King of Kings

Elizabeth and Mary live in a world run by the ruthless and strong.  Augustus Caesar sits on the imperial throne in Rome, Herod the Great sits on the throne in Jerusalem.  They are brutal tyrants running the world as they want, as they see fit, to their own advantage.  But Mary and Elizabeth believe that God is about to act to establish a new way of running the world that will put the bullies out of business and finally give the meek a chance.

The time was during the Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome. This was just a euphemism, imperial propaganda.  It was a time of peace and a booming economy FOR ROME.  Maybe you have heard the phrase, all roads lead to Rome.  Yes, all roads lead to Rome so they could plunder the world and take all the loot back to Rome   It was a time of peace and prosperity gained through conquest and looting.  It is not the way of God and Mary knows it.  This little 14 year old revolutionary knows that this is not the way of God so she dares to prophesy that God is about to act and do something about it.

Mary’s song is in keeping with the long tradition of the Hebrew prophets.  You know the Hebrew prophets.  They were mostly poets and songwriters of sorts who would write subversive poetry.  They would look at the world, see something wrong, and write what we would call protest songs about what was wrong in the world. Then they would offer imagination of what it will be like when God intervenes, when God turns injustice into justice, when God flips the tables, flips the script, and puts the brutal bullies and tyrants out of business and gives those on the ash heap of society a chance.  That’s Amos, Obadiah, and Habakkuk.  That’s Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  That’s who the Hebrew prophets were and what they did.

One thing we struggle to understand is that prophecy is not primarily a prediction of future events.  Despite the billion dollar industries created around end time prophecy, despite the millions being made by those peddling end times prophecy as a predictor of 21st century political events, this is not the primary purpose of prophecy.   Prophecy is  primarily a critique of present structures with an alternative vision for the future.  Prophesy says this is what’s wrong with the world with a vision for how God can set it right.  This is why prophecy tends to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Some are comforted, some are not, depends on where we are on current global scale.  If you are in Bangladesh, or Mogadishu, or Haiti, you might here a prophecy about the world being turned upside down and the last being first and the first being last and scream out “I like this prophet!  Let me hear more of how this script is going to change and I’ll be given a chance!”   But if you’re in a Manhattan skyscraper, or a Capitol Hill condo, or even a Southern Maryland subdivision sitting on your recliner and your PJs drinking coffee with your feet up, you might not be so excited.  You might think “Hey, maybe we can tweak some things, we’re not perfect, but we don’t need to totally rethink everything.  First last, last first?  Let’s not go too crazy here!

This is why a year later Mary and David run for their lives.  If your saying the mighty king  will be cast down and the weak and powerless lifted up, those mighty ones might fight back.   “That prophecy says what?

So the angel comes again to Joseph – “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”” Matthew 2:13 ESV.  Rise, don’t wait ‘til morning.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.””

Matthew 2:16-18 ESV. There is heard a wailing in Ramah.  Rachel weeping, mourning the loss of her children.  Babies being slaughtered also part of the Christmas story.

Jesus was born into a world where innocents are too often slaughtered, from Bethlehem to New Town to Columbine to Sandy Hook.  He was sent to this world where our innocents are so often slaughtered to save us from our ways of death.

Look at Mary’s prophecy again.  First shes prophesying her own blessing, which her cousin Elizabeth had also declared.  My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.  Then it’s like a movie where the camera pans back to the wider world.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

Mary is standing in whole company of Israel.   She represents here the whole of people of Israel, the lowly servant of lord through whom salvation is born.

How does this happen?  Mary prophesies that big changes are coming.  She prophesies revolution.  The poor and humble will be lifted up.  The mighty and powerful will be toppled.  The poor and hungry will be satisfied, the rich sent away.  This is radical.  It will get the death squads sent out into the districts.

How is it to be accomplished?  Will it be done by chopping the heads of the bad guys?  That’s what everyone thought.  When u say everyone, i mean everyone. Mary, John the Baptist, Zechariah, Elizabeth, the Pharisees, Caiaphas, Pilate.  They all thought Jesus would do the revolutionary thing and start chopping heads.  We need to chop the heads and kill the bad guys so that the world can be set right and we can be on top.

