Wednesday, 24 December 2008

angels and archangels Luke 1 & 2 1-20

Luke's story begins not in the deserts of Trans-Jordan, nor in the hill towns of Galilee, not even in Bethlehem, but in the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. The contrast with Mark, whose gospel remains the core of Luke's narrative, could hardly be greater. Whereas Mark plunges us straight into the rough, breathless conflicts of Jesus=s ministry, Luke opens with a leisurely, luminous prelude, soaked in the language, style and culture of the Greek version of Hebrew scripture, punctuated with praise and prayer: a story of priests, prophets and angels, miraculous births and heavenly visitations all interwoven into a narrative, at once elegant and artful.

At the outset of Luke's gospel Israel is represented by the old, tired, disappointed but obedient and faithful, priestly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. They echo the grieving faithfulness of Hannah whose son Samuel was to be the fore-runner of the great king David, they appear as a living embodiment of the childless Zion of Isaiah=s prophecy, indeed Zechariah receives his calling from an angel in the holy of holies, not altogether unlike the epiphany granted to Isaiah himself. Their son, miraculously conceived, was like the mighty Samson to be brought up a prophet from his mother's womb, kept holy for the Lord. Like Elijah he would go forth with spirit and power, preparing his people to meet their Lord.

However, though he is faithful and good, Zechariah, like Israel, is unbelieving. The bitter way in which Mark, Matthew and indeed John deal with the refusal of the religious authorities to accept Jesus as Messiah gives way in Luke to a poignant acceptance: the elder brother in the story of the loving father breaks his father's heart by his refusal to come into the party, but all that the father has is his: the priest and Levite miss the point of their calling and pass by on the other side, leaving a Samaritan to show what it is to love your neighbour, but they receive no judgment from Jesus; Jesus stands and weeps over Jerusalem: how many times he would have loved to gather it up like chicks under a mother hen's wing, but they would not be gathered. Jesus's problem with Israel is not cast in the language of a struggle with Satan, so much as in that of exasperation with a goodness and faithfulness that had become so defensive that it could not open itself to the wonder of salvation.

The man of prayer Zechariah had become so used to praying to what seemed an empty heaven that he could not believe it when his prayer was answered. In that he was not unlike those who met for prayer in John Mark's mother's house who could not believe Rhoda, the servant, who told them that the imprisoned Peter had escaped and was knocking on their door. The priest who did not believe in prayer was thus unable to bless the people. Right at the end of the gospel, Jesus, the man of prayer stood and blessed his disciples before going to glory. They then returned to the temple where Luke's story had begun and were there within its courts continually praising God.

As often in Luke it is the women who teach the men a lesson. The old man Zechariah, the temple priest whose job it was to recognise the voice of God and interpret it to the people is contrasted sharply with Mary, the young virgin in the Galilee town of Nazareth. They both were visited by the angel Gabriel. On the face of it we would expect the priest to know how to react: he was the professional go-between with God: he witnessed the visit in the temple, the purpose-built place for encounters with God. The news he had received was that for which he had been praying: therefore he should have believed it. By contrast Mary was not expecting any encounter with God or an angel: the news which she received was not something for which she had been hoping. Indeed if we are right in assuming that Mary was engaged to Joseph because she was not yet ready for marriage then the news would have been devastating for such a young girl. As we saw when looking at Matthew's account it was not unusual for girls to be promised to men in marriage at the age of 12 and for the marriage to become effective at puberty. When Mary says that she has not had no knowledge of a man, the simple meaning is that she had not had sexual intercourse with a man, but it could well mean that she was not yet ready for such a relationship and was not yet ready to bear a child, therefore it would be impossible. The angel's reply, drawing attention to her cousin Elizabeth's surprising pregnancy makes more sense if this is the context: especially the words "nothing is impossible with God". The angel's message also gave a good deal of information about the baby to be born: his name, Jesus was a popular name of the time - the Greek for Joshua. That much is unremarkable. But then the angel spelt out a number of details that might have made Mary shudder. She lived in Galilee, a hotbed of zealot revolt against the Romans. The angel's pronouncement dripped with the promise of Messiah. To a young girl in Galilee that could only mean one thing, rebellion and therefore trouble. Yet Mary unlike Zechariah, accepts her calling. For many it would have been one favour from God too many, but Mary humbly and graciously accepts her gift. On Mary's acceptance the angel immediately left her. Few words are more devastating in the gospel than these. At the moment when she most needed support she is left alone.

But the angel had left a clue as to where she might find it. So Mary goes south to the hill country above Jerusalem to meet her cousin Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth greets her the baby in Elizabeth=s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet another woman responds appropriately to the latent salvation of God.

