Friday, July 20, 2018

Luke 4:42-44

"And when it was day he departed and went into a desolate place." Over and over again we see Jesus seeking desolate places. This is one of the hardest aspects of his life for us to imitate.

We do not suffer (both in the sense of "endure" and in the sense of being miserable in the enduring) desolation well. We cheat ourselves of the fullness of all God wants for us because we fill our time with entertainment and avoid desolation at all costs. And when, in the wisdom of God, we are thrust into desolation, we usually misinterpret it and we strive to end it as soon as possible.

Have you ever said, "I need a vacation to recover from my vacation"? Have you ever felt like you were trying to work to 110% of your capacity? Strange as it may seem to us, periodic desolation is an important part of the cure.

Understand, life needs many things to be what Jesus called "abundant," and he himself is at the center of such a life. Healthy community, meaningful work, loving intimacy, healing vulnerability, diverting entertainment, enlightening conversation, stretching silence -- all these things are necessary for the abundant life. As much as I don't like it, I think that the experience of periodic desolation needs to be on that list as well.

There are two categories of desolation, at least in my mind. Voluntary desolations are those we schedule for ourselves. These might look like vacations but they are not full of amusements or tourist attractions; rather they are a chance to unplug from the world and reconnect to God, often in the context of nature. There's something in us hardwired to rediscover ourselves by brushing up against the wilderness. I've done a couple solo trips to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota and these have provided voluntary desolation for me. In some ways it has been uncomfortable, without a doubt. By definition these trips have taken me off the grid, away from cell phones and emails and social media. Very often, God has spoken in significant ways in that context, whether I'm alone or with others. I've learned to structure the hard work of traveling by canoe interspersed with days in camp, quiet times to contemplate the lake and the fire and the breeze and sometimes the mosquitos and the rain. It's a voluntary desolation, and I'm always better for it.

Involuntary desolations are the ones we desperately want to avoid. These are the ones that twist our insides to the breaking point. Grief at the loss of a loved one, the brokenness of a relationship, the aftermath of a divorce, physical illness or emotional breakdowns, seasons of burnout -- all of these and more bring us to a kind of involuntary desolation. Often -- not always -- we end up in the involuntary desolations because we have refused to hear God's call into voluntary desolation. Over the last couple years I've experienced an extended season -- a perfect storm, if you will -- of involuntary desolations. Work burnout, divorce and aftermath, loss of friendships, broken relationships -- and God has been faithfully working in the midst of it all.

Terry Walling has done some excellent work on how the experience of being "stuck" is used by God to provide transitions. Some of what he describes sounds a lot like God using both voluntary and involuntary desolation to shape, form, and redirect us. You can read more about Walling's work in these areas here. One of his most significant themes is that there are transitions that nearly everyone goes through at specific stages in life -- entering young adulthood and discerning your calling, moving toward significance in adulthood as you discern your unique contribution, and entering into a kind of blessed convergence nearer the end of life. Each of these transitions presents us with a kind of crisis -- a sense of desolation, a feeling of being stuck. God is at work in huge ways in each of these major transitions, and in the lesser ones we experience.

Jesus invites us into periodic voluntary desolation. If you are in a desolate place as you read this, know that God is there with you. Swallow the lump in your throat and know that Jesus has been there before you. He will not leave you alone. He is working for your good in all this, even though it might be desperately hard. The discomfort will be worth it. In Jesus' own life in these verses, his time of suffering desolation leads to a major transition as he moves from focusing on Galilee to preaching in the villages of Judea. As you deal with the desolate hours, the lonely evenings, the two a.m. spells of staring at the ceiling, the longing for wholeness, for relationship, for restoration, know that God is doing his good work. Though it might seem right now like everything is stuck, there will come a moment -- Walling describes this in great detail -- when God moves you out of the transition and into a new stage. As Tom Petty sang, "the waiting is the hardest part." But God is faithful.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Maybe it's because I was writing about loneliness earlier today; maybe it's because the overwhelming rain today has thrown off my routines and the sky is a dingy gray. Maybe it's messages I've gotten from my daughters and others I love who are far, far away these days. There are probably lots of reasons, but I find myself in a lonely spot tonight, functioning as a sort of flannelgraph figure to illustrate my own point from earlier. It's ironic. Thankfully this is not one of those gut-wrenching evenings that were all too common last winter and occasionally still raise their draconian heads. This is more of a wistful kind of thing that is tempered a bit by the knowledge that I'm surrounded by an excellent community, I have good friends and meaningful work and lots more, including my plan very shortly to drive up to the north end of the campus and see how many deer are out in the meadow. But when this song by Lifehouse came on tonight as I was sitting in the second-floor writing studio prepping my sermon for Sunday, thinking about practice-preaching it and looking westward over the lake, it exactly captured my mood.

Luke 4:38-41

These few verses highlight one of the most consistent and important aspects of Jesus' ministry: he healed people. Even the most agnostic of historians acknowledge that Jesus must have had some kind of gifts of healing, or at least a reputation as such. Simon's mother-in-law and the multitudes who come are just the first of so many in the gospels who will experience physical, spiritual, emotional, relational restoration at Jesus' touch.

Today we have eliminated much of our need for wandering healers. We have miraculous medical technology that eliminates many diseases, heals wounds, and curbs the discomfort of conditions we cannot ultimately heal. Life expectancy has risen consistently as a result of the incredible medical discoveries that we now take for granted. Case in point, I'm a type one diabetic, diagnosed shortly before I turned eight years old. A hundred years ago I might have endured into my teens, but no more than that. I've taken insulin by injections and later by a pump for more than four decades, and today I live a remarkably normal, physically robust life. Yesterday I spent about half my day climbing on and off an extension ladder, working on rooftops and (the most glorious of jobs) cleaning gutters, carrying five gallon buckets of decaying leaves down and hauling them off to compost. In the morning, as a discipline I've been taking on, I walked a beautiful four mile loop around George Lake. Last night I participated in an amazing evening of Vacation Bible School including a giant homemade Slip-N-Slide with dozens of kids (and a few adults!) hooting and hollering in a soapy mess down the hillside. Then I grilled stuffed jalapeƱos and whipped up a broccoli parmesan quasi-stir fry to try out an amazing mushroom I discovered last week near my front door, then shared that amazing meal (including some excellent Italian beer -- who'd have thought the Italians would make good beer?) with fantastic friends. My point is, my life is good and so full and the affect of my diabetes on my daily life is minor. I thank God for my good health and all the blessings I enjoy because of it, and I recognize that part of what I have to be thankful for is the advancement of medical technology.

At the same time, I recognize that this is still, in spite of insulin pumps and all the other medical advancements, a broken world. In the first century, a sense of hopelessness and alienation was driven significantly, among other things, by the evidence of physical diseases that in that day were beyond cure. Today our evidence of brokenness looks a little different. Yes, we enjoy physical health. But we are still a broken people, and in many cases we have traded physical maladies for emotional, relational and spiritual ones.

In some cases our brokenness is a byproduct of the same technological advances that make us healthier. While CAT scans, contact lenses and cold medicines help us physically, similar technologies have made us more mobile, even transient. The technology that allows your dentist to do x-rays every two years also allows you to binge watch Netflix. One of the byproducts of technology is an increasing loneliness that afflicts us like a plague. The loneliness that in part results from our transience and our ability to self-medicate with too much screen time leads us down the road toward an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and despair.

Perhaps we need to rediscover Jesus as the healer for these ills. While our individualism and post-Enlightenment thinking predisposes us to loneliness, Jesus calls us not only into relationship with himself but into relationship with one another. Jesus' followers are designed to live in community. Every example of people coming to faith in Jesus in the New Testament also includes a nod -- and very often direct descriptions -- toward an ongoing community, a web of relationships that will become like a new family to the believer. Like any family, these relationships in the Jesus-following community will not be perfect -- but they will provide a healthy system in which life can be lived in all its God-intended abundance.