But when Jesus starts his ministry and does something truly revolutionary, preaching “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you”, nobody could understand what was going on.  The could not believe it.

John the Baptist, for one, stops leaping.  Remember how he leaped in his mother’s womb?  Remember how John was the one to declare “There is the lamb if God who takes away the sin of the world.  There’s the Messiah”.  Well, John doesn’t get it, he stops leaps, stops shouting.  He sends messengers to ask   “”…Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”” Matthew 11:3 ESV.  Even his mother would basically ask him “are you crazy?

Mary’s prophecy is about the reign of god that her son is about to bring into the world.  When this happens, the proud, the powerful, the rich will not be given their accustomed positions of privilege.  They are used to being in charge, setting the rules of the game.  Ever been playing a game and been suspicious someone is setting the rules of the game their advantage?

Sometimes it seems the whole world is like this.  The proud, powerful and rich have a sense of entitlement that we are the ones.  We play the game but we always win.  But in Mary’s prophecy the proud, powerful, and rich are not given their accustomed position of privilege.

Who actually opposed Jesus?  The proud, powerful, the rich.  The proud Pharisees – “we know the Bible and we know who’s in and who’s out.   We definitely know that we are in and you are out.

The powerful – the Sadducees, the ones ran temple, the priestly class.   They have a great center of power in the temple.   But Jesus protests their temple.

The rich – the Herodians and Hasmoneans, those for whom the present  arrangement was very advantageous, they were very happy with the status quo, thank you very much.  These all fought Jesus.

Who flocked to Jesus?  Lepers, the moral outcasts, tax collectors, the sick, the poor, prostitutes,  sinners.  The ones who had always been left out, left on the bottom and shunned, these are drawing near to Jesus. The great reversal is occurring.  The rich and powerful are fighting Jesus, but they are toppling and falling.  The poor and the sick…suddenly they are being lifted up and it’s happening before our very eyes, the new kingdom is coming.

These humble and hungry are blessed in Jesus sermon on the mount – the poor, mourning, the meek, the persecuted, the merciful, the pure,  the hungry the peacemakers.  Mary’s song and Jesus’ beatitudes pretty much say the same thing.  There has been a seismic shift in world.

To do justice for poor sick and oppressed is now a requirement for rulers of this world.  Jesus judges whole world right now.  Consciously or unconsciously we compare every ruler, every president, every prime minister to Jesus.  He really is king.  He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, president of presidents, prime minister of prime ministers.   If they don’t act justly and care for the weak, the sick, the poor as Jesus would we tell them it’s time to go, they get voted out of office, revolutions break out.  It’s the seismic shift the coming  of Christ into the world brings.

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”

Luke 1:39-56 ESV

http://bible.com/59/luk.1.39-56.esv

John Lewis

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Leaping for Joy

What would make you literally leap for joy?  Think of the End of WWII, those picture is unbridled, pure joy.   There was leaping for  joy at the falling of the Berlin Wall.  Maybe the birth of a child, or grandchild.  How about winning the lottery, that would make some of us pretty joyful, amen!  What if you get even better news than that, you get the news that you are now cancer free, would that make you leap for joy??

When war ends and tyrannies topple, when prosperity comes and sickness leaves, that’s good news. That’s the kind of news Mary and Elizabeth celebrate together.  The good news that the kingdom of god, the government of god, the reign and rule of god is at last breaking into the world, a world that for too long has been ruled by proud and brutal tyrants.

The story begins like this – with an old Jewish couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth.  They always  wanted children but children did not come.  When Zechariah is praying and burning incense in the temple an angel appears to him.  “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” Luke 1:12-15 ESV

Six months later same angel, Gabriel is sent to the backwater of Nazareth with the announcement to a young girl, Mary, that though she is a Virgin she will conceive a son who will be a savior.  So Mary immediately leaves Nazareth to travel 70 miles south to visit with Elizabeth, her older cousin.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.   Mary Greets Elizabeth, maybe with “shalom”, a typical Jewish greeting.  But Elizabeth is filled with Holy Spirit and responds with with an unusual greeting.   “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”” Luke 1:41-45 ESV.   Yes, that is quite a greeting!

