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Advent 4, Year C–Luke 1:39-56

Mary.

The woman who stands at the crossroads of divinity and humanity is the focus of my last Advent blog for 2018 because Luke 1:39-56 it is the last reading. As you might expect, I have worked this particular text over a time or two previously here at the Greenbean blog. Below is my own translation from the Greek New Testament which I published here about eight years ago.


Mary rose up in those days and traveled with haste to a Judean city in the hill country.  She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.

Then what happened is that as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant jumped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She screamed a loud shout and said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how is it that the mother of my Lord might come to visit me? For it happened at the sound of your greeting in my ear the infant jumped with gladness in my womb. Blessed is the one who believes that it will be completed what has been spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit is gladdened by God my savior because he looked upon the humility of his servant. For behold, all generations will say [There is no verb here in the Greek for “say” or “call” so something has to be added to smooth it over. The lack of a verb is not an omission or a sign of chopped speech, but instead reflects careful poetic search for word choice. The verb is assumed.] I am blessed from now on because of the great things The Almighty did for me. His name is holy. His mercy to those fearing him is from generation to generation. He strengthened his arms and scattered those with arrogant thoughts in their hearts. He deposed the powerful from thrones and exalted the humble.  He filled those who were hungry with good food and he sent away the wealthy empty handed. He took care of Israel his child, remembering mercy. Just as he said to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” [In translating the Magnificat, two things are apparent.  One, Luke did not compose this.  The language, style, and vocabulary are not from his hand.]

She remained with her three months and returned to her own home.


We could do a lot of complicated salvation history theology on this passage, but I’ll leave that to the scholars. Here is where I am going today.

  1. Mary, did you know? It is a popular song that seems to be quite front and center this year. The answer is, yes. According to scripture, Mary knew a lot of what was going down. Whether she understood it all, or whether I even understand it all remains to be seen. However, she was not ignorant of the supernatural things taking place in her time and in her life–indeed, in her own body.
  2. Elizabeth is mentioned by name, and is John the Baptist’s mom. The father of John the Baptist and husband of Elizabeth is a priest name Zechariah (Luke 1:5). Both Elizabeth and Zechariah are named as descendants of Aaron–the priestly tribe. Elizabeth and Mary are cousins. Mary is from the priestly tribe. Jesus one true human link is through Levi–the priestly tribe. He is Judahite through his ‘stepfather’ Joseph. Jesus is king and priest.
  3. Some have argued a teenage Jewish girl couldn’t have written this complicated piece of literature. I find that argument sexist and elitist. Luke didn’t write it, the language is too different. He is copying it from a source, and that source might well have originated with Mary.
  4. I think Luke is very brave to include this story. A male writing about two pregnant women filled with the Holy Spirit and doing theology is not a common template–but here we are! Luke charges right in and tells what was happening and quite honestly, it is very believable because he had a good source for the actual event–babies leaping in the womb, women crying out, and then supernatural speech. Good stuff.
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Advent 3, Year C–Luke 3:7-18

If you are not careful, John the Baptist can swallow your Advent calendar. No lie. I’ve actually had it happen to me a time or two. You think you’re plugging along doing the right thing with these verses from the lectionary laid out every week, and the next thing you know you’ve essentially peached a four part sermon on the prophecy, birth, ministry, and death of John the Baptist. It can happen to anyone.

The reason it can happen is because, quite honestly, there is so much juice there. The third Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke’s synopsis of The Baptist’s preaching ministry, and quite honestly, it has some of my favorite lines in it.

You brood of vipers! Luke 3:7

The Baptist did not follow seeker sensitive paradigms. I feel like this was his opening. Whereas most preachers today would tell a lighthearted story or a joke to warm the crowd up, JB just lays into them by inferring they were a bunch of snakes. I wonder what insults he’d come up with to open a sermon today? Maybe, “You entertainment entrepreneurs” or perhaps “self-help supplicants” or something biting. I’ve often wondered if he isn’t, by saying ‘vipers’ intimating a connection with the serpent in the garden.

We have Abraham as our Father. Luke 3:8

This is the claim of the religious leaders–we are the children of Abraham so we are automatically spiritually significant. It is a type of elitism that boils my skin. Pedigree is meaningless in the Kingdom of God, and those who would hide behind it or revel in are grossly mistaken. I like how he called them out on it. There is no place for snobbery or nepotism in the church.

The axe is laid to the root of the trees. Luke 3:9

The people are the trees and the axe is the activity of the Lord. Having grown up on a farm, this image is powerful to me. The tree is not being chopped off where there will be stump. It is being cut at he roots and pushed over. Nothing of it will be left exceptionalities the hole that is left in the ground.

Share with him who has none  Luke 3:11

There is nothing in his sermon to this point that is complicated or necessarily doctrinal. He gives the warning and then launches with ethics. Share. Whatever you have, share it.

Be content with your wages Luke 3:14

This is what he said to the soldiers who were out there. Soldiers in the ancient world padded their income with extortion, bribes, and violence. I am certain in some parts of the world this is still the situation. JB says don’t do that. I find it fascinating that he doesn’t, and neither does Jesus, say “stop being soldiers.” Soldiery is honorable, good, and important. But not all soldiers are good. For the record, these are probably the priests soldiers and not Roman soldiers.

With many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. Luke 3:18

Verse 18 is not JB’s words. These are Luke’s words’ and Luke refers to the harsh, combative, confrontation words of The Baptist as “good news” or “gospel”.  That is not how most of us would define a gospel message. We would define it as the love of God proclaimed, a discussion about the need for salvation, and an invitation to make Christ your Lord. But that is not JB’s message. His gospel is humility, share, fairness, and contentment with honesty. That is fiery stuff in any age.

