Thursday, January 31, 2013

Luke 3:15-18

Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Despite his fiery preaching style, John displays refreshing humility. Many in the community were desperately awaiting the Messiah, and the crowd was abuzz with the hypothesis that John was he. What an opportunity to attract a large following and start a movement! He could have even tried to justify his actions since being considered the Messiah could gain him a larger audience to preach his message of repentance. At the least he could have offered a shrug and remained mysterious.

But he doesn't. Not only does John put the Messianic rumors to rest, he places himself in one of the lowest categories possible. Only a slave would have the job of untying Jewish sandal caked with dust and sweet. National pride prevented a Hebrew from ever being required to do this for another Hebrew. John maintains that he is not even worthy of being a slave of Jesus.

Not only was Jesus' character superior to John, so was his mission. John performed a baptism of water and repentance; Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Fire has the unique property of bringing both destruction and life. This fire would burn away the impurities of unbelievers while leaving his followers purged and perfected.

A winnowing fork is used to separate the desirable wheat from the undesirable chaff after a harvest. The wheat is the solid, good part used for food. The chaff provides protection for the wheat berries while growing but after harvest is the fluffy "bad part" most easily disposed of by burning. Before the winnowing could be done, the wheat would be thoroughly threshed - beaten to separate the wheat and the chaff. Throw the threshed wheat in the air, and the heavier wheat berries fall straight down, while the chaff blows away with the wind.

Jesus' coming would divide people into two camps - those who accepted him and were purified and those who were ultimately destroyed. But none of us are fully "wheat" this side of heaven. The trials and circumstances of life are used by God to "thresh" the chaff from our lives. In the midst of tribulation our true character is often revealed. Some are solid in their faith and come through purified; others float away and miss their chance at purification. We all have elements of the old, sinful man that cling to us. At times we may have these traits for protection, and at times they may seem "engrained" parts of our personality (groan - pun intended).

What "chaff" in your life needs to be threshed and burned?

The parabolic statement about wheat and chaff reminds us not only that the community is mixed but also that each of us have our own good and bad elements. There is for each of us chaff that needs to be blown away and burned. There is a separation here of good and bad, useful and useless; but it is not like the difference between apples and oranges. Each of us individually is wheat and chaff.  - The Very Rev. Dennis J.J. Schmidt

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Luke 3:10-14

And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

I guess the long walk and search to find John in the wilderness may have been a factor, but it is a little surprising that after the tongue lashing given to some who seemed very righteous that the crowds still listened to John. They must have sensed the Spirit of God on him and recognized great wisdom in the words he spoke. Imagine the panic of many when John said that even those with all the appearance of outward righteousness were simply a brood of vipers and a tree about to be chopped down by God!

Instead of revolting against John's teaching, the crowd asks what could be done to achieve righteousness. Not one to mince words, John responded with difficult tasks that still apply today. Although faith in Christ is the only thing that saves, there are specific challenges in this passage that lead us into righteousness and conform us into a closer mirror of the image of God.

“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” This one seems easily translatable to today's society, but it is far more difficult to carry out. The Greek for tunic is chiton, a long garment worn under the cloak next to the skin. But I don't think we can try to justify ourselves and give away all but one of our slips. If there are people to whom we can reach out that do not have clothes and we have overflowing closets, we are not righteous. At our house the worn out, outgrown, or out of style clothes are the ones sent to donation. That is cleaning the house, not righteousness. And how much food is in your pantry? Do you have food that goes bad and gets thrown out while people around the world and down the street go hungry? Then you are not truly righteous. James 2:14-16 says, What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? I am not saying we all need to be ascetic, but I am sure that most believers could improve in this area. The fact that we will not achieve perfect righteousness in this life does not absolve us of seeking to improve. You do not have to be rich to show fruits of repentance. Just have a little extra for today and give it away.

“Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”  It is unlikely that anyone reading this is considered a national traitor working for an oppressive foreign government, but there is great spiritual truth in this verse. These Jewish tax collectors were known for charging more than the prescribed amount in order to pad their own pockets. Rather than ordering them to quit their evil jobs, John admonished them to live within their means. In our "but now, pay later", lottery playing, credit card happy world we rarely do this. Can you be happy living within your means, even carving into your income to sacrificially share with others, without looking for more monetary gain?

