24 December

The incomprehensible love of God is made tangible in Luke 2

Luke 2:1-20

This is the Christmas story many of us hear at a Christmas service or read on Christmas Day. It deserves to be read aloud with skill. I love to hear this text read. The birth of Jesus, as we have said a few times, rhymes with the story of John’s birth, and we do a real disservice if we fail to read this passage slowly and thoughtfully. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves by wondering what it means for us. It’s a story about Jesus.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem

The opening verses of chapter two connect the birth of Jesus, who is Messiah (and Messiah means king and king means emperor), to Rome’s current emperor, Augustus. The birth of Jesus is part of world, not just local, history. This more than suggests that the emperor is one of the rulers who will be brought down by the birth of king Jesus.

Standing right behind the emperor theme is a taxation theme. Taxation filled the vaults of the powers that be. The names in 2:1–3, then, are oppressors, and those who suffer the most are the poor—like Joseph and Mary.

In submission to emperor and taxation, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem where, ironically, Jesus’ birth fulfills a messianic hope and promise. King David, who was every- one’s image of a future Messiah, was from Bethlehem. Surprising to many of us, Jesus’ birth occurs before Joseph and Mary are officially married: “Mary, who was pledged to be married to him.”

The KJV’s “no room in the inn” line, which has a history of all sorts of speculation in sermons, inaccurately translates the Greek term kataluma. That term does not mean “inn” as in a hotel but “guest room” in the very home in which they were staying. That is, the guest room did not have sufficient space for a birth, so Mary and Joseph went downstairs to the stable where they could find some privacy, where the animals were kept, and she laid her son in a feeding trough. There is no reason whatsoever to criticize some non-existent innkeeper or pretend this had something to do with a woman’s impurity.

The Gospel of the Angel

Bethlehem was known for its sheep and shepherds. To some shepherds an unnamed angel of the Lord appears accompanied by splendorous light, something that evokes the presence of God so overwhelming the shepherds were “terrified.” The angel gospels the shepherds. Here are the big terms to consider: “I gospel great joy, what will be for all the people (my translation), that a Savior has been born today who is Messiah the Lord, in the City of David.” You can’t really get a better heavenly message than that and, truth be told, you can’t be any more overt about some kind of message to Rome, that is, to Augustus. Or about fulfilling promises (cf. Isaiah 9:6). These terms express the holistic redemption of the kingdom of God. The “sign” is now explained—in Bethlehem they’ll find a baby “lying in a manger.”

Because of the Christmas gospel God should be praised, that is, because “on earth” God has given his Messiah-Son to bring “peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Again, we need to resist turning this “peace” into exclusively inner, personal peace. Peace is an earthy, social contagion propagated by redemption and justice.

Mary Pondering

So the shepherds come into Bethlehem and find it just as the angel said, turning them into gospeling shepherds. They find the baby with Joseph and Mary. The history of art about Mary is that she’s a pensive, pious, even poker-faced young woman draped in blue and white. She was not. That image derives in part from “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary was interpreting, tossing together, or puzzling this specific shepherd-event in light of the previous angel’s messages to her and to Elizabeth. One thing was clear: her son was destined to become the King of Israel, the Messiah. A lot was going on, more than a mind could handle. World history indeed!

I close with an amazing statement that takes us to the deepest level of the Christmas story–God became human for us: “Through the Son, the invisible God is made visible. Through the Son, the unknowable God is made known. Through the Son, the incomprehensible love of God is made tangible” (Strawbridge, Mercer, Groves, Love Makes No Sense, 18).

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. How does this section challenge ideas you have heard about the nativity story in the past?
  2. What are the holistic, earthy implications of this baby king’s birth?
  3. How do the shepherds’ reactions to the angels compare to Zechariah and Mary’s angelic responses?
  4. Have you thought of this text as a “gospeling” passage before? Why or why not?
  5. What do you learn about Jesus in this passage?

Thanks for joining us in the journey through the conception and birth narratives in the gospel of Luke. For the full Luke Bible study from Scot McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.