At the same time Elizabeth greets Mary, her baby leaps for joy in her womb. That baby is John the Baptist.  John is the first of all the Baptists, there will be many more.  I don’t think there’s been a Baptist since who was so excited to hear about Mary…

Let’s not miss the symbolism here.  We have a woman almost too old to be a mother about to give birth to a son who will bring to a close the old age, the Old Testament age.   We have a woman almost too young to be mother who is going to give birth to a son who will bring in the new age.  They are meeting and rejoicing together.  As it says prophetically in the Old Testament, the old will serve the younger, Elizabeth is serving Mary, John will serve Jesus, the Old Testament will serve the new.

Back to Mary.  Whatever image we have in our minds about Mary, she is not safe, tame or demure.  She is in fact something of a radical revolutionary, this is very amazing young girl.

The Spirit then comes upon Mary, and in the power of the Holy Spirit she brings forth her song.  It’s an adaptation of Hannah’s song 1000 years earlier, along with a little from the songs of Moses Miriam and Deborah.  It is One of most famous Christian songs in history, prayed, sung, and chanted everyday by Christians around the world.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him

in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,

he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, The promise he made to our fathers,

to Abraham and his children for ever.

Amen.

It’s a song about God and revolution.  It’s about God injecting himself into the world in a way that things will be revolutionized.  It’s not a weak, soft ballad.  It’s not even a power ballad.  Mary’s song comes with a stomp.  It could be a hip hop song today.  It is a prophecy of revolution.

Set the scene fully.  We have two Jewish women, both poor and oppressed, living in an occupied land.  A land occupied by a foreign superpower.   They belong to a nation of people being oppressed.  But in their poverty and their oppression they are suddenly overflowing with joy because they believe something big is about to happen. They believe God is about to act in such a way as to launch a revolution through their two sons.  They are both pregnant in improbable ways, one too old, one too young (and a Virgin at that), yet they both have sons about to be born six months apart, sons they will name John and Jesus.  They believe that God himself is going to act within history and launch a revolution through their two sons.   They believe the coming revolution is in fact the Kingdom of God.  They believe God’s way of running the world is going to come into the world through their two boys.   And there they are stomping and prophesying and rejoicing in a little Judean hilltop town.

The whole scene is absurd.  Two unlikely pregnant women living in poverty in an obscure out of the way corner of the world prophesying that the world is about to be radically changed through their soon to be born babies.  It’s crazy, it’s ridiculous, it’s absurd.  And it’s absolutely true.

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”

Luke 1:39-56 ESV

http://bible.com/59/luk.1.39-56.esv

John Lewis

Rejoice!

In the Jesus story, right now looking at Mary the mother of Jesus and the world she lived in.  It’s  a world with a booming economy, but lots of people get left out.  But in this booming economy, in this world where Caesar is called the “son of god”, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying REJOICE!   You could say this is the proper beginning of New Testament.  Now we are stepping into Good News.  Rejoice!  When the angel makes his enunciation with the word “rejoice”, Good News is indeed breaking into the world.   The long dark night is at last coming to and end.  It is time to rejoice!

God is keeping his promise to bless the world through the seed of Abraham.   Rejoice!!

God is keeping his promise to rule over the nations through the  Son of David.  Rejoice!!

This child who will bless the world and rule the nations is about to be born.  REJOICE!!

But then Mary speaks.  How will this be, since I am a virgin?   To which the angel answers The Holy Spirit will come upon youof course it is from this that we get part of the apostles creed where we confess of Jesus Christ – “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary…

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth points out that there are 2 moments in Jesus story where God himself intervened directly in his creation. These two moments are the Virgin birth and resurrection.   It is no surprise that these two moments are the dual foundation of our Christian faith.  It all really comes down to Merry Christmas and happy Easter.  It is all about the incarnation and the resurrection…

Even though God intervened – He does not override Mary’s human freedom.  Mary is free to say no.  The angel Gabriel here awaits Mary’s response before leaving her.  We see Mary ask her questions.  How will this be, since I am a virgin?   We see the angel answer her.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”   St Augustine had a famous sermon, about 1600 years ago.   In his sermon Augustine portrayed this moment as a hush falling over heaven as God and all the angels awaited Mary’s response.  Then she speaks –  “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.  And all the angels and heaven rejoiced and did backflips.  Rejoice indeed.  God’s intervention hinges on Mary’s yes.