“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” These may not have been true Romans but were probably Jews who signed up for or were conscripted by the Roman military service. Perhaps they were there to protect the tax collectors. They received small wages. Repentance for them meant being satisfied with this small paycheck rather than using their power and the threat of Rome to extort money from others. Perhaps you are in a position of authority over others; don't use your power for your own gain. And all of us are called to be satisfied with our jobs - not to complain about our work situation or be unsatisfied with our net income.

John's message still cuts to the heart of believers today, and we can all improve in righteousness in one or all of these areas.

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’  - Matthew 25:34-40

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Luke 3:7-9

So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John does not seem to be running a seeker friendly church here! What kind of preacher calls those who come to be baptized a brood of vipers? But John was not content to gain a large number of followers, especially those concerned only with superficial righteousness. He calls out the crowd for wanting to attain one more spiritual sticker on their chart. John's listeners needed to know and take seriously the divine judgment to come.

John warns them that if they are going to go through the ritual of baptism, they needed to be willing to live a life of true repentance. No religious designation or even being considered children of Abraham and members of the chosen nation would save them. God was working in the world to remove those claiming to bear his name who did not bear fruit and graft in those who would enter into righteousness through Christ.

Even today many take pride in religious designation. You may be certain that your denomination is better than all the others and secretly you believe that you will get some bonus "fruit points" for being a member (see Baptists in heaven joke for some levity on the subject). Perhaps you can trace your Christian lineage back decades, centuries, or even back to the apostles themselves.

None of this will save you. Only true repentance and belief in Jesus as Savior can accomplish this. And if you truly repent and truly believe on Him, your life will bear good fruits of repentance. If others cannot look at your life and see good deeds, if you are not daily crucifying the old self with its desires, if you do not look more Christlike as each year passes then you should examine your heart and mind to discern if you have truly repented and believed.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. - Galatians 5:22-23

Monday, January 28, 2013

Luke 3:1-6

Focus verses: Luke 3:4-6
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
    “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
        make his paths straight.
    Every valley shall be filled,
        and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
    and the crooked shall become straight,
        and the rough places shall become level ways,
    and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (full text here)

Luke again inserts historical data to give credence to his narrative as well as place John the Baptist in a specific time in history. Here's a little rundown of the men he mentions:
  • Tiberius Caesar - ruled Rome from 14-27 AD, beginning John's ministry in AD 28-29 according to Luke. He was an excellent military commander and government administrator, but eventually problems with the Senate led him to abandon Rome for the island of Capri. By the time he died, he was generally despised by the Roman people.
  • Pontius Pilate - known for going head to head on several occasions with the Jews and Samaritans over religious beliefs that conflicted with Roman practices. He was violent and ruthless in his rule.
  • Herod Antipas - son of Herod the Great. He inherited Galilee and Perea (where John ministered). He married a Nabatean princess, then divorced her to marry Herodias, his niece and the wife of his half brother. John and others verbally attacked him for this marriage, which Jewish law considered unlawful. Herod retaliated by imprisoning and ultimately beheading John. He is also the Herod involved with the trial of Jesus.
  • Herod Philip - another son of Herod the Great. (I kid you not; the Herod family tree looks like a spider web.) He also inherited land from his father but was known for justice. Like his father, he was known as a builder, creating Caesarea Philippi.
  • Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - not much is known about this man apart from a quick reference from the Jewish historian Josephus and an inscription on a temple which refers to Lysanias establishing the street and other things.
  • Annas and Caiaphas - Jewish high priests appointed by Rome. Annas was the father in law of Caiaphas and continued to exert power even after the official title of high priest rested on Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest during the ministries of John and Jesus. Caiaphas established the practice of allowing vendors to sell their wares in the courtyard of the Temple. Both men feature prominently in the plot to crucify Jesus as well as attempts to silence the apostles in the book of Acts.
Four hundred years after the prophet Malachi, John begins his ministry in the wilderness. People leave the cities in droves in order to search for John, since he did not stay in one place but moved about. John called the people to repent for their sins and be baptized, a practice not unheard of but uncommon for those of the Jewish faith. He called not for mere ritual cleansing, but purification of the deepest sins of a person's heart. John spent his ministry preparing hearts to receive the Messiah soon to come.

Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah (Is. 40:3-5) in our focus verses. This passage promised the Hebrew people deliverance from Babylonian exile through a path God would provide in the wilderness. John's listeners were promised an even greater path, salvation through repentance and belief in the Messiah. This would be a salvation provided not only for God's chosen nation, but for "all flesh". John was preparing people to humble themselves and turn from their sins in order to be prepared for the salvation that would come through Jesus.