17 December

Zechariah’s song about God’s all-encompassing redemption in Luke 1

Luke 1:57-80

Luke’s Gospel shifts from John to Jesus. Readers and hearers notice how their stories rhyme with one another. In this text we get the birth of John, the naming of John, and a redemption song about John. In the next post we will read about the birth of Jesus, the naming of Jesus, and then even more redemptive songs about Jesus. These songs, marked off in the NIV as poetry, are some of the most powerful articulations of holistic redemption in the whole Bible.

A reminder: Luke is a biography about Jesus. It is about us when the Gospel of Luke presents teachings of Jesus about discipleship. But when the stories are about Jesus, or in this passage about the forerunner to Jesus, we read most faithfully when we keep our attention on him (and off ourselves). If we are asking “What’s in this passage for me?” we might be asking the wrong question.

The Son

The baby Baptist boy is born to the (previously) barren Elizabeth, which immediately leads to his circumcision as the covenant entrance into Israel. This is the earliest record of naming a son at his circumcision, though it is common in later rabbinic texts (Levine-Witherington, Luke, 43). Children were often named after a close relative, but what stands out here is the choice of the name “John” (or Yohanan, which means “God has shown his favor”), and we should assume that Zechariah had communicated this to Elizabeth before her insistence. Neighbors and family resisted naming the son “John,” so God restored Zechariah’s voice, and he confirmed his wife’s naming the boy “John.” The ending of his muted voice impressed neighbors in a way that they perceived this son was going to be someone special. Noticeably, John does not follow in the footsteps of his father as a priest but becomes a prophet of the Messiah.

The Song

Like Mary’s Magnificat, this song has a name, too: Benedictus (again, too, because the first word in the Latin version is benedictus). In Mary’s visit it is Elizabeth who was filled with the Spirit. Now Zechariah is both “filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.” Prophesy means to utter God-revealed, Spirit-prompted speech for the people of God.

The theme for his song is God’s redemption in all its dimensions. Notice, too, that he prophesies in the past tense (as did Mary): “he has come . . . and redeemed them” and “he has raised up a horn of salvation” and that is “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all those who hate us” and this means “to show mercy and to remember his holy covenant.” It goes on to “rescue us from . . . enemies” and “to enable us to serve him without fear” of those enemies. Notice here the holistic element of liberation. Justo González calls Luke’s presentation of holistic redemption the “great reversal” (González, The Story Luke Tells, 29–44).

Only after he has given a full sketch of holistic redemption does Zechariah prophesy about his son. He prophesies that he will be a “prophet of the Most High”— as the Most High came upon Mary—and John will “prepare the way for” the Lord. He, too, will preach a redemptive, educational message: “knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” When one connects forgiveness, the people of God, and a prophet to come, the forgiveness is holistic too: not just personal but corporate and national. This merciful redemption will lead, as well, “into the path of peace.” What Zechariah did not know was that this son of redemption of his would be decapitated, as the one to whom he pointed would be crucified.

The fitting end to the song’s prophetic words about the son describe John growing and becoming “strong in spirit/ Spirit” and living “in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” Luke has John where he wants him: in the wilderness, being made ready to announce the arrival of the One to come. As Scott Spencer reminds us, “John will not spring from Elizabeth fully formed and ready to reform Israel. He must grow into his Spirit-anointed vocation through rigorous Nazirite discipline.” That is, “Spirit-dynamism and self-discipline go hand in hand” (Spencer, Luke, 62).

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. How do the naming and vocation of John go against cultural conventions and expectations?
  2. How does Zechariah paint a picture of holistic liberation and redemption with his song?
  3. What Old Testament passages and themes come to mind as you read the Benedictus?
  4. How does prophecy function in this passage?
  5. What do you learn about John, the forerunner of Jesus, in this passage?

Come back next week when Scot looks at Luke 2:1-20 and explores the birth narrative of Jesus. For the full Luke Bible study from McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.