I’m going to try something new, and we’ll see how it goes. With everything upended by the pandemic, I have more time available for a project I’ve never tried: blogging through the Gospel.
Those who’ve read much of my writing should at least know a bit about my background, but here’s the several sentence version. I’ve been part of white American evangelical Christianity all my life, with pastors, Sunday School teachers, and church leaders in my family. I grew up attending AWANA and Bible quizzing; after graduating from a public high school, I pursued degrees in religion and communications at Pacific Lutheran University. Unfortunately, the capstone class for each program was only offered once and the times conflicted, so rather than staying an extra year to earn my double-major, I pursued a degree in communications (with an emphasis in journalism) while settling for a religion minor. In the 10 years since, I’ve seen my faith grow and shift as I’ve witnessed what I consider to be the debasement of my religious brethren to a point where they’ve traded the Gospel of Jesus for a gospel of Trump. All this is to say, while I have spent much time and enjoyed tremendous educational opportunities to consider difficult questions about God, I am not a pastor. Even so, I am someone who is heavily invested in the mission of Christ as laid out in the Gospel stories.
So here we are. I can’t promise this will be a daily thing, but my hope is to do at least a few of these each week. I will be reading the Gospel according to Luke and sharing things that stick out to me throughout. As detailed above, I’ve heard these stories many times, so my goal is to read it with a fresh mindset and see things I either haven’t noticed before or that I rarely see highlighted. I hope you join me in this process for two reasons: 1. It’s always good to read about Jesus and 2. I think we’re going to see some things that really don’t line up with the message white American evangelical Christians in particular are promoting in our current culture. In the spirit of the “back to the Bible” movement that supposedly informs their theology, I’m narrowing it down and going back to Jesus. If we truly seek to follow him, isn’t this where we should start?
A quick note: I will be primarily reading from a Zondervan NIV Study Bible that uses the 1984 New International Version. In no way am I saying this is the best translation or the one you should or shouldn’t use; it’s just the one I have that’s most convenient. Unless otherwise stated, quotes will be from this version.
For our first day, I’m going to go through the first two chapters. They’re both quite long, but they tell the Christmas story, and that is very familiar to us. However, still noticed some things that I’ve rarely heard highlighted.
Let’s begin with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Chapter 1 introduces us to Zechariah in verse 5 and it provides us a key detail: he is a priest, and both he and his wife are descendants of the priestly line of Aaron. Verse 6 tells us that “both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” So we know that Zechariah is a priest and a good man. We also know he and his wife are old, so he has a very lengthy track record of honor and priestly service.
Why is this important? Here’s why: just a few verses later, after the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him of his coming child, Zechariah doubted. I’ve heard this story countless times, and I know it goes on that Zechariah is struck silent until John is born and given his name – fulfilling Gabriel’s promise – but I’ve never lingered on Zechariah’s doubt. But I think it’s important.
We live in a culture that is very critical of doubt. Often, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong or even spouting blatant lies, if you don’t express doubt, you’re all good. Even further, we often build up our church leaders as these pillars of faith that have no questions or doubts, that know everything. This has led to so many scandalous failings by church leaders, but it also creates a distorted mindset where we cannot express any possibility that we might not know every answer to every question. Doubt is not allowed; questions cannot be considered. But God is mysterious; God is far beyond what our finite minds can comprehend. To see a lifelong priest, who is described as upright and blameless, express doubt is something we should cherish. Instead of judging Zechariah, we should cling to his witness. Yes, the angel struck him speechless for a time until the prophesied things had come to pass, but Gabriel didn’t take back the promise or strike Zechariah down.
It is okay to have questions, to doubt even what you’ve always believed. Zechariah received an angelic messenger – a sign very few of us can even imagine – and he still doubted. That’s okay. He still served a key role in this story, and he was still remembered for his many years of blameless living. If a priest like Zechariah doesn’t always have all the answers and doesn’t always have everything figured out, it’s absolutely okay for us to acknowledge that we might don’t know everything or that sometimes it’s hard to have faith in what is seemingly impossible.
