Sunday, December 19, 2021

Luke 2:1-20

This passage occurs as the Gospel for Christmas Eve in all three lectionary cycles.

Summary:  I have no desire to summarize the meaning of the incarnation in Luke's Gospel.  This passage has layers and layers of meaning for us to draw on this year and every year.  I offer this as a way to hopefully point toward something in the passage that can help launch your reflection and preaching.

Words I found interesting:

οικουμενη(ν) ("world", 2.1)  The word for "all the world" here really means civilized world, coming from the Greek work οικος.  It is a reminder that for those in the Roman empire, this meant the ENTIRE world.

δογμα (literally dogma, meaning "decree", 2.1)  No important theological consideration.  Just that Rome has always been interested in promulgating dogma ;-)

απογραφη ("registration" 2.2)  A few directions one can go with this word. 
First, power of Rome:  Liddell Scott refers to this as "a register of persons liable to taxation."  Rome wanted a census because they wanted to tax and conscript people.  The first two sentences of Luke 2 are dripping with imperial power.

Second, challenge of history:  Luke's chronological placement of Quirinius doesn't add up in terms of a chronology.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius. (Other scholars are more generous.) 

A note on Luke's 'historicity.'  Luke 1 (vs 4), Luke 2 and Luke 3 all start with details about the time period, a reminder that Luke is not trying to write a myth here, but trying to put Jesus' birth and life within the actual historical context.

Third, sin of a census:  In 2 Samuel 24:10, David confesses to sinning as he has engaged in a census.  Why is this a sin?  Because the idea was not to count your troops but to trust the Lord in battle.  In fact, it may be that the zealots (mentioned in the New Testament) arose out of anger of this census being taken. 

Can we put this altogether:  Even if you cannot accept as historical fact the coincidence of Jesus birth with the census, Jesus would have been a young child during a census, a brutal reminder of the power of Rome, a foreign and pagan power.  Quirinius' biography is a great story of the "Roman dream" where someone rose through military victory and shifting political allegiances.  In short, Luke's setting the stage is correct:  The Jews existed under an imperial power, hostile to their faith.  Jesus was born in an empire that cared not for him.  This imperial power was and remains the envy of all other empires in its military and administrative might.

To drive this point home, the angel proclaims, "who is Christ, the Lord."  In Greek, this is spelled Χριστος κυριος, which is the basic confession of faith (Christ is Lord) that ran contrary to the Roman confession of faith (Caesar Kurios).  The angel here offers a subversive confession of faith! 

καταλυματι  ("inn", 2:7)  There was no room for them in the inn.  Later Jesus will make room for himself in another inn -- the upper room (22:11; same word).  One take is that Mary and Joseph were with distance family and because it was so crowded, they put the baby and pregnant woman in with the animals.  Even if you want to imagine Jesus as a middle class person with distant relatives surrounding him...Luke's poetry still maintains its force:  The world didn't have room for him and the prince of all creation was sleeping in a bed of hay. 

μεγαλην (literally "great", 2:9 and 2:10).  Two things are great in this passage -- there is a great fear and then a great joy.  This sets up, in many ways, the background for the whole of Luke's Gospel:  Jesus will cause great fear, but also great joy.  It is a backdrop for any good Christmas sermon too -- there is great fear in our world, but because of Jesus, we have reason for great joy.

ημεραις  (days, 2:1; 2:6 and throughout Luke 1 and Luke 2) vs σημερον (today, 2:11)  Throughout the Gospel of Luke, but especially the early part, there are lots of things that are happening 'in those days'.  But Jesus birth happens today.  I wonder if there a sermon connection there, thinking about the pacing of life.  Women move slowly with a donkey; the shepherds are hurrying to see.  We have lots of days, but Christmas day is a different.  For me, Christmas Eve is one of the few times a year when I feel like I am not just living days, rushing from one activity to the next, but simply in the moment, dwelling in the proclamation.

To put it another way:  Christmas in America does everything is can to focus our attention on the past or the future.  The angels tell us to focus on the here and now, where God is! 