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who was carrying John the Baptist at the time, said of Mary  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Luke 1:42 ESV.   Mary said yes to God.  But saying yes to god does not mean Mary’s life will be easy.  We think it’s all about “Say yes to be blessed!”.  But for Mary, sometimes it was just the opposite.  Saying yes sometimes meant meant embarking on life etched with sorrow.  As Simeon so correctly prophesied of Mary at Jesus’ temple dedication “…and a sword will pierce through your own soul…”Luke 2:35 ESV.

She will live her entire life under the shadow of assumed scandal.  Joseph would have divorced her.  He has only one assumption when his betrothed turns up pregnant .  But an angel comes to Joseph – “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”” Matthew 1:20-21 ESV.  But the angel didn’t go to everybody.   There were plenty of people in that backwoods of Nazareth who knew that Mary had come up pregnant by someone other than her husband.  It follows her her whole life, it will cause her suffering.

After her baby is born, we don’t know how long, maybe a month, maybe six months, maybe a year, there are thugs from King Herod seeking to kill her son.  She and Joseph have to escape to Egypt.  This doesn’t sound like Mary said yes to be blessed, does it?  It doesn’t sound like her life got easy and happy after she said yes to God.

Jesus escaped, but lots of little boys died in this search for Christ.  Does Mary have guilt that her son is the one who survives?   Does this put an additional burden upon her, that  because King Herod wanted to kill her baby a lot of other babies died.   Running for your life, having the burden of the death of other women’s babies on your conscience, this doesn’t sound like an easy life…

Mary was also there at cross when her first born was crucified.  Jesus will always her her first born.   Whatever else Jesus was, Jesus was always her first born child.  Yes, Jesus was her Lord and savior, but he was also her son.  In this way Mary is extraordinarily unique.  And yes, she lived through seeing her own son tortured on a Roman cross.

The days we live in are shallow and cheap. We in turn present  a version of Christianity that we ourselves can handle.  We present to the world that saying “yes” to God means your on the fast track to happiness.  But what if it’s not so.  Yes, we know saying yes to God will save you, will get you out of certain struggles.  But what if saying yes to God gets you into other trouble?   What if it saves you from this trouble only to throw you into that?  What if it brings with it baggage you’re going to have to struggle with and might make  your life more difficult?  What if????

There IS joy in getting involved with god.  He saves you from your sin and other things that are killing your soul, but know that there will also be sorrow.  The message to Mary – REJOICE!!  and get ready for sorrow.  Can you accept it, can you receive this, can we handle that?  Will we say thanks, but no thanks?   I’m Glad Mary did not.

Christianity is filled with paradoxes.  As we engage our life with god, we gain the capacity for real sorrow but at same time real joy.  Mary will know both.  It’s part of the reason for our fascination with her.

We know that joy will have the last word,  But we don’t get there in a cheap, easy way.  Along the way there will be sorrow.  It might be comforting to know that at least when we go through sorrow it’s part of Christ being formed within us.  We don’t  have to feel guilty for going through a hard time.

How can we look at Mary??   How do we understand her?  We know this much about her, that she is a human being in whom Christ was formed.  AMEN!   Literally.  Here is a human being in whom Christ was formed.  And just what are we to be?  Men and women in whom Christ is formed.  We are to be like Mary, a bearer of God into the world.

In Mary, there is a tension between deep joy but also profound sorrow.  It should be comforting to know that sorrow is part of Christ being formed in us.  It’s not abnormal, but a part of the process we go through as Christians, part of our spiritual formation.  We say yes to God, but life doesn’t always go our way.  We don’t get to be happy all the time.  But the struggles and sorrows we go through are just part of the process of growing in Christ, as Christ grows within us.  It’s all part of the mystery of Mary…

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 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.”

