader: again, it's up to me to learn to play an instrument and practice, to get involved with a church that either needs a worship leader or has room on the worship team for another musician.

Things, more often than not, don't just happen. It's up to us to be God's hand and feet in these situations; to carry out His work. If we choose to reject His plan for our lives, if we choose not to believe, if we choose not to participate in the work He his doing, we won't receive the blessings He has in store for us (Luke 1:45, 1 Peter 3:9, Deuteronomy 28).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Faith and Doubt 3: Luke 1:39-55

Luke 1:39-45

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby 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 from the Lord."

---> Luke 1, thus far, deals a great deal with faith. As I've discussed in the two previous posts, Luke dedicated the book to Theophilus so that he might increase in faith, Zechariah was silenced because he lacked faith even though he was a man of the cloth and Gabriel dealt fairly with Mary's lack of faith because she was an unlearned child. And now, in this selection of verses, we find Mary and Elizabeth, once again, dealing with faith.

In verse 45, Elizabeth declares the Lord's blessings on Mary because she believed that what God said was going to happen was actually going to happen. She had faith.

Now, when an angel of the Lord comes to you in the middle of the night and says, "You are going to birth the Messiah while you are still a virgin," there's one of a few ways you can react:

1) Disbelief - Mary could have very well said, "That is ridiculous. I'm 14, I'm a virgin and I'm not even the most spiritual person I know."

2) Anger - Again, Mary could have very well said, "That is ridiculous! I'm 14, I'm a virgin and I'm not even the most spiritual person I know! I don't want anything to do with this Messiah! This is going to ruin my reputation and alienate me from my friends and family! This is going to cost my life!"

3) Indifference - Mary could have said, "Well, Gabriel, let's not get too excited. I've heard God make promises before that have yet to come to pass. I mean, Israel is still in bondage, am I right? Let's just wait and see what happens."

4) Belief - Mary could have said, "Okay."

While the first three options are completely understandable reactions in Mary's situation, she opted to go with the fourth -- she laid down her life, her pride, her reservations and her doubts and said, "Okay." Because of that, even in her first meeting with someone else, the course of history already started changing.

Luke tells us that as soon as Mary came into contact with Elizabeth, the baby in her womb (John the Baptist) leaped for joy and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Two souls were filled with the Holy Spirit just by being near Jesus -- even as he was in the womb.

I have to believe that it wasn't just Jesus' mere presence that so affected Elizabeth and John, though; I have to believe that it was Elizabeth's faith that earned such a chemical reaction. Consider what Elizabeth said immediately upon seeing Mary: she didn't greet her with hugs and kisses, she didn't just say "Hello" and she didn't invite them in for milk and cookies; she boldly exclaimed, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (v41-42)

Elizabeth knew because of her faith and she had faith because she knew. That is what saved her.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I've been thinking a lot about faith, lately. Anyone who knows me, even moderately well, knows what I've gone through in my 24 years. And I feel like God has promised me so many things that have yet to come to pass. I don't have a job, I'm still single, I'm not out of debt, I haven't traveled, etc., etc. There are so many things that I've yet to see happen.

When I start throwing myself a pity party or when I start casting stones at God, I am now reminded of verse 45: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."

I don't feel blessed and, yet, I know I have been blessed -- interesting paradox. In the same way, I know God has spoken to me and, yet, I don't feel as though He is honoring the commitments He made to me.

This leads me to question myself, to check my heart. Is it possible that I am not being blessed because I don't really, truly believe that there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to me from the Lord? Is it possible that I am the problem? Hmmmm.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Magnificat, I feel, is one of those things I simply don't need to write any sort of commentary on, so I will just copy and paste it here. I pray that Mary's praise will serve as a reminder to us who struggle with our faiths that God really is in charge and that He really will fulfill His promises:

Luke 1:46-55

46And Mary said,

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those 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 mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Faith and Doubt, 2: Luke 1:5-38

Luke 1:5-24
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." 19 And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 "Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."

---> A couple things:

According to v6, Zechariah and Elizabeth were both faultless, blameless and honored all of God's statutes. They knew the Law and they obeyed. They were the models for exemplary behavior. So it strikes me as odd that God had not honored their prayers for a child (v7); if they were faultless and blameless, it would seem to me that God would be more than happy to give them a child! This, however, is not how God does things.

I often marvel at how some of the greatest in God's Kingdom were born from the most perplexing of situations.