αγραυλουντες (participle form of αγραυλεω, meaning "living outdoors", 2:8)  This is a word we don't have in English.  It clearly does not refer to high class people!  Luke 2 begins in a powerful roman 'war room' in which the decision is make to count troops and tax citizens, but ends up in a field, in which the riches of heaven and the ranks of the heavenly host is unveiled.  Luke is moving us down the ladder of importance (Emperor, Governor, king of the Jews, middle class inn owners and finally to shepherds).  Yet, this precisely where the world's power is not is where God chooses to reveal God's self.

ευδοκιας ("pleasure", 2:14)  I often wondered about this word -- did God intend peace for all people or just those whom he liked?  First, the Greek has a textual problem.  The manuscripts seem divided (and even in manuscripts there are edits) whether this should be read as a nominative or genitive.

If we read it as a nominative:
N) glory to God; peace on earth; good will among humans (i.e. three items distributed in three realms)
If we read it as a genitive
G)  glory to God; peace on earth among humans of (his) pleasure.
If we go with option N) it seems that good will is toward all people, unambiguously.  Unfortunately, the evidence textually, even though divided, favors option G).
So, if we go with option G) we encounter a bit more ambiguity.  If this is the case (okay, bad pun there), Luke writes "upon the earth peace among people of pleasure/desire."  The Greek leaves out the phrase, "of him."  It simply states, "among people of desire."  I am not sure if we can, on the basis of grammar, solve this case (again, bad pun).  What is unambiguous is that God intends for peace on earth!  What is ambiguous grammatically and historically is how we humans live into this peace.

ρημα (literally "herema" meaning "word", 2:15)  This word is like logos, and it can mean thing or matter or word.  That I want to point out is that the shepherds literally say, "Let us behold the word."  John's Gospel is famous for such a construction (John 1:14), Luke has the same concept embedded here.

Ιωσηφ (literally "Joseph", 2:16) Just a reminder that Joseph isn't left out of the picture!

συμβαλλουσα (literally "symballoo", meaning "ponder", 2:19)  Mary "pondered these things in her heart."  The word for ponder is symbol -- to draw meaning, to pull together or literally to throw together.  This is fascinating that Mary is gathering together the images and thoughts of the angels in her mind.

Grammar Review:  Cognate Accusative
It is considered poor English to write a sentence in which the verb and object share the same word root.  For example:  I climbed a climb or I rode a ride.  We are trained to make the object and verb different words:  "I climbed a mountain" or "I rode a bike." 
Because of Hebrew's limited vocabulary as well as the importance of simplifying stories for oral transmission, cognate accusatives are very common.  Not so much in Greek, however.  Which is strange then that Luke uses two of them in this passage:
φυλασσοντεσ φυλακας (literally "guarded their guard," or "tended their flocks," 2.8)
εφοβηθησαν φοβου (literally "feared a great fear," 2.9)
Not sure why Luke does this other than to speculate he was reading a lot of the Old Testament as he wrote the Christmas narrative!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Luke 1:57-80

This passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Advent 4, Year B.  It is also found in the Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 2, Year C (Most recently, Dec 2021)

Summary:  As I reflected on Zechariah's words, I asked myself -- why does Luke give him so much time?  Most of us could have gone from the Magnificat right to the birth!  (And liturgically we normally do!)  I wrestled with answers having to do with John the Baptist, but then I realized the reason Luke spends so much time on Zechariah has nothing to do, really, with John the Baptist, and everything to do with Jesus.  Zechariah's song is Luke's way of proclaiming to us the key mission of Jesus Christ:  To be our Lord and Savior.  Why else would Luke exhaust so much ink between the Magnificat and the birth?  In this blog post, I look at the connection between Zechariah's words and the words of Christ from the cross and resurrection scenes of Luke's Gospel.

Where to go for a sermon:  A reminder of what this whole thing Christmas is all about -- the salvation that comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Key words (unrelated to my bigger point):
πνευματου αγιου  (form of πνευμα αγιος, meaning "Holy Spirit" 1:67).  The Holy Spirit makes frequent appearances in Luke's Gospel!  (In fact, this is the fourth appearance in Luke 1 - vss 15, 35 & 41).  The Holy Spirit's work here is in conjunction with prophesy, specifically the work of pointing the world toward Jesus Christ.