Later in the chapter, Mary offers what is known as the Magnificat, a poetic worship of God. I think verses 51-53 stand out for sharing the heart of God: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” While I believe these words should speak for themselves, I think it is key for us to remember that worldly success and success in the eyes of God are not the same thing. It is also key to remember that she was sharing these sentiments while the Jewish people were suffering under deep oppression by the Roman empire. I’m sure we will go much deeper into that as we hear the words of Jesus going forward, so we will leave that until then.
Returning to Zechariah and the birth of John, when the child was born and taken to be circumcised, the people all thought he should be named for his father. They were very confused when Elizabeth said he will be named John, and it is when Zechariah writes those words on a tablet that his speech is restored and everyone is amazed. The key to consider here is that the religious leaders that oversaw circumcision and the naming of children could not imagine why they would name a child John, despite the fact that it was the name God gave them. While this seems minor, it is the first of many examples we’ll see in this story when religious leaders simply missed the point about God. In this case, it was just a name; in later cases it will be over far more serious issues. But whether the issue is big or small, we see from the beginning that religious leaders are not immune to completely missing the boat when it comes to God and God’s will.
The second chapter of Luke is maybe the most read chapter in the Bible, as it details the most central aspect of the Christmas story. Just briefly, I want to point to the shepherds and the prophetess Anna (verse 36), and their significance. While much is made very Christmas of the savior of the world being born into extreme poverty and meager circumstances, it is still telling that God chose to reveal Jesus’ birth to shepherds. They were very much a part of the lowest class of citizens, living off in the fields with their sheep and experiencing a lonely existence. That they were among the first to be invited to take joy in Jesus’ arrival on earth is an indication of the inverted nature of the Kingdom of Heaven – that the last shall be first and the first last. From the moment of Jesus’ birth, the idea of him bringing good news, hope, and a radical shift to the world was a message based on inclusion, love, and consideration for whom Jesus will eventually refer to as “the least of these.”
Further, with Anna we see a woman who was very old, a widow who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” We’ve already seen an angel appear to a young Mary, but this story continues to highlight and promote the role of women in a world that very much treated them like second-class citizens at best. Anna was not only old, but the vast majority of her life had been spent as a widow, which would have likely placed her into extreme poverty and made her one of the most vulnerable members of society. Yet God chose to bless her with the opportunity to meet the prophesied messiah. God’s standards are so radically different from ours that even when we think we understand what God’s standards are, this story should remind us of the need to approach such beliefs with extreme humility. As we’ve already seen just in these opening chapters, even the most well-trained and established religious leaders misunderstood the ways of God.
Finally, the only story we see of Jesus during childhood comes at the end of the second chapter. Mary and Joseph leave Jerusalem and don’t realize Jesus has stayed behind, sitting among the teachers “listening to them and asking them questions.” Two things from this: the importance of questions, and the value of children. Circling back to Zechariah and the issue of doubt, merely asking questions is not the same as doubt. We cannot gain greater understanding without pursuing answers to questions that arise. They are vital to our understanding of anything, but particularly to our relationship with God. How many of us can really get to know another person without asking them questions? Similarly, when confronted with challenging concepts (either due to content or logistics), it is natural and healthy to ask questions.
Second, children take this example to its extreme, questioning everything around them. How else will they engage with the world around them and learn? So often we dismiss children or seek to “protect” them by not sharing difficult truths with them. While everything must be balanced, Jesus in this story is 12 years old and engaged in deep discussion with religious leaders. He engaged with the world around him at that age, despite the fact that his parents surely thought he was too young for such things. It is human nature for us to over-shelter our children, but in the long run this can be more damaging than helpful as they eventually face difficult circumstances that they are not even remotely prepared for.
Two chapters in, I hope you’ve discovered some things you may not have considered before. Our next chapter will introduce us to John the Baptist’s message, and I’m excited to see what he has to say. Thanks for joining me on this closer look at Luke!