The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 2:22-40] contains an important bridge, that of the scriptures to that of the church’s liturgy. It contains the so-called ‘Song of Simeon’. It was revealed to Simeon that he was looking at the One promised from almost the very beginning, the One who would crush the serpent’s head, the Messiah—the One anointed to be the ultimate prophet, priest, and king. And Simeon basically says, ‘Now I can die.’
There are a lot of bible passages that could be in the church’s liturgy. In a traditional congregation, there are a lot of bible passages that ARE in the church’s liturgy. While some bible passages are better than others, it is usually a good foundation upon which to build. And, in some of the more modern hymnals, the different parts of the church’s liturgy have the bible references nearby.
The most helpful passages give the biggest perspectives. That is why I felt comfortable giving, for the last four Sundays, sermons based on the Small Catechism of Dr. Luther, a summary of the entire scriptures. The biggest perspectives deal with the biggest issues—and three big ones are sin, death, and the devil. That is why the liturgy ultimately focuses on our salvation in Christ.
Are some people ready to die? When people answer that question negatively, they usually have a smaller perspective. There is always a to-do list; there is always more that could be done by us. More important is what HAS BEEN DONE FOR US.
In the first few verses of the Gospel according to Luke, the writer describes his account as being ‘orderly’ [Luke 1:3]. The typical definition is ‘pertaining to being in sequence in time, space, or logic [BDAG, p. 490].’ I would think that, with the typical synoptic problem answers, most would want the writer to give an orderly TIME sequence. A logical—in terms of ‘theological’—approach would be more much helpful.
I think that the four gospel accounts are much more theological than we give them credit. And that is some incredibly good news.
This year the fourth Sunday in Advent happens to be quite close to Christmas. I think that, more important than that fact, is that the Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 1:39-45] happens to be quite close to the beginning of this Gospel account. We are never going to get any closer, so I think it is important to talk about it.
The importance of the beginning of a book has become less important recently. With the invention of the outline, the focus of the structure of a book has moved away from the text to a group of words which are separate from the text. When a person is studying an outline, he or she is no longer studying the text.
All four gospel accounts have important beginnings which should be studied thoroughly. The beginnings of other books of the bible should also be studied thoroughly. The beginning of an account not only may help to understand the structure of the account, but it may also point to what is important; those two things are actually connected to each other!
The structure gives the big picture; it gives the reader the reason why the author is writing this work. That reason has unfortunately been somewhat lost when it comes to the gospel accounts. The predominating thought in our century is that there is very little information about Jesus from other sources, so this particular source is meant to give some more information.
The structure of the first four verses of the Gospel according to Luke has a well-known connection, not to the beginning of the book of Acts, the place where one would expect a connection (since both works are by the same writer), but to the so-called Apostolic Decree that is found in Acts 15.
The issue at the Jerusalem Council is one of salvation. How is a person saved? Some people were saying that doing a certain commandment was necessary (Acts 15:5). Peter responds with the wonderful statement that ‘we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus…(15:11).’
Some people are happy when they have more information, but these days, many people seemed to be overwhelmed with more information. True joy comes with salvation. And I hope that message is clear throughout this entire church year.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 7:18-28] is a helpful text to get an idea of this gospel account’s connection to Acts. In verse 19, the text relates that John the Baptist sends two of his disciples, not to Jesus, but to ‘the Lord’.
The first time the writer uses the word Lord to describe Jesus is just slightly earlier. In verse 13 of the same chapter, Jesus is called the Lord when he has compassion for a widow. It is hard not to see a connection to Jesus’ resurrection in this description, especially since Jesus is often called the Lord after that important event.
John the Baptist sent the disciples to ask Jesus this question: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ The early Christians may have easily asked this question of Jesus. They may have been tempted to look to something else to ‘save’.
There is almost a constant temptation to look for another place for help, a place other than the words of the Lord. This is the struggle that you see in the book of Acts. Eventually the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ is described as ‘unhindered(see Acts 27:48)’, but it takes a long time and a lot of work.