One of the visions that gives me hope for the church in a post-Christendom context is that of home-sized communities, call them house churches or what have you, that build a spiritual, emotional, relational family around each individual. When I have seen the church function like this I have also seen that every form of brokenness has opportunity to be healed in that context. Not everyone wants to be made well, of course, and not every disease is healed -- but Jesus presents himself in these relational contexts as our healer, as the restorer of wholeness and abundant life. Such health is as much a gift today as seeing a lame man rise and walk in the first century.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Luke 4:31-37

This story of Jesus restoring a demon-possessed man in the synagogue provides a good opportunity to ponder two things: First, the craftsmanship of God, and second the timing of God.

In Galatians Paul writes that "when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law ..." (Galatians 4:4). That phrase, "the fullness of time" includes so much about God's craftsmanship. Over two thousand years, God carefully created a people with strands of meaning and deep, rich traditions. The Jewish culture in the first century was rich both as a platform for Jesus' proclamation and saving work, and also as a framework to help us understand who Jesus is and what he is about more completely.

There are elements in this story that point to God's craftsmanship. A few examples: The existence of Galilee itself is a major factor. Galilee at this time was an area of dense Jewish settlement, so Jewish scriptures and culture were predominant there. But Galilee, unlike Jerusalem, also contained -- and butted up against -- many non-Jewish elements (like Sepphoris in yesterday's post). So the Jewish worldview and assumptions and culture that dominated Galilee were also informed by interaction with elements of other cultures. Judea in the south, and more so Jerusalem, were much more wholly Jewish without as much influence from non-Jewish cultures. The fact that most of Jesus' ministry happens in Galilee, and that he was raised in this crossroads of cultures, cannot be overemphasized.

The fact that this story takes place in the synagogue is another example of God's craftsmanship. Prior to the Babylonian exile in 587 BC, Israelite worship took place exclusively in the temple in Jerusalem. Other worship did occur, and usually the Old Testament refers to this as worship that happens on the "high places." Such worship tended to be a syncretistic blend of the worship of Yahweh and other gods, and in various places the Old Testament either tolerates or condemns it. But with the Babylonian exile the Israelites found themselves cut off from the temple, contemplating their generational idolatry and God's judgment, and they were desperately concerned to have an appropriate way to worship in other lands. Out of this exile over time grew several elements that, combined, came to define the word "Jewish." Those elements include written scriptures (which had existed at some level prior to the exile but played a minor role in Israelite religion), the role of rabbis (previously priests occupied the official leadership roles, and their service was tied directly to the temple), and the existence of synagogues -- dedicated centers of worship wherever at least ten Jewish men were gathered. The synagogues -- a Greek word that is roughly equivalent to the English word "congregation" -- sprouted up as Jewish people expanded throughout the Near East, and they provided the core of a system that enabled the Jews to maintain their culture while scattered in foreign lands. This scattered population became known as the Diaspora.

There is much more to say here about how God had brought elements of other cultures and religions, how the Jewish worldview at that time -- the rich cosmology of a God who is all powerful and all good but who is opposed by demonic forces, for example -- had been influenced by this careful craftsmanship that over centuries shaped a rich worldview that had come into its own about the time Jesus arrives on the scene. But to do such a topic justice would require more paragraphs than we have space or time for here.

On to the second major theme, that of timing. I have often said (sometimes by faith in the face of my own frustration) that God has perfect timing. Of course this is what Paul is getting at in Galatians 4 in saying that the "fullness of time" had come. Often the easiest way to see God's timing is to look for intersections. What are the necessary elements that suddenly come together in a window of opportunity? There are several major strands that intersect for a few decades in the first century. To grossly oversimplify:

Jewish monotheism -- as stated above, the worldview of Jewish monotheism had really come into its own at this time. So many strands of cultural influence -- Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Greek, and more -- have helped to shape the core of what started with Abraham and Moses and others, and their relationship with Yahweh has by the first century grown into this rich cultural and religious system that permeates every aspect of Jewish life.

Greek language and culture -- three and a half centuries before Jesus' ministry, Alexander the Great marched across the eastern Mediterranean (and beyond), evangelizing the world with Greek culture. He intentionally brought Greek gymnasiums, theaters, marketplaces, and above all a simplified (koine) version of the Greek language. Cultural ideas about beauty, meaning, ethics, excellence -- all were shaped by the legacy of Alexander. The New Testament emerges in the sharp intersection of this Greek culture with Jewish monotheism, and the dynamic explosion of Christianity is only possible because of the unifying factor of koine Greek. The world would not know such linguistic possibility again until the 20th century.

A third major element in this question of timing is the pax Romana, the brutally enforced peace of Rome. Rome's iron fist required the ability to transport troops rapidly across the empire, and so roads and shipping were carefully constructed and jealously protected. (Eisenhower's vision of a military transportation network in the 1950's leading to the United States Interstate Highway system is a modern parallel.) Roman roads and the suppression of piracy allowing for safe travel throughout the Mediterranean creates an opportunity for this fledgling Jesus-movement to grow and expand rapidly across the empire.

There is obviously so much more to say about these things, but it's important to note that this strange scene in a synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus restores a demon-possessed man happens in a much wider context. This context, this carefully crafted, precisely timed moment, is no accident. It is an amazing demonstration of the craftsmanship and timing of God.

Take it one step further. What are the places in your own life that God has carefully assembled factors, relationships, influences? Can you see that God has been at work, lovingly sculpting these different forces to bring you to the precise place where you find yourself today? Can you trust that God is working the timing in your own life, bringing the intersection of moments, ideas, opportunities? Until he shows all his cards, it's hard to see what God is up to. Trust him. Let faith inform your frustration and believe that he has good plans that are moving toward a fulfillment that is better than what you would plan for yourself. Like those in the first century who encountered Jesus, be ready -- when the time comes to grab hold of what God is doing, you don't want to miss the moment. In the meantime, trust him.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Luke 4:14-30

You have to feel at least a little bad for the people of Nazareth. The trouble for them, as so often for us, is that they don't really want to know Jesus accurately. Knowing Jesus for who he is requires a great deal of us, and it leads us into uncomfortable territory.

The people of Nazareth wanted a few simple things. We miss a lot of what's happening in this passage because we don't understand the plight of small-town Jews in Galilee in the first century. They were caught in tides that threatened to wash away their traditional culture, and they could feel the ebb and flow every day. Nowhere was this more true than in Nazareth. The New Testament doesn't directly mention the larger city of Sepphoris just up the road -- a culturally Greek city that had been founded by Rome and provided a major engine to drive the local economy. Everything that happens in this scene Luke is describing is overshadowed by the cultural tensions in Nazareth.

The people of Nazareth wanted to share in the glory of a hometown boy made good, first of all. Second, they wanted to keep their illusions about who God was and what he was up to. Third, they wanted to keep their fantasies and delusions about themselves and their circumstances.  Jesus' words and actions here in his hometown fly in the face of all those desires. No wonder by the end of the story they want to kill him.

