Monday, March 2, 2015

Luke 2:33-40 A Prophetess

33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— 35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

It is difficult to believe that Mary and Joseph could be any more 'amazed' than what what they had been for the last year, but the Lord never ceases to 'amaze' us. What Simeon had said and would go on to say, certainly buoyed up their faith and trust in God. Of course, God wasn't finished. He was going to sent yet another confirmation.

There has always been something about Jesus that unmasks all false things in his presence. He is the Truth, which means it is impossible to be around him without having our lies and self-deceptions exposed. He is the Way, which means he will reveal every wrong way we are traveling. He is the Life, thus he cannot help but uncover any thought or practices that may lead to death. He is the Light which means that wherever he is all darkness is cast away.  Jesus is, as both Mary and Joseph were beginning to realize, absolutely amazing.

I've said all that in order to underscore what Simeon said. Jesus would bring about both the rise and fall of many people in Israel. Why? Because his very presence is a revelation of truth, something most of us prefer to avoid. Jesus is a double-edged sword. For those who fully yield their hearts to Him, He cuts away every non-Christlike aspect of our being, transforming us into His likeness. For those who are merely superficial followers of Christ, the sword is not appreciated because it seeks to cut away that which we still want to cling to.

No matter how pretty we may present ourselves as Christians, if we hold on to the church, our theology, the Bible, or even God as an idol, the presence of Jesus will expose our false heart. Many who say, 'Lord, Lord', will hear the Lord reply with, 'I don't know you'.  No wonder many prefer to be religious without Jesus. Inviting Jesus into our 'Christian' community would be excruciating. Like the money changers at the Temple, Jesus would cast out all who commodified the faith.

Spirituality is taking what 'is' and making something beautiful out of it. Religion, sadly, is the attempt to preserve what 'is', just as it 'is'. The Way of Christ is to bring beauty to all that comes into his presence.

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.

37 She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.

38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.

40 The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Luke 2:21-32 The Law and the Spirit

21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

This week we will be discussing Simeon. But first, here are some preliminary thoughts about the context:

Imagine naming a child even before s/he is born - especially in a time when so many infants died shortly after birth and conceptions often did not make it to full term. Yes, there is much to be said about the 'meaning' of names, but I wonder if there is more to be said about having confidence in God - the One who knows the future and names a child even before conception. Which human being can, with 100% accuracy, tell a woman not only that she will conceive, bring forth a male child to birth, but also correctly specify the role that child would play in history? Only God, right?

All this raises an important question. Who do you tend to listen to for the 'facts'? Who do you trust as the best prognosticator? When making choices about what is 'true' today and/or how best to plan for the future, do you prefer to trust your intuition, dreams, impressions of the Spirit,, your pastor, your parents, your favorite politician, a psychic, Cable News, Internet memes, the weather channel, science, or flipping a coin? Do you close your eyes, open the bible, and place your finger on a text and accept what it says as God's will for you today?

How do you decide 'what' to believe as 'fact'? And, do you differentiate between fact and truth? How does all this help you grow spiritually? 

22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 

It was the 40th day (Lev. 12:4). Mary's days of purification were 'completed'. It was time to present Jesus, her first born son, to the Lord, at the Temple, according to the Law of Moses. Did every Jewish parent, in those days, travel to Jerusalem to present their first born son to the Lord at the Temple? And, should the fact that Jesus' parents obeyed the letter of the Law of Moses suggest to us that this is what Jesus later meant when He said, 'I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the Law' (Mt.5:17)? Hmm. Probably not.

Regardless of the covenant that would be inaugurated at the cross (Heb 9:18;10:20), Jesus was himself born under the Law, and thus subject to the commandments of the Law (Gal. 4:4; 3:23; 4:5; 5:18; Rom 6:15). 'The Law', as John later wrote, 'was given through Moses, yet grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ' (Jn 1:17). It is not as if God changed his mind and jettisoned the Law, but that the Law had a purpose that had finally been 'fulfilled' in the sense that it pointed forward to Jesus as the Messiah (Gal. 3:19-29). In other words, it is not that Jesus 'fulfilled the Law' by always obeying the Law. That wouldn't, of course, make any sense in the context of the remainder of Matthew 5, right? For instance, just read Matthew 5:38-47, where Jesus doesn't advocate strict adherence to the Law. Nor had He Himself always obeyed the Law of Moses - particularly in touching lepers, His Sabbath teachings, etc. Paul seemed to understand this well when he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:20-23) where he differentiated between the Law and the 'law of Christ'. The former represented the old covenant, while the latter the new.

Obviously, God had 'something better' (Heb 8:6) than the Law for us in Christ. Rather than being guided by the external Law, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:10-14), and placed within us an internal Guide - the Spirit. When we live by faith in Christ, we walk as the living, abiding Spirit guides us. When we take our eyes off Christ we find ourselves as a ship without a rudder. Christians live in response to the guiding Spirit rather than by a list of rules. There is an incredible and essential difference in these two ways of living which underscores the very meaning of 'good news'.

On the other hand, when under grace rather than under the Law we don't toss out even one word of the Old Testament Law. Why? Because through the Law we come to understand God's plan. We see how God, through the Law, 'led us to Jesus' as the Christ (Gal 3:24). Though we no longer live under the rules of the Old Covenant - the Law of Moses - we value the road map it provided. There is a distinct difference between valuing the Law as a daily guide - which was once essential and is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13) - and valuing it now as a foundational piece in our religious history. It's purpose has changed from being a 'guide' to being our religious 'history'.

Once we grasp that point, we realize that we can no longer utilize the Old Covenant as a buffet table from which we can pick and choose which of Moses' laws we want to live 'under' and which we do not. We are no longer obligated to live under any aspect of the Law if we have accepted Christ by faith. We now live under the Law of Christ - the law of love. Love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:10).

Here's the kicker. What is the foundation of the Old Covenant? Moses himself told us - it is the Ten Commandments carved into stone (Dt. 4:10-14). The old covenant is not the same covenant that God made with Abraham - a covenant based upon faith, installed into flesh (Dt. 5:1-3; Rom 4:13). The covenant of Moses never annulled the original covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:17-19), unlike how the new covenant eventually made the covenant of Moses 'obsolete'. Rather the old guided God's people until faith in the One to whom Abraham had placed his faith could come. In other words, the New Covenant of grace builds upon the covenant of faith God made with Abraham. Paul expressed this rather succinctly in his letter to the Ephesians, 'for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God' (Eph. 2:8).

Law exists to command us to love one another and if we don't, there is a punishment. God's plan was for us to love one another not from law, but from the heart. When the heart has been surrendered by faith to God, accepting the grace of God, then it is from the heart rather than because of a law that we love others. We no longer do 'good' to others out of fear of punishment. Nor do we do good to others simply for a reward from God. Rather, we treat others as we ourselves have been treated by God - with grace (1 Jn 4:16,18; Rom 13:9,10).

Faith in Christ is the beginning of love for neighbor. If we have faith in Christ's love for us, that all our sins have been cast away by the grace of God, then we are finally free to love others. Fear of judgment keeps us from genuinely loving others. When the Spirit is given permission to dwell in our hearts by faith we are transformed into lovers. Day by day the Spirit teaches and then guides us the way of Christ, the way of love.

25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

Sometimes we may feel like no one around us 'gets it', yet that is usually a sad fallacy of logic. Just because we might not personally know anyone who sees as we see, doesn't mean others don't similarly see. Paul addressed this issue in his letter to the Romans, quoting from 1 Kgs 19:18 - "what is the divine response to him? 'I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal'" (Rom. 11:4). We are never alone in our faith. God has many people of true faith.

Mary and Joseph may have imagined that they were all alone. The Magi were gone. The shepherds had returned to their sheep. Even the angels had returned to God's throne. Yet, as they obeyed the ritual requirements of the Law, surrounded seemingly only by those who were mere gate-keepers of the Law, God sent Simeon, another believer, to buoy up their faith.

Simeon looked beyond the rituals of written Law and saw the living God. He was devout, yet devout in faith rather than merely devout in letter. He did not live to protect his religion, but lived to proclaim God's promise. He didn't look to religion as his hope, but looked for the One who stood above and beyond religion as his hope - the 'consolation of Israel'. Because Simeon's 'religion' was Person-centered rather than institution-centered, the Spirit could speak to him and through him.

The manner in which Simeon grasped the promise of scripture freed him to grasp a new promise from the Spirit. Sadly, many hold on to the promises of scripture as an idol rather than as an icon. They imagine the source of life and hope in their religious beliefs and practices and in the church itself. Simeon, while participating in the same practices, holding as sacred the same scriptures, and as a member of the same religious group - 'used' it all to see the living God. When our church becomes our God it has become our idol. When our church is viewed as a vehicle to see the living God, then it is used as an icon. The evidence that we hold the former is that we embrace only the dead letter of scripture (2 Cor. 3:6-7). The evidence that we hold the latter is that God embraces us in His Spirit and we hear his new word being spoken to us today.

