Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Through the Bible: Week 19

The Birth of Jesus

A sign exists to bring another reality into our awareness - whether that be a street sign telling us to stop for traffic, a gesture signifying gratitude or an apology, or a sacrament which brings God's grace into our very lives.  We misread the sign when we merely look at it rather than look with it - to the reality for which it stands. 

Christmas season is recently past.  Despite all of its wonderfully orchestrated pageantry, we often misread the symbolism of Christmas.  In particular, the manger is often misread.  

We build these elaborate creches and manger scenes and look at them in adoring sentimentality.  If we understood the manger - the reality to which it points - we could not look at it this way.  So to help us look with it rather than at it, let's consider afresh Luke chapter two and that to which the manger actually points.

The manger is mentioned three times in Luke’s birth story.  This repetition suggests its a significant, a very deliberate pointer.  But what is it pointing to?  What is it a sign of?

First, Luke tells us it is a sign for the shepherds.  The second occurrence of its mentioning, the Angel of the Lord says this: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”(2:12)

Jesus was not the only baby in Bethlehem.  We learn the shocking reality of this fact when we celebrate Holy Innocents, which we do annually at Truro.  Herod is so fearful of the baby king, he has all the boys two years old and younger in the region slaughtered.  So the Shepherds need a sign to help them identify the right baby.  And they are told that he is lying in a manger. 

This is not difficult to figure out.  The story tells us the manger is a sign of the one baby the Shepherds should be looking for.  But is that it?  Does it point to anything else besides the baby  Jesus’ presence in Bethlehem?

A manger is a makeshift crib.  How many young parents used the top drawer of the dresser, half way pulled out, to be the crib they could not afford?  This make-shift crib, this manger, points us to recognize the poverty of his parents and the poverty of his circumstance.  The manger tells us that Jesus was a temporarily homeless baby.  Jesus was a royal baby but he was not born in Herod’s nor Caesar’s palace.  Jesus was a priestly baby but was not born in the Levitical precincts of Jerusalem.  Jesus was a Galilean baby but was not born in Nazareth.  The manger points to the displacement of Jesus, to his perennial out of place-ness.  When people are out of place they are often ignored or unrecognized.   

Jesus is born out place so that he could find us in our dislocation and relocate us in God. 

In the 20th century the doctrine of the virgin birth came under severe skeptical scrutiny. Some theologians called it a monstrosity of a doctrine, something that was clearly out of place in the way they had put the world together.  But the monstrosity is not how God became human but why He would?  Why would God become human…and a baby at that?  Indeed, a homeless baby?  A hunted baby?  The manger points us in the direction of looking at what kind of person God would become when he decided to join himself to our condition.  And what kind of person God uses to make himself known in the world.

Luther observed there are three miracles at the Nativity: “That God became a man, that a virgin conceived, and that Mary believed.  And the greatest of these is which?”  The last.  The first two were dependent on the last miracle – Mary’s faith.   God is sovereign, but he has chosen to work generally through the faith and faithfulness of his people.  Never underestimate the faith of the humble, especially the faith of a humble mother.   

Women do not have the power to generate life alone, immaculate conceptions or otherwise.  But they do have the power to either sustain or end the life God has given them.  Every women who carries a baby full term, especially when circumstances make a pregnancy difficult, she is close to the heart of the Father.  Carol Houselander writes:
“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense.  It is not selfishness; it is not egoism.  It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s fragility, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life within her."

It is this kind of faith that God honors, especially in the faith of all our mothers. 

So the manger points us to baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  It points us to the baby Jesus in poverty, his decision to reside with the humble and needy who look to him to meet us in our point of need and vulnerability.  But it points us to something else as well. 

Now allow me to go against all I have said, and look at the manger itself.  Go ahead, look at the pointer?  What is it? 

A Manger is feeding trough. 

Even Jesus’ crib foreshadows his destiny.  Jesus came to feed us. 

He took loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes.  He claimed to be the bread of life and said his teaching would satisfy our hunger if we would feast on his words. 

But there is more.  He told his disciples “my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed” take and eat and drink of me that you might have eternal life.

The manger points us to this truth.  Jesus begins his life as he will continue it: in a feeding trough.  Yes, Jesus was born to die, to give of himself and to keep on giving.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Through the Bible: Week 18

The New Testament

We will continue our reading of the Bible by looking at Luke and Acts in the New Testament.  We will conclude our study with some epistles - apostolic letters to 1st century faith communities -  especially Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome.  Why focus on these particular books of the New Testament?  Well, first we are in year C in the liturgical cycle, which means we are mostly reading through Luke in the Sunday morning liturgy.  Second, Luke continues his account of early Christianity in his second volume traditionally known as the Acts of the Apostles.  In these two volumes we get sense of how the early believers encountered Jesus in both his incarnation and resurrection body and that ongoing relationship with Jesus changed the world.