When we seek God's direction, the Holy Spirit will reveal clearly the path we need to take toward repentance in our own lives. The path to holiness may not be easy, but it will be laid out as clearly to us as a straight path over flat terrain.

"I will lead the blind by a way they do not know, In paths they do not know I will guide them. I will make darkness into light before them and rugged places into plains. These are the things I will do, and I will not leave them undone."  - Isaiah 42:16

Friday, January 25, 2013

Luke 2:41-52

I have doubts that they
let him hold the scroll...
Luke 2:51-52 - Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (full text here)

As observant and devout Jews, every year Jesus' family traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. This most important feast in the Jewish calendar served as a reminder of God's provision for his people during the plagues of and deliverance from Egypt. The observance must have held special meaning for Jews in Palestine as they suffered again under foreign rule.

Each year Jesus would have seen the spotless lambs being led to sacrifice, listened to the words of the Torah, and tasted the bitter herbs and other food symbolizing the Exodus story. At 12 years old, Jesus was on the cusp of manhood in his culture, straddling the line between childhood and manhood.

This is the only non apocryphal story we have of Jesus between his childhood and the beginning of his ministry, the only real insight we have into his character as a youth. The gospel writers had the intention of focusing on the ministry of Jesus rather than writing a biography. Apocryphal stories of Jesus have him doing supernatural things such as bringing clay birds to life, speaking in an authoritative manner that would have been considered out of place for one his age, or striking dead other children who upset him. In this story we see the true character of Jesus, wise beyond his years yet meek and obedient.

After the festival, his parents would have traveled back to Nazareth with many others heading that way. Mary would have traveled with the women, and Joseph would have traveled with the men. Jesus had apparently always been so obedient that it did not even cross their minds that he would not be with the group. Not until they settled down for the night did they realize he was missing. After a three day search (which likely included their travel time) they find Jesus in the Temple.

Jesus was sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. (This reminds me of when two decades later he confronts the religious leaders by asking them questions that reveal their erroneous thinking.) His zeal for learning the things of God was evident to all.  Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and answers, but later this same understanding will play a factor in his persecution and crucifixion.

Mary was understandably upset after three days of worry. Jesus' response to her reveals that on the brink of manhood and initiation into the Jewish community, he knew who his true Father is and what this meana for his life. Jesus recognizes that his sonship to the Father will take precedence over any ties with family or friend. He will follow God's will, even if it results in misunderstanding and pain for those he loves.

But after revealing these truths and foreshadowing his future, Jesus returned home with his parents and was obedient to them. He never responded, "Seriously? You want me to take out the trash? Don't you think the Son of God has better things to do with his time??" Throughout his life we see Jesus letting go of his divine rights, modeling how to live perfectly as a human, and saying yes to His Father’s plan.

That Jesus grew in stature and favor may make sense, but if he was fully God then how did he grow in wisdom? Isn't God omniscient? I believe that Jesus had to learn things just as all humans do, but he did it perfectly. In the incarnation, Jesus emptied himself of many benefits of his divine nature. As Philippians 2:6-7 says, "Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant." Somehow he was able to have the components of the divine personality (e.g. perfect faith, hope, and love) while giving up things such as omniscience and power. We see this later in his ministry through statements such as Matthew 24:36 when he says not even the Son of Man knows the time of the second coming and through the many times in his ministry when he needed time of rest and prayer to "recharge" after long sessions of healing and preaching.

May we have the same zeal as Jesus to understand the things of God. May we desire to submit to authorities and the will of God rather than seeking our own comfort and praise. May we be willing to be about our Father's business regardless of the cost to us or those we love.

It was his Father's business made him sweat great drops of blood; his Father's business ploughed his back with many gory furrows; his Father's business pricked his temple with the thorn crown; his Father's business made him mocked and spit upon; his Father's business made him go about bearing his cross; his Father's business made him despise the shame when, naked, he hung upon the tree; his Father's business made him yield himself to death, though he needed not to die if so he had not pleased; his Father's business made him tread the gloomy shades of Gehenna, and descend into the abodes of death; his Father's business made him preach to the spirits in prison; and his Father's business took him up to heaven, where he sitteth on the right hand of God, doing his Father's business still! His Father's business makes him plead day and night for Sion; the same business shall make him come as the Judge of quick and dead, to divide the sheep from the goats; the same business shall make him gather together in one, all people who dwell on the face of the earth! Oh, glory to thee, Jesus; thou hast done it! Thou hast done thy Father's business well. -Spurgeon