Thus Luke wrote of Simeon, 'the Holy Spirit was upon him.' The Law of Moses had led Simeon to the God of Moses. When the Law of Moses only leads us to Moses, we cannot hear the Spirit. Mary and Joseph weren't alone in their walk with God. Simeon, as well as others in Israel, also walked with the Lord of all.

26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 

How can anyone accept a revelation from the Spirit if they (1) do not even believe in the existence of the Spirit, or that (2) the Spirit's voice can be discerned by people of faith, and/or that (3) God ever communicates in real time, right this moment, rather than only through the words of scripture?

We can believe in the existence of the Spirit, yet not believe that the Spirit actually speaks to us outside of the scriptures. The devil, according to scripture, believes in the existence of God, but doesn't listen to God speaking to 'him' today. Sadly, many Christians have a 'devil-like' attitude when it comes to hearing the voice of God speaking to them in the 21st century. They choose to only know God's will from the Bible alone. But, according to Luke, how would Simeon have known that he would not die until he had met the Messiah unless the living Spirit spoke to him personally apart from the Bible? There isn't any Bible text that either alludes to or specifically says, 'when Simeon becomes an aged adult he will me the infant Messiah at the temple.' That just isn't 'written' any place in scripture. It was only 'spoken' to one individual - Simeon.

The point in all this is that God has something to say to you and to me right now, but are we listening? Of equal importance, have we learned to discern the voice of God from all the other voices out there - our own voice as well as the 'voice' of our parents, teachers, pastors, politicians, and even the media? As asked earlier, which 'voice' do we most trust for 'facts'? Simeon trusted the extra-biblcal voice of the living God.

On the other hand, an extra-biblical 'voice' can also be dangerous. What if it is not the voice of the Spirit? Christians know the voice of our Good Shepherd (Jn 10:4) because they have repeatedly tested the Spirit against the voice of the Spirit already revealed in scripture (Is. 8:20). Simeon could not find anything in the scriptures to confirm what he believed the Spirit had said, yet he also knew that there was nothing in scripture that contradicted the voice he believed was from the Spirit. This is another good reason to be a student of scripture, so that we can learn to know how God may speak to us today.

Now, all that being said, there are things in scripture that men have used to confirm what they believed was God's present day 'voice' to them, yet they were miserably wrong. Why? They have often misunderstood the progression of revelation. They have attempted to pluck a confirmation from the old covenant without understanding that we now live under the new covenant of grace. They ignored the words of the Messiah who reminded us that all the Law and the Prophets could be summed up in just two commandments (Mt. 7:12; 22:40). In other words, if what you believe the Spirit is saying to you contradicts Christ's command to love your neighbor, then you are probably not newly listening to the voice of the Spirit, but merely rehearsing the old words of Moses.

27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 

Not only had Simeon heard the word of the Spirit speaking 'present truth' to him, he also was 'led by the Spirit' to the temple and was given the discernment to identify the Christ-child from all other children.

Simeon wasn't necessarily a priest, as some suggest. He may not have been at the temple performing the purification rites when Mary and Joseph happened by that day. Rather, the Spirit had led him to the Temple, and then to this couple.

Though it is in John's gospel where we learn the most about the work of the Spirit in our life of faith, Luke also - through these stories - confirms what John later taught. The Spirit (1) speaks to individuals, (2) gives them 'light' that is timely and appropriate to their particular life in their here and now, (3) guides them to specific places, and (4) helps them to identify what they need to see and/or find.

Isn't that pretty much what Jesus said the Spirit would do (Jn 16:13)?

Now the question is, has that become your experience with the Spirit?

29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.”

How did Simeon, according to Luke's gospel, summarize what his Spirit-given experience meant? He interpreted what the Spirit had done for him as confirming (1) that salvation is all about a Person, not merely being a member of a religious group, (2) that God's salvation is for all people - including the Gentiles, and that (3) Israel would be glorified as they presented the truth of Christ to the world.

So, how did Israel respond? Well, not so well. There leaders rejected Jesus as the Messiah of Bible prophecy and went even further to make sure that He was crucified by the Romans. Israel was not glorified, but vilified by their response.

On the other hand, the good news of Christ did actually get proclaimed beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles by a few faithful, humble Jews. The salient point is that the faithful should not wait for the institutionalized church to act faithfully. None of us can claim to be faithful vicariously through the faithfulness of others - be it the church as a whole or in part, individual pastors or priests, religious teachers or missionaries, church administrators or popes. Whether or not the official church is faithful to the high calling of Christ, each person of faith is called to hear and to obey the voice of the Spirit.

Simeon modeled the walk of faith, as each of us are called to as well.

Discussion Questions:

1. Should spirituality only be defined as listening to the Spirit? Why or why not?
2. How did Simeon's belief in the way that God communicates prime his interpretation of the events in front of him?
3. In what way is spirituality an at-the-moment 'gestalt'?
4. Do you see a Bible 'koan' in the phrase, 'revealed by the Spirit' (Lk 2:26)?
5. Did you experience any psychological defense mechanisms at work in our passage this week?
6. Did you come across any logical fallacies in Luke's presentation?  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Luke 2:1- 20 Angels, Shepherds, and a Baby

1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.

What do you think? One time God sent an angel to tell Joseph to take his family to a new location - to Egypt (Mt. 2:13), yet this time God permitted circumstances to reroute the 'first family'. In other words, would you agree that God intervenes only when necessary to accomplish his will, otherwise God permits circumstances to play out naturally?

Also, it is curious that sometimes Luke included a story found in Matthew's gospel, yet at other times he died not. Joseph's dream, the visit of the Magi, and their escape to Egypt are a few such stories from Matthew's gospel that are not in Luke's gospel. On the other hand, Luke included some stories from Matthew's gospel - such as the baptism and temptation of Jesus, as well at the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, the leper, and the paralytic. What might have been Luke's rationale for including some parts of Matthew's gospel while choosing not to include others parts?

Luke mentioned a decree by Caesar Augustus, but this is not mentioned in any other gospel, nor has it been noted in any known historical record. On the other hand, it does solve the mystery that occurs between Matthew 1:25 and 2:1. Matthew wrote that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of the scriptures (Mt. 2:5,6), but never explains why/how Mary got to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Maybe Matthew was unconcerned about the details, but only concerned with the fulfillment of known Messianic texts; while Luke was more concerned with explaining the chronology of events, so that even someone who was unfamiliar with the scriptures could follow the logic of the Christ narrative.

When you tell a story, how might you include or exclude various aspects of what happened based on who your audience might be? For example, if you are telling a story about a Methodist to a group of Methodists, there would be things you might exclude from your story telling, knowing that your audience would mostly likely assume what was unspoken. On the other hand, if you were to tell the same story to a group of Baptists, you might have added more details to your story. Of course the opposite might also be true. You might include many particularly Methodist notions to your story knowing that your audience of Methodists would understand and appreciate them, whereas another group wouldn't 'get it'.

Based on all this, do you have any additional thoughts about the identity of Theophilus?

4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

According to Luke, Joseph was a descendant of the family of David and was required to travel to Bethlehem. The phrase, 'his own city', may mean the place where Joseph was born, but not necessarily where Mary was born. It may, of course, not refer to where Joseph entered the world, but to his ancestral roots.

From another perspective, Bible scholars have long argued that the Lukan account is not historically accurate:
  1. Nothing is known in history of a general census by Augustus;
  2. In a Roman census Joseph would not have had to travel to Bethlehem, and Mary would not have had to travel at all;
  3. No Roman census would have been made in Judea during the reign of Herod;
  4. Josephus records no such census and it would have been a notable innovation;
  5. Quirinius was not governor of Syria until long after the reign of Herod.
In other words, if the scholars are correct, either Luke was mistaken or intentionally creative in order to link Jesus with Bethlehem to demonstrate a fulfillment of prophecy. Yet,that would undermine the intent of Luke as stated in the first 4 verses of his gospel, rendering his whole gospel suspect. Adding to the mystery of this event is its absence from the other three  gospel accounts.

Can we, though, two thousand years later, conclude with certainty that we fully understand what actually happened back then, and thus declare that Luke unwittingly believed a lie or that he intentionally told a lie? Is it possible, since he penned his gospel decades after the fact, that the records he believed to be accurate, were not accurate after all? But, how then would we explain the fact that Mary of Nazareth gave birth to Jesus down in Bethlehem?

On the other hand, if what Luke wrote truly did occur, then our history of those times may be far less than accurate and not a reliable way to sort fact from fiction. Just because we have no historical record of such an event doesn't mean that it didn't happen as Luke said. Also, just because we have a historical record that tells us that Quirinius was not governor of Syria until many years later, doesn't mean that he was not involved in such a census earlier. We often, even today, refer to a person by his highest title even when referring to things he accomplished before gaining that title.   