The struggle to look for something more than just words is also the struggle that you see in churches today. In Luke 6:46, the question is asked, ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you?’ That question applies to today.
The progression Jesus gives later in the text is wonderful (verse 22): the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, and the final thing is that the poor have the good news preached to them. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the middle of the list is the important thing. In the Gospel according to Luke, the end of the list is the important item. And Jesus is putting this good news as something that is extremely important.
This good news continues to be important today.
And the series on the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther continues this Sunday with a look at the Lord’s Prayer. The words of that prayer are also important.
Here is an interesting quote: ‘The ruler is divine by nature. His power extends to men, to animals, to the earth and to the sea. Nature belongs to him; wind and waves are subject to him. He works miracles and heals men. He is the saviour of the world who also redeems individuals from their difficulties (TDNT, volume 2, page 724).’
It sounds like the writer is describing God; it sounds particularly like he is describing Jesus. But this is a description of the Roman emperor. Now that is a scary thought. (And the thing even more scary is that, with the electronic games these days, people can imitate this kind of power.)
When a new emperor would go to the throne, that would be considered a new era and a time of peace to the world, and, strangely enough, that would be called a gospel, good news (TDNT, p. 725).
There are some striking similarities between the gods of this world and the one true God. They each have their own good news, and some of them are currently using the same word.
Who had it first? The word for a good news message started way back in the Old Testament, and its first appearance is in the book of Samuel, right before the time of David. That is way before the Roman Empire, but not before sin.
In the Gospel according to Luke, the word gospel—but only in its verb form (to ‘evangelize’)—appears many times in that account (which is described in many manuscripts as ‘according to Luke’—to avoid using that misused term). To look at all those occurrences and their contexts, see Luke 1:19, 2:10, 3:18, 4:18, 7:22, 8:1, 9:6, 16:16, and 20:1. There are also fifteen occurrences of this word form in Acts, but the first occurrence of the word in noun form in the WHOLE of Luke-Acts is in Acts 15:7.
The Gospel text for this Sunday may contain the first twenty verses of the chapter and not just the first fourteen [Luke 3:1-14]. And in verse 18 of that section, the verb form of the word appears: ‘So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.’
Some people have looked at that verse and what John the Baptist had said previously to some of the people: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance (3:7f).’ Some people have thought, and rightly so, that John’s message does not sound like good news. But it was a new era. It was still an important message.
Any important message from an important person is a good one; it is also a helpful one.
The message of the Law is a good example. It is helpful to give up on trying to be good. Dr. Martin Luther found that to be true. The message of the Gospel is an even better example. It is extremely helpful to know what God has done for us—instead of what we can do for him.
This week at church is the second part of our four-week series on the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther. We will be looking at the Creed, and the good news comes to us in three different themes.
The Gospel text for this Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, is the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem [from the perspective of the Gospel according to Luke], and I certainly appreciate that focus at the beginning of the church year. Christmas has not yet happened, and we have not yet looked at Jesus’ birth, but he is already close to dying on the cross. The thing to remember is that this is not a chronological study. This is a salvation story.
The gospel accounts do not simply give us more information regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we find to be so important in the Epistles. Their structure follows the structure of the four living creatures that are part of God’s throne. We are within a reality of worship.
I would like to be clear in saying that the use of the word ‘story’ above does NOT mean that these events were manufactured and had no basis in reality. Jesus did miracles, and miracles go against reality, and God can do that if he wants.
The reality of this world is also that we live in a sinful condition.
This week at church starts a four-week series on the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther. This week we will be looking at the Ten Commandments. It is a good thing to go over on a regular basis.
The following is at the end of Luther’s suggestion for beginning the day—with the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—‘Then go to your work joyfully, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.’
That is not a bad idea. And on this Sunday, while I am working, I will be singing that hymn.