Much like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham and Sarah also did not conceive until they were very, very old -- well beyond the (naturally) normal child-producing years (Genesis 11:30), In fact, when God promised them a child, Abraham didn't even take Him seriously! He laughed -- nay, guffawed -- at the idea of a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman having children (Genesis 17:17).

It almost seems like a prerequisite for people in Biblical times who were to lead significant, historical lives to have miraculous birth stories.

Consider, for example:

The very first births -- Adam and Eve. Adam was formed in the image of God, by God, from a pile of clay. He learned to breathe when God breathed life into his nostrils. Eve, on the other hand -- God constructed her with one of Adam's ribs. These two people lived in daily communion and fellowship with the Ultimate Creator and fathered and mothered all of mankind. Foolish, unnatural, miraculous.

Moses, born a Hebrew peasant in times when Pharaoh was rounding up all the Hebrews and making them slaves. His mother put him in a basket, sent him floating up the Nile River and was discovered by one of Pharaoh's wives. Moses was raised in the Egyptian courts, grew up (for all intents and purposes) an Egyptian and, yet, managed to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage. Foolish, unnatural, miraculous.

Joseph was born in a completely natural way, but the story of his birth was totally unnatural. His mother, who died in child birth, was called Rachel and his father, Jacob, was a slave for Rachel's father for 14 years because she was the love of his life and he knew he absolutely had to be with her. He worked her father's fields for 14 years just to gain his approval! Joseph would grow up to be hated and envied by his brothers, beaten up, thrown into a well, then sold into Egyptian slavery, then made Pharaoh's right-hand man for his dream-interpreting skills, then, ultimately, became one of the highest ranking officials in Egypt. Foolish, unnatural, miraculous.

But this is the way in which God operates; this is the way He goes about things. God chooses the foolish things of the world, that he might confound them that are wise; and God chooses the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).

So the fact that Gabriel came to Zechariah and foretold that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a child called John shouldn't have been too surprising, considering how tantamount that story is to Old Testament births.

Then, most miraculously of all, there is the story of Jesus's birth:

Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

34 And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"

35 And the angel answered 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 called holy — the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.

So, now we have two stories that are not identical, but very, very similar. In both stories, Gabriel comes to two sets of people and prophecies miraculous births to both: one birth to a very elderly couple who have been married for many years and are well beyond their prime, and one birth to a very young couple who are not married and are both virgins (v34)! These two stories, in the natural, make no sense. It's the pinnacle of foolishness to believe that these two couples would give birth!

However, again, God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the weak to put to shame the strong.

What I find interesting, though, are the reactions Gabriel receives from both parties he talks to and the responses these reactions elicit from Gabriel: both immediately doubted his words, but Gabriel responds differently to them. When Zechariah expresses his doubts (v18), Gabriel silences him -- he makes him literally dumbstruck -- because of his lack of faith (v19-20). When Mary expresses her doubts, on the other hand (v34), Gabriel deals with her gently and calmly explains the specifics of the situation (v35-37). Why the disparity between the two stories?

I think it has to do with the status levels of the two parties involved.

On the one hand, we have Zechariah -- a man who is, as aforementioned, faultless and blameless. He was a priest and communed with God in the holy of holies -- he burned incense before the Lord while the other priests were content to stay outside and pray on their own (v8-10). He was raised in the faith, lived out the faith, perfected the faith, preached the faith and loved the faith. He knew the Scriptures inside and out, was well-versed with the miracles that God -- the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, his forefathers -- performed for the benefit of His people.

And, yet, for all this knowledge, he still had the audacity and lack of faith to go so far as to try correcting God's messenger. Rather than falling to his knees, with tears streaming down his face, thanking God for His blessings of provision, his immediate reaction was to doubt God's word. So, Gabriel silenced him for his lack of faith.

I also find it interesting that the first several verses of Luke directly deal with doubt -- first, Theophilus in v1-4, then Zechariah in v18-23 and, finally, Mary in v26-34. Hmmm... Do I sense a theme? Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of things to come? Oh, Luke -- you and your stellar writing abilities -- you do go on!

Now, at first, I will admit, I thought Zechariah's punishment seemed a little harsh; one slight indiscretion, one slight moment of doubt, and Zechariah is doomed to nine months of muteness. But, upon reading this selection again, I have to wonder whether or not Gabriel really had any other choice but to silence him. I mean, Zechariah was a high priest -- a leader and teacher of men. What sort of message would be conveyed to His people if God had not punished Zechariah for his doubtfulness? If God were to allow Zechariah's doubt to go unpunished, who's to say what sort of agnosticism would stem from Zechariah's congregation?