Luke's gospel is the first part of a two volume work. And in some ways the structures of the two parts are similar. The Acts of the Apostles and the gospel both celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit: Now Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. This enables her to be the first person to recognise Mary's unborn child as her Lord. Truly it had been the embryonic John, filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb who had first recognised his Lord: Elizabeth caught the recognition and the joy from him, and Mary caught it from her. That joy is to be the next theme of the gospel. It bubbles up immediately in the first of a whole series of songs.

Mary's song is loosely based on that of Hannah, but bristles with quotations and allusions to other Old Testament songs. The essential theme is the transforming power of God to shake and change society: the hungry are fed, the rich are stripped of their wealth, the poor are raised, the powerful laid low and the weak empowered, the arrogant are humiliated and the humble given responsibility and status: in short, God's purposes revealed to Abraham in his covenant are about to be made good: the day of salvation has arrived. This song sets the tone of the gospel. Jesus reiterates many of its sentiments in his manifesto sermon in which he announced the year of jubilee at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. At key moments in stories unique to Luke's account we see these prophecies coming to life before our eyes: a prostitute praised and a pharisee humbled at a dinner party, the tax collector Zacchaeus receiving Jesus into his house and making restoration to the poor, a thief being awarded paradise.

Elizabeth's baby is born. The neighbours begin to catch the joy. Zechariah names the baby, John, meaning the Lord is gracious, (as commanded by the angel). He is then liberated to praise and spread the news of the gracious, unlimited love of God. And so he sings his song.

In some ways this song takes Mary's a stage further: the transforming power of God is not only there to change the order in society, but to be totally liberating in a spiritual sense too. It is a song of freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from fear, freedom from guilt, and freedom from darkness. It is a song not just of thanksgiving but of prophetic vision. Like Mary's it also echoes Old Testament songs but reaches out beyond them in faith. It is rich in allusion: for example, the horn of salvation and the rising day-star (or shooting stem). The notion of the horn of salvation became ultimately linked to the myth of the unicorn through Psalm 92. 10 and the vision of Daniel in Daniel 8. 5-7. Hence all those magnificent medieval tapestries which adorn the Cluny museum in Paris and the Cloisters in New York. Whether the horn is meant to signify the powerful, piercing, battle hardened triumph of God's intervening power in the conflict against evil like a mighty, mythical, horned creature winning the day, or whether it refers to the use of a horn for anointing with the oil of saving power, we can take our pick. Most commentators go for the former. The second allusion of the rising sun (or day-star) is also ambiguous, but the ambiguity is more easily resolved. The words could mean either rising star or sprouting shoot. The words are used in both senses in Messianic passages in the Greek Old Testament. However there is such a strong sense of light in the rest of the song that the former must hold here - though it may well be that the author would like us to hold the other reference in our minds, too. In particular, the prophecy of Malachi seems to have a powerful influence, mentioning not just day-star, but also the root and branch. He has already drawn attention to "the messenger to clear the way", so that the "Lord will suddenly come to his Temple". Soon "the calves will come leaping out of the stalls", which at once links to the image of John leaping within his mother=s womb and the birth of Jesus who was laid in a manger. The presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple and his tarrying in the temple at the significant age of twelve, both only mentioned in Luke, where he is recognised by prophets, priests and doctors of the law alike with astonishment, are clearly Luke's way of pointing to the fulfilment of Malachi's prophecy. Then in masterly way as Jesus's body is taken down from the cross in darkness and is laid in the tomb in royal splendour by Joseph of Arimathaea the day-star appears again to herald a new day, although it was approaching evening. For in the blooded victory of the cross, through the anticipated dawn of resurrection, the Day of the Lord was shown to be a day of Light and Salvation to end the gloom of death and despair. The tomb has become a place of healing and forgiveness, a place of peace from which the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his rays.

So in his song with its subtle evocation of the prophecies of Malachi, Zechariah prepares us for Luke's version of salvation history. At its core is the forgiveness of sins. That is the key to peace. It is another fundamental theme of Luke's gospel and again it drives us forward to Jesus's sublime forgiveness of his killers as he hangs upon the cross: a word once again unique to this gospel.

