Luke 1 – History

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Every story needs a context, and for Luke, who was not an eye-witness to Jesus’ life, miracles, or any of the events that took place, the context is extremely important because it provides and introduction to Jesus’ coming.  While Luke’s audience was largely Gentile, it is clear that he has a firm grasp on Jewish history and draws from that history to set the stage for Jesus’ coming.

There are many parallels between Luke 1 and Old Testament events.  Zechariah and Elizabeth have a child, though they are quite old, just like Abraham and Sarah.  That child is to be set apart, like the Priests and many other prophets of the Old Testament.

Both the song of Zechariah and Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat, draw heavily on old testament passages including 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Isaiah 9 & 40, Ezekiel 29, Jeremiah 23 & 31, Micah 7, Malachi 4, and about 20 different Psalms.  Luke is clearly drawing the Old Testament Scriptures forward knowing that, while God declares that He is “doing a new thing,” in Isaiah 43, that new thing is not wholly different from how God had acted in the past but is intimately related to the continuing work of God to bring about redemption, restoration, and reconciliation to a fallen world.

All of this history falls right in line with the charge of John the Baptist too, preparing the way for the Lord.  It wasn’t something that began specifically with John, but had been going on for thousands of years prior to this moment.

God’s work in our lives doesn’t begin at the moment we recognize He has been working on us.  We too can take a look back over what we have experienced and see that God has been working on us since the beginning and continues to do so through the Holy Spirit each and every day.



Introduction to Luke

The Book of Luke

The Gospel of Luke is easily the most detailed of the 4 Gospels, having been written by someone charged with chronicling the life of Jesus, rather than recounting their own experiences.  Traditionally, Luke is thought to be a doctor, based on comments made by Paul in Colossians 4, and was a well-educated Greek.  This book, along with its companion, the book of Acts, were both written by Luke to someone named “Theophilus,” who is almost certainly a real person, likely a person of some wealth and influence, but whose name also means “one who loves God.”

As for the time of Luke’s writing and the Gospel’s relationship to Matthew and Mark, there are many theories about how these three Gospels, known as the Synoptic Gospels, came to be.  Luke was likely written somewhere in the 60 – 70 AD area, making it the third of the Gospels to be written.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There is considerable overlap between the three Synoptic Gospels.  In the same way that three people recording the life of a person would come up with related material, and also some unique insight, the first three Gospels reveal many of the same events of Jesus’ life as well as a few unique perspectives.

It is theorized that both Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark, but also that there was a second source, labeled “Q,” that is now lost but that both writers drew from too.

Whether or not this is important to our reading is debatable.  Luke contains narratives that we have not yet read and contains many themes, especially that of Jesus’ humanity, as it is written to a Gentile audience; one that was likely unfamiliar with Jewish Law and customs but many have been quite “religious” and “spiritual” in Greco-Roman diety worship.



Mark 16 – They were Afraid?

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Mark’s Gospel brings this story to a conclusion with a very unique and unexpected ending: “They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.”  It seems so anti-climactic.    But we have to cut them some slack here.  They just experienced the most significant event in all of history that had an undeniable impact on the entire universe.  The truth for them, however, was that they had no idea what they were experiencing.  So honestly, they had every right to be afraid; you probably would have been too.

If we think about it for a moment, they obviously didn’t say “nothing to anyone” or else I wouldn’t be here writing this, nor you reading it.  Looking at the other Gospels, the accounts of Acts and Church history, obviously someone said something.  So why didn’t this just get edited out of later versions of Mark?  What possible purpose does this passage serve?

Perhaps Mark understands something that many of us experience from time to time: that an encounter with God, the experience of God working in our lives in unexpected and unexplainable ways can indeed be frightening.  Maybe Mark is creating space for people by showing that even some of Christ’s most faithful followers needed time to process what was happening to them in the midst of this powerful story.

We live in such a “now” oriented society, having everything at our fingertips with just the click of a button.  Explanations and definitions, videos and commentary are all only seconds away, yet far too often we don’t create space in our lives for the Holy Spirit to unravel and reveal the mysteries of God’s work on our hearts.  Sometimes we need space to process, to explore, and then eventually to tell of the great things God is doing in us!



Mark 15 – We Want Barabbas!

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The people of God have a long history of wanting what they shouldn’t want, and denying the thing they need most.  From the very moment that they  were released from captivity in Egypt, the people of Israel immediately begin complaining and wondering whether or not they should just go back.  Every time they met an obstacle, whenever things got rough, no matter how faithful God had been to them, they always talk about going back to Egypt.