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Luke 2:36-40

Luke 2:40 - The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. (full text here)

As Simeon rejoiced over the baby Jesus, a godly widow named Anna approached. Like Simeon, Anna thanked God for allowing her to live to see the Messiah. She was very old at this point, 84 at least, and had been a widow for at least six decades. She "never left the temple", perhaps sleeping in a temple chamber. Her devotion to God was evident as she devoted her life to fasting and prayer. She depended fully on God for physical and spiritual sustenance. Her faith was rewarded at this glimpse of her Savior, and she spent the rest of her life telling His story to all who would listen.

Although she merits only three verses in Scripture, Anna is a model to us today. She does not mope and bemoan her status as a widow. In giving her life to prayer and faith, she gained deep understanding of holiness and was in tune with the Holy Spirit. She was not a prophetess in the sense of a future predicting fortune teller, but a holy woman with deep experience in the divine who could give trusted advice. We are unlikely to be called to live a life as austere as Anna, but we are called to listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit and be always ready to provide a witness of what we have seen and heard about the Christ.

After Joseph and Mary had fulfilled the requirements of the Law they returned home to Nazareth, probably returning to scorn and gossip at the baby presumed to have been conceived before their marriage. Nevertheless, Jesus continued to grow in physical, mental, and spiritual strength. Although we have little detail from Scripture about Jesus' early years, from childhood God's loving grace filled his life.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:14

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Luke 2:21-35

Luke 2:29-32
For my eyes have seen Your salvation.
You have prepared it
in the presence of all peoples—
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to Your people Israel. (full text here)

At the end of eight days, Jesus was circumcised and formally given a name. Thirty-three days later, his parents then took him to the temple to present him to the Lord, offer a sacrifice to redeem their firstborn (Ex. 42:20), and purify Mary from her postnatal bleeding as well as Joseph from any contact he had with her (Leviticus 12). From the beginning Jesus was brought up according to Jewish law, raised by righteous and devout parents. Luke repeatedely emphasizes that Jesus followed the Law. Writing to Theophilis and the Greek community, he may have been intentionally pointing out that Christianity was no religion built by rabble rousers, despite the uproar caused by the spread of the faith in the book of Acts.

At the temple the family was approached by Simeon. He was righteous and devout, closely in tune with the directing of the Holy Spirit, and looking with eagerness toward the hope of the prophets. The birth of Jesus closes out the era of the law and prophets, but they are being fulfilled rather than abolished by Jesus. The old was passing away; behold the new had come.

Most of what Simeon says about Jesus is an application to the child of prophesies from Isaiah such as Isaiah 52:10, "The LORD has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God." Many Israelites would fall and rise before Jesus, but in faith rather than a sword. Some would never rise, but the true hearts and minds of the people would become clear. Those with and without faith would clearly be distinguished. Also, as you can read in the book of Acts, God's plan is to bring the light of salvation to the Gentiles through Israel's rejection. The persecution of the early believers is the main force that causes the faith to be preached among the nations.

How did Simeon end up at the temple at the perfect time? He was "looking for the consolation of Israel."  He had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would live to see the Messiah. Simeon was attuned to spiritual things and was there to welcome the newborn Savior. Even today God prepares us to receive Christ by stirring up a longing for consolation and redemption. May those who do not know him be filled with a longing from the Spirit to find true peace, and may those of us who know him long for the second coming, a time when all will be redeemed once and for all.

Therefore, with your minds ready for action, keep a clear head and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. - 1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Luke 2:8-20

Luke 2:20 - The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (full text here)

Someone had to abide in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night. But in New Testament times, shepherds were viewed as a dirty, outcast lot. With no fences to cordon off pasture land, shepherds were often accused of taking their herds onto land not belonging to them.  Therefore Jewish courts viewed them as too dishonest to sit as judges. Their lifestyle didn't allow for ritual bathing, and their job consisted of handling dirty, oily sheep wool and helping sheep give birth - a bloody icky business. As a rule, Jewish law required seven days away from blood before one could enter the temple and worship God. So these guys were not likely the church going type. Although some speculate this could be the very shepherds who cared for the temple herds, the very lambs offered for atonement of sins, they may never have entered the Temple grounds in their lives.

But on this night God brought the Temple to them.