Luke likes to tell his story through poems or songs, which compress the key themes which are elaborated in the subsequent narrative.  Indeed, he begins his story of Jesus and his movement in chapter one in the story of Zechariah and his song.

Songs are the proper medium of hope (and many other passions).  So as the Jewish people thought about the promises of God they often reminded each other of them in song. They remembered the covenant and that God promised to eventually bring a deliverer, so that its purposes would be fulfilled.  Intermittently, over a millennium, they had been the door mat of one evil empire after another: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and now, the Romans.  These old Jews, like Zechariah, kept the rumor of hope alive.  

It is in this context we must hear Zechariah Song, for it is a poetic recalling of the all those ancient promises that sustained God's people in times of oppression.  The song is an unfettered praising of what God has done and is doing.  The most natural form of this kind of praise is poetry – which is exactly what we have in Luke chapter one (both Mary and Zechariah sing).   This song is also the Bible in miniature.  If you mastered this poem, you would know your Bible well indeed.  In this regard, it is like TS Eliot’s poem the Wasteland.  IF you want to understand Western Civilization since the Enlightenment, I would say master the Wasteland.  If you want to understand the Christian antidote then I would say master TS Eliot’s 4 Quartets.  (And if you wonder how one person could write both, then study Ash Wednesday.)

So this poem is a portal into the whole Bible and its message of redemption.  

First, consider how works.  All poems are made of three parts:
  • Lines – which do not go to the end of the page
  • Sentences – which may run many lines
  • Image – the governing motif, which is usually discerned by the nouns and key words

IF you want to understand the body of the poem you must understand its anatomy.  Each poem has lines – the skeletal system which supplies the rhythm of the poem.  Lines sing the music of the poem.  Each poem has sentences, which pumps the meaning of the poem down the lines.  Sentences tell the story of the poem.  If you have difficulty getting the story or message of the poem keep following the lines till you get to the end of the sentence.  Let’s do that with Zechariah’s poem. 

This poem (if written on a full page) has 24 lines but only two sentences.  The story of the poem is in these sentences.  Pay attention to the last word or phrase of each line as you work your way through the sentence:

Look at these first two verses (v68-69):
  • Israel
  • His people
  • For us
  • House of his servant David
We can see that this poem wants to tell us something about the people of God. 

Now read now at v72-73:
  • Promise to our fathers
  • Holy covenant
  • Grant us
  • Deliverance from our enemies
So we begin to see that this poem sings the deliverance, the salvation of the people of God. 

Is Zechariah saying anything new here?  No, I don't think so.  He is saying it in a new way, but every line is a quote or strong allusion from somewhere else in the OT. 

Now look at the second sentence.  The subject changes.  It is no longer Blessing God for remembering his covenant.  Zechariah addresses his newborn son, John the Baptist.  And what does he tell him?  He tells him his job description.  He will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.  He then enumerates those ways with three infinitival phrases: 

(77) to give knowledge of salvation – to the Jewish people
(79) to give light to those in darkness – a reference to all non-Jews
(79) to guide our feet into the way of peace – to those who choose to follow Jesus

The rest of the narrative of Luke shows Jesus on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the Temple to the Cross, from the Cross to the Grave, from the Grave to a New Earth.  And as Jesus is on the way, he teaches the way. 

And what is Luke’s characteristic word to describe this way?  It is the way of peace.  It is the last word in Zechariah’s poem.  And it is a key motif of Luke’s gospel.  The word occurs 14 times in Luke’s gospel.  And they are strategically placed in the narrative, like here.  In another place Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem in ch 9, v 51.  Jesus instructs his disciples to look for "a man of peace" whenever they approach a new town (10:5-6).   As Jesus approaches his destination, Jerusalem, note what he says is missing (19:41ff):

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes! 

This mission of Jesus in Luke is a peace mission: peace with God first and foremost, but peace on earth as well, just as the Angels announced at Jesus' birth (2:14).  John came to help prepare the way for Jesus' mission of peace.  And there should be a little bit of John in us all....

This is what that old man Zechariah was praising his guts out about 2,000 years ago.

Let's see if Luke's narrative of Jesus' Way has the same impact on us?


A Parish Built on Love Preview

This week Don Renzo Bonetti and his team from Verona arrive at Truro Anglican.  This teaching mission is the climactic point of several years of teaching and planning and leading the parish into a deeper understanding of the role of marriage and family in God's purposes for the Church and the World.

Don Renzo sent us the following video in preparation for his time with us:  


At the end of the teaching mission, I will be posting other items and summaries from Don Renzo.