Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Messiah Is Born

A Messiah Is Born
Luke 2:1-20
            Throughout its history Canaan has seldom been free from strife.  Things seem to have been fairly calm before the Israelites emigrated from Egypt.  From the time they crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land they were at war with the inhabitants as they tried to secure the land they believed God had given them for an inheritance. 
Even after the interior was relatively safe, their borders were not.  Israel was never a large nation, though during the reigns of David and Solomon she became a great one.  Her problem was location.  The route between Egypt and the kingdoms of the north lay through Israel.  Any conqueror wanting to travel from south to north or the other way round had to cross Israel first.  Sometimes this was difficult; sometimes it was easy.
The ultimate devastation was the Babylonian captivity.  Anyone of importance was taken from Israel and forced to live in Babylon.  Even after Cyrus, king of Persia allowed the captives to return home things didn’t improve.  One army after another overran the tiny nation.  By this time the northern kingdom—Israel—had disappeared entirely.  What was left was even tinier Judaea, always ripe for the taking.
In this rather dismal state of affairs messianic theology began to take hold.  Someday, somehow, the God of Israel would send a savior to return the nation to its former glory.  Many came along claiming to be that person.  Each had his moment in the sun, attracted a following, then flamed out, dying and leaving the messianic void unfilled.  By the end of the first century B.C.E. Judea should have lost hope, but didn’t.  Each new claimant rose, then disappeared to be replaced first by disappointment, then the next candidate.
            Then, something different—something unexpected—happened.  In little Bethlehem—a town of historical importance because it was the birthplace of David, but of little other significance—a baby was born.  Nothing special there:  babies were born often to the peasant women who lived in the area.  But this one was announced by angels and a star.  Shepherds ran to see the special child.  Magi—foreign dignitaries—arrived bringing gifts.  And then—nothing!  For the next thirty years the child grew to adulthood in the relative obscurity of another tiny village, until he burst on the scene as a rabbi—a teacher with a message of hope for the hopeless, of healing for the afflicted, and of reconciliation with a God who loved deeply enough to want to be involved in people’s daily lives.
Christians believe this was the Messiah whom God had promised.  Unconventional?  Certainly.  Controversial?  Definitely.  Effective?  In his life and death Jesus showed the way for humankind to live on this earth as God would have them live.  In his resurrection Christ opened the way to eternal life with God.
The story has no ending—at least not yet.  While we wait for Christ’s return we must try to answer the question that Pilate asked so long ago:  “What shall I do with Jesus?”  For each of us the answer will be different.  This is not a “one size fits all” Messiah.  As each of us is unique, so will be our perception of and response to the Christ.  Our search will last a lifetime, for how we perceive the Messiah will change as we grow—and this is how it should be.  If as Paul says we put on Christ, we will become more and more like him, and our vision of who he is—of who we should be—will become more clear.

            As we celebrate this Christmas season let us welcome our Messiah into our homes, our hearts. And our lives.  A blessed Christmas to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jeshua bar Joseph