They want to share in the glory of a hometown boy made good. Luke makes clear that Jesus has been preaching throughout Galilee, and we can assume that his preaching, as later, included healing people and casting out demons and all the rest. His reputation grew. So the people of Nazareth were very much like the people of a small town whose local athlete makes it big in the pros. Reporters come around looking for the "I knew him when" story. The city fathers put up a "home of ..." billboard on the highway coming into town. Sportscasters love to allude to the small town, small school, normal guy stories. In a way, all this serves to validate the small town itself, along with all its residents. See? Our town must be okay. Look at the great athlete who grew up here! Our small lives are not mean and meaningless. (No one else is saying their lives are meaningless, btw.) In similar fashion, Jesus' homecoming could have been a pep rally for the local kid. That's what's going on in verses 16-22. Jesus has already dropped the bomb (more on that in a minute) but the delighted people of Nazareth haven't even heard the sermon, they're so preoccupied with this second-degree brush with fame. Throughout his ministry, Jesus has zero patience for those who are hungry for signs, hungry to have their religious lusts titillated, hungry to see something miraculous to fuel their self-focused gossip. Nazareth is just the first of many times Jesus will refuse to participate in this agenda. It is the same refusal on Jesus' part that he has just pronounced to Satan three times over -- he will not use his connection with God to serve his own desires, he will not compromise his identity in God's sight to gain worshipers, and he will not use the spectacular to fuel his movement. Jesus makes clear: when the miraculous occurs, it serves a greater purpose than our own fascination. The people of Nazareth, quiet bedroom community of the much larger Greek-culture driven city of Sepphoris four miles away, are looking for a miracle to legitimize their pride, their counter-cultural defensive identity, their desire to remain in their isolated Jewish enclave. Jesus, the wildly successful prophet who was burning up the wires in Galilee, could validate them by coming home and saying, "I owe it all to these people and this little town," but he doesn't.

In short, they wanted to keep their illusions about who God was and what he was up to. They were certain God was Jewish and he wanted the Jews to isolate themselves in their perceived superiority. They were the faithful people, after all. They were the chosen ones, and God would vindicate their status and their isolationism. The Greek theater and gymnasium in Sepphoris might drive their local economy. It might give them good jobs (perhaps Joseph and even Jesus had served in the construction projects that were going on in this era in Sepphoris). They might have to speak Greek in the marketplaces even though they spoke Aramaic at home and read the scriptures in Hebrew at the synagogue. But in the long run, they knew God would destroy these pagans and their anti-God culture. They dearly loved the passage Jesus chose to read from the prophet Isaiah, and they knew it well. The trouble is, Jesus stops reading too soon. He quit before he got to the good part, the part they were waiting to see fulfilled. He quit reading before he got to the part about God vindicating the Jews and making the pagans come and serve them and destroying the heathen. And then he has the gall to say that this scripture, this passage that makes the Jews dream of better days to come, has already been fulfilled. What?!

They want to keep their fantasies and delusions about themselves and their calling. It is so often tempting for us to live on our fantasies and delusions. We have dreams about the future and what it might mean, and it's easy to get caught on the hamster wheel of imagination. We use fantasy about the future to escape the present. But the fact is, if God endorses that fantasy, if it is in fact a God-given vision, the present is the time to be working toward its fulfillment, or at least working to expand our ability to receive that vision. Every God-given vision about the future requires that we grow in our own capacity to receive it. Oswald Chambers says that God gives us the vision on the mountaintop, then he brings us into the valley to beat us into shape to receive it. The people of Nazareth have mistaken the vision, first of all. They believe it's a self-centered vision about themselves being exalted and (in Steinbeck's phrase) living off the fat of the land. God's intention, instead, is that his chosen people should be a kingdom of priests to call all nations into relationship with him. For a picture of what this is supposed to look like, read Psalm 96. Instead, the frustrated, oppressed people of Nazareth yearned for the day when aliens would tend their flocks and foreigners would do their field work (see Isaiah 61:5). God was on a mission to reach the world, and his missionary people had decided they'd rather have the world for household servants.

Jesus returns to his hometown and quotes a favorite scripture passage, then says that God is already doing the necessary work to bring it to fulfillment. Jesus focuses on the critical part of Isaiah 61 -- the part that defines his role. He is called to be the bearer of good news to the nations, to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to tell people God looks on them with favor. This had, in fact, been the calling of the entire Jewish nation since long before Isaiah spoke those words hundreds of years before. This calling goes all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 12. By focusing on his own role, by stepping up to fulfill God's calling to Israel, Jesus exposes the self-centered attitudes of the people of Nazareth for the delusions they are. God is not a God who wreaks vengeance on the nations, Jesus says, but rather he sends his best prophets to places like Sepphoris to reach those who don't know him. He loves the widow and the leper from other nations just like he loves the Jews. Don't you know your own history?

Rather than acknowledge God's call to them, the people of Nazareth rise up in anger to throw Jesus off the cliff. Their surge of wrath is well-known to anyone who has spoken biblical truth into a tradition-bound, insecure congregation or community. Jesus gets jostled a bit, but in the end he just walks away. Later he will tell his disciples that if the towns of Israel don't receive them and their message, they should shake the dust off their feet as they're leaving town. He is speaking out of his own painful experience. Jesus will spend his ministry calling his own people to a greater vision of their calling and identity -- and most of them will miss it, as the church down through the centuries all too often misses exactly this same call. This theme will echo through Jesus' teaching. "Those who have ears, let them hear," Jesus says.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Luke 4:1-13

Books have been written about these few verses, with good reason. I remember many years ago being part of a men's group reading Donald Kraybill's The Upside-Down Kingdom that used these temptation stories as a way to get inside how Jesus turns this world's systems and expectations on their heads.

An older man whom I deeply respect talks about how Jesus addresses the three main spheres of life -- economic (bread), political (kingdoms), and religious (temple) in refusing Satan's enticements, and how this temptation story shows Jesus' holiness and lordship over all the main realms of human life.

There's lots here to ponder.

One of the things I've wondered about in this story over the years is the timing of it, hard on the heels of Jesus' baptism and God's pronouncement that "you are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Though there's no definitive way to answer this, I've wondered many times what was going on for Jesus in this moment. Did Jesus at his baptism receive a complete sense of his own identity and his mission? I've come to believe this is true. No doubt (especially given Luke's retelling of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple) Jesus prior to his baptism had an idea of his special relationship with God the Father, and he had probably heard Mary's stories of his miraculous conception and birth. I think, though, that it is in his baptism Jesus gets the fullness of his identity and mission from the Father through the Spirit that descends on him.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of this idea is that when Satan addresses Jesus and says "If you are the Son of God ..." the Greek grammatical construction doesn't imply doubt. Rather, it's a conditional clause that assumes the truth of what's said, sort of like a Minnesotan saying, "If the Vikings choke in the playoffs this fall ..." In fact, it's not going too far to translate Satan's suggestions as "Since you are the Son of God ..." And that makes me think Jesus has just learned the fullness of his own identity, and probably the trajectory of his mission that will lead to the cross. It's a lot to take in, and it makes sense that in that moment, Satan would step up with easier, less painful alternatives. Since you are the Son of God, why not use a little of your power to feed your body? Since you are the Son of God, why not receive these kingdoms from me rather than walk this hard road to the dubious victory of the cross? Since you are the Son of God, why not wow the Jewish people with a miraculous sign that will win you a mass of followers from the outset?

Jesus has been named. He has been given the fullness of his God-given identity. He knows himself as the beloved one, the Son of God. What will he do in this new identity? Will he walk the hard road to the cross? Or is there an easier alternative? It must have been a heady temptation, given the frothing anticipation of Jesus' people for their Messiah. What they hoped for was very much in line with Satan's temptations. Jesus recognizes the dangerous, diabolical nature of the easy road Satan offers.

We are often tempted to make Jesus more divine than the biblical texts allow. The temptation story is one of the most important moments for us to recognize the full humanity of Jesus; if we don't, we will not receive the value of Jesus' example for ourselves. Jesus has, as Hebrews states, been tempted in every way like we have, but was without sin.

So what about you? Have you been named -- by God, by parents, by those who love you -- not just with a name people can call across the parking lot but with an identity, with a deep sense of who you are, with a sense of your unique giftedness, calling, mission? And if you have this deep sense of yourself that has been bestowed on you, how will you pursue that unique mission, that one-of-a-kind contribution God has designed for you to accomplish in his good creation? There will always be wide gates and broad, paved pathways that beckon. There will be ways that offer the comfort of self-indulgence, the compromise of selling your soul to gain the world, the people-pleasing choices that enhance your own status but don't really direct people to the character of God.