After the sublime beauty of Zechariah's prophetic song, the account of the birth of Jesus seems both brief and prosaic. The emperor issues an order in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria that all the world should be registered for taxation purposes. Luke might simply be putting down a datemark on the event to remind all his readers that despite the luminous glow of all that has gone before and the intervention of angels and the opening of heavens and the mystery of miracle births we are dealing not with myth or fanciful tales of the gods, but with real people part of a real world, subject to politics and tax. He might also have been drawing attention to the fact that God uses even heathen emperors like the divine Augustus within his plans for salvation, just as he had used Cyrus. Unfortunately the reference to the census has obscured rather than cast light on the date of Jesus's birth. The first census known to have been held by Augustus during the governorship of Quirinius was in 6CE (according to Josephus): it is probably the one Luke alludes to himself in Acts which caused a rebellion, led by Judas the Galilean. However, Luke has already told us that these things happened when Herod was king of Judaea, which, of course agrees with Matthew. Herod died in 4BCE. The easiest explanation for this disparity is that the census was held in stages over a period of time or that the tax based on the census was introduced in 6CE and that caused the rebellion. But Josephus seems quite explicit that this census did not take place until after Herod's death when Judaea was added to the province of Syria. Alternatively there may have been an earlier census which failed because of unrest or administrative chaos following Herod=s death and it had to be done again by Quirinius later. But that is to enter the field of speculation.

The story that follows has been so embellished by legend and art that it comes as a bit of shock to read it as it is: there is no donkey, no ox, not even a stable. There is certainly no inn-keeper and probably not even an inn. The word usually translated "inn" is by no means the usual one, and not the one used for the inn in the story of the good Samaritan. The best translation is probably "billets", but it is the same as the word used for the "upper room" where the last supper was held. It would seem highly unlikely that Joseph had to stay in an inn since the reason for him having to go to Bethlehem was that this was where he was born. More likely he and Mary were accommodated within the family home but pressure of space forced them to use part of the house normally used by the animals. The animals' food box, probably attached to a wall would have made an acceptable make-shift crib. Nor is it mentioned in the text that Mary arrived only just in time to give birth: it simply says that while they were there Jesus was born. All babies, well-cared for and loved, would have been wrapped in strips of cloth just as Jesus was. The birth scene in this drama is unremarkable and plain.

Nothing in these simple verses prepares us for what happens next. Shepherds are watching their flocks by night. Of course there had once been a Bethlehem shepherd who had been visited by Samuel and crowned king. But now shepherds were generally poorly regarded. Their work tended to make them unclean. They wandered from place to place and like all itinerants were traditionally distrusted. There were suggestions that some were terrorists. Their presence in the fields stands in sharp contrast to the law abiding Joseph who has gone to Bethlehem on the emperor's orders to be taxed. Yet it is not to Mary or even Joseph that the angelic host appears with all the glory of God. It is to shepherds. When it comes to understanding the nature of her child's mission it is going to be in the testimony of these unreliable shepherds that Mary is going to have to put her trust. This introduces another theme of the two volume work: the importance of witnesses. As Jesus says to his disciples referring to the unbelief of Capernaum, "Anyone who rejects you, rejects me, and anyone who rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

The angel reintroduces the theme of joy that has shone through the whole story so far. A joy not just for them nor the people immediately involved in the story nor even just for Israel: this joy was to be for the whole world. The angel's message bristles with some of Luke's favourite words: I bring good news, joy, today, Saviour, Lord. The Day has come. In the deep darkness of night the day-star announced by Zechariah has been born; in the city of David, a Saviour has come to be Christ (Messiah) and Lord. But the signs are small: already it is made clear that this Lord is not framed in the usual trappings of power. The sign of power of God is not be found in a palace nor yet even in the angelic skies: the sign of the most extraordinary is to be discovered by disreputable shepherds in the ordinary simplicity of a baby in a nappy lying in a makeshift cot. The skies open to reveal a celestial party; the heavenly party-song is taken up by the triumphant crowds on earth when Jesus enters Jerusalem, a climactic point of his pilgrimage of salvation. The earth is to be a place of peace; it is mysteriously both a prerequisite and a consequence of the revealing of the glory of God. The absence of peace on earth confounds even the peace of heaven. Jesus's mission is to bring peace on earth that alone can restore full glory to God in heaven. Yet in the coming of Christ already that glory is being revealed and perfected.

The angels leave the scene. The shepherds discuss what they have seen: but not for long. With haste they go to Bethlehem and witness what the angel told them. And they were welcomed. They told their story and all were astonished. But Mary went further than all the others. She treasured their witness and pondered it in her heart. Many will respond with amazement to the spectacular signs of God's salvation, but the requirement is to go beyond astonishment, accept it and embrace it: to stay with it long term. That is a weighty matter - a thing to be valued and pondered. The shepherds return, their work of evangelism done: they are merely the first of many in the gospel to return from an encounter with Jesus glorifying and praising God. Glory to God in the highest had become a catchy tune.

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