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.

10 December

The Magnificat: Mary’s Redemption Song in Luke 1

Luke 1:39-56

I like to imagine Mary singing her special song about her special son when she looked into his eyes, nursed him, clothed him, changed him, and taught him to talk, pray, and sing. After all, there are echoes of this song in Jesus’ special prayer, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Her song is called the Magnificat because the Latin version begins with Magnificat (“magnifies”; the NIV has “glorifies”). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1933, described this song as “the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung” (Collected Sermons 1.116).

The Occasion for the Song

Upon Mary’s greeting the family in the muted Zechariah’s home, some two days journey south from the Galilee, John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, which was the palpable experience of being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

So inspired, Elizabeth uttered a triple blessing on Mary in words famous now among Roman Catholics: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Mary is the one blessed here and is called “the mother of my Lord.” Her focus aside, the narrative begins to shift our attention away from the miracle baby John to the virginally conceived baby Jesus, and it also shifts our minds from the significance of John to the superior significance of Jesus.

We can speculate about why Mary “hurried” to the hills of Judea but that’s all it is: speculation. Scandal shows no hints here, though eventually some would set rumors loose. Justo González, a wonderful theologian and historian, wonders if Mary didn’t hurry to be with Elizbeth out of “solidarity” (González, Luke, 22).

A Song for the Son of Redemption

Mary’s song evokes dozens of lines and terms from Israel’s Scriptures, and you might look some up in your study Bible’s cross references. Especially Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. There are so many echoes of Bible passages we are stunned by the depth and richness of Mary’s grasp of the Bible’s redemption story. In fact, Mary’s song expresses the heart of the gospel.

As Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “The church’s central task is an imaginative one. By that I do not mean a fanciful or fictional task, but one in which the human capacity to imagine—to form mental pictures of the self, the neighbor, the world, the future, to envision new realities—is both engaged and transformed.” Some pages later she connected such an imagination to faith in these words: “In faith, we imagine ourselves whole, imagine ourselves in love with our neighbors, imagine ourselves bathed and fed by God, imagine the creation at peace, imagine the breath of God coinciding with our own, imagine the heart of God beating at the heart of the world” (Taylor, The Preaching Life, 41, 53). Mary’s faith produced Mary’s imagination, and her imagination fed her faith.

This woman of faith’s song begins with a personal wit- ness, and her witness evokes the emotion of relief through vindication: “My soul” and “my spirit” and “his servant” and “call me blessed” (ignored by most Protestants) and “for me.” A slight shift happens in verse fifty when we read, “to those who fear him,” but this too is about Mary’s own experience of awe before her God.

Following her personal testimony of God answering her prayers for the redemption of her people, Mary’s song suddenly turns into metaphors for God’s redemption. Each of the metaphors invites our imaginations to consider the redemption God works in Jesus from different angles. Here they are: “performed mighty deeds” and “scattered those who are proud” and “brought down rulers” and “lifted up the humble [or poor]” and “filled the hungry” and “sent the rich away empty” and “helped his servant Israel” according to the Abrahamic promise.

We must pause to adjust our vision. We have been enculturated to think of redemption as both (almost exclusively) individual and (almost entirely) spiritual. Not for Mary. Notice how physical and political and national and social her sense of redemption is. Rulers dethroned, the poor enthroned, the hungry filled with food, and the rich sent packing. This is a “political manifesto” (Levine-Witherington, Luke, 42), a prediction of a great reversal in redemption. I was once told that during a particularly turbulent time, a South American country banned Roman Catholics from singing this song. It features daily in the monastery life. So politically threatening was the imagination of this song it was banned! Have we tamed it? (The answer is “Yes.”)

All these fulfill the promise to Abraham. Just open your Bibles to watch these redemptive blessings reverberate when John himself preaches, when Jesus preaches, and then explains himself to John, all of which will come to fruition in Luke’s second book, Acts.

It took courage to sing this song. Again, Bonhoeffer says it right: “This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary as we often seen her portrayed in paintings [she is] passionate, carried away, proud, enthusiastic.” Her song is a “hard, strong, relentless hymn about the toppling of thrones and the humiliation of the lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerfulness of humankind” (Collected Sermons, 116). Her first Christmas is unlike any other, and it is radically different from ours.

This courageous woman’s song about the son of redemption is a song about holistic redemption. Only a holistic redemption fits the pattern of Scripture’s expectations for the messianic kingdom. And here’s the foundation of it all: Mary’s song is about her son, Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of the Most High, the messiah, and the Lord. He is the one who brings this redemption. This redemption cannot be reduced to ethics, morality, or even what we call social justice. Its foundation is a Person, and in that Person holistic redemption explodes into living realities.

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. How does the Mary depicted in this section compare to the Mary often depicted in Christian art, especially around Christmas?
  2. What are the tangible, political, holistic themes in Mary’s song?
  3. Look up Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. What parallels (or “rhymes”) do you see with Mary’s song?
  4. What words in this passage describe God? Compare this song to Psalm 136. What similarities do you find?
  5. What emotions do you notice in this narrative and particularly in the Magnificat?

Come back next week when Scot looks at Luke 1:57-80 and revisits Elizabeth, baby John the Baptist, and Mary. For the full Luke Bible study from McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.