In the end, that's what drives Jesus' rejection of Satan's careful biblical quotations. Jesus chooses to align himself with the Father's character, even though it might cost him discomfort, personal pain, and disapproval of the masses.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Chicken of the woods

Found this today in my woods:

I thought it looked like something called "Chicken of the Woods" so I did a little research and sure enough. It's an edible mushroom that literally tastes like very flavorful chicken. I just fried up and sampled a tiny bit (advised by a site that said a small percentage of people don't tolerate these well) and it's DELICIOUS.

Thinking I'm going to harvest these and cook some up and enjoy with a great Italian beer I found at the local liquor store in Spicer that seems like it would be the perfect complement. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Luke 3:23-38

There's an ad I've been hearing a lot lately for a DNA analysis service. The ad says that by getting your DNA analysis you can find out who you are and where you come from. In our post-Enlightenment world, this seems like a rational statement. In the pre-Enlightenment world, it would have seemed laughable. How will a chemical analysis of your chromosomal makeup tell you anything about who you are or where you come from?

Your DNA might tell you whether you're prone to heart disease or type 1 diabetes, and those are important questions. It might tell you about the human migrations that shaped your ancestry, and that's interesting. But we don't gain a sense of who we are and where we come from through chemistry; we get these things through the stories we tell ourselves and the names we are given.

This is why the genealogies are included in both Matthew and Luke, and this is why they're important. Both Matthew and Luke, in very different ways, use the genealogies of Jesus to make statements about him, about the people of Israel, and about us. Matthew uses the genealogy in Matthew 1 to tie Jesus intimately into the history of Israel and to highlight both the noble calling of the descendants of Abraham as well as their ongoing patterns of sin, bigotry, violence, and selfishness. Matthew shows Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham, especially the promise in Genesis 12 that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham's descendants.

Luke, on the other hand, is telling a different story. He is less concerned about Israel's history and calling and more concerned about Jesus coming for all humanity, coming as a light to all nations. Remember that Luke's primary audience is a non-Jewish man, a Roman official, and Luke deftly tells Jesus' story through his genealogy to include Theophilus. While Matthew traces Jesus' ancestry back to Abraham, Luke carefully goes back even further to Adam, and then to God. Jesus has come for all people. This is one of Luke's primary themes throughout the gospel.

If you read them, you'll find that Matthew and Luke have very different genealogies for Jesus. In fact, Matthew traces Jesus' ancestry through David's son Solomon, down the royal line through the exile in Babylon. Very likely this was Joseph's lineage, as Matthew says he was "of the house and line of David." The version in Luke is quite different, however, and many scholars believe, given the fact that Luke obviously used Mary as a significant source for his gospel and that he acknowledges right at the beginning of the genealogy that Jesus was not biologically Joseph's son, that this list, tracing back through David's son Nathan, was Mary's own ancestry.

Luke uses the genealogy to focus on archetypes, among other things. Luke had been a companion of Paul, and no doubt would have heard and read in Paul's teaching this idea of archetypes that was so familiar to Paul. This is not a way of thinking that we commonly use, so it may seem foreign and unimportant to us. Contrast the way Paul uses Adam and Christ in the last part of Romans 5, for example,  and you might begin to see how critical this way of thinking was to Paul. It was well understood in the ancient world that archetypes were critically important to understanding one's self. In our world, we might begin to get the significance of this if we wrapped together our passion for a favorite sports team, our Myers-Briggs type assessment, Strengthsfinders analysis, favorite nickname bestowed by someone we love, and a movie character we deeply identify with. If you take all the impact of all those categories added together in your life, you may begin to get at what it means to have an archetypal identification with a person. This and much more is what Paul is up to in Romans 5 as he talks about being "in Adam" or "in Christ." Paul uses this same tool in Galatians as he talks about Hagar and Sarah and contrasts them. Jesus used archetypal language as well, and frequently we fail to understand the Bible at these points because we are so conditioned to post-Enlightenment ways of viewing truth and meaning.

So Luke is telling us important things. Jesus is the "son of God" both because of his miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, and also because he is descended down the line of all humanity from Adam. He identifies with God in his "incarnation" but he also identifies with us. He is the ultimate human being. It is this identification with us in our fallen humanity that leads Jesus to "fulfill all righteousness" by coming to be baptized in the Jordan River. It is this identification with us in our fallen humanity that leads Jesus into his mission to rescue us from our alienation and brokenness. And it is this identification, this mission, this stepping into the role of being the New Adam, that brings Jesus squarely up against the forces that have kept the Old Adam in chains. Now Jesus will have to face the consequences of his mission, being tempted in the wilderness. That's where we're headed next.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Luke 3:18-22

A few years ago I read about a movement somewhere along the church's history that claimed God's plan was to have two surpassingly great prophets -- John the Baptist and Jesus -- and that Herod screwed up God's plan by having John killed. According to this movement, God's intention was that Jesus and John would have worked together to create a great partnership, a double Messiah, more or less.

To be clear, I totally reject this view, primarily because it flies in the face of everything the Bible has to say about both John and Jesus. John is incredibly important and has a critical role to play. The Bible is consistent in naming him as the archetypal prophet who will prepare the way for the Messiah's coming. This is why all the "Elijah" associations -- verbal and symbolic -- are so critically important when the New Testament describes John the Baptist. Faithful Jewish people in the first century knew their Bibles, and they held Malachi 3:1-5 and Malachi 4:5-6 constantly in mind that tells how God will send his messenger, Elijah, to prepare the way.

Herod does not, in fact, circumvent God's plan, but his evil action in arresting and murdering John plays right into God's hand. John was completely submitted to God, completely eager to do his will. No doubt John would have chosen a different fate for himself, but in the end his unpleasant end serves to highlight the singularity of Jesus. And John got it. "He must increase, but I must decrease," John said even before his arrest (see John 3:30).

The biblical text consistently highlights Jesus as the unique agent of God's design. This is the heart of the consistent theme that arises in the gospels naming Jesus as God's one-of-a-kind Son. "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." In Matthew and John, the voice (from the heavens in Matthew, from the mouth of John the Baptist in John) is speaking to the bystanders, bearing witness to Jesus' identity; in Mark and Luke, the voice speaks to Jesus himself, affirming his identity and his calling. It is tantalizing to wonder just how much Jesus knew about these things before his baptism, but it seems clear at least that after his baptism he had a much clearer sense about himself. This makes his temptation (which we'll get to next week) that much more poignant.

"You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased." The book of Hebrews launches from this point into an amazing testimony to the greatness, the surpassing supremacy, of Jesus. It is an amazing declaration.

Have you ever heard a parent speak words like this? Can you imagine what it would be to have an earthly father who spoke words like this to you? You are my beloved son / daughter; in you I am well pleased. This is a parental blessing that is all too rare. What a powerful thing it is to have the privilege of naming, of blessing, of pronouncing favor! I know a father who has struggled with his young adult daughter's feelings of shame and inadequacy, and he wonders how to love her well. Yet he continually reverts to evaluating her actions. "You did this really well," he says. "Now if you would just ..." This is judgment, analysis, criticism, evaluation. It is not blessing.

God speaks not in response to our actions or inaction; God speaks out of his own initiative, out of his own love. "You are my beloved," he says. "In you I am well pleased." God may very well go on to tell us many things he loves about us, and that, too, is a blessing. But his love begins with his own affection for us, with the identity he has given us as a gift. God never loves in response to our worthiness. We live out that identity, the mission God has designed for us, in response to his initiative of love for us. Late in his life the apostle John would write, "We love because he first loved us." God always makes the first move.

It disturbs us, of course, that God's love for John might well look like letting him be beheaded by Herod as a party favor. Herod's actions are the farthest thing from God's character. He is weak and selfish and afraid of people's opinions, and so he becomes violent and capricious. We will get to the story of John's death later. Here, however, Luke wants us to see the contrast. John is the opening act; Jesus is the main event. John is the prophet; Jesus is the Messiah. John is the forerunner, Jesus is the Son of God. God has spent all of history setting up this moment, as Jesus' genealogy makes clear. We'll head there tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Luke 3:7-17

An analyst of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described a cycle that repeated many times in Hopkins' life by using three terms: Encagement, Naturation, and Grace.