These men would have known about perfect sacrifice. When a spotless lamb was born, surely they watched it carefully - looking deep into trusting eyes as they checked for blemish or bruise, carefully protecting the innocent lamb from broken bone.

On this night they met the perfect Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.

These ordinary men were frightened out of their wits by an army of angels proclaiming glory to God in the highest, and peace for anyone on whom God's favor rests. And they chose to go check it out. They didn't miss the opportunity because they were too busy, or too normal, or not spiritually trained. They followed the angel's instructions and found the newborn Savior.Yes they went back to being shepherds, but as they went they were glorifying and praising God. They didn't consider their lack of synagogue training or worry that people would think they were crazy.

On this night they were forever changed by their worship.

I imagine their future lives in the fields may have seemed normal to most outsiders, but looking past the surface you would have heard words of praise and prayer on their lips.

Glory to God, peace for those on whom his favor rests - this is the message for the shepherds as well as us.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.  - Hebrews 13:14

Monday, January 21, 2013

Luke 2:1-7

Luke 2:7 - Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough—because there was no room for them in the inn. (full text here)

Zechariah's song in Luke 1 reveals a few of the Messianic expectations present at the time. The Jewish people expected the Saviour to overthrow the occupation, bring justice, restore righteousness, and reinstate the kingdom of David on earth. Chapter 2 reveals that things may not be as expected.  The night may have been silent, but I imagine Jesus cried like any baby as he felt the discomfort of the cold night air on newly born cheeks. The birth of Jesus was far from royal - born not in comfort but bound in cloths and laid in a feeding trough, surrounded not by the pampered upper class but by lowly shepherds, and snuggled closely by parents who were far from wealthy. But although this humble birth was unexpected, how amazing that the Messiah would suffer with his people even from birth.

From the start, our historian Luke reveals that the life and mission of the Messiah is not as was expected. Jesus is born in obscurity and humility, without fanfare or riches. He receives glory from angels and shepherds, but the people and the kingdoms of the world slept through the night unaware of how the world had changed. The Kingdom of the Messiah was from the beginning the opposite of the kingdoms of the world. He was born to rule not land, but hearts. He was born not to depose rulers, but to root out hidden sins. He was born not to point to Himself, but to point the way to the Father.

Jesus turns our religious presuppositions on their heads. Many Christians today say about their faith, "It's not a religion, it's a relationship." Rather than trying to be good to earn a better life or a place in heaven, we realize that by faith we are saved, through grace, not by ourselves but through the gift of God. Our "good works" are an outpouring of being plugged into the vine, the mere result of stumbling as we follow the footprints of the Good Shepherd. He calls us to do the unexpected, to live in a way that surprises the world. Contrary to the "me first" society prevalent in the world, we are to put "me last". As he made himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant, so we are to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

And whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many."
- Mark 10:44-45

Friday, January 18, 2013

Luke 1:67-80

Luke 1:74-79
74 since we have been rescued
from our enemies’ clutches,
to serve Him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness
in His presence all our days.
76 And child, you will be called
a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare His ways,
77 to give His people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s merciful compassion,
the Dawn from on high will visit us
79 to shine on those who live in darkness
and the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (full text here)

God must have seemed silent. Oppressed by a Roman occupation, in the midst of a culture growing more and more Hellenistic, as every Sabbath ancient scriptures were read that promised a hope and a future, many must have pondered how long it could be before God would act. Most thought a military answer would save them - a Messiah strong and mighty to save. Surely they would be saved to rule themselves, miraculously overthrowing the Romans and reestablishing the house of David.

But when the Holy Spirit rests on Zechariah, he prophesies about a much different scenario. Yes salvation was coming, but it would free God's people to serve the Lord. Rather than free to make military and financial gains, they were free to live in righteousness and holiness. The covenant of Abraham was not to overthrow enemies, but that through his descendant, Jesus, the world would be saved from the shackles of sin.

No prophet had been recorded for 400 years, but John was sent as a prophet of the most high God. He prepared the way for the Christ by brazenly calling people out for their sins and showing them tangible ways to repent. God's compassion wasn't about a comfortable life, it was about shining a light to lead us away from the path of sin that winds through the shadow of death. It was about peace, not prosperity. And today that same peace is available to us through God's merciful compassion! God may not act in the way we expect or desire, but he will always amaze us with his faithfulness and compassion when we walk his path.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.  - Isaiah 9:2

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:63-64 - He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.  (full text here)

Crowds always line up to see a new baby. In the days before mass entertainment, this may have been even more true. The community that had once whispered about what Zechariah and Elizabeth had done to merit God's disfavor now marvelled that a son had been mercifully born in their old age. After so many decades, the couple had an heir. Surely the firstborn and likely only child would be named after his father. But having many months to silently contemplate the words of the angel Gabriel, Zechariah instantly corrected his neighbors and family in obedience to the words spoken to him in the holy place of the temple.

