This is my last writing for 2017. And it focuses on a text near the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke (2:22-40). And in this text, Jesus is only forty days old.
It is with a strong contrast that the speech which goes along with this account appears near the end of the Divine Service. The Nunc Dimittis (In The Lutheran Hymnal, it starts “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word.”) is a hymn that fits with the beginning of Jesus’ life, but it deals with a very important subject—death.
You know a man is significant when the beginning of his life has ramifications for the end of many others. After receiving the Lord’s Supper, we are basically saying that it is okay to die.
Jesus’ life takes precedence over ours; his life, death, and resurrection are infinitely more significant than ours. Jesus’ life gently takes over ours.
The language of Simeon at the very beginning of his speech betrays the huge importance of his God and his promises. A literal translation could be something like the following: “Now you are releasing your slave, O Despot.”
The title he uses seems a bit extreme. But the word has received some negative connotations in the last few years. A despot is essentially the lord of the house. God is called that by Abraham in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, right after Yahweh comes to him and gives a wonderful promise (Genesis 15:1ff).
The word appears at a critical spot within the book of Acts—although there are many such critical spots. Peter and John, after being arrested, were released. The enemies of Jesus saw confidence in them, but they did not harm them. After going back to ‘their own’ (a deliberately ambiguous title), they then say a prayer, asking to speak Jesus’ words with confidence; and their prayer is granted. And this prayer begins with the same title for God.
You are not your own; you were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It takes a while for those words to sink in.
The text for this Sunday (Advent 4) has to do with the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Obviously, with a story like that, Christmas is not too far off—but you did not need me to tell you that.
Instead of talking about the ‘meaning’ of Christmas, it might be more to the point to talk about the meaning of the angel’s greeting to Mary (Luke 1:28). Gabriel said, ‘Hail, having been graced one!’ In this sentence there are only two words in the original language, and the translation is quite literal, so we are obviously going to focus on the second word.
This greeting shakes up Mary in a significant way (again, a literal translation). What is so unusual is that the word, the noun, that we as Lutherans treat as very familiar, grace, is also found in a verb form.
I should say that this is EXTREMELY rare. To give you an idea about HOW rare, it appears one other time, in Ephesians 1:6. Once again, a literal translation gives it in this way: …for the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He graced us in the One having been loved….
In this use, the verb form flows from the noun. In much the same way, St. Paul starts his letters with the word ‘Grace’, and then ‘peace’ often follows soon after. This use of grace as a verb happened much earlier, it happened with a humble young woman, and it all started with God.
The word in the Old Testament has the idea of a favorable attitude that shows itself in actions. Unfortunately some people have gone in the wrong direction with this.
The ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer is largely based on this text from Luke 1, but unfortunately, in about the 15th century, it was added that Mary should pray for us. It was also added that Mary was immaculately conceived, and that was the way she was able to give birth to the Son of God. People unfortunately put themselves on thin ice (an appropriate illustration for this time of year) when they add to the Word of God something that is unsure.
Having grace as a verb come from an angel makes it really come from God. The messenger is never the important thing. It is a wonderful story to see that this verb turns into such a wonderful noun. And it is also a wonderful story to think that the word ‘gospel’, which in Luke only is given as a verb, finally is used as a noun at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7). That word has a long history, and it is important both as a noun and a verb.
The noun makes it concrete and sure. And that is what we have in Jesus.
It is nice to have gospel texts from the first chapters of different gospel accounts. Last week the text was from the Gospel according to Mark. This week it is from the Gospel according to John. And next week it will be from the Gospel according to Luke. Unfortunately all the texts are not from the initial verses of each account.
The starting point of a text is an important thing. And it probably should go without saying that the ending point is also important. And the beginning and ending of the Gospel according to John is, in a word, incredible.
I used the word 'incredible' because, first of all, the writer speaks to the present day person. Twice, near the end, he writes some words so that YOU, the reader or listener, may believe. It is almost as if there is a voice inside of your head--but THIS voice is OUTSIDE your head. Your head can get messed up, just like the rest of you! This voice cannot get messed up.
I also used the word 'incredible' because, in the first chapter, John goes back to the VERY beginning and tries to relate how God could take on flesh and be born as a man. And, if that is not incredible, I do not know what is. We need help to get our minds around it.
John the Baptist was, as the text says, sent from God, and he tried to get the people used to something significant happening--the Jesus event. Last week, in the Gospel according to Mark, John described Jesus as powerful. This week, John connects Jesus to the God of the Old Testament, but he also describes him as standing in the midst of the religious leaders and saying that, unfortunately, the religious leaders do not know him (John 1:26; and the text makes it emphatic that it is the religious leaders who do not know him).
