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.

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