Jeshua bar Joseph
Luke 2:1-21
            It is interesting to compare the two gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.  Matthew says very little about Mary—no visitation from Gabriel, no visit to Elizabeth—and a bit about Joseph.  There is nothing in his account about a trip to Bethlehem, a manger, angels and shepherds—none of the events we associate with Jesus’ birth.  We find out more about Herod and the magi than anyone else—and that supposedly didn’t happen until sometime after the birth.
            Luke tells us about the trip to Bethlehem, about the manger, about the angels and the shepherds.  Was all this important because he was writing for a Greek audience?  Did those reading his account need to hear the miraculous side of Jesus’ birth?  We know (because he tells us) that Luke did first-hand research for his account.  He spoke with “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.”  We don’t know who he would have had access to (who was still alive, who he was able to track down), but he indicates that he used multiple sources.
            While my seminary instructors cautioned us not to “harmonize” the gospels—that is, combine them together for a composite picture—this may be one of the few places where it’s appropriate.  Each gospel was aimed at a different audience.  Matthew’s was primarily Jewish.  Luke’s was primarily Greek.  Mark’s seems to have been a mixture of the two.  John’s seems to have been one that needed to hear a completely different take on Jesus’ life—or perhaps it was that John had unique memories of the life of his Lord. 
            We must rely on the incomplete accounts provided by Matthew and Luke for the story of Jesus’ birth.  We learn from Matthew that Mary gave birth to a son named Jesus.  He skips immediately to the story of Herod and the magi.  Luke goes into enough detail about the birth that we have a picture of the setting—a manger in Bethlehem. 
            Let’s set aside the miraculous components of Jesus’ birth for a moment.  This is not to discount the angels who visited Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds.  We can’t say these did not occur since we were not there.  We have the word of eyewitnesses, and we can choose to credit or discredit their accounts.  For now, let’s focus on the human Jesus rather than the Jesus who was God’s Son.
            It was of utmost importance that the Messiah—the Christ—be human as well as divine.  There had to be a connection to us—God’s human children—in order for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to mean something in God’s grand scheme.  We don’t need to go into all the theology of redemption and reconciliation here.  We only need to make the statement that Jesus’ humanity was as important as his divinity.
            Jesus was born a Jew.  He was not a Christian.  That word didn’t come into existence until many years later.  He was born into a Jewish family, who lived in a Jewish society, and abided by the customs (both religious and secular) of Jewish culture.  He was raised in a Jewish home by Jewish parents, and lived his life as a Jewish teacher—a rabbi.  His message was meant for Jews first, and consisted in part of a scathing criticism of the Jewish leaders and their misinterpretation of Jewish law.  He was put to death at the insistence of these leaders for what they considered crimes against the Jewish state.
            Even his name was Jewish.  We’ve called him Jesus for so long that we forget that this was the Greek form of his name.  His family called him Jeshua (like Joshua) bar (son of) Joseph (his father’s name).  When Gabriel spoke to Mary, the name he used would have been Jeshua—a name Mary would have known well because of its historical significance and its popularity. 

While we remember the Son of God—Jesus Christ—this Christmastide, let’s not forget Jeshua bar Joseph, the human child that Mary and her husband welcomed into the world.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Luke 1:24-25, 39-45, 57-58
            We read much more about Zechariah than Elizabeth in the first chapter of Luke.  Perhaps what makes him a more interesting subject is that he doubted God’s promise while Elizabeth, like Mary, accepted it. 
            You may remember his part of the story.  As a priest, it was his duty to serve before God at certain times of the year.  While he was serving in the temple, with the people standing outside, an angel appeared and told him that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son. 
            It’s interesting that Mary and Joseph believed the angels who told them Mary’s pregnancy was God-ordained, but when Zechariah, a member of the priestly class, was told his wife would give birth, he refused to believe.  Mary and Joseph, two commoners, accepted the greater miracle of the Messiah’s birth.  Zechariah, a man whose life was committed to the service of God—a man who Luke tells us was righteous before God—couldn’t accept the message the angel brought him. 
He had proof that God could ordain miraculous births.  Isaac, Samson, and Samuel all bore witness to God’s ability to bring about such births, but he didn’t have the faith to believe.
So the angel struck him dumb.  Zechariah would not be able to speak until the promised son was born.  He couldn’t even explain to the people outside what had happened.  This should serve as a cautionary tale for us:  Never question God’s ability to do whatever God wants to do.
The story has a happy ending.  When the boy is born, the family wants to name him after his father.  Elizabeth says his name is to be John.  When the people question her decision, they turn to Zechariah, who writes, “His name is John.”  Immediately Zechariah’s mouth is opened and he begins praising God.  Another cautionary tale:  When God gives you a blessing, give praise loud and long. 
All we really know about Elizabeth is that she was righteous—as was her husband, that she did indeed become pregnant and give birth to a son, and that she welcomed Mary into her home.  This last is most important.  We can’t know for certain why Mary traveled so far to be with her cousin.  It’s possible her family wanted to get her out of town to avoid embarrassment.  It’s also possible she chose to leave Nazareth to get away from her family.  Whatever the reason, Elizabeth offered her hospitality, support, and the assurance that their sons had been given to them by God.  What more could Mary have asked for?
We might assume that since her husband couldn’t communicate his experience with God’s messenger, Elizabeth might have received an announcement of her own.  When she was confronted with those who wanted to name the child Zechariah, she said, “He shall be called John.”  Somehow she knew what his name should be.
Miracle upon miracle!  Six months before Gabriel’s announcement to Mary we have an angel delivering good news to a barren couple.  Like Abraham and Sarah so many years before, in spite of their advanced age Elizabeth and Zechariah were to be parents.  And what a child!  Before he was conceived he was already set apart for God’s work.  He would be filled with God’s Spirit from the beginning.