Luke also stated that Mary was both pregnant and still betrothed to Joseph when they made the trip south. Even though Bethlehem may have been Joseph's hometown, he did not seem to have a home there any longer since they ended up in a stable of sorts. Had all his relatives long since departed from Bethlehem? Did Joseph not have even one friend left in the village who would have taken pity on Mary and taken her in - no matter how crowded their home? On the other hand, was Bethlehem totally overcrowded with people because so many Jews had to return to this same village? These are all questions without adequate answers.

8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Notice the consistency - everyone's first response to the appearance of an angel was 'fear', and the first response of angels to human fear was, 'do not be afraid'. Should 'good' news always begin in contrast to fear? Why do angels continue to 'suddenly' appear before humans if they already know the shock potential of such an appearnace? Why don't they walk alongside humans in human form, allowing us mortals to gradually realize who they are? They could take a hint from what Jesus later did with two disciples along the road to Emmaus after His resurrection (Lk 24:13-35). In fact, the angels could have been clued in to a better approach simply by the way Jesus entered our world - gradually, just as the dawn.

The shepherds were informed about the birth of Jesus on the very day of His birth. They were told that He would be their 'Savior' and identified Him as 'Christ the Lord' - the long expected Messiah. But, he was just a new born human at the time. Not a very convincing beginning, except for the fact that angels had appeared to announce it. So, to be fair, maybe God knew that the 'sudden' appearance of an angel was necessary to get the attention of the shepherds.

There wasn't any star to lead them to the exact location of Jesus. They had to find their own way there. Fortunately, they didn't have to knock on every door in Bethlehem, even though it was, reportedly, a small town. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be found 'lying in a manger'.  In other words, the shepherds only had to look for sheltered, domesticated animals in order to find a manger.

Why did they need this 'sign'? Was the 'sign' simply a way to differentiate Jesus from any other child born that day? How many other babies could have been born on that very same day in that small town, then have been laid in a manger? On the other hand, was the 'sign' less about locating the correct baby, and more about the type of person this baby would become - One that arose from humble beginnings to be the Lord of grace, rather than a conquering military general?

Isaiah had written:

"Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him." (Is. 53:1,2)

Why announce the birth of the Messiah to 'shepherds'? Why not to priests, or prophets, or masons, or farmers? Was there a message in shepherds being led to a manger?

"Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes." (Is. 40:11)

Was all this intentional on God's behalf, in order challenge the common belief among the Jews that their Messiah would arrive with guns blazing? Instead, He would be a gentle 'shepherd' who delivered His people from their sins, rather than a mighty warrior delivering his people from their enemies.

Furthermore, for those who eventually came to understand and believe that Jesus was God incarnate rather than the child of Joseph, the fact that God was willing to be birthed among animals and laid in a manger had massive theological implications regarding the very nature of God.

A deep shift in religious thinking had begun to take place among the Jews. Mankind's  picture of God from the past was about to be challenged by the very presence of God as man among them. Later, after the ascension of the Son of God, He would send the Spirit to live 'within' them - another theological shift. All the ingredients for this massive paradigm change occurred within just a few years, yet the theological implications evolved over many decades and even centuries. Again, God ways are not our ways.

13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Where there is one angel, there are many? And what do many angels When they aren't messing with us, they seem to prefer praising God.

And what is an angel's hope for mankind? Peace among men - particularly among those who have a relationship with God. Is the promise of peace for some future time in heaven? No. Actually, amazingly, it is for the present time here on earth.

What language were the angels worshiping in? Since it was the shepherds themselves that 'made known' (v. 17) what the angels said, we can assume that the angels spoke in the language of the shepherds. This presents a Bible truth that we shouldn't forget. God speaks to each individual in an understandable manner.

Even when God has given something mysterious to one person, He provides an interpreter as well. If we say that we cannot understand God's will for us, then we are saying that God doesn't know how to communicate with us. Probably, more accurately, whenever we say we don't understand God's will we are actually admitting that we don't want to accept what God has made clear. God is not, according to scripture, the author of confusion. He gives wisdom to those who choose to listen (Jas 1:5,6).

When we have no clear direction to move in, God has made it clear that we are to stay put. When multiple 'doors' appear 'open' at the same time, God may not have a particular preference and has left the choice up to us. When heaven seems silent it often means that God has already given explicit instructions on the topic. For instance, if we are wondering whether or not to take revenge against someone that has done damage to us, don't wait for God to communicate His answer to you. It is already abundantly clear in scripture. The written word clearly states what you should and shouldn't do in that particular circumstance. Vengeance belongs to Him. On the other hand, if you are trying to determine which college to attend, God may reveal His particular will for you, or not.

15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.

It didn't take a lot of discussion before the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem, the city of David. They found the baby just as the angels had told them. The shepherds expected nothing less. If an angel has spoken directly to you, followed by an angelic choir singing praises to God in your presence, would you have any doubts about anything else they reported to you?

By the way, how do you think Luke learned about this 'happening'? The Bible says that the shepherds told this story to anyone who would listen. In other words, this became a well known story among the people of Bethlehem. Surely Mary would have later told Jesus all the events leading up to his birth. She more than likely related all these stories to the disciples of Jesus as well.

Why, though, should this story even matter? Why include it? Mark didn't. John didn't. Matthew didn't. It was an event that occurred some three decades before either John or Jesus began their public ministry. By then all who knew about the shepherds had either forgotten these events or had died. Those to whom this story had been told may have long considered it a fabrication since nothing ever seemed to materialize from their births. Why would God orchestrate such a grandiose beginning for both boys, yet leave decades of silence between their births and the beginning of their public ministries?  

19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

There are stories that establish facts, stories that make us laugh and/or cry, and there are stories that elicit wonder for years and even millennia to come. This was the kind of story that made people 'think' then and ever since.

A ripple of 'wonder' began that year, first with the incidents related to the birth of John (Lk 1:66), then amplified about six months later with the birth of Jesus. In our 21st century world we speak of things going 'viral'. They start off small and relatively unnoticeable, but as more people hear about it, and are amazed by it, the frequency of its repetition becomes exponential - at least for a season.

On the other hand, there are some events in history - though no longer remembered for their particulars - have permanently shifted the way people think about the world.

It seems that God does not always pounce into the world unexpectedly, though, admittedly, the sudden appearance of an angel certainly qualifies as the 'unexpected'. More often, though, God does something that creates 'a ripple of wonder' that almost imperceptibly permeates the world, preparing mankind for something that might not actually occur until decades or even centuries later.

Even if a story is rejected as apocryphal, it still continues to influence and becomes part of a culture. It does not matter whether the story is believed as truth or falsehood, it still remains present and primes the culture for the later event.

In what ways has God primed our world for a soon coming event? For example, which events from the 20th century continue to influence the way American Christians think in the 21st century? 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Luke 1:67-80 Prophecy of Zacharias

67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,

We again read about an individual who was 'filled with the Holy Spirit' before the Spirit had been sent to 'fill' believers at Pentecost (Lk 1:15,41; Ez. 11:19; Jn 7:39; Acts 2:4). So, how are we to make sense of this?

First, the Spirit has, of course, always existed and worked within our world (Gen. 1:2). Jesus made that clear when he acknowledged that the Spirit was 'with' his disciples even before Pentecost, yet would come to abide 'in' them at Pentecost, in a manner they had not yet 'fully' experienced (Jn 14:17).

Second, the Spirit had periodically 'filled' certain individuals for a particular task, gifting them with prophetic and miracle working abilities. Herein seems to be the difference between being 'filled with the Spirit' prior to Pentecost vs after Pentecost. Before Pentecost - specific believers were 'filled with the Spirit' who would enable them to perform a specific task (Ex. 31:3; 1 Sam 1:6). After Pentecost - all believers would be 'filled with the Spirit' in order to live out the life of Christ (Rom. 8:9).

Zacharias was 'filled with the Spirit' in order to speak a prophetic word. His prophesy began with honoring God, confirming that God had intervened in our world, and that the result would be the redemption of 'His people'.

As we read through the prophecy of Zacharias we can catch a glimpse into the very nature of prophetic utterance. Here are some questions we need to ask. Did the Spirit use the man as His 'pen' or as His 'penman'? In other words, did the Spirit give Zacharias the exact words to speak or did the Spirit merely prompt Zacharias to express his praise using any words and ideas that Zacharias chose? If the latter, then how do we square it with 2 Peter 1:20? If the former, then are there different types of prophecy? Is there a classic type of prophecy where the words spoken are chosen by God and presented exactly as dictated to a man? Alternatively, would the prophetic word of an individual merely express his/her personal thoughts in response to something that God is perceived to have done?