It is unfortunate that many people think of the Gospel according to John as a 'spiritual' gospel. The reason for this is usually attributed to Clement of Alexandria. Eusebius writes about it in this way: 'Last of all, John, aware that the external details had been recorded in the Gospels, was urged by his disciples and divinely moved by the Spirit to compose a spiritual Gospel (Eusebius: The Church History, page 218; edited by Paul Maier).'
Unfortunately this quote has distracted people from the wonderful reality that this gospel account shares--that God became a man, a physical man. And the ramifications of this are huge.
A nice, new book that heads in this direction (although the author uses a different language to do that) is Gott wahrnehmen by Rainer Hirsch-Luipold. He examines some of the texts in John that affect the different senses and points out some of the wonderful ramifications of the incarnation. The taste of good wine (2:1-11), the smell of a dead body (11:1-12:11), and the eyes that see the resurrected Jesus--with blessings to those who do not see him (20:1-29) are all good things he writes about.
This kind of Spirit gets involved on our level--just like Jesus. Now THAT is Spiritual (with a capital 'S')!
Writers usually include an exciting event at the beginning of their work, something to get the reader's attention. This is certainly true in the Gospel according to Mark.
Matthew starts his account with a genealogy. What could be more boring than that? Luke starts his with a run-on sentence. You KNOW that he is trying to prove something. John starts his account with the very beginning of the universe. When is he going to start talking about Jesus?
Mark quickly throws you into the story. Jesus is already grown up. Some scholars have said that if Mark would have had an account of Jesus' birth available to him, he certainly would have included it. But I do not agree. What Mark gives is enough to get you started--and involved.
Mark has that unusual phrase, 'The beginning of the gospel....' It is NOT the beginning of Jesus Christ. It is the beginning of some very good news.
It is important at this point to be reminded that the word 'gospel' was certainly not prominent within the Old Testament. The word actually came from the historical books, where a messenger was appointed to go from the battlefield to the king to tell the news of victory--or defeat. It is important to state that this word had the possible meaning of bad news, some extremely bad news. But, either way, this news was important.
It is difficult not to think of some of the people who first heard this gospel account. The tradition is that this was written in Rome and that Christians were being persecuted at this time. And times have not changed.
When there is a chance you could be arrested and killed in the next few days, would you take the time to read a history book? A good novel? I didn't think so.
The traditional ending of the Gospel according to Mark ends in much the same way as it began. The women leave the empty tomb, not talking to anyone, because they were afraid (16:8). The reader looks at that and yells, 'You can't end there!' And that is exactly the point. The text is only the beginning of the good news. And, given the way that the Apostles' Creed is laid out, things will only get better.
Those Lutherans who look at the usual Gospel text for today, the first Sunday in Advent, and think that we should not be talking about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, those are the Lutherans who like things in a strict order. And sometimes I like order.
If we are following a strictly historical view, then, yes, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is certainly out of order. But this is not an historical view. The bible certainly has lots to say about history--it could even be called 'His Story'. But it is much more appropriate to speak of the bible as the record of a rescue mission and the church as a rescue shelter.
When someone needs to be rescued, the order is not that important. That the person gets rescued IS important.
At this time of year we can easily get caught up in the 'Xmas spirit', we can think about how nice it is to hear some 'Xmas music', and we can think about how cute baby Jesus must have been. But a rescue mission is not usually too pretty. People, even innocent people, can get hurt.
But we are certainly not the innocent people. The record clearly shows how, basically from the beginning, we have tried to do away with the true God and have tried to make ourselves gods. We easily worship--that is, establish some worth--to the things that we do.
The usual text for this Sunday, from Mark 11:1-10, is most helpful when its context is described. This gospel account turns ugly quite quickly. Already at the beginning of the third chapter, Jesus' enemies are trying to destroy him. He has to watch out.
In the middle of chapter ten, Jesus is out in the lead as he is heading to Jerusalem, and the text says that the others were amazed (10:32). This word is different from the word 'amazed' after a miracle. This is a word used when a powerful person or thing shows up.
And then, right at the end of chapter ten, Jesus heals a blind man--who, incidentally, if he had a Greek name it meant 'son of honor'--a man who liked to yell out that Jesus was the Son of David--which basically NO ONE was doing. And then Jesus does NOT tell this guy to be quiet as he did so many times before. But the last words of the chapter say that 'he followed him on the way (10:52).'
This area in Israel was a battlefield, and it continues to be so. That Jesus chooses to ride a colt and not a warhorse is significant. This is one of the accounts where the writer adds that no one ever sat on that animal--Luke is the other. While one account emphasizes a battle, the other, peace. Both are important things to talk about; and they do not have to be contradictory.
When the Romans would head into battle, usually the first line of troops would be heavily decimated [check out the history to that word sometime]. Jesus is out in front, with a colt who is a bit of a handful. That gives you a good hint as to what is awaiting him on Friday.
Now we know what awaits us.