Encagement described the depressive phases all too common to Hopkins. He literally felt imprisoned, even at times suicidal. His poem "Carrion Comfort" is probably the strongest example of this extreme negative emotion and the self-assessment of his situation that went with it. There were a lot of reasons for these emotions, and there were difficult things in Hopkins' life, especially in the area of personal relationships, that drove him to despair.

Hopkins turned to the natural world for some solace and the seedlings of hope. "Naturation" was the analyst's word to describe how Hopkins looked into the natural world -- trees, birds, seasons, more -- to find some comfort in the face of depression. You can trace in his poems the movement from despair upward toward a kind of hope. "Spring and Fall: To a young child" is a good example of the earlier kind, and "Pied Beauty" is perhaps typical of the later ones.

Grace describes what Hopkins was like at his spiritual and emotional best. Having encountered the green, growing world and having been pried out of his own sinkholes of despair, he speaks in glowing terms not just of the emotional encounters with God (though he had plenty of those) but in authentic spiritual terms of the beauty and sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ that shapes and forms Hopkins' entire worldview. Hopkins in these stages could write paeans of praise like "The Windhover: To Christ our Lord" and many others that are nothing short of delightful both conceptually and in his inimitable use of language.

Why dig into Hopkins in this section of Luke?

The Jewish people were very much caught in something like "encagement" at this point in their history. For four hundred years they had longed for God to speak to them, but no prophet had arisen. They had longed for the completion of their Babylonian exile, and a return not only to their land (which had happened long before) but for God to take up residence in the temple at the heart of Jerusalem. They had tried, through their own efforts, to take up the mantle of being God's people, most notably through the Maccabean revolt nearly two hundred years before. While that episode had resulted in a brief period of Jewish independence and even sovereignty, the resulting Hasmonean dynasty became corrupt and was finally defeated and occupied by Rome. So when John comes on the scene in the wilderness, the people have been living discouraged, defeated, depressed, dejected for generations.

How many of us live parallel struggles? We have grand hopes but we don't see God moving to fulfill what we think he's promised. We start to doubt his word, sometimes we even doubt his goodness and his faithfulness. It is easy at such times to drift toward a jaded, agnostic cynicism. Either that or we fall prey to self-centered theologies that promise us prosperity and provide ways to manipulate God through our religious practices, telling us that if we just have enough faith and tithe faithfully enough (or whatever the obedience du jour happens to be) God will do what we want. We regain the illusion of control.

We never get to control God's timelines. The life of faith is always a balancing act between learning patience and crying out "How long, O Lord?" But the fact that God doesn't operate according to my calendar doesn't mean he is unfaithful or has forgotten his promises. Far from it.

The Jewish people experience a kind of "naturation" in John's preaching. They come out of the cities to the edge of the wilderness, out to the Jordan valley. Like Minnesotans migrating to the North Shore of Lake Superior, they go to the place of beauty and abundance, and the encounter with God's created world is refreshing. I sat in my recliner this morning for a while reflecting on my own context here on the shores of George Lake and what a healing place these seventy acres of natural beauty have become for me. I watch the fawns and their mothers, the rabbits and the woodchucks and the great blue heron that roosts in the willow tree along the edge of the bay, the beaver that has found something he really likes just off our north dock. All of these are balm to my encaged heart, and they turn me bit by bit toward the faithfulness of God.

John's preaching might not sound much like "good news" to us, but it is. John reminds the people that behavior is important, that turning away from their self-centered agendas (including the theologies of prosperity) makes room in them for God to work. In response to John's proclamation, the Jewish people begin to discover a revival of integrity. This is not the self-centered, controlling morality of the Pharisees but rather it is a desire to align themselves with God who, John says, is up to something.

And that is the core of John's message. He points beyond himself to the One who is coming. Authentic revival will only happen if God moves. John says that God is about to move, that the Messiah is standing among us right now, that the inbreaking of God's action is right around the corner. When Jesus arrives, the surprise will be that he comes not with vengeance (though there will be judgment for those who insist on their own way) but rather with Grace. Another John would write a few years later, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And we beheld his glory, glory as the only son of a father." John the Baptist tells the people that God is moving, and their weary hearts will be healed when he acts.

Just then, Jesus begins to make his way to the river bank. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Luke 3:3-6

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But it can be thought provoking, too. I am no scholar of Greek; I know just enough to get myself in trouble, and to get me thinking, which are often the same thing.

Many years ago I noticed the strange construction of the phrase in Luke 3:3 -- that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance that had something to do with the forgiveness of sins. It was the relationship between the two -- baptism / repentance and forgiveness -- that caught me short. The Greek preposition is "eis" which is generally translated "into" but here is usually translated "for." Does it make any difference?

Being baptized "for" the forgiveness of your sins implies causality. Because you are baptized, you are assured that your sins are forgiven, or maybe even because you are baptized, your sins are now forgiven, as some of the more sacramental strains of Christianity would have it. "For" sounds like "for the sake of" or even "so that you might possess ..." Is that consistent with the rest of John's work, or even Jesus' proclamation, death, and resurrection?

To complicate things even more, I noticed something else. I was tempted to just write this off as a strange phraseology that wasn't very important, but then I found that this phrasing occurs exactly one more time. It is also in Luke, in the very last chapter of the gospel, when Jesus says to his disciples that "it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (24:46-47). So this phrase -- "repentance into the forgiveness of sins" -- bookends Jesus' proclamation. In Luke 24 the little preposition "eis" is translated in the ESV as a simple conjunction, "and," implying that these two topics of repentance and forgiveness are part of the same bundle but saying little or nothing about the relationship between the two. Yet this verse lies at the heart of the church's proclamation. In other words, this is important. Jesus goes on to say "You are witnesses of these things," and in Luke's second volume, Acts, we'll see this same commissioning take shape in "Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The other thing to note here is that in Luke 24, Jesus doesn't specifically mention baptism but he does include repentance. For the early church these two -- baptism and repentance -- were inextricably linked. Baptism came to include more: new birth, commissioning, bestowing of a new identity, renaming. But repentance, the act of turning away from the old life and receiving a new life, is right at the heart of it all. It is turning from an old way of life, a way in obedience to the things of this world, to things that lead to death, and turning toward Jesus, toward the abundant life he gives.

What would happen if we translated that little preposition in its most common way -- "into"?

Baptism / repentance into the forgiveness of sins. Hm. Sounds a little like forgiveness is a country where we are called to live, and baptism / repentance is the port of entry. Or forgiveness is the house, and baptism / repentance is the front door.

When you start thinking about forgiveness in this way, there is so much to say. For example, why -- from Genesis 3 onward -- does God seem disturbingly unconcerned to prevent his people from sinning, but deeply concerned through the sacrificial system and so much else (note that Adam and Eve are not taught how not to sin, but rather are given garments of skins -- requiring death and shedding of blood -- to cover their shame) to provide forgiveness? Is it possible God is not so concerned about the existence of sin, and instead much more concerned to take away the power of sin to alienate us from one another and from God? "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow" God says through Isaiah. Why not create a training program, empowered by the Spirit, to help us not to sin? That never seems to be high on God's agenda. Okay, the rabbit hole goes deep here -- why was that pesky tree in the garden of Eden in the first place? And why didn't God build a fence around it, or at least show up while Eve was chatting with that snake? Perhaps his plan is to create a community in which forgiveness is immediate and potent so that sin has no power to separate.

If this is true, that God wants us to live in the forgiveness of sins like living in a beautiful, welcoming home, then our obsessive focus on not sinning might be diverting us from what God intends.