Luke 1:26-38 ESV

John Lewis

Darkness

darkness

Back into the story of Jesus and the virgin birth.  The story of a young virgin who’s about to become a teen mom, who’s about to become a teen mom despite the fact that she has not left home to live with her betrothed, despite the fact that her marriage has not been consummated.   Quite the scandal, a scandal that would follow her the rest of her life.

mary-and-joseph-603772

Mary and Joseph are both from house and lineage of David.  This means that Jesus is, in fact,  the son of David, qualified to be messiah, which simply means to be king, the king of Israel.  Ancient Israel did not crown their kings, they anointed them with oil.  To be the anointed one is to be the crowned.   To speak of the crowned, that means you’re talking abut the king.  The ancient Jews speak of the “anointed” one, they are talking about their king.

king-david

So they’re both from house and lineage of David, as we’ve always heard.  This child will be the son of David, qualified to be messiah, king of Israel.

Son-of-God

The angel says he will be called the Son of Godwhich rightfully we hear with lots of deep theological implications.  But for Mary, she would have heard this as at least as much of a political statement as theological, probably much more so.  The title son of god was already in use.  Let’s look at the timeline for a minute.  We know King Herod died 4 BC.  Jesus was born before death of Herod, so this is about 5 or 6 BC (yes, the Christ was born about 5 years Before Christ, there were some errors made in calculating our calendar.  Go figure).  At this time the son of god meant the one who had divine right to rule, because after all they are god’s son and have the right to rule the world.

augustus caesar

Jesus is born a subject of the Roman Empire    This is very important to understanding the Jesus story.  Jesus was born during the booming economy of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome.  Every coin in the empire had the inscription “Augustus Caesar – Son of God”.   Think about this, how often does money pass through our hands in the course of a day’s activities?  Every coin passing through the hands of the wealthy, and the few coins passing through Mary and Joseph’s hands, declared “Augustus Caesar -Son of God”, meaning Augustus Caesar had the divine right to rule.

economy

What mattered most was the economy.  Augustus Caesar had given the empire a booming economy.   Therefore he had the right to rule.  Therefore he was the son of god.

Mary-and-Angel-02

But now…an angel is telling a poor peasant girl that the true son of God was going to come into the world through her life and share in her poverty.  It’s not the economy that matters most but the reign of god and he works in ways we can almost never anticipate.   We must remember that every time you hear the economy spoken of as if it’s the most important thing, you are hearing a lie.

son of the most high

The angel tells Mary her son will be given a throne and an eternal kingdom. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.   It’s this understanding of the birth of Jesus that causes all the trouble.  Hear these titles –  Lord, Son of God, King of Kings, Prince of Peace, Savior of the World – these are all imperial titles belonging to Caesar.  When you heard these titles everyone understood you were talking about Augustus Caesar   When the angel Gabriel shows up in Nazareth, these titles were all in circulation.  But the angel says this virgin will bear a child who will claim all these titles for himself.  Trouble is brewing in Nazareth…

Roman Empire

Caesar in and of himself is not important.  Caesars come and Caesars go.  One dies, they just appoint another to take his place.  What’s really important is the empire, Caesar is a personification of the empire.  They call him the son of god, but it’s really about the empire.  The mighty Roman Empire, that’s the savior of the world, that’s where peace and prosperity comes from, that’s what saves the world.  After all, the last, best hope of the world is the mighty Roman Empire….

angel with shepherds

Jesus was in trouble with the superpower from the moment he was born.  Remember, King Herod wanted him dead   The Christmas story is not all about angels appearing to shepherds in the night, it’s also about Herod’s death squads killing babies in Bethlehem. There is a dark side to Christmas because the principalities and powers do not want to let go of the night.  They want the darkness to remain.  It’s the darkness that keeps them in power.   But we are told darkness can not overcome the light.   “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5 ESV

Light-Shines

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 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.”

Luke 1:26-38 ESV

John Lewis

Who???

