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Posts Tagged ‘gospel of luke’

We can’t get to Christmas without traveling through Luke chapter one. And we can’t read Luke chapter one without noticing how active the Holy Spirit is. While preparing for Christmas we find that John the Baptizer, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are all interacting with the Spirit. In fact, Luke wants us to know they are filled with the Spirit. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is perhaps most interested in the Spirit. By the time we get to the book of Acts, it almost seems that the Spirit becomes his primary character in the narrative.

In contrast to Luke, Mark’s Gospel places some emphasis on darker spirits. Reading Mark, one is often in the company of evil spirits. It is interesting that the gospels suggest supernatural forces, both holy and evil, desire to inhabit humans. Perhaps a reading of the gospel should prompt the question, “Who will inhabit humans?” “Will it be evil forces or will it be the spirit of God?”

Evil spirits desire to inhabit humans. But it appears they have some problems with what they really want. In Mark five a man living among the tombs had an evil spirit and was constantly gashing himself with stones. In Mark nine it is an evil spirit that sometimes slams the host, a young boy, to the ground.  At other times it throws him into fire and the water to destroy him. It seems that evil spirits living in the host also have some desire to destroy the host. This may be the dilemma of evil spirits. They lack wisdom. They cannot become a unity and work with their host. They are fractured and foolish. They are far different from the spirit of God.

In contrast, the Holy Spirit also desires to dwell in humans. But here we find a different story. The spirit of God desires life. The spirit of God strengthens and nurtures. This becomes more obvious to us in Acts chapter two and afterward. Yet, here, chapters earlier, we find the Spirit entering humans. Luke chapter one tells of life entering a barren situation. Life enters where it is thought to be impossible. Before we get to Christmas. Before Mary gives birth and wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes. Before we learned that shepherds were watching flocks by night. Before we hear the angels sing Gloria in excelsis. Before we get to Luke chapter two and the birth of the newborn king, we find four people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is no small thing. The story of Christmas is the story that history is changing. This is a story about God on the move. An announcement that a new kingdom is taking shape. There is a light in the darkness. God is bringing life into an arena where there was death. Christmas is coming. Hang onto your hat.

 

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Our politics have little to do with whether retail stores allow employees to wish consumers a Merry Christmas or allow the Salvation Army to ring out front or whether the court house will permit a nativity scene on the premises. For the church to expect Target or the court house or the president to communicate Christmas for us is simply ridiculous. I suspect the principalities and powers are pleased when we become so dependent on them. And if our witness hinges on retailers or elected officials, we have bigger problems than we care to admit.

The politics of Christmas are much bigger than such things. The fifth verse of the Gospel of Luke starts it off. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” So it begins. On the stage of local politics, John the Baptizer is conceived and born.

Meanwhile, there is something even bigger going on. Jesus is conceived and his mother Mary begins talking about politics. She tells us that when God’s kingdom promises are complete, people will have enough food. She tells us about a kingdom where the rich and powerful will no longer exploit the weak and poor. Mary makes claims of a new kingdom before the king is even born.

And then, on the stage of world politics where Caesar Augustus ruled, Jesus is born. Luke may be implying that while John was to have a significant local impact among Jews in Judea, Jesus will have a worldwide impact for all people.

And before we think the politics are out of the way, Luke chapter three begins with a list of politicians. It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Just an observation, Augustus didn’t last long). “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… Herod was tetrarch of Galilee… Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus… Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene” and the high priesthood included “Annas and Caiaphas.” Whew!

We can be certain that both local and worldwide politics provide settings for what follows. It also becomes obvious that wherever one turns they are faced with the politics of the world. Everyone in the story is surrounded by the world’s power. That is when “the word of God came to John.” And among the verbal clutter of all those political voices, came “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Its on. Luke wants to make sure we know early in the gospel story that our politics are counter to the politics of the world. So, we are told that one of those listed politicians, Herod, had enough of John’s counter political preaching and locked him in prison. If nothing else, this reminds us there is much more at stake than we may first suspect.

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Christmas is coming. Advent begins in just eighteen days. We are entering the season and Luke 1 is a good text to help us prepare. Perhaps any reading of Luke at all should pay attention to 1.1-4. It certainly helps us to understand the reason for details we find later. Luke tells us that many have told the story before. Servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, and other eyewitnesses have told the story of Jesus. Yet, Luke wants to tell it again. Luke wants to investigate details carefully. Luke wants us to understand what we’ve been told.