Mary, on the other hand, was not punished for her faithlessness (v34). As aforementioned, Gabriel calmly explained the situation to her (v30-37) and she was excited at the prospect of being the Holy Mother (v38). But Mary, on the other hand, was not a priestess -- she wasn't a leader. She wasn't even a leader in her household! Her gender automatically negated her leadership abilities, her age negated her leadership abilities and her social status negated her leadership abilities. Don't hear me wrong -- I'm not saying she wasn't capable of being a leader (she is, after all, the Holy Mother), but she was not able to lead in her day and age because of those three things. A believer though she may have been, there wasn't any need to punish her for her doubts. I'd like to believe that God had mercy on her, despite her doubts, because of the road that lied ahead of her.

See, when Elizabeth would conceive, all of her family members and contemporaries and peers would congratulate her and Zechariah and hail them as faithful to God's promises. They would recall the stories of the Old Testament and praise God for, once again, miraculously bringing a child into the world. When Mary conceived, on the other hand, she would become despised by those around her. She was a very young, single woman. When she told her family and friends that she was pregnant and single (the ultimate single mother), they would call her a slut, a harlot, a Jezebel. When she'd tell them that was still a virgin, that the Holy Spirit impregnated her rather than Joseph, they would call her insane and, quite possibly, stone her to death for blasphemy.

I think there is also a lesson to be learned here regarding the power of the tongue:

James 3:1-12
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

See, according to v1, Zechariah had to be greatly punished for his one single act of doubt. Furthermore, Luke even writes:

Luke 17:1-2
1 And he said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin."

There are serious consequences for tempting believers to stumble -- this is one thing that Jesus did not take lightly. Have you ever seen a millstone?? They are massive pieces of masonry -- about half the size of a man and considerably more heavy. According to Jesus, it would be better to have one of these things tied around your neck and to have you tossed into the ocean than to tempt someone to sin. So, really, Zechariah got off easy -- he was just silenced for nine months so that he wouldn't be able to spread his doubt to others.

I quite like the way Adam Clarke's commentary puts it:
Dumbness ordinarily proceeds from a natural imperfection or debility of the organs of speech; in this case there was no natural weakness or unfitness in those organs; but, for his rash and unbelieving speech, silence is imposed upon him by the Lord, and he shall not be able to break it, till the power that has silenced him gives him again the permission to speak! Let those who are intemperate in the use of their tongues behold here the severity and mercy of the Lord; nine months' silence for one intemperate speech! Many, by giving way to the language of unbelief, have lost the language of praise and thanksgiving for months, if not years!
May this be a lesson to us today, to tame our tongues -- to be wary of professing and/or spreading doubt and unbelief.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Faith and Doubt, 1: Luke 1:1-4

Luke 1:1-4
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

--> Now, Luke is my favorite gospel account and, quite possibly indeed, my favorite book of the Bible. As a fellow writer (or, at least a fellow who claims to be a writer), I feel a kindred spirit with Luke, the historian. His attention to detail is impeccable; rather than focusing on what Jesus said and spending most of his time writing out Jesus's words (like Matthew), he focused more on the context and the setting of where these things were being said; rather than giving very basic summaries of what happened (like Mark), he went into great detail each miracle performed, each action Christ took and each reaction Christ received; rather than writing with an inclination to become very preachy as a means of reaching the lost faction of his readership (like John), Luke didn't offer much commentary at all -- he let the stories of Christ's birth, ministry, death and resurrection suffice for themselves.

In the preface of this book, in those first four chapters, Luke even explains that his intentions are different from his contemporaries! He is fully aware that stories were circulating and that books were being written. "It seemed good to [him] also" to offer his version of the story, his own spin on the story.

Maybe it's because I'm embarking on this blogging adventure with Josh that I am reading Scriptures more closely. And maybe it's because I'm reading Scriptures more closely that I have taken such a notice to the first four verses that introduce Luke's account of the gospel -- an introduction which I have never really paid any mind to until this project.

The book of Luke is a story about life. Of the four apostles who wrote gospels, Luke shares the most stories about the miracles Jesus performed: giving sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, healing blood clots and paralytics and lepers, casting out demons and even resurrecting the dead. It is the story of vagabonds, ragamuffins, castaways, sinners, demoniacs, freaks and, as Josh sometimes says, "a ragtag team of misfits and miscreants" -- all people who lost their way and were in desperate need of salvation, of a second chance at life (and "life more abundantly" (John 10:10)). Ultimately, as it is with the three other gospel accounts, the gospel according to Luke is the story of the greatest miracle of all: Christ's resurrection -- the very gospel itself.