Even after they settle into the promised land, when they have received the inheritance God gave them, still they wondered at going back to Egypt.  Sure, life was difficult, the work was hard, but it certainly was familiar.

As the religious leaders of Jesus’ day make plans to capture and kill Him, they do so because Jesus is threatening the very same thing: freedom.  Jesus continues to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven and speak negatively about the religious elite.  They have recognized Jesus as a threat to their power and control; they want none of it.

I wonder at some of the similarities that are taking place in our cultural context today.  Looking at the landscape of the church and culture, over the last 100 years, a slow turn as been taking place, leaving the church and the transformative power of the Gospel on the side of condemnation and the greater culture, including many church-going Christians, turning to away from Jesus and the Gospel as the source of freedom and salvation, and to many other things and people that the world has to offer.  Whether it is a politician running for president, high educational achievement, or success, each of these, when compared to the transforming power of the Gospel is the proverbial “Barabbas” that America seems to be collectively calling for.



Mark 14 – Why the Waste?

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Admittedly there have been times in my life where I have seen people do things or give money where I wondered, “why waste time/money on that?”  Like the disciples, we think we know where other’s priorities should be and what they should be doing with the things God has blessed them with.

However, Mary’s actions here, Jesus points out, have a much deeper significance than what they saw on the surface: preparation.

In the sequence of events unfold here at the end of Jesus’ life, there is a great deal of parallelism between His sacrifice and the Passover feast.  What we don’t get here is that, when the Priests prepared for these events, there was a considerable amount of preparation and washing that needed to take place so they would be clean.  There was also specific things that needed to be done by each family to prepare the Passover meal which included what needed to be done to the Passover Lamb.

Jesus Himself is our Passover Lamb, the one who would die and whose blood would cover our sins and grant us eternal life.  Jesus functions in the position of the priest, performing the sacrifice before God in representation of all humanity.  In both cases, Mary’s actions serve as preparation for what was about to take place.

It is important for us to be willing to open our eyes to a bigger picture.  We don’t always know what God is up to when we see people do things that we wouldn’t necessarily agree with.  Why give so much to a university when you could give to the church or the poor?  What if that money went to a scholarship for someone who came to know Jesus through a campus ministry?  It wouldn’t seem so wasteful then would it?



Mark 13 – Permanence

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Visiting Europe last summer I suspect that some of my responses to the old buildings that we saw was similar to that of the disciples at the temple.  “Jesus, look at the big stones!”  “Look at these great buildings!”  Europe has no shortage of them either.  Whether old castles or cathedrals, they are quite a sight to behold and stand as a testament to their builders and the ingenuity and creativity of humanity.

St. Paul's Cathedral (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

St. Paul’s Cathedral
(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

However, what struck me about these buildings, particularly the cathedrals, is how their incredible design and structure was contrasted by their lack of function for what they were intended to do… namely worship God and be the body of Christ.  It was striking to me that we toured castles and palaces in the same way we toured churches.

Westminster Abbey (Photo Credit: chsrentals.com)

Westminster Abbey
(Photo Credit: chsrentals.com)

I wonder if this was, at least somewhat, what Jesus was referring to when He responded to His disciples’ comments about the Temple.  When He begins to talk about the end times, the discussion changes but the point Jesus makes doesn’t: what we look at with awe and wonder really is nothing compared to what is coming.

Notre Dame Cathedral (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Notre Dame Cathedral
(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The same is true for people, something Jesus cautions His disciples about.  “Watch out that no one [or nothing] deceives you.” Lately, it seems, there has been a great deal of talk about making America great again, as if this is what will save us and the rest of the world.  While I am in favor of a prosperous country, I think it is important to keep things in perspective.  “Not one of these stones will be left on another.”  Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on building God’s Kingdom that will truly last?



John 8:2-11 "Am I Accepted?"

The question of identity is one that we grapple with our entire lives. From the very beginning of life, we seek to answer the question: “Am I Loved?” Throughout youth and even into adulthood we are always wondering, even if it is at a subconscious level, “Do I Belong?”
In Jesus Christ, the answer to this question before God is always “Yes!”



Mark 12 – The Greatest Gift

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Sermons on giving and tithing are probably the most difficult sermons to preach and to hear.  I think that, at least on some level, they seem somewhat self-serving coming from the pastor and that can often get in the way of how we listen and hear the Spirit moving in that time.  Jesus takes on this subject, though, without hesitation, and does not flinch at pointing out the truth in giving: it too is a matter of the heart.

Watching all of the people giving their offerings, Jesus reflects on what He sees.  Many people giving large sums of money.  Their offerings would have made loud noises as coins were placed into the containers.  Many would have known what they were doing and the large amounts that they were giving.