Was Zacharias, the priest, called to be a prophet in Israel or was he merely tasked with speaking prophetically at that one and only time? If the latter, which type of 'prophetic utterance' were the words of Zacharias? Were they God's words or the words of Zacharias? Was he God's mouthpiece speaking into the world of men or was he a representative from among men speaking words of praise to God? How might the actual words from his presentation help us to discern whether he spoke from God to man or as a man to God? 

69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant, 70 as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,

The prophecy of Zacharias - which Luke presented as having been spoken at the birth of John, maybe six months before the birth of Jesus - assumed that God had 'accomplished redemption for His people' and had already 'raised up a horn of salvation for us'. In other words, Zacharias believed by faith exactly what the angel Gabriel had told him nine months earlier, that his son, John, would 'go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of make ready a people prepared for the Lord' (Luke 1:17). If the promise of a son through his aged and barren wife was true, then the promise that John would prepare the way of the Lord must also be true.

Was the thinking of Zacharias 'logical'? If we consider the sequence of events that Zacharias had personally experienced, how could he have arrived at any other conclusion? First, the angel Gabriel had visited him while he was serving as a priest in the temple. Second, he was struck mute for not believing the angel's words. Third, his aged and barren wife 'did' conceive and bear a son. Fourth, as soon as Zacharias confirmed that his son would be named 'John', he muteness disappeared.

Zacharias couldn't deny any of these happenings. They weren't anecdotal stories he had heard about from someone else, but these were his very own experiences. Everything had played out exactly as the angel had said they would.

All that being true, Zacharias had to then wrestle with the 'other' things that the angel had told him: (1) that his son, John, would be blessed with the 'spirit and power of Elijah' in order to 'prepare the way of the Lord, and thus (2) the Lord, the Messiah, was about to arrive. Both of these promises were later confirmed by two other witnesses. First, his wife had been 'filled with the Spirit' when she was six months pregnant. She was 'told' by the Spirit that the fruit of Mary's womb was the very Lord that her son would prepare the way for (Lk 1:42-45). Second, Zacharias was probably around when Mary visited with his wife and was privy, we assume, to Mary's own personal testimony of what the same angel had told her (Lk 1:31-33).

Unless Zacharias was a complete fool, he could not have come to any other conclusion. He had personally heard Gabriel's promise, had personally seen the fulfillment of Gabriel's promise, had heard confirmation through his own wife, and had heard confirmation through Mary. He had no doubt that the promises spoken by 'holy prophets of old' were not only true, but were were being fulfilled right before his own eyes. God was already at work redeeming his people through the 'horn of salvation' from the line of David.

But, from what were God's people going to be 'saved from'?

71 Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, 73 the oath which He swore to Abraham our father, 74 to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

When Gabriel first spoke to Mary, he only said that her child would be great and would reign over the house of Jacob forever (Lk 1:32,33). His name, Jesus, means 'Jehovah is Salvation'. In other words, the focus of salvation was on being saved 'into' a relationship with Jesus, rather than being saved 'from' disagreeable things in this world. Though both are true, the latter follows the former, not visa versa.

When Gabriel first spoke to Zacharias, nothing was said about what the Messiah would 'do', but what John would do for the Messiah (Lk 1:16,17).

Later, when Mary spoke her Magnificat, she presented 'her' beliefs in what her child, the Messiah, would 'do'. He would 'scatter the proud, bring down rulers, exalt the humble, feed the hungry, and send away the rich' (Lk 1:51-54). These desires represented common Jewish hopes. They certainly weren't an accurate summation of what Jesus actually did.

Later, when Zacharias spoke his prophecy, he presented 'his' beliefs that the coming of the Lord would first, 'save Israel from all their enemies so that they could serve God without fear (Lk 1:71,74). Again, he also spoke out of a common Jewish hope which was not in harmony with the actual ministry of Jesus who taught the Jews to not hate their enemies, but to love them.

The point is that what the angel said to both Mary and Zacharias could only be heard and interpreted within the religious belief system they understood at the time. The angel did not present them with an entirely new and perfect theology, but with 'good news' that they were left to interpret and wrestle with. In response, both translated their experience in a manner that conflated their current beliefs with the angel's words.

Luke boldly presented their extrapolations without commentary or judgment, as if to remind us that God always expects us to wrestle with our beliefs. Heaven refuses to 'spoon feed us'.  We all interpret life events with the 'belief' tools we have. While extraordinary experiences often alter our beliefs somewhat, they seldom instantly over turn our whole system of belief. Instead, as we see clearly in the NT, even those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus interpreted it through the only lens they had, making some changes in their theological understandings, while retaining many other conflicting notions. A completely new system of belief evolved over many centuries. In fact, Christianity continues to evolve as a system of belief even in the 21st century after Christ.

Zacharias took his experience and spoke 'prophetically' in the minimal sense. He interpreted all that he had seen and heard with understandable 'confirmation bias', particularly in verses 68-75. Then, in the remainder of his prophesy, he suddenly shifts gears in a manner that reveals a much deeper grasp of God's will than one would have expected, considering what he said in verses 68-75.

76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; 77 to give to His people the knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins,

Jesus called the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth 'more than a prophet' by Jesus (Lk 7:26). Why? Because he not only talked prophetically about the imminent coming of the Messiah, he was also tasked with the thankless job of radically undermining current theological beliefs. 

In order to effectively 'prepare the way' for the ministry of Jesus, the Jews had to give up their long cherished soteriological notion - that salvation meant deliverance from Roman rule. The Jews had come to believe that salvation was a political issue rather than a moral issue. The believed that salvation would come through military strength, rather than by love and compassion.

The Jews looked for a sword bearing Messiah, but Jesus came as a grace proclaiming Messiah. The Jews viewed the Romans as their enemy, but Jesus intentionally taught them to love their enemies. The Jews assumed that their Gentile rulers were the problem, but Jesus taught that the real problem was the human 'heart'. The locus of evil is not 'out there', but 'within'.

Jesus would come preaching about the kingdom of God's grace, yet that message would have been instantly rejected if John had not been first sent to install doubts in the current belief system. Salvation would not arise from the kingdom of men, but only as we enter the kingdom of God. Sadly, many Christians today look for political salvation rather than being saved from themselves. They have made sacred a 'Constantinian' hope that does not exist as a genuine option, and it is not the Christian hope.

78 because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zacharias had personally just experienced the mercy of God. He had expressed doubt, was given time to reconsider his thinking about God, then given another chance. He responded with faith. Doubt in God's word no longer had a place within his heart. He knew the 'tender mercy of our God.' He was an example of one for whom the 'Sunshine from on high' had shined His light and chased away the 'darkness' of doubt. Zacharias knew the 'way of peace' that is only realized through complete trust in God.

No wonder Zacharias could grasp the mission set before his newborn son. He understood that the first reform that needed to enter the world would require a shift in the thinking of the Jewish people. The Jews, like Zacharias himself, had assumed that their only problem was the Roman occupation. If God could just get rid of 'them', then the people of God would enter into the promise of peace. But that kind of thinking was delusional.

The father of John still had not given up his hope that the coming Messiah would clobber all the enemies of Israel - as noted in verses 68-75. But he also realized that the work of the Messiah would not be finished by merely eliminating the external enemy. There could be no peace until the human heart fully surrendered to the 'Sunrise from on high'. Genuine peace only exists where the darkness within each human heart has been exposed and jettisoned - confessed and repented of. Thus John would preach repentance.

The Jews actually 'sat' in darkness, yet believed they lived in the light. The symptom of 'darkness' is the presence of fear. It can be the fear of death, the fear that one might lose their possessions, loved ones, position in society, or heath. Where there is perfect trust in God, all fear is cast away - because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The question for us is, have we embraced a pseudo-peace - a peace that is built upon something other than trust in God? Or, have we given God our permission to shine the light of truth onto every aspect of our thinking so that all traces of darkness can be revealed and excised?

80 And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

As we will discover with the childhood and young adulthood of Jesus, not much has been given to us regarding the John's upbringing either, except that he 'continued to grow and to become strong in spirit.' He then lived int he deserts until God called him into public service.

How 'real' was John's childhood? Did he ever make mistakes or sin? Did he ever get into fights with other neighborhood kids? Did his father raise him to be a priest? At what age did he lose his parents? Did the neighbors watch him closely, remembering all that had happened at his birth?

God had a purpose for John 'before' John had ever been conceived in the womb of Elizabeth. Surely this makes certain the words of Jeremiah 31:3 - 'I have loved you with an everlasting love,; therefore I have I drawn you with lovingkindness.' Similarly, it gives deeper meaning to the words of Paul to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:4), 'He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him, in love.'

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Luke 1:57-66 Baby John

Monday 57 Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son.

As it was said by the angel, so it happened with the woman. Elizabeth conceived, remained pregnant to term, gave birth, and then presented to the world her newborn boy. If, as assumed, Mary was still visiting Elizabeth, her faith in God must have been strengthened not only by the birth of Elizabeth's son, but by the events that subsequently took place.