Note that Paul walks right up to this line in Romans 5, to the extent that at the outset of Romans 6 he has to anticipate the objection of his readers (much like as I write this I am concerned to anticipate the objections of my own readers) -- "Shall we go on sinning so that God's grace may abound? By no means!" Paul's expression here was a colloquial Greek profanity ("me geneto") which translates literally as "may it never have existed" and functions in Greek roughly the way we say in English, "hell, no!" It is remarkably strong language. With Paul, I am not excusing sin. But I want to understand God's agenda and his priorities. Like Paul goes on to say, as much as I wish sin was not present in my life, I seem unable to exorcise it (see Romans 7). The solution? Accept God's solution. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). It's almost as if the whole argument of Paul in Romans 5-8 is that rather than living in a strict moralistic, sin-preventing system, we should live in and by God's grace and mercy. He goes on to paint this business of living in the forgiveness of sin and what it means in remarkable terms in the rest of Romans 8.

Repentance into the forgiveness of sins. Both in Luke 3 and in Luke 24, this idea is tied to the witness of the prophets and the entire Old Testament. Maybe this has been what God is up to all along.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Beyond the boundaries

We've been having fun at The Open Door Christian Church lately working through the book of Acts, asking what is "God's normal" for his church. Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching the middle portion of the story of Peter and Cornelius (and all the surprising ties to Jonah in the Old Testament) in Acts 10. If you're looking for food for thought, here's the sermon.

Luke 3:1-2

It might seem absurd this week to read Luke 3 so slowly. However, there's a lot packed into this chapter from several different angles, so we'll take five days to navigate paragraph by paragraph, or maybe not even that fast.

In these two verses, Luke lays out a careful sense of the power structures in place when John begins to preach, starting with Emperor Tiberius. He is careful not to disparage any of these powers -- it just wouldn't do to offend Rome -- but his original readers would have known that about this time, Tiberius (who never really wanted to be Caesar, it seems) had actually removed himself from Rome and left the reins of the Empire to an administrator for the last decade or so of his reign. He was known as "the gloomiest of men." Pilate was ruthless, resenting his assignment to the troublesome backwater province of Judea and not hesitating to shed Jewish blood in order to keep the peace. The Herodian dynasty had faded from its former brutal glory under Herod the Great (the Herod of the murder of the innocents in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus' birth, see Matthew 2) and now his sons Herod Antipas and Herod Philip served not as kings but as frustrated "tetrarchs" at the pleasure of Rome, balancing their self-indulgent habits with the frustrated ambitions and unpleasant necessities of ruling without the freedom to make real decisions. In each and every case, these Roman rulers carry a sense of the fallibility of human rulers and the desperate need for something more -- for God to come and set the world to rights, as N.T. Wright likes to put it.

Luke gets a bit more pointed in that regard by mentioning "the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas." He feels a little more free to hint at the scandal surrounding this family, who had purchased the high priesthood from Rome, though according to Jewish law they were not eligible to hold the office. What's more, Annas, Caiaphas' father, shared the office with his son and the two passed it back and forth for political advantage as needed. They were skilled politicians who knew how to curry Roman favor. It was these two who presided over Jesus' trial, and it was Caiaphas in John's gospel who said it was prudent that one man (Jesus) should die for the nation, rather than having Rome come and destroy their country and their temple (which in fact did occur in 70 AD).

Lysanias is worth mentioning in some detail. Josephus, who is by far our most detailed extra-biblical historian for the Jews of this period, tells of a Lysanias who was tetrarch of Abilene (a region in what we would call the Golan Heights, on the border between northern Israel and southern Lebanon) around 40 BC -- fully two generations before the events Luke is describing. A century or two ago it was popular for scholars to point this out and poke fun at Luke's accuracy -- he had obviously thrown Lysanias into the list just to bolster it, without any concern for historical veracity. More recently, however, inscriptions have come to light from the reign of Tiberius mentioning another Lysanias, probably the son or grandson of the one Josephus mentions, who was tetrarch of Abilene at precisely the time Luke is talking about. Always be careful about saying the Bible can't be trusted because some human authority says it's wrong!

One of the benefits of Luke's careful list is that for readers ancient and modern, it places the preaching of John and the ministry of Jesus in a very specific historical context. The list itself served in ancient times to pinpoint when these events took place -- this is not about timeless spiritual truths, but about a specific set of historical events tied to a real person. God does not become incarnate in principles, but in history. According to our dating systems, we would say that these events launch onto the historical stage right around 28/29 AD.

The point, however, of this tremendous list of human authorities, disappointing and corrupt, comes right at the end of verse two. With all these characters scrambling around the halls of power political and religious, the word of God comes not to Caesar, not to Annas, but to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. God is working, and he is no respecter of human power structures. The greatest movement in history starts with a man who by all appearances has no power, who appears not in the palaces or the temples but in the wilderness, preaching not "peace and security" -- the slogan of the Caesars (see 1 Thessalonians 5:3) -- but repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That phrase will provide the bookends of Luke's story of Jesus' ministry, and that's the topic we'll take up tomorrow.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Road trip?

Pandora is on a classic rock kick this morning. With rare exceptions, I'm not a purist who cultivates stations by genre, but rather I've "liked" enough songs on the one station I listen to most of the time that they pretty much romp through everything I like to listen to. Sometimes that's frustrating, but today I'm thoroughly enjoying so many songs from a few decades ago. When this track came on, found myself getting distracted from sermon preparation, just enjoying the clean guitar and powerful lyrics and a wash of memories, and the vague joyful yearning, serious as a heart attack, to be driving west somewhere, maybe across Montana, on this beautiful sunny day.

Luke 2:41-52

It's hard to translate literally what Jesus says about himself, and perhaps (as he will later) he chooses his words carefully. While most English translations like "in my Father's house" and some "about my Father's business," the Greek is a difficult expression -- en tois tou patros mou -- 'in those of my father' is a fair literal rendering but unsatisfying in English. Greek lacks any word for "house" or "business" but the weak noun "tois" implies content -- the things of my father, perhaps, and either sense, the temple or the affairs, works on a surface reading.

What is perhaps notable is that Jesus, at twelve, recognizes that God is up to stuff. God has concerns, places, people, arrangements. There are ways of spending time that do not align with the things of God, and there are ways of spending time that do. In his adult preaching, this idea will grow and flourish into the center of Jesus' teaching -- the kingdom of God, which again is a poor English rendering of something that Jesus makes immeasurably deep and significant. The kingship, the rule, the obedient community, the glorifying actions, the willing servants -- all this is incorporated in Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God. At twelve, teetering on the edge of adulthood in Jewish society of the time, Jesus senses himself called to be in the things of his Father.

Without doubt there are tons of questions we'd like to ask. Had Mary and Joseph told Jesus the story of his remarkable conception? What were the questions and answers he bantered about with the Jewish teachers? Was this a singular incident, or typical of his childhood? This incident in Luke's narrative is the only detail we have from Jesus' childhood and youth. A couple centuries later, the Gnostics would make a growth industry out of fabricating spectacular stories of Jesus as a child -- clay sparrows brought miraculously to life, a playmate struck dead and then resurrected. These stories serve the Gnostics' agenda and have no discernible basis in fact, and they don't ring true to the sense of the canonical gospels. There's no call to take them seriously, especially when doing so compromises and contradicts what we know of Jesus from the earliest sources. But we feel the yearning to know more.

One more word of all those in this story. While Jesus speaks in less than clear terms about what he means by his Father's business / house, he is absolutely clear in another word he uses. "Dei" in Greek is a word for necessity -- English renders the phrase here "I must be" or "I need to be" and in Greek this is a strong imperative statement. Jesus considers this necessary. He has not willfully chosen an option, disregarding his parents' concerns. He is not acting on a whim. It is absolutely needful that he should be pursuing the things of his Father. A few years later he will state this more fully for his followers -- "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). At twelve, Jesus is following this command himself.