Immediately, Luke starts in with the details. In 1.5-7 things feel so historical, just the way Luke wants it. We discover right away the name of the king of Judea. We learn the name of one of the priests and the priestly division he belonged to. We learn the name of his wife and something about her family tree. We are told that they were of good character “righteous and obedient and blameless.” We are told they are old. And we are told the woman, Elizabeth, was barren.

That is a lot of historical information in only three verses. Perhaps we should state the obvious. No one comes to church to find out the name of a first century king, the name of a first century priest, or the birthing status of a first century woman. Yet, Luke tells these details because they belong to a story so important, they must be told.

We may not go to church to learn history, but Luke is on to something. If our faith is not rooted in history, our faith is broken and we should find something more credible to hang our hat on. That God acted in history gives us faith that God is acting in the present and will act in the future.

So, we listen to historical details in the text. We listen because Luke wants us to listen but also that we might feel it in our bones. God works in real places and among real people. There is good news to be found here and we do go to church in order to hear good news. This story and its details prepare us for a birth that will be announced in the next chapter as “good tidings of great joy” or “good news that will bring great joy.” That is to say, Luke is preparing us for gospel.

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Did you hear the one about the Jewish feminist, the Methodist evangelical, and the first century gospel writer? It resulted in a great gift for the church. The Gospel of Luke by Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III is the first commentary of its kind. Amy-Jill provides a Jewish voice and Ben a Christian voice as they engage in a stimulating discussion with the Gospel. I like the way they say it “Ours is not a debating commentary; ours is a ‘come let us reason together and talk’ commentary.”

I have not yet read it in its entirety. But what I have read I find fascinating. The approach is novel. It is helpful for a critical reading of the text but not only that, this approach is helpful as a way of living. While it is important to express conflicting views rather than pretend they do not exist, they are able to maintain some sense of sensibility. The authors prefer to dialogue with respect for the text, for those who listen to the text, and for one another. Although they differ often, they exhibit a working friendship with peacemaking as a goal. I love the way they say this “Biblical studies should not be a contact sport, with its own sections of cheerleaders.” For me, it comes across as (apologies to Amy-Jill) a very Christian effort.

Amy-Jill and Ben refer to the author as “Luke” without making a serious attempt to identify this “Luke.” They agree that “Luke” writes sometime during the second or third generation of Jesus followers. They agree that the Gospel is written to an ideal audience known as “Theophilus.” This recipient has insider information and already knows something about Jesus. Theophilus is a gentile who is familiar with Jewish scripture and has sympathy for the Roman presence.

Just as they make no strong effort to identify who “Luke” or “Theophilus” are, they do not discuss at length potential sources or synoptic relationships. Instead, they emphasize the text, which they would both encourage to be read out loud. Finally, both Amy-Jill and Ben agree that Luke writes with an agenda. And that is “to show how Jesus of Nazareth is the world’s preeminent teacher, healer, and savior who should be heeded, imitated, and finally worshipped.”

Perhaps what both authors want most is for readers to feel as if they are invited into the conversation.

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“It is not likely you will be tempted to turn a stone into bread or to throw yourself from a temple. But you might be tempted to lash out at someone who thinks differently than you or takes your parking space. You might be tempted to think lack of caffeine intake or sugar or television will keep you safe from the Devil. Luke wants us to see the Devil as real. He wants us to know danger lurks. Lent is not exempt from Satan’s activity. In fact, Lent may place us right in a context of temptation.”

 
Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 44

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“Father, Into Your Hand…” (Luke 23.46)

As in the first ‘word’ in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the Father again. We might remember that his very first words in the Gospel are about being in his Father’s house. So it may not surprise us that his final words prior to his death are about being taken into his Father’s hands. Jesus on the cross is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life. Luke wants us to know that nothing, not even the cross, can stop Jesus from demonstrating the ways of God. He has already forgiven his executioners and made reservations for a criminal to enter paradise, now he commits his spirit to the Father.

We may find ourselves thinking of Psalm 31, especially the part where the psalmist says “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms reveal some rugged emotional terrain. So does the cross. Jesus knows about rugged terrain. It should not surprise us that in challenging moments he reaches into the language of the psalms and adds “Father” before he goes on to quote “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Again, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who taught us when we pray to say “Our Father…”

When we read this “word” we should not forget the connection between spirit and breath. We are reminded of a true gift from God. We do not possess our breath. We cannot hold it in or keep it. It is gift. Given again and again and again. We inhale, we exhale – gift.