Circumcision on the eighth day was a celebratory and holy affair - the sign of God's covenant with his people. The son had survived long enough to earn an official name and in a way his personhood. The age of the parents, the story of the angel, and even the naming of the child had tongues wagging all over the hill country. If God could move so strongly in the birth of this miracle child, surely great things were planned for his life.

The Hebrew name for John, Yôḥanan, means "Graced by Yahweh". John was graced not to serve as a priest like his father, but to survive in the wilderness bringing many to repentance and preparing the way for Jesus. Surely he grew up hearing that God had a great plan for his life. Surely his righteous parents steadfastly taught him the ways of God. And when the time came for him to fulfill his purpose he did so, even to death by beheading.

The gospel begins with ordinary people choosing to live lives of obedience to the father. What must happen before we are willing to believe and become what he would have us be? Need he strike us deaf and dumb for nine months like Zechariah or send us into nine months of seclusion like Elizabeth for us to take time to contemplate his will for our lives? Or can we find ways to unplug from our lives and plug in to God moving in the world around us? When God allows us to open our lips today, let our tongues be set free in praise of him!

In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.
 - Colossians 2:11-12

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Luke 1:39-56

Luke 1:45-50
45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation. (full text here)

Pregnant women love to get together and talk about their pregnancies. Usually we compare morning sickness, stretch marks, baby gymnastics, and what I have never experienced - magical nesting energy. But this meeting between Mary and Elizabeth must have been amazing. Elizabeth's baby was a miracle in many ways and was to be a prophet in a land that had waited 400 years for a direct word from the Lord. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth as she cried out a blessing over Mary and her child. Even her preborn child lept in her womb at the appearance of the preborn baby Jesus. What an encouragement this must have been to Mary. Remember that as yet she did not know what Joseph's response would be to her situation. Even with her strong faith, surely she had some fears in her mind in the midst of her supernatural peace. Immediately after Elizabeth spoke, Mary sang praises to God for his faithful mercy that extends to his people from generation to generation.

Despite their age difference, Elizabeth must have been a trusted friend. Even though she hurried, Mary likely journeyed at least three days over the 80-100 miles from Nazareth to the hill country. Mary stayed with Elizabeth until the birth of John, likely helping her elderly relative with chores as she waddled through that tiring third trimester. (Can you imagine being a pregnant senior citizen??)

How wonderful that these two ladies were together to ponder the miraculous news surrounding their firstborn sons. They had each other on which to lean as they dealt with pregnancy symptoms, a mute husband, and qualms that must have been in Mary's mind about her unmarried state.

I am thankful in my own life that through easy and difficult times God has provided me with wonderful friends and family. As we go through our daily lives, let us seek opportunities to be an encouragement to others and in tune with the Holy Spirit to speak truths into their lives.

Let us not give up meeting together, as is the habit of some, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  - Hebrews 10:25

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:37-38  - For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (full text here)

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, after her time of seclusion, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary. The story of the annunciation is  familiar, so much so that we can lose sight of how shocking it would have been. An angel appears, a sight that consistently frightens people throughout Scripture. He informs an unmarried Jewish girl that she will be with child, a fate punishable by death. This endangers her life and her engagement with Joseph (as legally binding as marriage but without living or sleeping together). She understandably responds with confusion. Luke uses the Greek dietarachthē - greatly agitated, thoroughly stirred up, confused, and perplexed. Gabriel explains that the power of God would accomplish this, and as confirmation shares the surprising news that her aged relative Elizabeth is already with child. Mary replies with one of the greatest statements of faith of all time.

How do we respond to the surprising turns of our life? Do we despair and lose hope when assailed by the storms of life? Do we muddle through confusion when circumstances don't play out the way we expected? Do we relegate God to Sunday mornings when life goes smoothly and only seek His will when things go awry?

What an example we find in Mary. She accepts that nothing is impossible with God and gives herself completely to his plan for her life - whatever comes. Can we humbly submit to God's will for our lives, believing that his plans are best even when confusing and perplexing? Do we truly believe that nothing is impossible for him? Let us follow Mary's example and trust that God can change us into the image bearers of Christ that we were created to be!