Elizabeth, like her cousin Mary, accepted God’s blessing.  She might have had an inkling that things wouldn’t end well.  Radicals seldom escape severe punishment.  John’s preaching did cost him his life.  But she knew that God had called her to this work, and she had the faith to see it through.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Matthew 1:18-25
            Just a bunch of ordinary guys.  Guys who get up in the morning, go to work, collect a paycheck, and come home to their families.  A bunch of guys whose names you don’t know, yet the work they do is part of the fabric of your lives in ways you never think about.
            We could be talking about any workers, doing any job, following any profession—right?  We never think much about the people who work in hospitals (until we or a loved one is sick).   We don’t know the names of the people who pick up our garbage, or make our cars, or create the many products we buy and use every day.  They’re invisible to us; yet what they do influences our lives.  If they don’t do their job right, things can go wrong, perhaps irreparably so.
            The people I’m referring to are studio musicians.  Their names never make headlines.  You don’t see them on celebrity TV shows.  People Magazine never does features on them, nor do they appear on the covers (or the insides) of the tabloids at grocery store counters—thank heavens!
            These musicians work at studios in Hollywood, New York, Nashville and other cities where music is produced.  They play the background music for the TV shows and movies we watch.  Their names are never mentioned in the credits.  They get no recognition; but our entertainment would be far less interesting without them.
            Occasionally they get a chance to shine.  You might remember the TV detective show Peter Gunn from the late 1950’s.  What set it apart from other detective shows was the background music—jazz.  The composer was Henry Mancini.  He brought together some of the best studio musicians of the day—men whose names you wouldn’t recognize, but who were experts in their field, with excellent reputations in the music industry.  Mancini blended them into an ensemble so outstanding the recording was named Grammy Album of the Year for 1959—the first album of any kind to win that distinction.
            They showed up, did their job, and went home, but left behind a body of work that still resonates in music circles.  I recommend the album (actually two albums) if you have an interest in jazz.  I mention these men because they did what they were supposed to do and did it well, without caring if they ever received recognition or had their names in lights. 
At this time of year we remember another working man who showed up, did what he was supposed to do—did it well—then disappeared, with only a few brief mentions of his name.
Joseph, husband of Mary, earthly father of Jesus, was given the task of raising a son who was not of his blood.  He knew from the beginning what was expected of him.  He was not without his doubts and concerns—and rightly so, for what was being asked of him was above and beyond what should be expected of anyone. 
He knew he was marrying a woman who was already pregnant.  He knew he could not expect his son to carry on his profession.  He must have known in his heart that he would never attain any position of importance himself; yet he did what God asked him to do.  He raised Jesus to manhood; gave him a name and a family; provided him with an education; saw to it that he had clothes to wear, enough to eat, and a roof over his head.  Joseph did everything a father could physically do for a son and more.  Joseph gave God’s Son kindness, love, gentleness, a sense of belonging—all the things that were important to Jesus the man.

God calls us all to be Josephs.  Male or female, married or single, young or old, God gives us a task to perform, a work to do, a place to fill.  Whether or not we receive recognition isn’t important.  It’s enough for us to know that we’ve done what God has asked of us.