Jesus gives his spirit willingly. Like the rabbi at his own funeral, he commits his life to God the Father. His spirit is not taken from him by those who put him on the cross. He gives it back to the One who gave it to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking from him. Admittedly, this is contrary to the visible evidence. From all appearances, Jesus had his breath taken from him. Meanwhile, Jesus is trusting that the Father is greater than the power of death.

This text reminds us of our dependence on the Father. Our spirit, our very breath is a gift from the Father and our lives are dependent on him. Perhaps we can think of many things we easily take for granted that in wiser moments we recognize as gift. We have been given much. Just look around. Look at your clothes, hands, feet. Breathe deep. Color, smell, taste – all gift. During Lent, we are reminded that following Jesus demands thankful, grateful spirits. May we give even those back to him.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an observation. While many were hostile toward Jesus, Luke highlights that Simon carried the cross, the daughters of Jerusalem mourned for him, a criminal was welcomed into paradise, the centurion praised God, and Joseph was waiting for the kingdom. Some of these may have been aware of the conclusion of Psalm 31 “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.” We too follow Jesus into the emotional terrain of a hostile world. May we also “Be strong… take courage… and hope in the Lord.”

A prayer from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Thank you for the gift of life, Father God. There will come a day when I will meet you face-to-face. The One who gave me life and has numbered my days. As I take in each breath and exhale may I remember, by your grace, that my life is not my own. Just as Jesus gave His life up to save humanity, it is my desire to give my life in service and worship to you. In a world that invites me to worship and serve anything and everything but you, may I be fixed on the breath that you gave and remember the name of Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for your Lordship and leadership. It is my desire to follow you unto my last breath.”

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“Today You Will Be with Me…” (Luke 23.43)

We can be certain that things were not quiet the day of the crucifixion. Onlookers likely heard sounds of violence. There would have been shouts from soldiers and hammers pounding. There would have been gasps from the crowd and gambling for garments. The voices of Luke’s text are interesting. The rulers speak “Let him save himself.” The soldiers mock “Save yourself!” A criminal speaks “Save yourself and us.” Three times people hostile to Jesus tell him to save himself, he does not reply to any of them. And then we get the following short conversation. In response to the criminal who taunted Jesus, another criminal speaks “Do you not even fear God?” and then asks Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

This “word” from Jesus teaches us something about grace. This is exactly the kind of thing Jesus is executed for. He is killed because they could not tame him. The sympathetic criminal does not deserve grace. Yet, we learn about grace from the crucified Jesus. Not even a cross can stop him from his move “to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Luke has included us on a journey. Not everyone responds to Jesus the same along the way. Some respond favorably. Others reject him. All the way to the cross we are faced with the question of how we will deal with Jesus. All the way to the cross we discover that not everyone agrees with the kind of people Jesus spent time with. Now we find that the one who “receives sinners and eats with them” also dies with them and for them. It is possible Jesus was not crucified because he claimed to save people, but because he would not stop saving the wrong people. Jesus never stops welcoming unlikely people into the kingdom, even a guilty criminal who has been sentenced for execution. No further questions are necessary, welcome to the kingdom.

Needless to say, this would have been difficult for onlookers to understand. From all appearances the powers of death were eliminating any hope of future and certainly something other than paradise. Yet, Jesus affirms a future for this criminal beyond this day. We do not know what else the three on the cross may have said to one another. If anything at all, Luke does not think it important to record it. Yet, the conversation continues. Every one of us is still asking for or receiving what we do not deserve. We are all either asking Jesus to do things the way we do them in the world or we are believing he knows what he is doing.

Reading this “word” of Jesus during Lent reminds us that an invitation to join the kingdom is an invitation to follow him. The text reminds us that following Jesus cannot be interrupted by the powers of the world. We are not limited by what the world offers. Following Jesus takes us beyond the borders of this world, beyond what we think we might deserve or think is in store for our future. Following Jesus may take us to a place full of the wrong people.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano; “Thank you Jesus for inviting me, a sinner, into your kingdom. You made the way for me and gave me the faith to believe. You loved me first. I admit to wondering if everyone is really good enough to make it into your kingdom.Sometimes I wonder if some sin or crime is just too much for grace and salvation. I confess my struggle to love and accept everyone regardless of their crime or sin. I ask you, Jesus, to soften my heart and to give me your eyes for everyone. Turn my heart of stone into a heart of flesh and give me your grace.”

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