The gospel text for this Sunday is Luke 5:1-11, and looking at that text was a reminder to me that the context of a word or a thing is important. You might think of the previous uses of a word to be sort of a dictionary, to help you understand the word when it comes up later.
Peter ends up saying that he does not want to be close to the Lord. ‘Depart from me…’, he says. And you can see that same thought come up in a lot of places.
Right after the text, Jesus heals a leper, and only in this account does the text say that the leper falls on his face (verse 12)—and is, therefore, not able to see Jesus. In the healing of the paralyzed man that follows after that, the response of the crowd is, literally, that they saw a ‘paradox’, something unusual (verse 26). According to the actions of Jesus—that he forgave and healed a person—he was God, and a person should not be able to look at God. But Jesus looked like a normal person, and they had no trouble looking at him and being in his presence.
This theme of presence has not gone unnoticed. In The Lutheran Study Bible, on page 1705, right at the very top of the page, are the following words: ‘God ‘s presence permeates the birth events of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:5-2:52).’
You can see that in the unique phrases which follow. ‘[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were righteous before God (Luke 1:6).’ ‘[John] will be great before the Lord (1:15).’ An angel says, ‘I [Gabriel] stand in the presence of God (1:19).’ There is also the part of Simeon’s song which relates to presence—in this case, the presence of people: ‘…my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…(Luke 2:30f).’ In Jesus’ temptations, Satan says that if Jesus would worship ‘before me’, then he would give him everything (4:7). And I may be making too much of this, but in the Greek text of this gospel account, Jesus sometimes says things ‘toward’ someone rather than ‘to’ someone. With that word, you also get the idea that presence is important. (The translations usually do not pick this up though; compare Mark 1:38 and Luke 4:43.) In all these ways, the issue of presence is an important theme.
I recently found another new book which emphasizes this. The book is not for the faint of heart (and mind—and pocketbook—the price is outrageous). But the book supports the point I was trying to make above. The title is Scripture Re-envisioned: Christophanic Exegesis and the Making of a Christian Bible, by Bogdan Gabriel Bucur (Brill, 2019). Here is a quote from the Forward: ‘…Bucur offers us the first full and detailed study of how the ancient interpreters viewed God’s revelation as a dramatic act of presence, originally anchored in historic theophanic moments in the Old Testament where Jesus Christ was already active as principal revealer of the Divine (emphasis original, page vii).’ In other words, this idea of God’s presence has been present for a very long time; the New Testament is very much like the old one.
Like others, Bucur starts with a look at the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49). I like that connection because we know very little about those disciples; they are like us, how we feel about ourselves sometimes; we can sometimes get the idea that God does not know or care too much about us. In the past parents often used bible names to name their children, and that provided some connection to the bible, but today that is not so common. But as Jesus came to those two unknown disciples, he comes to us.
The great thing about the theme of God’s presence is that it only takes one more step to say that the Old Testament word for gospel is one where the presence of the ‘king’—in this case, God—is important. We cannot stand in God’s presence, and so a messenger was sent with some very good news. And the name of that messenger, of course, is Jesus. And it is so wonderful that his name means the one who saves or rescues.