It is less than helpful to imagine Jesus in a superhero role here, omniscient at twelve years old, knowing all secrets and the like. We distance ourselves from him when we view him in this way. Luke and the other gospel writers are at pains to show Jesus in his full humanity, and that means that at twelve, he is a maturing child, beginning to grasp his identity as a man, sensing the beginnings of how God has wired him and what his life will be about. This story at its best pushes us to consider our own necessity, to consider what those things of God are that have been hardwired into our own awareness. What is it needful today for you to be doing? What is the business of your heavenly Father that you need to be concerned about today? None of us is capable of wrapping our arms and brains and hearts around the entire counsel of God, but he has given each of us a place, a corner of his kingdom, with which to concern ourselves. He has given each of us a voice, a role. Can you find yours? Without doubt, there will be others who share that area of interest, and part of the joy of being about your Father's business is the joy of harmonizing your voice with others who see things from a similar vantage point. This might be one reason why Jesus stayed in the temple after his extended family left for Nazareth -- he was immersed in joyful conversation about the things of God with others who shared his passion. None of us, not even Jesus, was intended to have these conversations and pursue this kingdom alone.

Yet Luke also tells us that Jesus knew the vision wasn't fulfilled (as Oswald Chambers writes in today's excellent meditation). He submitted to his parents and returned to Nazareth, and so the tantalizing glimpse draws to a close. We long to know the mundane details of Jesus at fifteen, at twenty, at twenty-five, but the next view we'll get is of the adult Jesus sensing that the time has come to begin his ministry, and the impetus for that will be his cousin John's voice ringing through the Jordan valley with a call to repentance.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Luke 2:22-40

The news of Jesus' birth continues to spread. Like the shepherds, Anna and Simeon have bandwidth to listen. While we may often wish God would speak, we rarely assess our own capacity to hear -- yet this idea of capacity, of bandwidth, is critically important throughout the Bible. "I just want God to speak to me like he did to Moses -- to show up in a burning bush. If he did, I would certainly obey." We say things like this, mostly joking, but we perceive a significant disconnect between ourselves and biblical characters who heard God speaking. So with Simeon and Anna in this passage. How did they hear? How did they know?

Yet when Jesus is an adult preaching to his people, he frequently puts the burden back on them. "The one who has ears, let them hear," he often says. It is a provocative challenge: Do you have ears??

Read the biblical texts more closely. Why did those people hear, and others did not? So often, the ones who heard had bandwidth. There was margin in their lives. Shepherds sat on the quiet hillside staring at the stars night after night. Simeon and Anna were in the temple constantly seeking God. Moses spent forty years herding sheep in the wilderness, and when the burning bush showed up he watched for a significant amount of time before he noticed anything strange was going on. Read Exodus 3 and you'll see it's because the bush was not consumed by the fire that Moses decided to investigate. How long did it take him to realize the bush wasn't burning up? Ten minutes? In that time most of us would have traveled miles down the highway and run three or four more errands. That strange burning bush would be in the rearview mirror and might at best be fodder for dinner conversation later in the day. But Moses, like the shepherds and Simeon and Anna in Luke 2, has bandwidth. He has cultivated habits of silence, of listening. He has ears.

What is perhaps most surprising in the account is how normal everything is for Joseph and Mary. They are managing the mundane details of naming, of circumcising, of purification, of travel, of childrearing. It almost sounds in the story like they are more often than not preoccupied with the daily details of life and these periodic announcements from God surprise them, astonish them, call them back to remembering that God is up to something.

We tend to slide back into a deceptive sense that life is just normal. No matter what God has promised, no matter what God has declared, we need to pick up groceries, go to work, clean the bathroom, take a nap. And we get complacent with the idea that God has made us great and powerful promises, precisely because we don't see immediate fulfillment. We're not capable of living on the heights, staring God's plans in the face, and that's a good thing. God gives us the gift of normalcy. The trick for us is not to forget in the face of the mundane details that God is still up to something, that he is fulfilling his promises, that he is at work in and through and around us, and that his promises are good. "Having ears" starts with cultivating times of silence, of listening, on a daily basis, and then amidst the clutter, intentionally reminding ourselves  of what we have heard and seen and read and remembered in those times of listening. If we can learn this habit over time, it creates in us a spirit of watchfulness, a posture of listening. Like Anna and Simeon, then, we can perceive when God shows up, and the conversation with him about his work, about the future he is creating, becomes a daily source of hope and expectation.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Luke 2:8-21

Many years ago I attended a Christmas concert that included, among other excellent things, a haunting arrangement in Latin of a song that began with a triumphant "Gloria in excelsis Deo" -- and then, at a precise moment, the chorus became somber, minor-key, haunting and a thin voice sang "et in terra pax hominibus." The announcement of the angel stands counterpoint to our daily reality: There is little peace on earth, and one wonders who those humans are on whom God's favor rests.

The angel has appeared to Zechariah and to Mary, and each has heard the admonition not to be afraid. Now, for the first time in Luke (and a rarity in all of scripture) the angel appears before multiple people, and then is joined by "a multitude of the heavenly host." It seems that the announcements are changing in character as well as in breadth. This time instead of announcing what will happen, the angels come to proclaim what has happened. "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

The shepherds are an unlikely audience for such an announcement -- low on the social hierarchy, tied to their ignominious work, ritually unclean -- but as we should expect by now, God chooses that which is unlikely, even disgraced, and they respond in trust and obedience. "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." It is likely lambing season, else the sheep would be in the fold overnight, not in the hills. Do all the shepherds come, or do they leave some to tend the birthing ewes? The Old Testament is full of shepherd imagery, from David himself to many passages within the prophets (e.g., see Ezekiel 34). For a number of reasons, God has a special tenderness for sheep and shepherds.

These days if you visit Bethlehem its dominating feature is a massive wall that nearly encircles the city. It's a wall of self-protection, dividing the Palestinian West Bank (including Bethlehem proper) from Israel, out of concern that bombers and terrorists and knife-wielding attackers will attack the Jewish state and its people. These fears are not without cause. But there can be little better example of how desperately we need a Savior, how we need to be reconciled to God and to one another, how the walls of enmity and hostility need to be broken down, how the spiritual powers of hate and alienation need to be defeated in and for us. All of that language is found in Paul's explanations of what happened at the cross when this swaddled infant was crucified thirty-some years later. 

So the announcement of the angels is not a wistful longing that there should be peace, but rather a confident proclamation that the plan of God to deal with human sin, to heal the brokenness of his creation, has been put into play. This is not a tender nativity scene as much as it is the opening invasion in a war; less a Christmas concert than it is the bloody landings at Omaha beach.

Et in terra pax hominibus. Truth is, the angels tell us, this is all of us. We are the ones God loves, the ones with whom God is pleased, and he invites us to join the chorus and proclaim his radical, healing love to all the broken of creation, not based on a beautiful Christmas story but based on the radical self-giving love of God who will not stop until it has taken our brokenness into himself.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Luke 2:1-7

As I sit down to write this, the skies are gray and it looks like late evening, even though it's noon. Heavy clouds hang overhead, and for the last twelve hours, thunderheads have been pounding this part of the world. It's tempting to describe the weather in apocalyptic terms, especially when I heard this morning that a small town not far away got eight inches of rain last night. Though we didn't get nearly that amount I didn't sleep much, listening to the rain pound the roof over my head and watching lightning flash the oak trees outside my window into stark relief against the lake. I had long hours to lay awake thinking and watching. It was a spectacular night.

There are lots of ways to describe the same scene. I could wax eloquent about darkness at midday, or I could analyze the cumulonimbus clouds and the prevailing winds, or I could make a joke about building an ark.