Yet I am reminded of what Jesus says in Matthew 6, talking about our posture when we seek to be obedient to God through fasting, praying, and giving.  In each subject, those who do things publically, drawing attention to themselves “receive their reward in full.”  Perhaps, Jesus is thinking about Psalm 51, that the truer sacrifice is that of the heart.

Jesus points out the widow’s offering to His disciples, one given in humility, with no fanfare or self-promotion.  She gives all she has; truly the greatest gift anyone can give.

I wonder if there is any relationship here between the gift that this widow gave and that which Jesus was about to give?  His gift, that of His own life, came in a form not expected by the religious leaders and yet it was the greatest gift of all.  John writes, referencing Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this: that he/she lay down their life for a friend.”  Maybe, more important than tithing, is self-sacrificially loving our neighbor?



Mark 11 – Moving Mountains

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Jesus speaks very pointedly about faith in this passage.  There is true power in faith to change things; no doubt is left here that faith is incredibly important.  However, this passage has been used many times in ways that have been painful and damaging for our brothers and sisters in Christ and it is important that we take this passage in context with the rest of Scripture as well.

I’ve heard Christians say that, when a person’s relative failed to get better, or when treatment for a disease didn’t work, that it was “obviously because someone didn’t believe enough.”  What an awful thing to say to someone!  We leave them questioning both Go and their faith.

So what does Jesus mean here?  Could we actually move a mountain if we had pure faith and no doubt?  Probably!  Jesus did say that.  However, I wonder if that is really the point here.

The purpose of faith is not so that we can gain power to do mighty things like  throwing mountains around, the deepening of our faith aligns our hearts with the heart of God.  As we grow deeper in relationship with Him, our hearts begin to reflect the heart of God, our desires begin to reflect the desires of God.  What we begin to see and experience, then, is God’s love for all people, His desire to show His grace, redemption, and reconciliation to the whole world.

Sure, mighty acts like throwing mountains around will get people’s attention, but what about the humble acts of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick?  God has a special place in His heart for the marginalized, and as our faith deepens, our hearts will begin to reflect God’s heart for them as well, and moving mountains won’t really seem that important.



Mark 10 – The 1%

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A lot of emphases is often placed on the “top 1%” of our society.  People in this category range from Hollywood stars to successful business people, athletes to politicians.  Often, these folks are idolized for their wealth and success, sometimes even envied, yet there are things, the most important things, that money and material wealth cannot buy.

In his interaction with Jesus, the “Rich Young Ruler” does everything he can to give the impression that he has his life all together.  It seems as though he is looking for Jesus to verify that he is on the right track for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus’ answer, however, stuns him.

Scripture says, “He went away sad because he had great wealth.”  Literally reading this, it means that he “owned much property.”

This seems to be the story of his life.  He did everything right, followed all the laws, and even obtained vast material blessing.  However, what He missed was the very core of what God desires from us: our heart.  The true nature of this man’s heart is revealed when he is asked to give up the things he has many of.

Jesus’ answer, though, indicates the priority of the heart of God too.  Not only does God want us to give Him our hearts, He also desires our hearts to be for those around us.  Never in Scripture do we find encouragement to gain wealth for our own sake, to horde money and resources for gaining power for ourselves. God’s heart and His desire for the hearts of His people is to care for the marginalized.  Perhaps, though, there is a not so hidden truth here: when our heart is for God and for others, blessing and wealth, that of the God’s Kingdom, will truly be found.



Mark 9 – Choosing Sides

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The famous phrase “whoever isn’t for us is against us” is seen here in Jesus’ words to His disciples.  They are not, however, as exclusive as we tend to make.  We do, consciously or unconsciously, choose sides whether for ourselves or for those around us, thinking about who is “in” and who is “out.”  This is true in our personal lives, deciding who we associate ourselves with and who we don’t.  It is also true in the church.

Throughout the world, it is estimated that there are over 40,000 Christian denominations.  40,000!!!  That means that a minimum of 40,000 times, Christians have decided at some point that other Christians were “out” and that they were the “in” group.  While the number itself can be staggering, the implications of such division are even worse.  It isn’t any wonder, then, that the world looks to our preaching on unity and reconciliation with a bit of a smirk, pointing out the irony with perhaps a slight side of hypocrisy.

Strides have been made recently to bring unity to this somewhat fragmented vision of Christ’s body, a promising start for us the Church.  Some would say we live in a “post-denominational” world, but even as denominations join together it still is based on the boundaries we have created.

