Certainty concerning our faith – Luke 1:1-4

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke is writing as a historian who wants Theophilus to have certainty concerning his faith.  Many have heard of Christ indirectly or unclearly from a long distance.  Luke is giving us a detailed historical account. 

This is not a once upon a time fairy tale.  It does not take place long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.  At the time Luke was writing, it was maybe thirty years from the death and resurrection of Jesus.  He was using material he had researched and compiled for years before that.  We are confronted with a story that takes place in known places involving people that could still report as eyewitnesses.

Given all of that, one interesting thing is that as we begin to read, there is no shortage of supernatural activity.  The very first chapter of Luke records two supernatural births, of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ – who was in fact born of a virgin.  These are amazing stories that deserve a careful retelling.

As we go through this Gospel together, let’s be open to the facts as Luke has received them.  He is simply reporting what others have seen and heard.  He is taking them at their word and we should likewise take Luke at his word.

This is a Gospel that gained respect and popularity from the earliest days of the church.  If we want to be certain concerning the things we have been taught about Jesus, Luke’s Gospel is a great place to start.

 

The empty tomb – Mark 16:5-7

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

The women went to the tomb that Sunday morning only to find that Jesus was not there.  His body was gone, and the young man (apparently that is how the angel appeared) told the that Jesus had risen.

This event, Christ’s rising from the dead is the basis of our faith.

If Christ had not risen, we would not have what the New Testament declares is most important.  The gospel would be pointless.  Christ would not have secured complete victory over death for us.

But Christ has risen from the dead.  Our sins are covered by his blood.  He has won the ultimate victory over Satan, sin and death.  We can be confident he represents us before the Father and is seated at his right hand.

Anticipating two births – Luke 1:24, 34-35

Here in Luke 1, we get the stories leading up to the births, and even the conceptions, of both John the Baptist and his relative, Jesus Christ.  After the angel Gabriel speaks to John’s father, we read, in Luke 1:24,

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived.

Gabriel also speaks to Mary.  When he does, he says, in Luke 1:34-35,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.

Gabriel announced God’s plans to these interested participants before the children in question were even conceived.  This tells us something about God’s plans, and ours.  

I’m reminded of what God said to the prophet in Jeremiah 1:4-5,

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jesus, John and Jeremiah all had obviously special roles to play in God’s plans for his people.  Without getting into a too-lengthy study on the subject, there is ample evidence to conclude he has specific, and therefore special, plans for each one of us.  Each human life is important and a part of God’s plan.  

The plans for each person are not special because of who we are.  These plans are special because of whose they are and whose we are as a result.  If God created us with a plan, then that is something we need to take seriously.

There is a prayer from Hilary of Poitiers (who you can read about here), in which he says,

Before I came to know you, I was nothing.  I had the misfortune not to know the meaning of life, I was without understanding of myself, I was nothing of what I am now.  It was your mercy that gave me life.  I have no doubt that you decided it would be good for me to be born, for you are good, you had no need of me and you would not have given me life if it had been to my detriment … *

Personally, I would like to live out the thoughts expressed in that prayer for the rest of my life.  Hilary does not express God’s plan or purpose for him.  He only admits that he can trust that it must be good.  God is good and deserves that kind of trust from us, his created beings.  Whatever God’s purpose and plans are for each one of us, may we fulfill them to the utmost.

*from Early Christian Prayers, edited by A. Hamman, translated by Walter Mitchell

The weight of sin – Mark 15:33-39

Last week we looked at Gethsemane.  Today we see Jesus die on the cross.  This is when he felt the weight of our sin upon him.  And it felt like being completely forsaken by God.  Let’s read about that hopeless, helpless moment.

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Crucifixion was cruel, but it wasn’t unusual.  People died this way all the time.  The day Jesus died, there were two robbers executed with him, one on each side.  What made Christ’s death any different from theirs?

The weight of our sin.

We really cannot say what that felt like.  I have compared it with the feeling of guilt.  Guilt is worse than pain because it has a psychological and/or spiritual component that physical pain makes worse, but cannot compare to.  When physical pain is gone, guilt can continue.  It can sap a person’t energy and deplete a person’t life.  Guilt, even without physical suffering can push a person to end his own life.   

And Jesus publicly and shamefully bore the sin, the guilt, of the world.

If there was ever a place that was truly God-forsaken, it was Christ’s cross that day on Golgotha.  “The Father turned his face away,” says the hymn.  Jesus was alone as he died, even though there were bystanders all around him.  None of them could understand what he was enduring.  Numbing the pain would never alleviate the suffering of substitutionary atonement. 

As Christ died, the curtain in the temple tore from top to bottom and the way was opened for us to come into the very presence of God.  Christ was separated from the Father so that we might be joined with them both inseparably and forever.  No one saw it or said it better than the centurion.

39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son  of God!”

 

Gethsemane – Mark 14:32-42

The battle Christ won on the cross was, in a way, first won in the garden.  It was there Christ obediently determined to follow through with his plan in complete submission to his Father’s will.  After Gethsemane there would be no turning back.