In similar fashion, the various biblical writers describe God becoming human in diverse ways. John goes back to the language of Genesis, starting with "In the beginning ..." Matthew emphasizes the entirety of the Old Testament story and tells the awkward tale of this illegitimate pregnancy from Joseph's perspective. For a completely different version of the Christmas story writ large as a Tolkien epic complete with a dragon, check out Revelation 12.

Luke, on the other hand, stays mostly with Mary's perspective and tells things from as factual a stance as possible, emphasizing how Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in obedience to Caesar's edict. (He is, recall, writing to a Roman official arguing, at least in part, that this Jesus-movement is not a threat to Rome, at least in the political / military sense.) In that same factual tone, Luke tells us that "while they were there, the time came for her to give birth." As much as we enjoy the dramatic scene of Joseph and Mary screeching into town with Mary already in labor on the back of a donkey, that's not in the text. We like dramatic timing, but all we know from Luke's account is that at some point while they were in town, Mary's baby was born. Similarly, we have no innkeeper to blame for their lodging in a stable -- nor any stable, for that matter. And though the ESV and other translations keep the term "inn," the Greek word for a place anyone can rent a room is not used here -- rather, the word is better translated "guest room."

In all likelihood, looking at the culture of the time and the information we have in the Bible, Joseph had extended family still living in Bethlehem and it would have been unthinkable not to stay with them. Most Jewish houses of this era had a common living area with one or possibly two separate bedrooms. In a lower portion of the house, separated from the common living room by a step down and probably by a long, low manger, a few animals were kept. So while it wreaks havoc with Sunday School Christmas programs, what likely happened was that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary arrived in Bethlehem and stayed with some of his cousins. Because other guests with higher social standing were already in the home, Joseph and Mary slept in the common room, and when Jesus was born there was no place to lay him except in the feed trough.

Maybe not. Maybe the cave you can visit in Bethlehem to this day is the actual place of Jesus' birth. In the end, it doesn't matter. Still, we need to try -- hard as it is -- to read the Bible for what it actually says, and not bring our assumptions (romanticized or cynical or whatever) to the text.

In any case, Jesus got born in a small village a few miles from the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem, to a not-quite-married couple who were displaced by Augustus' demand that all the world should be registered for taxation and military purposes. His mother, who didn't legally need to travel to Bethlehem, was probably relieved to be out from under the watchful eye of the gossips in Nazareth, but she was likely lonely, and afraid, and feeling caught up in matters far beyond her control. She could feel, if not see, that dragon waiting to devour her and the baby she bore. But even in these chaotic things, God is in control. He's been working for at two millennia and more to heal his broken creation, to reconcile his alienated people, and this is the first move in the climactic phase of the story he is writing. Tomorrow we'll gain just a glimpse of how God himself wants to announce these events, and to whom.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Edging into Luke 2 ...

Some parts of the Bible are so familiar it is hard to read them well. That is certainly the case with Luke 2:1-20. For many of us it is nearly impossible to read these verses without imagining a Sunday School Christmas program, bathrobes and cardboard crowns and the innkeeper solemnly shaking his head. Or maybe you hear Linus reciting these verses. Or perhaps like me, the words, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus ..." launch you into a memory of family Christmas Eves, sitting around a tree waiting to open presents.

These memories and associations are not bad things, but they keep us from really hearing the verses. And the Sunday School imagery makes all kinds of visuals that frankly are nowhere to be found in the text.

Luke's original readers in the first century would have resonated with the idea that Caesar Augustus (and subsequent Caesars) could simply pronounce an edict that moved populations. Joseph and Mary are caught up in the requirements of Caesar's rule, and everyone who read this gospel was familiar with the Roman censuses. It was customary for Rome to require a census every 14 years. There is a well-documented census in 6-7 AD, and if the 14 year pattern held, a census declared in 8-7 BC would do nicely for our purposes -- meaning that allowing some time for the wheels of administrative purpose to grind into motion, Jesus was probably born around 6-5 BC. Thousands of paragraphs, pages, books have been written about the possible dating of Jesus' birth, and we won't dig too far into it here. All in all, Luke's account is entirely plausible, though Quirinius is a bit of a problem.

For our purposes at the moment, though, consider the complete ordinariness of this story, and how God is involved in the mundane. Have you ever considered that God can use the IRS or your tax return? Have you imagined that a presidential executive order, a home refinance program, or a student loan policy might be used by God to shape your life? Even Augustus, according to Luke, is used by God to accomplish his purposes. In this case, the census fulfills a 600-year-old prophecy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

God is moving, and he sometimes acts through the must subtle of factors. The trick for us is to be seeking him -- and God will do whatever is needful to set us free to seek him. As Oswald Chambers says this morning, people "pour themselves into creeds, and God has to blast them out of their prejudices before they can become devoted to Jesus Christ." 

The Synoptic Problem

When you start reading the four gospels at anything beyond a surface level, you start to realize that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot in common, and John is different. The first three are traditionally called the "synoptics" because they seem to see from a common perspective.

Given the human nature of the composition of biblical books -- they're not magically composed on golden tablets or dictated by angels, for example, but written by human authors striving to use all their God-given intellect and creativity and integrity and artistry to honor God through a useful human document -- we have to ask what exactly is the relationship in composition between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Seems like it should be a pretty simple question.

In the earliest speculations about this question, the early church a hundred years or so after the composition of those three gospels said (sounding very much like they were citing an oral tradition that was handed down to them) that Matthew was the earliest of the three, and that he wrote with an eye to a Jewish audience. Mark was second and Luke followed shortly thereafter. John, all agreed, came quite a bit later.

Somewhere along the line, about two hundred years ago, scholars decided that because Mark was shortest and simplest, it must be the earliest. The idea of Matthew having been composed earliest got tossed out with yesterday's coffee grounds. It just makes sense, right? Mark, written in what reads like rather hasty Greek, condensed to 2/3 the length of Matthew, must have been earlier.

There's a problem, however, because Matthew and Luke have a lot of material in common that is not present in Mark. So if Mark is the earliest, there must be another source that we have never found. A German scholar gave this hypothetical source the name "Q," short for "quella" or source. Catchy. You can, in fact, buy copies of Q, but not because we found a manuscript. Rather, these "copies" have been theorized out of the commonality between Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark, based on the theory that has completely dominated academic thinking about the gospels for the last couple centuries that Mark is earliest.

What if they're wrong? And what if those witnesses in the second century who said Matthew was earliest are, in fact, right? We've found papyrus fragments of Matthew that look as early as any piece of Mark we've found. Some scholars date the handwriting on those manuscripts to the 50's AD, though they are usually laughed out of academia because we KNOW Matthew was written later. Right?

As you might have guessed by now, I'm sympathetic to the view that Matthew is probably the first-written of the four gospels. A couple questions remain for anyone who takes my position. Even if you don't need to mess with pesky Q, you have to wonder why Mark might take a rich, fully developed gospel like Matthew and cut it down. You have to ask this from a larger perspective as well as within the specific stories. In fact, in a couple places, where Matthew has two -- two demon possessed men in Gadara, or two blind men in Jericho -- Mark goes with one. Why?

Without getting too far down into the weeds, I believe there are good answers. The bigger picture answer from my best research looks like Mark took something Matthew had written for a primarily Jewish audience in Antioch in Syria, and he condensed it down to create a tool to evangelize Greek-speaking Gentiles in Asia Minor, Greece, and even Rome. In that case, the simpler the better. And this idea might well explain that troubling "shorter ending" of Mark as well -- what better way to make a reader want to talk to someone who knew the end of the story?

In the end, this really doesn't matter. The four gospels provide a rich, full multivalent perspective on Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. They are complementary, though not identical. And since we are working our way through Luke, it's nice to see that he acknowledges that there are multiple written accounts out there before he takes pen in hand.

One of the other big questions that we won't try to solve here is whether these gospels were written before or after 70 AD when Jerusalem was sacked and the brand-new temple was destroyed, razed down to the platform. When we get into those parts of Luke that deal with those issues, we'll probably take another stab at that question.