December 1, 2019 Advent 1- Luke 1: (Formerly) Barren Women, and Two Baby Boys

mary and Elizabeth

Read Luke 1 today.  Remember that you can always come back to a part of the study.  Today’s chapter is rich in fulfilled prophecy. We learn how God works in and through His people, and that His word always does what He says it will.  “Impossible!” for us is possible for God.

Luke begins his Gospel (as well as the book of Acts) with a nod to our friend, Theophilus (literally: God-lover.)  Theophilus may have been a person’s actual name, but it was more likely a way of addressing the reader, as a learned listener who loves God and wishes to learn more about Him.

Luke was by trade a physician, so he was the type of person to notice details and to be logical and thorough.  He was a traveling companion to the apostle Paul. Luke was thought to be a Hellenic Jew, (a person of Greek descent who followed Judaism) writing to a primarily ethnically Jewish audience, so he assumed his readers would be familiar with the Temple laws and the Old Testament.

The scene of Chapter 1 opens on Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the temple, and Elizabeth was his barren and long- suffering wife.

Zechariah is met as he serves in the temple by the angel Gabriel, who informs Zechariah that he and Elizabeth (even though she was way past menopause) were going to have a child.  He would be a child who even from before his birth would have to observe the Nazirite vow .  He would not be permitted to use alcohol or to cut his hair, among other restrictions.

 

Zechariah questioned Gabriel (which would seem to be a rational thing to do) and was rewarded with nine months of  being mute for doubting what God had to say.  God was true to His word in spite of Zechariah’s doubts- Elizabeth, the “barren,” did conceive a child.

Then the angel Gabriel pays a visit to Mary, the young girl who God has chosen to be Jesus’ mother.  Mary is another “barren” woman, but barren in the sense that she was a virgin and had never known a man.

In Protestant traditions we sort of shy away from talking about Mary, because we don’t want to put her in the place of God, but as long as we remember that Mary was a human, fallible sinner who, like us, also needed a Savior, there is no reason to hesitate to talk about her and to thank God for her and her role in the story of our salvation.

Mary’s response to Gabriel upon learning that she was to bear a son was similar to Zechariah’s – “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Today we don’t think a whole lot about unwed or teenage pregnancies.  They happen all the time.  But in Mary’s world there was a deep shame brought on the family if a girl was found to be pregnant before her wedding was consummated.  The assumption would be that she was breaking the seventh Commandment and not staying pure until her wedding night.  The penalty for this under the Mosaic Law can be found in Leviticus 20:10 – “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” 

Mary had to be aware of the penalty for adultery. She had to know that in her present state pregnancy would be risky to her person to say the least.  She asked Gabriel about the “how,” which was understandable, but she did not question the “why,” nor did she ask, “Why me?”

Instead she listens to God’s messenger tell her of her formerly barren cousin Elizabeth and how she is already six months along. She believes Gabriel when he says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  When Mary travels to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, even as she knows that her purity could be questioned,  even as she knows she could be condemned as an adulteress and her life could well be in danger, she sings the beautiful faith-filled Magnificat:

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.” Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)

When Mary returns to her home after visiting with Elizabeth for several months, the time comes for Elizabeth’s child to be born.

Zechariah is finally given the ability to speak after nine long months of muteness. After the relatives wanted to argue about the child’s name, because no one in Zechariah’s family was named John,  Zechariah wrote emphatically on his writing tablet: His name is John!   Then Zechariah could speak again.

What then would this child of Zechariah and Elizabeth be?  He would be John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets- the one Isaiah spoke of (Isaiah 40:3) as the voice in the wilderness, making straight a highway in the wilderness to our God.

Out of barren women God works the impossible. One woman barren from age was enabled by God to conceive a child in the natural way, and another woman barren save for only the supernatural intervention of God, also conceives a son.   These impossible births mark the beginning of the story of salvation. Two baby boys, cousins, were brought in to the world by the providence of God- the voice in the wilderness, followed by Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

 

December 19, 2016- Do You Believe What God Said? Luke 1:11-24

zechariah_6

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.   He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.  He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. Luke 1:11-22 (NRSV)

Zechariah is one of the more interesting characters in the story of the Nativity.  He was a high priest in the temple, a man well educated in the Torah and in the Jewish faith.  He knew the story of Moses.  He knew the I AM God. He knew that all things are possible with God.

Yet when Gabriel (the same angel who later appeared to Mary to announce the impending birth of Jesus) came to him with the good news that he was to be the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah doubted that what Gabriel had come to say to him would happen.

Sometimes what we know in our heads is true doesn’t quite make it all the way to our hearts.  We all have those moments of, “I believe what God says is true, but…” The reality of the human condition is that doubt is part of faith.  God wants us to question our faith and to bring our questions to Him.  That’s the reason why God gave us intellect- so that we could seek, knock and ask, and grow closer to Him in our searching.

But Zechariah was a guy who because of both his education and his vocation, should have known that when God’s angel makes a special trip to tell you something that God is going to follow through with that announcement. It is interesting that God decided to literally shut Zechariah up until He made good upon granting him that gift of a son.  It was if God was saying in that action, “I have the final word.”

I have a plaque in my dining room that says, “Lord, keep Your arms around my shoulder,  and Your hand over my mouth.”  Part of the reason I like that short little prayer is because I tend to want to cut off the possibilities before I remember that God is the one in control, not me. In a crisis, I can only see what my narrow focus allows me to see, instead of the complete picture that God sees and of which God is the Author. Sometimes I want to say, “But, God…” or, “How can that happen?”  or, “Why,” without considering that it is the I AM God who is deciding things.

There are many promises God gives to His people throughout Scripture.  Some of those promises have been fulfilled, and some of them are not yet.

But God has the final word.  He hears our prayers, He answers them, and when He speaks, it will happen as He says.  No matter what I might have to say in disbelief or protest.

December 15, 2016 And the Angel Said… Luke 1:30-33, Luke 1:19, Hebrews 13:2

van-gogh-angel

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:30-33 (NRSV)

When angels are mentioned in the Bible, the reference is usually to the angel of the Lord, or to a “heavenly host.”  Angels can take on the form of a man (such as the angels who gave Lot the warning about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – Genesis 19:1-16) or they can manifest as a voice from a burning bush, (Exodus 3:2) a pillar of cloud (Exodus 14:19), or as mighty warriors (Psalm 78:49.)

Angels as portrayed in the Bible show very little resemblance to greeting card cherubs or sweet little collectible figurines.

angel-christmas-joy

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. Luke 1:19 (NRSV)

The angel Gabriel, who approached Mary, would have been a formidable and terrifying presence, rather than a sweet little cartoon character. The fact that we are given Gabriel’s name implies that he had an even more important mission than other times that angels of the Lord appeared in the Bible but were not named.  Gabriel would have been a rather majestic and imposing figure.  He probably looked more like this than a Precious Moments figurine:

angel-of-the-lord

 

I think I would have been afraid, very afraid, if an angel of God- especially Gabriel- appeared in front of me.

So what’s the big deal about angels?

When angels speak to people, the voice of God is speaking through them, which is a very big deal indeed.  God spoke through His angels to the prophets.

Angels brought incredible, supernatural news-news that required an awe-inspiring messenger- to the people in the Bible.

Do angels still speak to us today?

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV)

If we were to encounter an angel, would our minds and hearts be open not only to give and show hospitality, but also to receive the blessings they come to announce?