32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Christ knew exactly what was coming.  Going to the cross would be horrible, but many had done this before.  Two others, in fact, were crucified the same day with Jesus.  What made Christ’s death any different?

The difference was in his carrying the weight of our sin. 

It is impossible to know what that is like, but we can imagine at least a little.  It might feel a lot like guilt.  For example, sometimes we get into trouble and, while our circumstances annoy us, the thing that truly tortures us is knowing that it is our own fault.  How much better would everything be if this had all been avoided?  Sometimes we do something wrong and have no one to blame but ourselves.  Knowing that the consequences are of our own making makes them worse.  

Now let’s think further.  It is bad enough dealing with the consequences of our own sin.  That much guilt is usually enough for any of us.  What if we had to bear the sins of the world on our shoulders while dying that slow, painful death?

By all available accounts, Christ’s time on the cross was less than many who died in that same manner.  Sometimes it took a few days for the crucified victim to expire.  Christ died in a matter of hours.  But no one before or since has had to bear more than their own sin.  The physical torture was bad enough, but the psychological and spiritual anguish was much, much worse.  Yet Christ was determined to walk it through to the end.  And he did that out of love for us.

It was there in Gethsemane that the prayer, “Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,” was answered.  It was answered when the Father simply said no.  Jesus was okay with that.  He understood what was necessary for us to be saved.  He knew the cross was only the first step toward resurrection.  He knew that if he shared in our death, and shared in our sin, we would share in his life forever more.

No one knows – Mark 13:32-37

Jesus wants us all to be alert and ready for his coming.  In Mark 13:32-37 he says,

32 But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.

Jesus draws an analogy between the kind of constant awareness and expectation he wants from us and the doorkeeper to a house.  In this case the doorkeeper’s master has gone off on a journey and may come back at any time.  When Jesus compares this to his own return, he points out that he, our master, might come at any moment, even in the middle of the night.  No one knows when he will arrive.

I happen to be an advocate of the pretribulation rapture view of Christ’s coming, which, among other things, seems to make the most sense of this passage.  Though I know plenty of wonderful Christians who disagree, I do hope they at least see the importance of our constant preparedness and sense of expectation.  For example, one of my former professors, who holds different views on end-times prophecy from me, still says in his commentary on this passage, 

The reference to all four watches, including the second and third watches when people avoided travel, underlines the fact that Jesus’ return may happen when it is least expected, and emphasizes that Jesus’ followers are always “on duty”: they must always, constantly, be alert, prepared for Jesus’ sudden, unexpected return. 

Eckhard Schnabel, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary *

In a day when people are not overly enthusiastic about Bible prophecy, there is a constant danger to shift toward a lack of enthusiasm.  Let’s not forget that the New Testament emphasizes that Jesus is coming soon.  Let’s be like the faithful doorkeeper in Christ’s comparison who is ready to open the door at any time, even at an unexpected moment.  In other words, at any and every time, Jesus might realistically be expected. 

No one knows when Jesus will return.  This means we should always be ready.

 

* Eckhard Schnabel, 2017. Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Downers Grove, IVP Academic), 339.

Spiritual VIPs – Mark 12:38-40

38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Have you ever been in the presence of someone really, really important?  I remember one time attending a campaign event in New Hampshire in the run up to a presidential primary.  Several political big shots had crammed into a school cafeteria with all the requisite staff, press and random observers like me.  It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment.  So much power being wielded in the midst of a crowd interacting in tighter-than-usual personal space! The spectators and the stars were almost literally rubbing elbows.

We might assume all the candidates at that event had no aspirations outside the boundaries of selfless public service, but it probably wasn’t true.  Some people do crave the attention, the respect, the deference to their inherent importance, the awe from others which they see as their just due.

Jesus wasn’t like that, but rather lowered himself intentionally to our level.  When he saw the types that liked to be spiritual VIPs, he had nothing but harsh words. And he pointed out their hypocrisy.

They got attention merely by the way they dressed.  Some clothing automatically looks more spiritual and they wanted people to see them in it.  People saw them dressed in those long robes and reflexively gave them special greetings in the marketplaces.  It was a wholehearted, full-eye-contact “Oh hello, sir!” not just a halfhearted “Hi.”

When they took their place of religious duty, it was a place of honor.  If there was a feast, the host would be sure to seat them somewhere special, because of course he wanted everyone to see what kind of people came to his banquets – spiritual VIPs.

People like this can use their power to take advantage of others.  The grieving widow might someday want to sign over some of her estate.  Be sure to get into her good graces.  Why even wait that long?  Perhaps they would pull on her heartstrings now to lead her to give to their “charitable” cause.

Long prayers are often necessary, but there is no sense in the mind of this VIP to offer them only in private.  Prayers are best offered in pretense, for all to see and hear, sufficiently clogged with spiritual vocabulary and run-on sentences.  Who would ever believe that someone so pious could ever devour the house of a widow?

Many people will be condemned in the judgment, but these will receive greater condemnation.  If there is such a thing as a hotter place in hell, it is reserved for the phony, self-focused, hypocritically spiritual VIP.