03 December

Trusting God and the Virgin Mary’s Conception in Luke 1

Read Luke 1:26-38

A Baby Son Story

Six months behind the Zechariah and Elizabeth story about redemption, the story of redemption continues with Mary of Galilee. The stories rhyme. Same angel (Gabriel), different location (Nazareth of Galilee), and a different woman (Mary), who is engaged to a Davidic ancestor named Joseph. Same message of redemption. Mary was probably fifteen to twenty years old. The angel greets her with “Rejoice” (NIV has “Greetings”) but then affirms her with words from the deep wells of God’s grace: “you who are highly favored,” with the sense of “you have been deeply graced” because in some special sense “The Lord is with you.” Her disturbance at the appearing of an angel is like Zechariah’s. This joy, grace, and the divine presence will take on physical form when she gives “birth to a son,” and she (notice that the father is not told this) is to name him “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is either Yeshu or Yeshua, which means YHWH redeems or saves. What she learns next starts slow and builds. The son will be “great,” and he will be called “Son of the Most High God,” and he will rule on “the throne of his father David,” and his rule and kingdom will be “forever” and will “never end”! Mary knows her son will save Israel as its king, and he will rule an eternal kingdom.

A Miraculous Conception Story

Mary’s question is neither naïve nor doubting. Yes, she was disturbed by the angelical vision, but the implication of her question, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” requires that we think she perceives an imminent pregnancy before marriage and consummation. The answer to her question occurs in 1:35–37. If God can become human (John 1:1–14), God can miraculously impregnate. “The one miracle greater than that of a postmenopausal woman conceiving is that of a virgin conceiving” (Levine-Witherington, Luke, 33). Yet Mary knows her body is hers. “This is her body, and she would like to know how it is going to be used” (Spencer, Luke, 42).

The angel explains the divine impregnation of Mary as “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” and the “Most High will overshadow you.” God envelops Mary as miracle and protection (Spencer, Luke, 39–40). Mary’s pregnancy before her marriage to Joseph surely raised questions in her social circles (notice Mark 6:3’s “Mary’s son” and not Joseph’s), so this account in Luke probably counters accusations. The act of God in Mary results in “the Son of God.” Son of God was a common enough term for the Roman emperor and for a king in Israel (Psalm 2).

The angel sweeps any doubt away by revealing to Mary that she has company in the births of redemption. Her relative Elizabeth has experienced a similar miracle.

A Trust Story

Mary’s words are some of the most profound in the entire Bible. First, she identifies herself, and I translate: “Look! God’s slave.” The “I am” can be applied but she may have looked into the eyes of Gabriel to say, “Look at me. What more do you want? I’m God’s slave, and I will do what God wants.” She signs off with, and again I paraphrase, “May it be to me in a manner consistent with your word that I will conceive as a virgin by an act of God.” This is no passive surrender; this is an active acceptance of God’s redemption through her baby boy. Let us think realistically: a woman pregnant before marriage was scrutinized and judged, her engaged partner, Joseph, shamed as well. Mary will suffer for her son before her son suffers for her. She knows what her future will look like, and she accepts it because she aches for God’s holistic redemption.

Mission accomplished; the angel returns to the throne room of God.

Scott Spencer expresses this so completely I record his words here and ask you to ponder them: “Mysteriously, but materially, Mary’s entire embodied being, not least her amniotic waters, will be swept up and over in the dynamic crosswinds of trinitarian vitality” (Spencer, Luke, 40). Just wow.

These small vignettes in Luke 1–2 began as family stories. Mary was at times the only source of information for these stories. She becomes the witness behind the redeemer who informed the redeemer what the angel had revealed about the mission of Jesus to redeem Israel as its king. Galileans were known storytellers.

Mary was perhaps the best storyteller of all, that is, after her son.

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. How does the conception announcement of Jesus “rhyme” with the conception announcement of John?
  2. What have you been taught about Mary before? How does this section challenge or confirm your prior understanding?
  3. How do you think Luke may have gathered Mary’s reminiscences in his research?
  4. How do you think Mary’s storytelling might have impacted Jesus as he was growing up?
  5. What can you learn from Mary’s example in responding to God’s invitation?

Come back next week when Scot looks at Luke 1:39-56 and Mary’s song of redemption because of the birth of her son. For the full Luke Bible study from McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.

26 November

Trusting God and the announcement of John the Baptist in Luke 1

Welcome to week one of our Advent study series. Over the next five weeks, Scot McKnight will lead us through the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel. Each week will be a reading from the gospel (which you can read in your own Bible or click the reference to open up the passage on BibleGateway), Scot’s insight and observations on the passage, and five questions for reflection from Becky Castle Miller. Let’s dive in!

The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel unleashes the kingdom of God as a holistic redemption. He redeems in all sorts of ways—spiritually, physically, socially, politically—and he redeems all sorts of people—Jews and gentiles, women and men, the powerful and the powerless—and in doing so Jesus sets the standard for the church to become, as Paul said, “all things to all people.” At the heart of this holistic redemption is the theme of coming home to the table for fellowship with God, with family, with friends, with neighbors—and yes, with the whole world eventually.

Read Luke 1:5-25

Stories of our families shape our families so much one can say the family is a story.

Behind Jesus was his mother, Mary. Behind Jesus was also a witness we call John the Baptist. Behind that witness were John’s parents, Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth his wife. The events described in this passage—Zechariah’s time to serve in the temple, the appearing of an angel to him about the pregnancy of his “very old” wife, the nature of the son she would birth, the seemingly innocent but evidently doubt-expressing question Zechariah asked, his divine silencing, and the words of gratitude for her pregnancy by Elizabeth—must have been told as a threaded story around the table in their home. That story shaped John, shaped Mary, shaped Jesus, and has now shaped how Christians tell the story of God’s redemption in the Lord Jesus.

Events, not just words, can rhyme. To listen to the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then to listen to the stories of Jesus and Mary, is to hear their rhyming.

Continue reading “Trusting God and the announcement of John the Baptist in Luke 1”