Friday, December 08, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 3:1-6

[Most weeks, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

Luke 3:1-6:
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

General Comments:
1. This is the second week of the new Church Year, a year in which the Gospel lessons are largely drawn from the Gospel of Luke.

2. Luke's is the third of the four gospels appearing in the New Testament. Each of the gospels has their own particular way of telling the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Luke, also the author of the New Testament book of Acts, tries to show readers the historical context in which the story of Jesus unfolds. We see that effort in this weekend's lesson.

3. Another Lucan emphasis is what I would call the "now-ness" of the Kingdom of God. This is somewhat similar to the emphasis created by Mark with his frequent use of the word, immediately. But Luke wants us to understand that the Kingdom of God comes to us not just in the sweet by-and-by, but today in the Person of Jesus Christ and, as he conveys in Acts, in those with faith in Christ.

4. Luke and Matthew are the two gospel writers who include narratives of Jesus' birth in their gospels. They're usually harmonized in most popular tellings of the Christmas story, as is apparently true in the new movie, The Nativity. There's nothing inherently bad about this. But the two writers' particular emphases can be lost in such harmonizations.

Luke is often referred to as "the women's gospel." One reason for saying so is that the Jesus birth narrative is basically told through the eyes of Mary, Jesus' mother. In Luke, we also read the story of how Mary's relative, Elizabeth, post-menopausal and barren, gave birth to John the Baptizer. (In Luke, Mary and Elizbeth readily believe what God tells them will happen in their lives and with their sons.)

Frequently in Luke's gospel, immediately after we're told of conversations that Jesus has with men, we read of conversations with women, or vice versa. Women are thus are seen to have had an early and prominent role in Jesus' story.

Luke tells us more about the female disciples of Jesus, both in the gospel and in Acts.

5. According to the New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), the narrative John the Baptizer's call as a prophet, found in our lesson, follows a formula seen in the Old Testament narratives of prophets' calls:
  • the call comes at a specific time, reckoned by the year of a ruler's reign (Luke throws in many rulers)
  • the call is described ("the word of the Lord" comes to the prophet)
  • the site and thrust of the ministry is described
Luke, like the other New Testament writers, also demonstrates how John the Baptizer's ministry fulfilled Old Testament Scripture.

To see the formula for the call of Old Testament prophets exemplified, check out Jeremiah 1:1-5; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:1-3; and Hosea 1:1.

6. Our passage uses the language of highway construction to describe John the Baptizer's ministry. He's filling valleys and bringing down the high places, among other things, in order to give Jesus a clearer pathway to the people and so that all may see Him.

But instead of using bulldozers and piledrivers for his work, John's "tools" are the Word of God, the call to repentance, and a baptism that symbolizes cleansing from sin and commitment to God. To repent is to turn away from sin and toward God.

7. John's baptism is not to be confused with the sacrament of Baptism later instituted by Jesus. John himself acknowledges the difference between the two rites, as well as the inferiority of the baptism to which he calls people when he says, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire..." (Luke 3:16)

The Baptism initiated by Jesus is a sacrament, a sacrament being a mysterious conveyor of God's grace and forgiveness. The characteristics of a sacrament are:
  • They're instituted by Christ.
  • They involve a common physical element, such as the water of Holy Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
  • They bring forgiveness of sin.
None of these traits apply to John's baptism, which, though significant, was merely a symbol.

8. The egalitarian nature of Jesus' coming Kingdom is underscored in our lesson, as it is in other places in Luke's gospel. All people need to repent and turn back to God. All who do have a clear picture of Jesus, the indispensable Savior which all humanity is called to follow as God, King, and Savior. All may be beneficiaries of God's grace in Christ as all--no matter what their station in this life--humble themselves before Christ.

This echoes the themes sounded by Mary in her song, known as the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55:
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
(Notice that the theme is first sounded by a woman and later by a man, part of the Lucan pattern of male/female or female/male doublets throughout the book, each underscoring something about Jesus' Kingdom, as well as the universal accessibility of His Lordship.)

That will have to do for this week's passes at the Bible lesson. I hope you find it helpful.

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