In addition to these jabs, there is the constant backdrop of fire in JB’s words. He tells them fruitless trees will be thrown into the fire, the Messiah will baptize with fire, and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire. The emphasis upon fire is the prophetic mantle he wore. Prophets don’t hold hands and comfort, they rebuke and challenge with fiery words and fiery images. They remind people of the certainty of judgment as well as the certainty of purification. Neither one is pain free, and both will leave burn marks.

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Advent 2, Year C–Luke 3:1-6

For use in my own preaching, I moved this Advent reading to week 3 (December 16) as the sermon text. The reason? I started working on Luke 3:1-6 for week two, but it blew up to about four thousand words (which is about one thousand too many) so I cut it in half, changed the form on the first part, and made it two different sermons. The point of my little opening aside here? These lines here at the beginning of Luke 3 can take you to many different places, and most of them are good.

The historian inside Luke screams out as he gives us a backdrop of the time period we are in and the location where things are happening.

. . . the reign of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate . . . Herod . . . Philip tetrarch of the region . . . Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene . . . priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . . in the wilderness .. the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance fo the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:1-2

We know when we are, which is important because Chapter 2 ended with the boy Jesus in the temple. Luke is reminding us we’ve shifted to the future when Jesus is no longer a child, and the powers in this world are political and religious. In contrast to these powers, John The Baptist is preaching something difference. He is preaching forgiveness and repentance. So Luke, the ever careful writer gives us who, what, when, and where.

The part of this text which most people will focus on, and rightly so, is the quotation from Isaiah’s vision of the future. This is the why.

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.”

Luke 3:4-6

I’m preaching this passage in ten days, so I will not show all my cards. Let me just point out three things about this amazing text.

  1. Luke doesn’t say John is saying this. In our imagination we often put these words in The Baptist’s mouth. That is a mistake. This is Luke’s interpretation of who John is and what prophetic function he fulfills. It is often other people, and later generations, who are benefited and understand our work the most.
  2. It is hard to know what is meant in the opening of the prophesy. A clear reading is nearly impossible, and in every language it seems to be muddled. I have never been fully satisfied. It could be, “The voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” as if a person is crying out that the highway should be built in the wilderness. Or, is it “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” where the wilderness is more about where the person is shouting and not necessarily where the road is to be built. Either way, though, the Lord is coming and you better be ready.
  3. Luke, and the other gospel writers as well, see this passage then as a connected to the message of repentance and forgiveness, and continues, in the rest of Luke 3, to wed these ideas with ethical behavior, fairness, and integrity. It is about this time we should remind ourselves this was a huge part of the prophetic message in the Old Testament, including Isaiah. Belief and faith are important, but if they are disconnected from ethical behaviors all that remains is superstition.

 

 

 

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Advent 2, Year C–Malachi 3:1-4

We read this passage in our worship service last Sunday as the prophetic passage for the first Sunday of Advent. It is one of my favorites.

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.

Malachi 3:1

Much is happening here, but it starts with the promise of a messenger. I would like to begin by asking you to think what a weird word choice this is for the Lord. We expect the Lord to send a prophet, one like Samuel, perhaps. We expect the Lord to send a king, maybe one like David. We expect the Lord to send a priest? Like Aaron.

He doesn’t send those. He sends the messenger. I think this is a play on words with the title of the book. The word Malachi means “My Messenger” — and 3:1 might be a self-reference by the author. Maybe he views himself as the messenger. Likewise, I have often though of the similarities between the idea of “messenger” here in Malachi 3:1 and the New Testament word “angel” which is roughly the same–a messenger from God.

Jesus identified John the Baptist as this messenger in Matthew 11:10. That makes, for me, the word choice of messenger that much telling. Why doesn’t it say, “I will send my prophet, or my priest, or my king”? The answer is because Jesus himself is the prophet, the priest, and the king. The messenger can’t be, in relation to the ultimate, any of those. The messenger must decrease, while the Lord must increase (John 3:30).

After The Messenger’s work is done, the Lord will do two things:

  1. Suddenly appear in the temple.
  2. He will purify and refine the sons of Levi

Of course, the language Malachi uses is more beautiful than this.

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple . . . who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? for he is like a refiners fire and like a fuller’s soap . . . he will purify the sons of Levi . . . and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord

Malachi 3:1-4

Before we jump to the many messianic concepts here, we must do the work of context. In the book of Malachi there is one central complaint from God: the priests have neglected their work and have brought polluted and inappropriate offerings before the Lord. This is spelled out strongly in Malachi 1. Later, this pollution of sacrifices will be connected to the call for tithes and offerings to be again given by the people and collected by the priests. Malachi finishes abruptly with a flourish about The Day of the Lord.

So, in context, Malachi is looking for the Lord to first send a messenger with a warning, whom Malachi might see as himself, that the priests need to get their act straight because the Lord is coming to purify the priesthood through reform of the offerings.

We can spend a lot of time critiquing the priesthood in the Old Testament, but it is enough to say here that it failed, and that failure was total and complete by the time Jesus arrives on the scene in the early first century. Jesus was many things, and one of those was a reformer and critic of the priests, as was John the Baptist. To emphasize the point, there is a reason why John the Baptist was out in he desert baptizing: he was protesting the Jerusalem temple complex and the priesthood.

The reader of these words from Malachi would do well to connect them, though, not to John the Baptist, but to Jesus cleansing the temple (Mark 11:15-19), running out the priests and their polluted, greedy sacrifices, then teaching every day until the priests gathered enough courage to have Jesus arrested and murdered. But the priests fell into his hands, because this was the way he purified and washed. His blood was the soap and his cross was the fire. What he did, then, was, as Peter put it, was to reject the Hebrew priesthood for something new–a complete reform with a new kind of priest, the priesthood of the believer with immediate access, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, to the Lord.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light

1 Peter 2:9