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted." - Job 42:2

Monday, January 14, 2013

Luke 1:1-25

Luke 1:1-4 - Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. (full text here)

Occasionally there will be a buzz in the news about a "new gospel" found. Or perhaps the History Channel will run a special series on "the forbidden gospels". Books such as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, and the Gospel of Judas make great plots for stories such as The Da Vinci Code, but they contradict each other as well as the canonical gospels and early church history. Pop culture references make these "gospels" seem to be equally on par with the book of Luke, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Some scholarly research would reveal that the gospel of Luke stands the test of time in historical accuracy when checked with other documents of the time period as well as being accepted by early believers and eyewitnesses who knew the true stories. Luke gives us an orderly account the life and ministry of Jesus, giving certainty to believers of the truth of the gospel. He has no need to innovate and sensationalize the story. He simply reports the facts. His sources are eyewitnesses and "servants of the word" who preserved the oral tradition of the apostles.

The passage continues with the story of John the Baptizer's conception. There was a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were upright and blameless in the eyes of God. Both were from the tribe of Levi - the tribe responsible for priestly duties. Despite their devotion to God they remained childless - seen in their time period as divine punishment. Five times a year Zechariah would have left home for the temple. During the three major Jewish festivals, all priestly divisions were on duty to serve the multitudes of pilgrims. Two other weeks a year he would also come to Jerusalem to help with the daily temple sacrifices and rituals.

In the days of King Herod, a crazy ruler but amazing architect, Zechariah was ministering in the temple. He was chosen by lot to enter into the Holy Place and burn incense to the Lord in front of the veil to the Holy of Holies, a once in a lifetime opportunity. As priests and worshippers joined Zechariah in prayer from outside the building, the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared and announced to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son. Many would rejoice because of his birth, and he would call many to repentance. He was to be filled with the Holy Spirit and set apart in a similar manner to a Nazarite - a special commitment to the Lord. His mission would be to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zechariah was overwhelmed and could not believe what he heard, despite the fact that he was talking to an angel. As a consequence he was struck dumb until the baby would be born. When Zechariah finally appeared to the waiting crowd, he could only make signs to indicate that he had seen a vision from the Lord. Despite his dumbness, he completed his week of service. His wife Elizabeth became pregnant and remained in seclusion for five months, secure in the knowledge that God had performed a miracle and removed her disgrace.

We often look at people like Zechariah in the Bible and shake our heads, wondering how they can be so daft. After all, an angel of the Lord would surely be convincing! But we often equally doubt truths spoken into our own lives. We ignore Scriptures that seem too difficult to follow. We close our ears to the calling of the Holy Spirit when He leads us toward paths that seem difficult. We doubt the goodness of God in the midst of the storms of life. We choose to follow pop culture rather than the truths of God.

God’s promises to us are no less binding than his promise of a son for Zechariah. He promises that we can participate in His divine nature, escaping the corruption of the world and our evil desires (2 Peter 1:4). He promises to supply all our needs through His riches in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). He promises us perfect peace beyond anything the world can give (John 14:27). He promises us rest when we labor for Him (Matthew 11:28-29). He promises that He has a plan for our lives, one of a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). But so many days we stumble through life, failing to live in the power of these guarantees. If God struck us dumb each time we disbelieved his promises, what a quiet bunch we would be!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for the one who made the promise is faithful.
- Hebrews 10:23

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Luke 1-8 background

This session of Bible study will cover Luke 1-8 - basically Jesus' birth and early ministry. The author of the book is Luke, a Gentile physician who traveled with Paul on parts of his missionary journeys (as indicated by the "we" passages in Acts 16, 20, & 27). Although not an apostle or early follower of Jesus, he received the traditions and stories of the gospel from apostles and other eyewitnesses. One of his main sources seems to be Mark.

Luke was a historian who sought to record events as they actually happened. Not surprisingly, as a physician he has a special interest in the healing miracles of Jesus. He wrote Luke and the second volume of his work, Acts, to "Theophilus" - which in Greek means "friend of God". Scholars debate whether this is a specific person's name, an honorary title, the name of a Jewish priest of the Sadducee branch, or a converted Roman official. Others believe the books were written to a larger Gentile audience - anyone who was a "friend of God". The book was probably written sometime around 60-75 AD.