When Jesus’ apostles bring to Him the question of others acting in His Name, Jesus, instead of questioning their worship style, doctrinal approach, or their political affiliation, makes one clear and concise statement: “whoever isn’t for us is against us.”

Maybe its time that we stop worrying about which churches have the correct “this or that” and celebrate the fact that we all worship One God and serve one Lord, Jesus Christ.  Then, maybe, we can work together for the Kingdom, celebrating our unity and our diversity.



Mark 8 – Desolate Place

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We have all seen fads come and go many times in our lives.  Whether it’s a diet, a lifestyle, a game, or some technology, there are things in our life and culture that look like, and feel like they are leading us down a fulfilling and enjoyable path.  However, there will always come a point when we feel like we somehow stumbled into the middle of nowhere, and we find ourselves hungry and wondering when we will next be able to be nourished.

Everything in our life takes us places, whether we are aware of it or not.  We travel down the proverbial road, following it wherever it leads us.  Think about a marathon of watching your favorite show on Netflix, how you get wrapped up in the characters and begin feeling for them and with them.  But at some point, that show or series will end and you are left with a bit of an empty feeling, something this commercial calls the “show hole.”

Sure, you can start watching another show but they all lead to the same desolate place.

Jesus recognizes that there have been many people following Him all over the countryside, many have come from long distances.  For many of them, He isn’t the first teacher to come along and offer hope, yet He will not leave them, or us, in the wilderness with no nourishment.

Jesus’ call to take up our crosses daily is one in which we will find ourselves in desolate places, feeling alone and hungry, yet we are never abandoned.  Jesus is the only one who will truly give us the nourishment we need and not leave us stranded and hungry, left to fend for ourselves and find our own way home.  He always provides it for us.



Mark 12:28-34 "What Matters Most?"

There are a lot of things that we consider to be important; sometimes too important.  We make big deals about little things, promoting them to be the true test of orthodoxy (right faith).  Jesus says here that the most important thing is relationships:

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationship with our neighbor


Mark 7 – Traditions

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The word “tradition” has become one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the church in recent years.  Some people hear this word and cringe, their minds rapidly moving toward visions of hymnals, organs, and hard wooden church pews.  Others hear it and are drawn by warm feelings to the “good ole days” where they sung familiar songs, had notes to read and music to follow, and sung in 4-part harmony.  While each group tends to have considerable disdain (though we wouldn’t necessarily name that) for the other,  neither inclination is, in itself, a bad thing.

However, as is often true, when our priorities get mixed up and we uphold the thing we cherish (musical style, way of doing things, etc.) over and above that to which those things point (namely: Jesus Christ), we fall into idolatry.  Indeed, much of the struggle with worship style actually falls into the label of idolatry, worshipping worship… or at least the way that we want to worship… which is actually worshipping ourselves.  Sadly, this has been applied more readily to the “traditionalist,” but is just as true for the “contemporary-ist.”

At the root of the problem for us and for the Pharisees here is where the heart is.  The Law was meant to be a guide for the hearts of the people, much like Sunday services are, in large part, meant to be a time to corporately direct our hearts toward God.  Yet we have a funny way of trying to make that time be more about us whilst making it sound like we are trying to make it about God.

Jesus’ words here are a gut check for Christians: when something we do to “worship” God is divisive, it may be “that which defiles” more than “that which honors.”



Mark 6 – Abundance

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If there is one thing that we could say defines America, it would be that we pride ourselves on having more than enough.  Maybe this is not something we like to claim, but the reality of how we act, what we own, and how we eat shows this to be true.  We don’t like to rely on anyone for anything.  Americans fulfill their own destiny, provide for themselves, and create their own abundance.

Jesus, however, creates a different picture of abundance; that of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It isn’t a picture of self-help books or 3-step guides to a better life, neither is it a list of rules and regulations you must follow to earn their keep, it is an image of full and complete dependence on God who provides far more than we could ask or imagine.

Our Savior provides food, more than they could possibly eat, out of scarcity.  Yet the lesson that is meant to be taught here is not one of physical nourishment, but rather the nature of God’s Kingdom which is illustrated in the following two narratives as well.

In all three cases, Jesus provides for the needs that they have.  This, I believe, is the true nature of God’s Kingdom economy, full provision.  There is never scarcity in the Kingdom of Heaven and never need.  God provides for it all at every moment and Jesus shows this as He provides for physical nourishment, safety, and healing.

The catch, if you could call it that, is our trust and dependence.  While the feeding of the 5,000 did not depend necessarily on the disciple’s trust in Jesus’ ability, nor did the calming of the storm, but healing, like that of the women in the previous chapter, happened because of faith, trust, and dependence on Jesus.