58 Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her.

During the many years that Elizabeth was barren, many looked and judged her as 'obviously' cursed by God. But then, after she gave birth, many rejoiced with her as one who was clearly blessed by God. Such religious fickleness betrayed the spiritual dysfunction among the people of God. Sadly, this continues to happen within the church today as well.

The truth is that God loved Elizabeth from beginning to end, not just at the point when he miraculously helped her to conceive. The blessing of a miraculous 'cure' is not greater than the miracle of God's grace. In other words, we are blessed by God's grace whether or not we continue to suffer. Suffering is not evidence that we are cursed by God. Nor should the fact of God's grace entice us to ever forget the reason for grace.

This story stands as yet another reminder that we should not allow ourselves to judge others based on what we 'see'. We need to see all others as God sees them. Those whom we deem as the cursed of heaven may simply be those whom God is using to expose the 'curse' implicit in our own judgmental spirit. Judgment of others exposes us as ungrateful recipients of God's grace.

Do the scriptures relate incidents where God has 'cursed' a person, a family, or a nation, and even the world? Sure. But are those accounts presented as a call for Christians to become modern day, 'curse-exposing' Sherlock Holmes? The fact that God has, does, and will make judgments in this world, is not license for believers in God to be judgmental. We must, of course, make judgments, but never forgetful of the truth that - 'but for the grace of God, go I.'

The life of Christ actually points us in the opposite direction. Whenever He met someone who was suffering, He approached them with compassion. On the other hand, whenever He met someone who stood in judgment of others, he warned them that they might receive the curse of God's judgment. How did the church ever get all this turned upside down?

What is it that drives so many Christians to label a suffering person as 'cursed of God' rather than to immediately and compassionately step into that person's life to reveal that they are loved by God? Isn't our inclination to judge rather than to love simply a reflection of our own low self-esteem? In judging others are we not shouting to the world that we do not believe that the grace of God is for us? Isn't a judgmental spirit a psychological defense mechanism that attempts to hide the truth about our inner fears and doubts?

59 And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60 But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.”

Who were 'they'? Was it common among first century Jews, for people other than the parents, to name a child? Was it assumed that a child would be given the same name as the father? It that was true, wouldn't a genealogy merely have the same first name for all - John, the son of John, the son of John, the son of John, etc.?

Clearly, Elizabeth and Zacharias had been communicating, though not verbally, at least from her husband. They were both already clear on what their child's name would be (v. 60, 64), regardless of what was traditionally expected in their culture, or what priests, friends, or other family members thought.

Why did Gabriel want the son of Zacharias ("remembered of Jehovah") and Elizabeth ("oath of God") to be named 'John'? What difference would it have made if he had been given his father's name? Was there something significant in the name 'John' ("Jehovah is a gracious giver")? Or, was this simply a test of their faith? There were several other men with the name 'John' in the NT - John the apostle, John Mark, John of the Sanhedrin. In other words, it was not a unique name in either meaning or usage.

Luke related this story for a reason. Both Elizabeth and Zacharias had chosen to trust and obey God. They were willing to stand alone in the world, to be mocked by unbelieving neighbors, and even to be jettisoned by their religious community. Once they were clear on what God wanted, they stepped forward to honor His will, regardless of results. They did this even on a relatively minor issue such as the name that was to be given to their newborn son.

Circumcision was practiced among the Egyptians before the time of Abraham, around 2200 BCE. In fact, circumcision had been the practice among many cultures, yet by the first century it was common mostly among just the Jews and Christians. The practice may have originally been a sign that a young man had 'entered into manhood'. Circumcising on the eight day after birth gave the practice a religious meaning that had nothing to do with manhood, but everything to do with identify with a God-chosen people. 

61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. 64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God.

If the name given to a new born child was an item of concern within first century Jewish culture, what insight might this passage give to 21st century readers?

First, Zacharias clearly had already communicated heaven's command to his wife regarding the choice of a name for this son. Gabriel had said he must be called 'John', so 'John' it would be. God's expressed will in the present must always trump man's cultural/religious expectations derived from the past.

Second, Elizabeth didn't argue the point, which suggests that she was a woman who was always either submissive to her husband's will, or accepted it only because she believed that this was God's will, or hopefully both.

Third, were fathers given the responsibility for naming their children - or at least their sons - or was this the task of mothers or the community? In other words, did the people consult with Zacharias because he had the final say in the matter or because they couldn't agree with Elizabeth's decision?

Fourth, the fact that the people - relatives, neighbors, and possibly Jewish clergymen - were 'astonished' at this choice of names, indicates that the naming of a child was an important cultural event in their culture at that time in history. Names had significance not merely because of the meaning behind a particular name, but also because of its connectivity with tribal male lineage.

The final, and maybe the most important point, is found in verse 64. Zacharias had been punished with muteness for his lack of faith in what the angel had told him. This punishment extended from the moment he expressed doubt until the moment where he was given another chance to express faith. When his mouth spoke in agreement with God's will he was enabled to speak again. When the ability to speak returned to Zacharias, at that very moment it confirmed for the crowd that (1) the pregnancy of Elizabeth wasn't a mere fluke, but a miracle of God, (2) that God had chosen Elizabeth, Zacharias, and their son for an important work, and (3) that whatever God's reasons for choosing this name for this newborn, His will was more important than their tradition.

How important are religious traditions to you? Do you tend to use your traditions in order to discern God's will, or do you look for God's will to determine if you need to set aside a particular religious tradition? Does this story suggest that traditions are always foolish or simply that believers need to be careful to not exalt human traditions above the clear will of God expressed in the present?

65 Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea.

Experiencing a little deja vu after reading this verse? The people encounter miracle after miracle, yet respond similarly to each of them - with fear, then seemingly forget all about it, as if the miracle never happened. Are we, in the 21st century, as 'dull-minded' as folks in the 1st (Mt. 13:15)?

'Talking' about something can be a psychological defense mechanism that we use to avoid dealing with the real issue - 'who has our heart'. Curiously, we use an unexpected 'happening' as a scape goat, focusing our attention and conversation on 'it', rather than on 'ourselves'. That which God had sent to awaken us to our need for Him gets deflected into long conversations 'about' the nature of what God did rather than the purpose for what God did. We exhaust ourselves in talk to avoid a Spirit-led examination of our hearts.

The scriptures seem to present Jesus healing more often than 'talking'. In other words, He worked miracles that should have awakened faith, hope, and love among those He ministered to and among those who witnessed what He was 'doing'. Yet the people parried His every attempt to touch their hearts, by clamoring instead for more 'signs' of God's judgment upon their enemies. They preferred to gossip and talk 'about' stuff more than to be changed in heart by the clear acts of God among them. They feared their enemies, yet heaven had been trying to reveal to them that their most powerful and insidious enemy existed within them - in a heart not fully surrendered to God. The people used their religious beliefs and practices as a defense against opening their hearts to God. The more closely they adhered to their religion, the more distant their hearts were from God.

In what ways do you 'ju-jitsu' the efforts of the Spirit when he makes heart appeals to you?

66 All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.

There is probably no more important phrase from our scripture passage this week then this one: 'kept them in mind'. Mindfulness is not obsessiveness, rather the choice to quietly and deeply reflect on great themes. Nor is mindfulness the mere rehearsing of frivolous notions, but wrestling with the important philosophical, ethical, and moral issues of our day, of human existence and purpose.

Unfortunately, many of us are so busy we end up becoming, more or less, 'mindless' in all that we do. We are not circumspect as we act or speak. We tend to act in the moment without reference to past experience and/or we permit a past experience to compel us to act mindlessly in the present.

Mindfulness is important to long term mental health. It changes the organization and processing of the human brain. While traditions are important for social stability and personal comfort in a chaotic world, they must never become our sole source of soul peace. Genuine peace is the product of being Spirit-guided as we wrestle with grand themes, at the heart level - the place where both reason and emotion meet and interact with God.

What, exactly, did the neighbors of Zacharias and Elizabeth 'keep in mind'? That barren Elizabeth miraculously had a child in her old age, that the nine month long muteness suffered by Zacharias miraculously ended when he confirmed the name of their son, and that all this had led them to wonder what God had in mind for this new born child. In other words, they kept in mind that God was working out a plan among his people, thus they needed to keep their eyes and ears open.

Curiously, even the very birth of John prepared the way for the Messiah simply by encouraging the Jews to be 'noticers' of God at work in and around them.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Luke 1:39-56 Blessed

39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.

Interesting. Gabriel informed Mary about Elizabeth's pregnancy, seemingly to encourage her faith in God's ability to accomplish anything - specifically that the long hoped for Messiah could arise from the womb of a young, illiterate, poor woman living in Galilee. After the angel left, Mary 'went in a hurry' to visit Elizabeth. Why? Maybe to congratulate her. Maybe to confirm what the angel had said. But also, maybe, to fellowship with another person in that very small cohort of people who knew Gabriel personally and who were about to play pivotal roles in the history of mankind.