Who???

mary

Strolling through Gospel of Luke during this season of advent as we wait for the coming of Messiah, the Christ.   I want to meet Jesus, and I mean really meet Jesus, beginning right now in this season of advent.   I want to be reintroduced to this story that saves the world, I want to meet Jesus all over again, as it were, maybe really meet him for the very first time.   I want strip the varnish of our politicized faith and cultural assumptions and meet Jesus as much as I possibly can as he actually is.

elijah

My last three messages were meeting the parents of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist properly would belong to the Old Testament, even though he appears in the New.  He’s the bridge that brings the two together.   The last prophecy of the Old Testament, at the end of Malachi, is that god would send Elijah the prophet to prepare the way.  “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Malachi 4:5-6 ESV. John comes in the power and spirit of Elijah as the fore runner preparing the way for Messiah.

mary and jesus

So we’ve met John’s parents and looked at his birth.  Today we look at Mary, the mother of Jesus.  That’s right, I’m writing about Mary.   She is quite the mystery.  Protestants have been allergic to Mary for about 500 years, I know.  And there were clearly some abuses that needed to be corrected, but maybe we need to get over our allergy and meet Mary in the New Testament, as she is, and learn what we should learn from her.   Mary is the human, the woman through whom God enters his own creation and gains humanity.   Mary is a mystery because she is intimately connected with the greatest mystery of all, the incarnation.  By incarnation I mean that god, in Christ, became human.  I mean that the eternal logos, the eternal word of god, god’s self reflection upon himself that was eternally existent,  the second person of the trinity, becomes human flesh.

god incarnate

Jesus Christ is God becoming as human as you.  Many (most) of us still don’t believe this.  We know what it is to be human.  We know that God can’t be like us, because we are a mess, amen!   But if we don’t believe this, then it means we are kind of a cute little heretic.  Quit being a cute little heretic, and accept that Jesus is fully human, just as human as you.  He was and is fully human, like you.  It’s stunning, it’s shocking, it’s hard to get our minds around, but Jesus was and is fully human, even like me.  It’s hard to get our minds around, but we have to work at it.

1

Let’s get started looking at how this happens.  Let’s look at how Jesus becomes fully human, Emmanuel, God with us.   How does Jesus fully join with us in life, joins us in birth, in struggles, in sorrows, even joins us in death, that we might join him in resurrection.

mothergabriel

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 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.”

Luke 1:26-38 ESV

enunciation icon

So the story of Jesus begins in earnest with the enunciation, the angelic announcement to a young virgin that she will bear a son named Jesus who will be called the Son of God.

two pigeons

The young virgin is Mary, the most common female Jewish name.  She is named after Moses’ sister Miriam.  She is Jewish.  Mary was probably very young.  She’s betrothed, which in her culture means she is in fact married, which is why Joseph considers divorcing her upon hearing of her pregnancy.  They are married, but she has not yet left her home to live with her husband, they have not consummated their union.  There’s been a betrothal and exchanging of gifts, they are legally married but have not come together because Mary is so young.  She is probably about thirteen or fourteen, which is almost shocking, quite scandalous to us.  She is Jewish and she is poor.  We know she is poor because when she and Joseph take Jesus to be dedicated at the temple, they offer two pigeons for the sacrifice instead of a lamb, which is the provision made under the law for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Nazareth_Village_houses,_tb052704199

This all takes place in Nazareth.  The significance of Nazareth is its insignificance.  Nazareth is Nowhere, it’s not on the map, it’s Hicktown.  Mary is poor, obscure, living in the nowhere, nothing town of Nazareth.  She doesn’t come from wealth or privilege or prestige.  She’s not among the upper class.  If God is going to act, wouldn’t he act among those whom we would think would be prepared to act with Him?  She will become most famous woman in history, but here in the story, she is an insignificant young teenager in a nothing town who has nothing.  Augustus Caesar is in his lavish palace in Rome.  King Herod is in his probably even more lavish palace in Jerusalem. But the angel Gabriel (which means “strength of god”) comes to this humble (poor) house with a dirt floor and thatch roof in the backwater of Galilee to tell a fourteen year old virgin she has found favor with God will soon give birth to Israel’s messiah.

mark-9-35

Let us not fail to be surprised at this.  Enter enough into the story that we can find it almost shocking that this is the way God operates.  There were plenty of people, plenty of Jews, who had been waiting, praying, hoping, preparing for the Messiah.  But when God breaks into human history, He does not go to those with power, He does not go to those who appear to be greatest and most prepared.  He does not go to the Hasmoneans in the big city of Jerusalem, the wealthy power brokers of the time.   As one of the most famous sayings of Jesus goes, “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Luke 13:30 ESV.

advent2

We know this, we can talk about this, but do not fail to be shocked by this. It is not cliche, it’s not kitsch, it’s not sentimentality, it’s not Precious Moments.  Mary, a lowly, poor, nobody from nowhere, is how God enters into humanity to save the world.