Luke's account of the gospel is a book about the human condition and God's saving grace.

Another thing that sets Luke's gospel story apart is his target audience. Unlike the other three gospels, we cannot assume that he is writing for the sake of the general public; we cannot assume that Luke intended for his account to be widespread. We cannot assume such things because of verses 3-4: it is made very evident that Luke wrote this gospel account to a single person, Theophilus. Don't hear me wrong -- I believe that all Scripture is the word of God and that the Holy Spirit wrote the Scriptures just as much as anyone else and that God is sovereign. Perhaps Luke knew that 2,000 years later, you could pick up a paperback copy of his gospel account at a local bookstore -- God definitely did. What I'm presupposing is that we cannot say, for sure, Luke knew that; we did, however, know that he was writing this account to Theophilus, so that he "may have certainty concerning the things [he had] been taught" (v4).

The phrase, "the things you have been taught," leads this writer to believe that Theophilus was a believer or, at the very least, one who had been preached to. The fact that Luke is writing a personal letter to him out of great concern for the certainty of his faith, as if he were an old friend or even, perhaps, a ministerial associate, points to the former possibility.

And this believer, much like every believer from time to time, at one point or another will experience, was struggling with his faith. He had heard the gospel, he had experienced the gospel and he even had a relationship with at least one of the people who had firsthand experience with Jesus's daily interactions (namely, Luke). And, yet, for all this knowledge, he was still struggling with the things which he had been told. He was still wrestling with his faith.

Theophilus was Greek -- at least, we can infer that from his Greek name (which, ironically, translates to "friend of God"). His Greek heritage, therefore, made him a gentile -- he was not one of God's chosen people and, therefore, not a part of God's inheritance; that is, until Jesus came. Jesus's death and resurrection was for all, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). The Jews were growing on a vine that tied them directly to God and, because of Jesus's death and resurrection, the Greeks and all other gentiles were grafted in.

But, Theophilus, being a gentile, was not so sure. After all, Jews and gentiles were polar opposites; the Jews were God's chosen people, the gentiles were... not. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, they were enemies of God and had no part in God's Kingdom (this is why Theophilus's name is, at once, so ironic and, again, so indicative of what Luke's gospel account is all about). Needless to say, Theophilus was struggling with the idea that he too could now be saved.

Can you imagine the thoughts racing through his mind?

"So God gave up His Son to save us -- not just the Jews, but also the Greeks. But the Jews are still His chosen people. Does that mean I'm still saved? Can I be saved? Why would God change His mind? Was Jesus really the Messiah? But what about the struggles the church is having spreading the gospel? Wouldn't she be more able to minister to the lost without all the hardships and oppression and adversity? Why won't God end the evil altogether? Is what I'm hearing true? Am I saved? Is there a God?"

Admit it -- these are all concerns and doubts that we have today. Right?

This is why Luke wrote this gospel account: to explain and make clear exactly what happened, as it happened and why it happened. He clearly and concisely explains God's salvation plan, why everything had to be the way it was and that Jesus really is Lord of all. All the care Luke gives to the task, as noted in his preface, is designed to reassure Theophilus, who has been taught on such matters previously. Whatever pressure this believer is under, he should be confident that God has moved to fulfill his plan through Jesus. Like a pastor who comforts a believer under siege by the world, Luke wishes to encourage his readers. Theophilus may be asking, "Is Christianity what I believed it to be, a religion sent from God?" Whether it is internal doubt, persecution or racial tension with Jews that has caused this question to be raised, Luke invites Theophilus -- the "friend of God" -- to consider the story of Jesus again and know that these indeed were events that "have been accomplished among us" (v1).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Benediction.

Every Sunday morning, after he delivers the sermon and the worship team plays one last song, Pastor Walt Barrett will once again take to the microphone to deliver a benediction—a final word, a final blessing for the congregation to keep in its collective mind as they set back out into "the real world." And every Sunday, no matter what the sermon was about, no matter how good the music was, and no matter how many friends I get to talk to, I most look forward to the benediction. Because, as I say everytime Walt wraps up, "I loves me a good benediction."

Because I love this particular one so much, I emailed Walt and asked him if he could transcribe it and email it to me, so that I can read it anytime I need some peace of mind. With everything in my life being as it is right now, I need these words more than ever:

"Now go into the world in peace, have courage, hold on to what is good, honor all men, strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering, restore the wandering. Love and serve the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit, and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.