The husbands of both Mary and Elizabeth played an important, though somewhat minor role in the unfolding of events. Both women, on the other hand, had measurably more important roles, in that they bore in their wombs two unusual men and then were tasked with faithfully raising them to love and obey God. The younger of the two, Mary's son, would be the absolute key to the success of heaven's plan.

Had Joseph already been informed about the angel's visit with Mary? Did he give his permission for Mary to make the long journey to Judah from Galilee? Did she travel by herself or did Joseph or some others accompany her? Was she already pregnant when she left Nazareth or did she conceive while away or upon her return?  

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.

Elizabeth was certainly thrilled that she was finally pregnant - even if it was in her old age. She was confident that her pregnancy was due to the miraculous intervention of God, as promised by the angel Gabriel. Yet, if we are honest, even great faith is always accompanied by some degree of doubt. Maybe Elizabeth wondered at times if her pregnancy really was of God. Couldn't her 'doubt' have been the reason behind her decision to seclude herself? Didn't she want to be a sure as possible that she wouldn't miscarry? As her pregnancy continued to progress without incident, her confidence in the promise grew. Isn't that, humanly speaking, what happens with all people of faith? Do we not all grow from faith to faith through the confidence building experiences of life (Rom. 1:17)?

The scriptures remind us that God understands the human heart. God knows that life in this world works against having absolute trust in divine guidance. We all witness too many examples where we feel abandoned by God. We have all experienced trusting in God, yet felt that God didn't intervene as the Bible promised. Daily life experiences may not only feed our faith, it often works to deepen our doubt. Elizabeth and Mary were not immune to doubt, yet the God who understands the ways of man, not only intervened through two miraculous conceptions, but provided a series of other faith building opportunities to these two women.

One such opportunity for both Mary and Elizabeth occurred during their visit. Mary witnessed the truth about her relatives old age pregnancy. It was exactly as the angel had said. Elizabeth was not only pregnant, but six months pregnant. Truth is established when there are two or three other witnesses. This was true for Elizabeth. First, she got pregnant and had remained pregnant. Second, Mary's unexpected arrival. Third, something happened inside the womb of Elizabeth as soon as Mary said, 'hello'. Her unborn baby 'leaped' in her womb at the sound of Mary's voice. All these confirmations buoyed up the faith of Elizabeth.

The way that Luke presented this story leads us to believe that Elizabeth was then gifted with a prophetic utterance. Mary had only just greeted her and had yet to tell Elizabeth the whole story of Gabriel's visit. None-the-less, as the Spirit filled Elizabeth, she spoke out in prophetic words. Her prophecy confirmed what Mary had been told, before Mary had had a chance to tell Elizabeth.

There are several parts to this prophetic word. (1) Among all the women in the world, God had chosen Mary for His purposes. (2) Specifically, the womb of Mary would bear the Lord - if she hadn't already conceived. (3) God had placed it in Mary's heart to visit Elizabeth, honoring her as the mother of John. 

Why did God chose women who were related to each other to accomplish His purpose? Why the wife of a priest and a woman betrothed to a carpenter? Why 'country' folk? Why one who was very old and one who was very young? Why at that particular time in history? Why did God not send Gabriel to Mary before her betrothal, effectively eliminating the additional grief she would experience due to rumors? If Mary had become pregnant without a man like Joseph to 'pin the blame on', what might have happened to her?

45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Luke made it clear that, according to his research, Mary had no doubts about what Gabriel had told her (Lk 1:38). This, according to Luke, was again confirmed by Elizabeth (Lk 1:45).

We can derive from scripture that Mary had already been betrothed to Joseph by the time that Gabriel visited her (Lk 1:27), that Elizabeth was already six months pregnant when Mary visited her (Lk 1:26, 36), and that Mary had become pregnant sometime during her betrothal period (Lk 2:5), and that she probably 'married' sometime while on her way to Bethlehem or after arriving there.

But can we confirm 'exactly when' Mary conceived and what the actual age difference was between John and Jesus?

When Gabriel visited Mary he said to her: 'you WILL conceive...' and 'the Holy Spirit WILL come upon you...' (Lk 1:31; 35), then the angel left her. Immediately after that, as Luke told us, Mary hurried to see Elizabeth. When she arrived Elizabeth said, 'Blessed IS the fruit of your womb...' and 'blessed IS she who BELIEVED that there WOULD be a fulfillment...' (Lk 1:42;45).

Are we to believe that Mary had conceived already - some time between when Gabriel left and when she arrived at the home of Elizabeth - as suggested by verse 42? Or, did she conceive while visiting Elizabeth? Or, is it possible that Mary didn't conceive until after visiting her relative? The answer to these questions is actually important to our belief that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and not through the usual means of having 'known a man'.

Gabriel not only wasn't given the power to make Mary conceive, he seems to have made it clear that the Spirit alone would be the agent of her conception. If we assume that the statement, 'the Holy spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you', described the means of her conception apart from 'knowing a man', and that this was 'reason for why the holy child would be called the Son of God', then she probably conceived by the Spirit 'after' Gabriel left her. But, again, when?

It is possible, as mentioned before, that the word, 'overshadow', which is the same word used by Luke for the transfiguration, was not the means by which Mary conceived, but the means by which Mary would be enabled to raise Jesus to be the Messiah. Either way, this fact may not help us determine 'when' Mary conceived, unless it opens the door for Joseph to have been the actual sperm donor. If so, when? If so, why? Had both Mary and Joseph understood Gabriel's words as permission to be intimate despite the tradition of betrothals that prohibited cohabitation? Maybe, but....

If Mary conceived immediately after Gabriel left, then the age difference between John and Jesus would have been around 6 months. If Mary conceived after Gabriel's visit, then the age difference between John and Jesus would have been greater than 6 months, but couldn't have been any more than 9 months. Since a betrothal usually only lasted for one year and she was already betrothed to Joseph when Gabriel visited her and pregnant while still betrothed (Lk 2:5). In other words, Mary had to have become pregnant within three months after speaking with Gabriel.

Though we cannot be dogmatic about the 'exact' age difference between Jesus and John, the scriptures make it clear that Mary most likely conceived either immediately before leaving to see Elizabeth, during her 3 month stay with Elizabeth, or immediately after her return from visiting Elizabeth. Why would this be important? Well, unless Joseph accompanied Mary during her visit to see Elizabeth, which there is no evidence for any place in the gospels, then if he had been the real father of Jesus, he and Mary would have had to be intimate immediately after Gabriel left or immediately after Mary returned from the home of Elizabeth. Yet, the way this narrative appears to have been intentionally constructed, 'time wise', makes it nearly impossible for Joseph to have been the biological father of Jesus. Though everyone at the time naturally assumed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus (Lk 4:22), should we, based on Luke's account, assume so as well?

Sometimes facts can obstruct the truth - especially when people are not ready for the truth. Sometimes permitting a lie to exist can buy enough time for sufficient evidence to build up so that the truth can be accepted. 

46 And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. 49 For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name."

In these first four verses of the Magnificat, Mary expressed what the good news of her pregnancy meant to her. For her to be chosen as the mother of the Lord, meant that God truly does know the heart of all people, and is not a respecter of people based on human calculations.

If you had an encounter with an angel, what would be your response?

Would such an encounter lead you to more fully commit your life to Christ? Would such a renewal of your faith lead to any major changes in your lifestyle or even in your career?

Here's the difficult question. Do you require an angel visitation to commit your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to Christ? Isn't that the first and greatest commandment of all? In other words, are you really a person of faith - regardless of angelic visitations? If the two great commandments do not describe your life, what 'life commandments' are you better known for? And, if your 'life commandments' are not Christ's life commandments, what is a better label for your rather than 'Christian'?

What we are told about the adolescent Mary is that she had already given her whole being to God. Nothing changed because Gabriel visited her to announce that God had chosen her among all the women in the world, to be the mother of the Messiah. She was chosen because she was already of woman of deep faith. The only change that happened in her life after Gabriel's visit was in the specific tasks God gave to her.

In choosing Mary for this great responsibility, God did not promise her that she would live in an earthly mansion, accumulate great wealth, never suffer pain, be gifted with new talents, or have all temptations removed from her life. Her 'humble state' remained as it was. If anything, her sufferings in this world increased. She didn't become a world renown musician or artist, philosopher or professor, healer or scientist. She became a faithful mother to her firstborn son. She had been raised to be a mother. Her faith in God made it possible for God to choose her to be the mother of his Son. Her faithfulness in the mundane responsibilities of ordinary life didn't necessarily qualify her to be the Queen of a worldly empire, but to be the Queen Mother of the spiritual Kingdom.