John Lewis

Light

My first message in over a week. I actually have three written (including this one), but sometimes life gets busy and I just can’t do everything I intend to do. But, as I’m told, that’s ok. Today is a new day, this week is a new week, and we are still in the season if advent awaiting the coming of Christ. So let’s get back to the story, HIS story…

This is the third message in a row from Luke Chapter 1, the third message about a birth.  But the the birth I am looking at, the birth Luke has been telling us about, has not been the birth of the Savior but of the forerunner.   Luke has not been telling us of the coming of Christ, but of John the Baptist.

Zechariah had received his message from the angel Gabriel, had been struck mute, and the message he had received from the angel had come true.   Zechariah and his wife, both beyond child bearing age, had conceived and were now “with child”.

Skipping forward about 9 months now, it’s time to have this baby.  “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”” Luke 1:57-60 ESV.  John?  Who’s John?   There’s no John in your family!   Shouldn’t you name the boy after his father?  After all, you’ve waited so long!    Why not call him Zechariah?  This is, after all, the name of the boys father, even if he is struck mute.   “And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.”  Luke 1:61-64 ESV

His name is John, and as soon as Zechariah wrote on the tablet that the boys name was John, in obedience to the word that had come from the angel, the angel Gabriel lets him go and he immediately begins to praise God and prophecy.

So here’s a question – Why does Luke begin his Gospel in this way?  Mark begins like this – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark 1:1 ESV.   Matthew begins “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew 1:1 ESV.  John starts with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 ESV, and immediately tells that Jesus is the Word.  Luke, on the other hand, is 25 verses in before we even here of Mary, and Jesus is not born until chapter 2.  He’s well into his story before we ever hear the name Jesus, yet it is the Jesus story he is telling.  He is writing for us the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  So why the long wait before we hear Jesus’ name in this gospel?

Luke waits so long to mention Jesus because he is writing with a Gentile audience in mind.   Luke doesn’t want his Theophilus, the Lover of God, or even us, to think Jesus just showed up out of nowhere.  That’s very often a mistake we make, that all of a sudden Jesus just showed up.  Luke wants us, his gentile audience, to understand that the Jesus story began a long, long time ago.  It’s a continuation of the story of Abraham and Sarah.   That’s why we have that echo of Abraham and Sarah in Zechariah and Elizabeth, an old couple beyond the child bearing age who, miraculously, can conceive in their old age with divine intervention.  Luke wants us to know that Jesus is God keeping covenant with Israel.  God has made covenant promises with Israel which are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

But here’s a beauty that we miss in the gospel story – Jesus is also Israel keeping covenant with God.   Israel has had a long, sometimes ugly history of not being faithful to the covenant.  But Jesus is finally the faithful son of Israel who keeps covenant with Yahweh.

Understand this – Jesus is not God starting over.  God was not trying for thousands of years to do something in the Old Testament, saw it wasn’t working and then started over.   No, God is not starting over, he’s keeping his covenant promises to Abraham that He will bless the whole world through his seed.  He’s keeping his covenant promise that a son of David will reign over the nations forever.

In Christ, God is keeping ancient promises made in the Old Testament.  Luke is not telling the story of how God starts over, he’s telling the story of how Israel’s Messiah becomes king of the world. That’s the Gospel, and that’s the story Luke is telling.

