This Bible study is predicated on two things...the first is that you, the viewer, are resolved to read along with us as we work our way through the Gospel of Luke. The second is that we all understand that any Bible study is just the continuance of an ongoing relationship with holy scripture. Just sitting down to read the Bible like it is the latest NY Times bestseller is to dismiss scripture's ability to continually inform and enrich our lives. Reading and "getting" a passage of the Bible in one state of mind, or at one place in life doesn't signify that meaning will be with you, or be relevant to you, even a few weeks from now.
So, assuming these two things, that you are reading along with us and that we do acknowledge that scripture is something we maintain a relationship with, rather than seeing it as a "book" to "get through," let's begin:
Any study and/or reflection on the Gospel of Luke relies on the very first words of the text. This is the first (and according to the author, most authoritative and thorough) of the accounts of the life of Jesus. What also arises from these first words is that even with Jesus' life, death and resurrection are disclosed, there is more to the story. Our fellow target, Theophilus (God-lover, in Greek), is getting just the first installment of a two volume work, the second of which is Acts (which begins with, "In the first book, Theophilus...") So, right from the start, we see that while Jesus, his life and his work...and the work accomplished through him in the lives of the disciples, is only the prelude to something that is going to follow. We are not only seeing the birth of the Messiah; we are seeing the birth of the Church, and that Church is something that we are a part of...this is our story. Luke offers a way for us to link and tie ourselves into the narrative of the life of Jesus in a way apart from the other Gospels. Luke also uses that affinity to challenge us, to uproot assumptions we have about how the world works, and how we are called to work as God's apostles in the world. From the start, the key hope is deliverance, salvation and the beginning of an age of justice. From the start, the world is a much bigger place than "just" Jesus and his friends wandering around the Judean countryside. Vast, global events and the wider culture affect what is happening, and people across the generations, the ethnicities and the agendas in that one corner of the ancient world are being affected by them.
There is a great deal that sets Luke off from other Gospel works. First and foremost, there is the assumption in the text that this is a singular author setting out to tell a story to us via Theophilus. We can't say for sure that "Luke" was the author, or if it was the same "Luke, the Physician" that was a companion of the apostle Paul on his journeys. We can't even "officially" date the Gospel. Scholars has some pretty good ideas, that the writer was quite erudite and able to write in an eloquent Greek with great skills in speaking to both a Hellenistic world and from a perspective deeply rooted in Jewish history and cultural-religious narrative. More than anything else, this book wants to make "sense" of the story of Jesus, and uses various literary techniques that in Greek (and in Hebraic tradition) would raise signal flag after signal flag to the reader that this Jesus is somebody.
Another gift of the Gospel is the first chapter. Before we meet Jesus, and before he meets the first crowds and calls his first disciple, we see that God has been very busy. There is the heralded birth of John along with the Anunciation to Mary. There are songs of praise to God from Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. There are earlt indications that Jesus' proclamation of the Good News of the kingdom will bring as much consternation as exultaton (see Jesus as a young boy in the temple-and his parents' frantic search for him when he is in his "Father's House.")
So, take up your Bible and read...
Chapter one: The story of the birth of Jesus begins with his mother's cousin's husband, Zechariah the priest having his lot come up to serve in the Holy of Holies. The archange Gabriel appears to tell him that his son will be grat in Israel and announce the savior.Zechariah asks for a sign and is quite literally stuck dumb. He won't talk again until his son, the promised forerunner, is named. Then we see Elizabeth receiving the "good" news that she will conceive and bear John. Her song is similar to Hannah's rejoicing that God will give her a son, Samuel-and the parallel is drawn even tighter when John is comissioned as a nazirite-a holy person who abstains from earthly pleasure and haircuts (see Sampson). We see that famous moment when Mary is confronted by the archangel, submits to God's grace and upon visiting her kinswoman Elizabeth offers us the Magnificat "My sould magnifies the Lord..." The chapter concludes with the song of Zechariah, one of the chief canticles from our office of Morning Prayer, the Benedictus Es.
Chapter two: After all of this, we see the stage set for the birth of Jesus. We hear of the global events leading up to the birth of the Messiah...then we meet the baby, Jesus...and then the shepherds in the field hear the good news, then Simeon receives the gift he was promised, then Anna-who had been waiting and working for the kingdom with discipline and faith for the balance of her life. In all of these greetings of the newborn Messiah, it is not the rich, the wealthy, the advantaged, the studious and learned that greet the Son of Man...it is the meek, the old, the fringe-dwellers. Jesus arrives to humanity and works from the outside to the inside (of society and of us).
Chapter three: The Baptism, and then a geneology of Jesus that emphasizes his "sonship" as descending from Adam himself-first created. His heritage is human. Note John's response to the crowd, foreshadowing the testimony of Jesus, that the chief work of the faithful in the world is to strive for God's justice, and each of the individual groups is given a unique charge that is tied to the root injustice fo the lives they lead.
Chapter four: Temptation, note that this comes AFTER his self-recoginition in Baptism and the Father's announcement of the advent of the Beloved. Jesus is continually reminded of his ability to change his environment, use his might for his own appetite's end and to choose the world's agenda over God's. These are not just the temptations Our Lord faces...they are the temptations we face each day we strive to live life in alignment with God's desire for us. After that trial in the wilderness, he returns to the town he grew up in, with fame traveling in his wake...and experiences rejection. Those closes to the Good News can't hear it, because it would take relasing their preconceptions and expectations of him. Even when he performs healings, there is rejection. Though the powers possessing the sick recognize and decry Jesus as the Son of Man, there is still a confusing and tension-filled rebuke from him to keep silent. This new way will not just come to being with ease and simplicity in the world. This gospel will be hard won.
Chapter five: The calling, the response and what it means to seek healing on behalf of others as well as self...this chapter sees our Jesus rising in impact on the people around him. He has gained a reputation as a healer, he has begun to call his disciples and his acts of restoration come with testimony that it is not just getting our health's desire, but expressing faith and hope in God that accomplishes the closing of the gap. We have a part to play in the drama of the Kingdom coming into the world. Most profoundly we see the ratcheting up of tension: what suddenly matters, now that Jesus is "important" is who he chooses to eat with, and the manner in which he choses to eat. An object lesson for us all: how often do you judge another's humanity, choices and actions before you seek to actually be in a person-to-person relationship with them?
So, in the end, what does this first section of Luke offer to us? It offers a portait of the advent of the Messiah that begins first and foremost in God relating to people of faith as they were waiting expectantly for the Kingdom. God is coming to us, and is coming through ways that are both recognizable and provocative to the target audience. Jesus' birth really is the answer to some people's prayers...and yet, in the fulfillment of those promises there is also the promise of conflict and strife. The birth of Jesus might be "romantic" be many standards, but the life of Jesus, as Luke presents it, will be challenging to say the least!
We move on next week to chapter six. Please join us!