So, do you need a supernatural manifestation in order to pursue excellence in whatever tasks you have been called to in life?

50 “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. 51 He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. 54 He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, 55 As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”

In the first few verses of the Magnificat, Mary described the way God looks at man. In these last few verses of the Magnifcat, Mary described how man ought to look at God.  This second part presents as a traditional, hyperbolic worship response to personal good fortune. It is praise that is not meant to be interpreted literally.

God has not, of course, either scattered all who are prideful nor brought down all the rulers, while exalting all who are humble in heart. Otherwise our world would look very different than it does in reality. He has clearly not fed all who are the hungry while dismissing the rich, else we wouldn't have so many people dying of starvation every day. These statements within Mary's praise weren't true in the first century, nor has it ever been true even up to today. Again, this is praise, not history-altering fact. It is like a parent's response to a child's 'A' in math. 'Son, I'm so proud of you. You are clearly a very smart kid.' While the statement may be true in part, it may neglect the whole. The child may only have one 'A' and a 'C' or a 'D' in everything else. The parent may not be proud of everything the child does. What the parent is doing is praising what deserved to be praised without mentioning the facts about everything else.

What are some of the Bible texts that you may have taken more literally than they were originally intended? How was your faith assaulted when your expectations from a literal interpretation of a text didn't come to fruition?

56 And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home.

The obvious conclusion is that Mary remained with Elizabeth until Elizabeth safely delivered her first and only child - named John. As mentioned earlier, it seems most probable that Mary herself became pregnant after leaving Nazareth to visit her relative and before returning back home. I say this because it appears that the author of this gospel has carefully constructed it to suggest such a conclusion. The only other option is that after hearing from Gabriel, Mary didn't hurry to visit Elizabeth, rather she hurried into the arms of Joseph - which, according to this narrative, seems highly unlikely. 

If we were to place the story of Gabriel's visit to Joseph into the chronological sequence reasoned out by Luke's research, which Luke himself did not, it makes sense to place his encounter with the angel 'after' Mary's return from the home of Elizabeth. In other words, Mary returned home undeniably pregnant. What was Joseph supposed to believe? Either she had chosen to be with another man while away or she had gotten raped while traveling. Whatever the case, Joseph knew without a doubt that her pregnancy was not his doing. Yet, he loved Mary, so he decided to 'send her away secretly'. The only other option was for him to marry her and let the tongues wag within their small community.

It seems that it was at that point in time that God sent the angel Gabriel to persuasively inform Joseph to opt for plan B, regardless of the rumors. No one would have believed the truth anyways. Mary had become pregnant while betrothed to Joseph. Joseph had to decide whether or not he would accept being falsely accused so that a greater truth could eventually be revealed - a truth that the world was not yet ready for.  It would take many decades to 'ready' the world for the facts. Joseph would not live to see his name exonerated. Yet he accepted God's will and live the rest of his life wrongly accused. Sometime 'after' leaving for Bethlehem, Joseph married Mary, at least that is what we are left to conclude from Luke's gospel (Mt. 1:24; Luke 2:5).

Have you ever been in a situation where a lie about you sounded more plausible than the actual truth?

1. Were there any aspects in this week's text that triggered an emotional response in you? If so, what might that have been about?
2. Did the story seem to unfold logically or did Luke present his conclusions illogically to your mind?
3. Which parts of this narrative presented as a 'bible koan' to you?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Luke 1:26-38 Mary

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

We find angels interacting in human affairs more than 100 times in the Old Testament and over 175 times in the New Testament. The first mention of angels is found in Genesis 3:24 and the last in Revelation 22. Yet in all these references to angels there are only a few times when we are given the actual name of an angel. An angel, named Gabriel, first appeared in the Bible record when he was sent to assist Daniel (Dan. 8:15). Was this a new role assigned to the angel Gabriel, and if so, who was he replacing or was this a newly created position? Had this angel always had the name Gabriel, or was this a name given to him because of his work with humans? Do angel's even need names?

Gabriel had met with the 'prophet' Daniel in the citadel of Susa (in modern Iran) during the time of the Babylonian empire. Then he met with the priest Zacharias in the Holy Place of the Temple in the city of Jerusalem, in Judea. Assuming that the name Gabriel was given only to one particular angel, then this same Gabriel was next sent to visit a 'priest' - Zacharias. Six months after Gabriel met with Zacharias, he was yet again 'sent from God' to convey more 'good news' to the city of Nazareth in Galilee to meet a lowly young woman named Mary. What can we learn from this progression of message giving? Gabriel was sent by God to deliver messages to a prophet, a priest, and then to a young woman. Would God send this particular angel to just anyone or was Gabriel tasked with communicating God's will only to significant human beings? If so, who, then, was Mary? How could she be as significant a human among human prophets and priests?

Mary was, from all outward appearances, merely a simply, religiously faithful, young teenage girl. We don't know if she was intellectually or otherwise gifted, beautiful or homely, a good cook or a seamstress; both or neither. We haven't been told if she was an only child or, if she had siblings, what her sibling position was. We can only speculate about her personality from the few times she was mentioned in the gospels. One of the few things we do know about her is that her parents had agreed to marry her off to a man named Joseph.

First century Jewish marriages began with a betrothal phrase that had the same legal standing as a marriage does today. Thus, to break up a betrothal was a serious act that required a legal divorce. During the betrothal the couple would be considered as husband and wife, yet they were not permitted to cohabitate until the actual wedding night. Though strange to modern societies, such betrothals often lasted up to one year, though certain circumstances may have allowed for a shorter period of time. Neither the man or the woman were forced into this agreement against their choice, so we can assume that both Mary and Joseph had freely entered into this 'marriage'.

There are a couple of points in verse 27 that are essential to the story of Jesus as told by Luke. First, Joseph was a descendant of David, which was important because the Messiah was to arise out of the tribe of Judah and be a descendant of King David (Jer. 23:5,6). This would all be consistent, except for the second point.

Second, Mary was, of course, a 'virgin' when betrothed to Joseph. The plan was for her to remain a virgin until their wedding night, but, as we discover later (Lk 2:5), Mary became pregnant while still in the betrothal period. The explanation for her pregnancy, as told by Luke, had been prophesied by Gabriel (Lk 1:35). She would, if we have interpreted the angel's words correctly, miraculously conceive as an act of the Spirit, apart from 'knowing' Joseph or any other man. Joseph, therefore, would not be the biological father of Jesus, which made the ancestry of Joseph, from the tribe of Judah, somewhat irrelevant to our modern thinking - except maybe legally, since ancestry was determined through the paternal line even if an 'adoption' had occurred. Later, though, Luke tells us that Joseph was assumed to have been the actual father of Jesus, thus making his genealogy important to those who cared about such things (Lk 3:23).

Mary was a relative of Elizabeth - which could mean she was either a niece or cousin or even a third cousin, since Elizabeth was much older than Mary. Elizabeth was from the tribe of Levi (Lk 1:5), not Judah. Again, lineage was determined through the male line, yet inter-tribal marriages were not uncommon. Thus Mary could have a maternal lineage back to Judah as we well as a paternal lineage back to Levi. The point in all this is that the followers of Jesus believed that He met all the criteria for being the Messiah of bible prophecy from the lineage of Judah and as a descendant of King David.

28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.

The text suggests that the angel's entrance into the place where Mary was staying was unusual, maybe because he was a 'stranger' to her and had just entered her home without being invited in. It is not clear whether she realized that this person was an angel or not, at least at first. More perplexing to her than this 'mans' sudden entrance, was what the he then said. Why would a stranger walk uninvited into her home and then greet her with the words, 'Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.'? Luke wrote that Mary stopped and 'pondered' the angel's statement. His spiritual greeting stood in contrast to his uninvited entrance into her home as a stranger. No wonder she was momentarily confused.

Not only was her fear in being suddenly approached by a stranger and her delight in his greeting understandably conflictual, but the deeper meaning in the content of what he said immediately raised another whole set of questions. She was 'favored'? What did that mean? 'The Lord is with her'? Hopefully that was always true, but was the 'man' suggesting something more by these words? Very 'perplexing' indeed.

If his words elicited immediate theological significance, is that what had quickly moved her through a roller coaster of emotions - from surprise to perplexity and then into fear? Is it possible that the nature of his greeting elicit something in her that doesn't translate well in our English translation or from our 21st century culture? Had the greeting signified to her that she had been the one chosen to be the mother of the Messiah? Had that been the hope of all women during that particular time in history?

The next logical question, if logic could have been applied under the circumstances, would have been 'who' is this 'person'? Was he a prophet, priest, or....?

30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

At some point, maybe only moments into her 'pondering', Mary became acutely aware of the fact that 'he' was not just a stranger, nor even a prophet or priest. Rather, the individual was an angel of God. She moved from puzzling over the words of the 'man' to being frightened by the presence of an angel, not to mention the possible significance of what the angel may have been suggesting.