Zechariah began to prophecy over his son as soon as a Gabriel let loose his tongue.  Let’s look at Zechariah’s prophecy – “And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”” Luke 1:67-79 ESV

Zechariah is prophesying this – that from all our days, all our struggles, all our history, all the promises are coming true.  He speaks of Abraham, David, all the prophets and the covenant between Yahweh and Israel.  It’s all beginning to happen right now.  Zechariah could not yet imagine how it would all play out, how it is that Christ would  become king, and neither could John.  Nobody could.  Even Jesus’ disciples on the way to Jerusalem still could not fathom that he would be crowned king in crucifixion.   This is the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, but remember how it ends with the two disciples heading home from Jerusalem, dejected and completely disappointed.  Then Jesus appears.  “And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”” Luke 24:17-24 ESV

So they talk about Jesus to Jesus.  They talked about all the mighty deeds this one they thought was Messiah had done.  They thought he was Messiah, that is, until he was crucified on Good Friday, and their hopes and dreams had died right along with him.   “And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:25-27 ESV.

Zechariah’s prophecy is a beautiful prophecy, but as is often the case in prophecy, he is saying for mare than he could know at the time.   He’s prophesying over his son John, John the Baptist, that he might guide our feet into the way of peace.   His son will prepare the world for the dawning of a new day.  It’s the end of the Old Testament night.  There have been some luminaries lighting the path along the way.  They had some like Moses, the prophets, Elijah, there were some who provided light in the darkness by which Israel could navigate their way.  But, as the apostle John tells us “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”  John 1:18.

John the Baptist should be understood as last of it prophets, the bridge that ties the two together.  But with the  coming  and completion of his ministry we have the end of the night.   As Malachi said “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Malachi 4:2 ESV.  The day of the Lord has come, the dawning of God keeping his promises, and the sun (son) of God being righteous to keep his promises begins to peak over the horizon.  This is what we celebrate with Jesus being born.  As those rays begin to illuminate and warm  the earth we begin to be healed in those rays that come from the sun of god’s covenant faithfulness in giving his only begotten son.  A child is born, the Son is shining, we can finally see God, the Son has made him known.  A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of his people Israel.

Amen

John Lewis

Act This Out

Christmas-Charades

Still in Luke Chapter 1, he’s telling you his story, most excellent Theophilus…

jesus

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 

Zechariah_Elizabeth

Back with Zechariah and Elizabeth this morning.   Zechariah and Elizabeth have been waiting their whole lives, waiting on God, waiting for a child.  But they are into their old age now, with no sign of either.

zechariah

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.   It comes time for Zechariah’s priestly division to serve in the temple, a small town priest heading for the big city, Jerusalem, to serve in the temple.  Zechariah’s lot came up, and he is called to go into the sanctuary to offer incense and prayers upon the holy altar.

Zacharias_(Michelangelo)

And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”   An angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, saying what angels always say – Do not be afraid.  The angel tells Zechariah not to be afraid, then tells this righteous old priest, who’s been waiting for the Lord for his whole life, that at long last he will have a son!   And not just any son, but a son who would be great before the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit, going before the people in the power and spirit of Elijah, the great prophet of the Hebrew people!!   This child whom Zechariah has been waiting for would be the one to prepare the people for the long awaited, long anticipated coming of the Lord!

into-the-presence-of-god

And now the story turns to the comedic – And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”   Sounds like an answer I would give.  “Are you kidding me??!!”  I’m an old man, she’s an old woman.  She’s been barren all her life, now she’s going to get pregnant??   Zechariah asks for a sign, and sure enough the angel gives him one (ever been told to watch what you wish for?).   And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”    What, do you think I’m the janitor?    Zechariah wants to know How shall I knowthe angel Gabriel just shuts him up, just like that.  He stands in the presence of the Lord our God, he was sent by God to deliver this message, he’s not the cleaning lady.

Charades-Cartoon-Book-Cover

 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.    The people were waiting outside, wondering what happened?   Zechariah came out, and tried to communicate with them by signs what had happened.   Imagine trying to act out that message in a game of charades…

zechariah and elizabeth 2

And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.   So Zechariah goes home unable to speak.   Of course, we know men don’t have to talk to have sex, and lo and behold, Elizabeth gets pregnant.   An old Jewish couple has again conceived a child past their child bearing years.  With echoes of Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive a child at a ripe old age.  And their son would join Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, sons destined for greatness born to women who had been barren…

John Lewis