αφοβως ("without fear" 1:74) The prefix "α" in Greek means "without"; φοβος means "fear."  What a beautiful reminder, in our world of fear, that Jesus has come that we might worship without fear!  Paul, in Philippians 1:14, talks about how in prison he still worships without fear.

λατρευειν ("worship", 1:75) God has rescued us for a purpose -- that we might serve and worship God.  The act of redemption is not for our independence, but our fundamental binding to God.

Key words (related to my bigger point)
ευλογητος ("blessed" 1:68)  Zechariah begins his song with a word of blessing to the Lord.  The last activity in Luke's Gospel (really the last word) is also blessed (24:53; as a participle), when the disciples praise the risen and ascended Christ.

προφηταις ("prophet", 1:70; 24:25, 27, 44) Zechariah proclaims that God has brought about the promised salvation, promised through the prophets.  At the end of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will explain how he is the fulfillment of the prophets.

εν τω ιερω ("in the temple"; 24:53)  The Gospel of Luke begins with Zechariah in the temple; and the circumcision, I assume, also happens at the temple.  In short, the Gospel (and the declaration of Jesus' mission through Zechariah) begins and ends in the temple.

διαθηκης ("covenant" 1:72)  Zechariah confirms that God has remembered his covenant.  During the Last Supper, Jesus promises a new covenant (22:20); more powerfully, Jesus tells them to remember this new covenant. (22:19)

αφεσιν αμαρτιων ("forgiveness" 1:77; 24:47)  Zechariah proclaims that John will bring knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins  (I am fighting every bit of my Lutheran fingers to write more about this).  For now though, recall, the first words of Christ from the cross are "Father, forgive them... (23:34) and then after the resurrection, he tells them that forgiveness is to be proclaimed in all the world.

εν τω παραδεις ("in paradise" 23:43)  Zechariah speaks of the one coming to be a light in the darkness and shadow of death (1:79).  From the cross, the tender mercy of God will break from on high and Jesus will be a light to the penitent thief!

ειρηνη ("peace" 1:79; 24:36)  Zechariah promises that the one coming will guide us in peace.  What are the first words of the resurrected Christ to the gathered disciples?  Peace.  When does peace come -- after the dawn has broken forth (talk about resurrection foreshadowing!!)

Monday, December 6, 2021

Luke 3:7-18

This passage is found in the RCL, Advent 3, Year C (Most recently Dec 12, 2021).  Luke 3:16-17 and 21-22 also occur in the RCL, Baptism of our Lord, Year C.

Summary:  It almost seems ironic to the Lutheran preacher that Luke refers to John "evangelizing"; here for it seems all law.  However, this is a great Lutheran sermon.  It fully offers the listener God's law, both instrumentally (vocation) but also theologically (terror that leads us to Christ).  Furthermore, it defines the role of the church:  God's gathering of baptized sinners, where God justifies them (cleanses) and sanctifies them (puts them to use).  Basically, Martin Luther must have written this chapter.  Haha!!

Okay, a more subtle commentary -- sanctification requires sifting.  Does the church sift us or has life already sifted us?!

Key words:
προσδοκαω ("wait" or "expect"; 3:15)  A great Advent words!  Interestingly, Luke uses this word a whole bunch (6x in Luke; 4x in Acts), far more often than anyone else. In this case though, the people are not waiting for Jesus, per se, but rather the Messiah, and wondering whether John would be it. Perhaps a reminder and a challenge -- what are we waiting for?

καρδιας ("heart"; 3:15)  The people wondered "in their hearts."  In Luke's Gospel, the hearts is the place where thought occurs, much like Hebrew!

ειη ("to be"; 3:15) The word here for "is" is in the optative mood, a rare usage indeed. Gotta give it to Luke -- using Hebrew thought with advanced Greek!

αλων ("threshing floor") and συναγω ("gather"; 3:17)  God gathers in the wheat to do something good with it.  It was beaten, yes, but this had a purpose -- make the grain productive for wheat.  This is sanctification.  God taking away our crap so that we can be useful for our neighbor.

διακαθαιρω ("cleanse"; 3:17).  This word's cousin καθαιρω is more familiar -- Catherize!  The job of the church is to cleanse us.

