Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Luke Chapter 1

1:1-4: The prologue to the Gospel of Luke, the first part of a two-part work. Luke is making use of a familiar convention in Greek and Roman writing here, presupposing that his audience might be learned and cultured. The name “Theophilus” was relatively common in the Roman world, and the way Luke addresses this person again indicates that his anticipated audience has some learning and status. Luke wants to make sure the story of Jesus gets told on a “world stage” because it is about someone who has made all the difference in the world. “Theophilus” can be translated as “friend of God,” so Luke may also have in mind someone who has just begun the journey into the Christian way.

1:5-25: Though a Gentile, Luke makes extensive use of Jewish tradition. He also makes extensive use of names to identify a time, an era, in which things occurs. We find that here, at the beginning of the final chapter in the birth story of Jesus and then again at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In these verses (5-25) Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist, and tells it in such a way that it parallels the story of the birth of Jesus – though Luke is never in doubt about whose birth is more significant. Remember that followers of John continued to exist after Jesus life, ministry and death. Luke wants to make the point that the birth story of Jesus really begins long ago in the promises of God to save God’s people. Angels serve as messengers that God is again up to something. It is interesting to note the contrasts. In the days of King Herod of Judea – Luke’s readers would have expected God to be acting through the king, but God instead chooses a priest and his faithful wife (who also was in a priestly line). We are reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah, both on in years, who give birth. Elizabeth is to give birth an angel tells Zechariah, but Zechariah finds this hard to believe. For Luke, God’s purposes are not ultimately thwarted by seeming impossibilities. Does this mean God will always do the impossible? No, but it means that people who trust in God deeply never abandon hope. Elizabeth responds to the news of her pregnancy with joy.

1:26-38: While Elizabeth’s pregnancy precedes apace, the same angel who had announced her pregnancy visits another woman, Mary, in Nazareth of Galilee. Elizabeth was old and childless. Mary was young, and a virgin. In neither case would pregnancy have been expected, but in both cases, God will act. And again, it is not just surprising that God will act so that physically unlikely people become pregnant (old and barren, young and a virgin) but socially unlikely people become pregnant. These are not royal families. Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor was the son of god, descended from the divine. In this story, God acts in the life of a young, perplexed woman who nevertheless is willing to be touched by God’s Spirit. As with Elizabeth, Mary is a model of faith – another unlikely hero in a culture that tended to devalue women. Mary’s exact physical status has been an issue for many Christians for countless years. Luke is not really interested in that question, except as a way to make his point about a God who acts in surprising places and ways, and through surprising people. Virgin birth stories were told of the emperor. God is interested in another kind of kingdom and is willing to work in extraordinary ways to help make it happen. Making it happen seems to require the willingness of human persons. Mary responds to Gabriel: “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In contrast to Matthew’s gospel, here Mary is center stage and Joseph a more minor character. Nevertheless, it is mentioned that Joseph is of the house of David. If Mary is a relative of Elizabeth’s she would somehow be in the lineage of Aaron, the priest from Exodus.

1:39-56: Mary, fresh with strange and wonderful news, goes to visit Elizabeth. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps when Mary arrives, another signal that Jesus will be greater than John. Mary sings a song of praise, which has been known in the Christian faith as “the Magnificat.” The insertion of this song here is a wonderfully creative literary move by Luke. While Mary may have been filled with joy, who would really know what she sang out by Luke’s day and time? Mary continues to be a model of faith and joy for the people for whom Luke was writing and for us as well. Read her song carefully. It is filled with a sense that God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world may upset the usual applecart. The lowly, the hungry, the humble are those who have a special place in God’s dream – just the opposite of what Luke’s culture probably proclaimed.

1:57-80: John’s birth story will end the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth gives birth, and wants to name the child John, but this is not in keeping with her family tradition. While God obviously cares about family, family traditions can, sometimes get in the way of God’s purposes. Zechariah agrees that the child’s name should be John and his mute voice is given speech, which he uses to praise God. Again, Luke’s literary artistry is in evidence in this wonderful song praising God and proclaiming God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Listen to these beautiful words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God’s tender love remains active in our world, that is part of the Christian proclamation of faith. The light of God’s love continues to shine, breaking into our lives, guiding us into the way of peace – if we will be so guided.

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