As I’ve been looking over the past year thinking about the past year and gospel, I keep coming back to story and to my belief that the Bible is the one true story of the whole world, and that it’s a public proclamation of that story, a public living of that story into the world. This past year, I’ve particularly looked at the gospel of Luke as I think about that story and when it comes to good news, gospel, to the first few chapters of Luke. Those always captivate me, those beginning story of the birth narrative and all those kind of things. If you think about what’s going on at that time, you have about 90% of the people in Israel in poverty. Grinding poverty. The kind of poverty that means that most of your children will be stunted in growth because they don’t have enough food. The kind of grinding poverty that means that every once in a while you actually have to sell one of your kids into slavery to pay off your debts. The kind of grinding poverty that means you lose your land to those who have charged far too much interest and you can’t pay them and they take your land and you become a sharecropper.
So that’s going on for 90+% of the people as Luke begins his story. But also what’s going on is that the people are still if you will in exile, because although they’re living in Israel, they’re being ruled over by Rome, and Rome is not the king they’re supposed to have. So they’re living that kind of exile and every once in a while somebody will rebel against Rome and the result is unbelievable bloodshed. Right around the time Jesus was born, 3,000 people are crucified after a rebellion in Galilei.
So that’s all going on as Luke begins his story, and as you begin that story, the first thing you discover is that righteous people are barren. That the righteous people of Israel are barren, and Elizabeth represents that. But in kind of like the quickest turnaround you can imagine, suddenly an angel appears and says to Zechariah, “I bring you good news.” What’s the good news? “Well, your wife Elizabeth is going to have a child. Barrenness is coming to an end.” As that is proclaimed, it’s proclaimed in the temple as Zechariah is offering those sacrifices and doing what he’s supposed to be doing and outside, the people are praying. What we know about the prayer at that time of the day is that people are praying for the coming of the Messiah. So while they’re praying outside, Zechariah inside is getting the good news.
Zechariah’s name by the way means creator will remember. Creator will remember, and this is happening in Jerusalem, the sacred village of Shalom. So already get a picture of what this good news looks like, it’s the barrenness coming to an end, but it’s something that feels even greater than that. So it’s not just of course Zechariah who hears the good news, Elizabeth hears the good news. Elizabeth, whose name means creator is my promise, and so creator will remember, creator is my promise, and the steps go forward in this good news picture that God is putting together, and as it goes forward, another good news comes, right? That is it comes to Mary. Now it’s not spoken of as good news, the angel doesn’t say I’ve got good news for you. Instead he says to Mary, “You’re going to have a son. The son’s going to be the one who rules over the people of Israel and his name is going to be great, his kingdom will never come to an end.”
Mary’s response to that is that Magnificat. The Magnificat that turns everything on its head. The poor are lifted up, the rich are emptied out, the hungry, think about this, you’ve got children who are hungry every night, the hungry are finally full, the rich are sent away empty, rulers are brought down from their thrones. It’s a huge reversal. Mary, whose name means bitter tears, speaks this amazing picture of what can be, and then she goes and visits Elizabeth, and suddenly, we know that things really, something’s really afoot, because here is a story in which the two central characters in the Bible are women. Women who are the least and the last in the society, and they suddenly become the center of the story. Not only do they become the center of the story, but the Holy Spirit is already at work in Elizabeth, and Elizabeth becomes the very first person to declare that Jesus is Lord while he is still in the womb.
The day comes for the birth of Jesus, and this time, we do hear good news. The good news that the angels bring to the shepherds, and the shepherds hear this good news, “Today is born to you in the town of David, a savior who is Messiah the Lord.” Or as the First Nations version puts it, “Born to you today is the one who sets people free. He is Messiah and Lord.” To understand Messiah and Lord, you have to understand, as Scott already pointed out, that Isaiah is behind the Gospel of Luke. You cannot understand Messiah, Lord, you cannot understand Luke unless you know Isaiah and what he has to say about all of these things. So suddenly into this world of darkness, suddenly in the night, the angels shine, and they bring light into darkness, hope into barrenness, and as they do that, they declare to the world that God’s shalom, God’s peace has come, and it brings a whole cosmic picture to what God wants to be doing.
A few days pass, and they head up to Jerusalem to circumcise Jesus, and who is there? Simeon, whose name means creator hears. Simeon declares that here is this child who is going to heal the brokenness not only for Israel, but also for all the nations. Then the last person to speak in the story is of course, a woman, whose name is Anna, whose name means woman of good will, and she says, “Here is the one who’s going to bring about the redemption of Jerusalem.” Again to understand that, you’ve got to know Isaiah.
So good news, barrenness has come to an end. Good news, the one who sets free has come, he is Messiah, and he is Lord. Then finally, a chapter later, we find Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, declaring to the world the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. As I hear that story and I see the end of barrenness, as I see the coming of the one who sets free and I recognize the whole background of that, I can’t help but think of how during this past year as we’ve dealt with Black Lives Matter, COVID-19. As we’ve looked at all of these different things going on, what does it look like for the church to live that good news. The fullness of that good news and how does the church display that to the world? How do we live the story and not just again as we heard this morning be brains on a stick who tell some people about some stuff they need to know, but instead become that community that lives that life. That’s what I’ve been reflecting on when it comes to gospel.
So thanks again. Appreciate it for both of you being up here and we’re going to let you slide into tables and have some conversation around gospel and you can use those questions as prompts or you can obviously just do some other things as well. Whatever conversations you want to have that are helpful to you.