Grammar Review:  Super easy participle:
μελλοθσηας:   The "coming" wrath.  This is a verb function as an adjective.  Easy as pie.  Remember, not all participles are hard!  Many have direct and easy ways to translate them into English.  In this case, you just have to identify it as an adjectival participle (how?  It has the word "the" in front of it and it describes the word immediately following it).

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Luke 1:39-56 (Magnificat)

This passage occurs in the RCL Advent Season.  Some years it is simply an optional psalm passage.
 
Luke's Magnificat:
Summary:  Luke is such a gifted writer that the preacher need not do much more than slow down and help people hear what he writes. I have focused on joy.  In Luke's Gospel, joy is associated with the Jesus and communal worship. The Bible pushes this further and connects joy with suffering; if that seems an unfair stretch for this passage, Mary is certainly joyful amid great uncertainty, political oppression if not also family instability.

(Note, I add in some reflections on the verbs at the end).

Key Words:
εσκριτησεν ("stir with joy", from σκριταω 1:41,44). In the New Testament, this word appears only in Luke. The Hebrew word that LXX translators translated as σκριταω has fascinating imagery, including the movement of cattle released from a stall. There is something uncontrollable about this type of movement. In Ancient Greek it would refer to the movement of wind gusts.   (Alas, I couldn't come up with something concrete to tie together Spirit and joy here based on this word!)  John has an uncontrollable joy in encountering Jesus.

2014 additional note: When I think of this word now, I think of my own daughter skipping home from school in her excitement about the day.

αγαλλιασει ("extreme joy", 1:44; as a verb in 1:47) This word means a great joy that often results in body movement. It appears in other key places in the Bible both as a noun and verb
Psalm 51: Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Psalm 100:2 Worship the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing
Luke 1:47 My spirit rejoices in God my savior
Acts 2:46 The original worshiping community
Matthew 5:12 (Beatitudes) Rejoice when they mistreat you...they did the same to the prophets.
(1 Peter also associates this word with faith in the midst of suffering and trials.)

χαρα ("joy"; not in this section!) Okay, okay, the word joy is not in this section. But joy shows up a lot in Luke
1:14: Joy at birth of John
2:10 Joy in the news of angels to the shepherds
10:17  This disciples returning from their 'mission trip' realizing that demons will submit to the name of Jesus.
15:10 and 7: Joy at a repentant sinner.
24:41 Joy of the disciples at the resurrection
24:52 The disciples end Luke's Gospel by worshiping in joy

Grammar: A hidden resurrection (Luke 1:37-38)
In many cases, it is impossible to translate word for word, not only because of meaning but also syntax. English translators are (almost) forced to hide a resurrection that happens in Mary.
Mary has just heard the Word of the Lord and responded in faithful obedience (1:37-38). The translators make it look like there is a new paragraph: "In those days..." where the Greek connects Mary's faith to the next move. It reads literally, "Raised up, Mary, in those days went." In fact the word for rise/rose is actually αναστατις, which means even "resurrection."
So, a nice Lutheran translation would be:
"May it be according to your word." Raised up to new life, Mary went to Elizabeth...

To put it simply, Luke subtly reinforces the notion that the Word of the Lord produces resurrection.

A 2018 addition:  One thing that I noted is looking at the verbs in the Magnificat associated with God's action:
look (48)
bless (48)
done (49)
[extend mercy] (50)
done (51)
*scatter (51)
*tear down (52)
uplift (52)
fill (53)
*send away (empty) (53)
help (54)
remember mercy (54)
speak (55)
First, God is the main agent.  This is not a social agenda for humans.  One could argue that humans should do all this following God's example.  However, Mary does none of this, at least not the destructive stuff.  Furthermore, most people that go about tearing down are rarely ever viewed, in their life, or even later, as agents of God.

Second, most of these verbs are positive, but a handful are "negative" or "destructive."  In short, God's primary work is giving life; the act of judging and punishing is secondary, or as Luther calls it, alien.

Third, all of the verbs are in the aorist tense, suggesting that they refer to one time events (typically in the past).  This means that Mary somehow sees Jesus birth as accomplishing (or having already accomplished) all of this.  Ponder that!!