Heavenly beings have always found themselves in the position where they have had to tell humans to 'cool their jets', to 'not be afraid'. If both angels and humans arose from the hands of the one Creator God, and have interacted since the beginning, we might expect a more welcoming, even automatic initial response, or at least a faint sense of familiarity. Though not of the same 'substance', both angels and humans were created by the same Maker. Yet, despite that, and no matter how mature the faith of the human, his/her consistent first response to an angel is always 'fear'. This would be far more understandable if the existence of angels had never been imagined, yet mankind has always believed in angels. We love angels and have always valued them as part of our various religious beliefs. So, Why are we so immediately fearful of the very beings that support the One we regularly worship? Does our fear arise out of our sense of guilt before God or out of our doubt that the very things we 'believe' in may not really exist?

Luke's account of the angel's appearance in Nazareth may have been understandably abbreviated. None-the-less, what we read comes across as far too abrupt. 'Do not be are going to conceive the Messiah'. Yikes. Wouldn't God have known that this would have been far too much to grasp so quickly, especially for a young girl who was possibly only 13, 14, or 15 years of age? How was Mary 'hearing' those words? We understand them after two millennia of theologizing and having been raised in a 'Christian' culture. But, wouldn't those words have presented as much of an impossibility then, as if an angel of God appeared to a man today and said, 'in 3 minutes you will no longer be a human male, but a female squirrel'?

The scriptures remind us that God was sending John to 'prepare the way' for the Messiah, yet Gabriel merely 'cut to the chase' with Mary. There wasn't any 'preparing her' for the 'way' that God was about to work within her, though this announcement was, perhaps, designed to prepare her for a whole life filled with both excitement and woe.

On the other hand, verses 31 and 32, at least as Luke wrote them, didn't necessarily imply anything supernatural. The angel's words simply said that Mary would become pregnant and bear one who would be called the 'son of the most high' - assumed to be the Messiah - and that she must name him 'Jesus'. Based on our English translation of these verses and our understanding of this world's reality, if we had been in Mary's place we would most likely have assumed that the angel meant that her first born child with Joseph would be the long awaited 'Messiah'. No one expected the Messiah to have been God incarnate, conceived in the womb of a woman. That would have been the delusional thinking of arrogant pagan emperors, not the Jews. An objective reading of these verses would not lead us to believe in an incarnation. Rather, if we had not been primed to believe otherwise, we would have merely assumed that Joseph would have been the biological father of Jesus, that Mary would not have conceived any differently than had old Elizabeth.

So, if that is legitimate, what might have led Mary to assume otherwise - if she really had? Did Luke erroneously omit some of the angel's words to Mary that implied more than we read? Or, is our translation of the text lacking the intent that may have been implicit in the original language of his manuscript? Or, was Mary so simple minded that she totally misunderstood the angel, only later to learn that her childish misunderstanding had unwittingly been the truth? Or, have bible scholars misunderstood this text for two millennia?

Whatever the case, the child that Mary would bear would become a king over a kingdom that would never end. It just wouldn't be, at least in the beginning, the kind of kingdom that the Jews were expecting, nor that Mary, Joseph, the disciples of Jesus, or anyone else had been expecting.

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.

Mary's response seems to suggest that she had somehow understood the angel's words to mean that she would become pregnant without having ever 'known a man' - Joseph or otherwise. If that is true, then why would her response be any less of an expression of doubt than had been spoken by Zacharias? 'How can this be?" Aren't there just two ways to view this? We have either misinterpreted the text or we have interpreted it correctly, as did Mary, and thus she expressed doubt.

The angel didn't say to Mary, 'you HAVE conceived a child in your womb', but that she WOULD conceive a son (Lk 1:31). It would have been far more logical for Mary to have understood Gabriel's words as a confirmation that her first born child would have been fathered by Joseph after their betrothal period and that 'their' child would become the hoped for Messiah. For God to have promised to bless their child with the ability to become the Messiah, that alone would have been received as an awesome and divinely miraculous gift.

So, what led Mary to have asked 'how'? Had the angel said more to her than Luke reported in his gospel? If so, again, why didn't Gabriel fault her for her doubt just as he had Zacharias?

There may be another way to understand her question. The phrase, 'I know not a man' may actually be a statement of faith rather than an expression of doubt. 'How can this be since I have not known a man?' may not have been a biologically based question, but a rhetorical one. In other words, maybe what she was saying was something like, 'how great is our God that He would consider someone like me - a poor, young, uneducated, virgin female, from a nasty little country town - to be the mother of the Lord?'  Possible? Mary actually expressed this very sentiment in the Magnificat (Lk 1:48). If Mary's question was more an expression of great wonder that God would choose to honor a woman of her status with so great an responsibility, rather than an question of God's need and/or ability to miraculously impregnate a virgin woman, then the story makes a lot more sense.

Of course, Luke could have intentionally presented Mary as knowing something she couldn't have possibly grasped through the sequence of events, simply as his way to tell the story. In other words, maybe he allowed Mary to 'anticipate' a her eventuality for literary purposes, not because she had actually understood the angel to suggest that she would conceive having never 'known a man'. I say this because Luke did, later (Lk 2:5), record that she was pregnant while still betrothed. 

There is one more possible 'spin' on this story, one that can be made in harmony with all that Luke wrote, thus without having to toss out anything from his gospel. Could Mary and Joseph have understood that heaven had given them permission to act as a married couple even though they were still in the betrothal stage? In other words, regardless of what the social/religious customs of the day expected, wouldn't the word of the angel, sent directly from God, trump the word of man? Shouldn't the agency of Gabriel supersede the agency of a human priest or parents? If the church commanded them not to be intimate until the betrothal phrase was over, yet God commanded them to be intimate 'now', which word would they have taken as more authoritative if they had both encountered Gabriel? So, it could be possible that Mary was pregnant by Joseph while still betrothed (Lk 2:5) simply because God commanded it.

Challenging this last interpretation of events is, of course, the account of Joseph's dream from another gospel account - in Matthew - where he was told through a dream that Mary would become pregnant 'apart' from him. That being said, the curiosity is that Luke chose not to include Matthew's account of Joseph's dream in his own gospel account of which he said came about through much research for the 'facts'. Hmm.

36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Did Mary require additional evidence to finally believe the angel? I.e. '..EVEN your relative Elizabeth has ALSO conceived..' This verse may suggest that Mary actually did have some doubt about the plausibility of becoming pregnant apart from 'knowing a man'. On the other hand, could the angel have been speaking about the 'fact' that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah, rather than referring to 'how' she would conceive? If God could remove the shame of an old barren woman, could he not also honor a poor, teenage girl with the role of raising the Messiah? Again, the Magnificat suggests the latter.

Mary was clued into her secluded relative's secret only after Elizabeth had been pregnant for six months. Though heaven often works to reveal the truths that men attempt to hide, at times there is divine complicity in human efforts to conceal certain truths.  When it was appropriate, God revealed the truth about Elizabeth's pregnancy - at least to Mary.

Though 'nothing will be impossible with God', that should be extrapolated to mean that God helps one sports team to beat another sports team - even in the much loved American past time of football. This statement is often misapplied to things never imagined by the author. So, how should we understand the application of this phrase?

38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Here is where Mary's faith exceeded Zacharias' doubt. 'May it be done to me according to your word. 'Whatever Mary actually understood from her encounter with Gabriel, the sum of the matter is that she surrendered herself fully to God's will.

Mary probably hadn't regularly petitioned heaven for the privilege of being the mother of Israel's long awaited Messiah, as Zacharias had repeatedly petitioned heaven to end his wife's barrenness. Mary had most likely just barely become a teenager, was a female with no legal standing, perhaps having  little if any education, and lived in the wicked, poverty stricken city of Nazareth. Thus, having not specifically petitioned heaven, one might figure that she would have been more apt to doubt any sudden appearance of an angel and question any novel idea presented since she didn't have reason to expect a divine appearance.

Zacharias, on the other hand, was much older, more experienced in life, religiously educated, a male with legal status, and had been trained for the prestigious role of a priest. He 'had' regularly petitioned heaven with the expectation, we assume, of receiving a miraculous intervention. Thus, if anyone should have expected a visit from an angel without having much fear and without expressing any doubt, it should have been Zacharias.

Mary articulated what ought to have been the response of Zacharias and have become the thinking of every person of faith since then. 'May it be done to me according to your word.' Gabriel's word reflected God's command. For the Christian, God's word - whether conveyed by dream, vision, angel, or scripture - should be our constant meditation (Jos. 1:8; Ps. 1:2; 119:15), and our delight to quickly surrender all of our being to.

1. Did you come across what appeared to you as 'logical fallacies'?
2. Did you find yourself getting 'defensive' toward anything Luke wrote in this passage?
3. Did you note any sentence or phrase that could be one of your bible 'koans'?