11. A Poor Choice?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 11.  A Poor Choice?

Lk 1:5-7   In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

I have been a Christian and part of the Christian community for fifty years, and in that time I have lost count of the times I have heard various aspects of the Nativity story, and I must have written about it more than a few times. Yet, I find myself approaching these thing with new eyes, eyes that wonder afresh as I have been seeking to go beyond the familiar and see something more of the reality of the words we find in our Bibles. The focus is to be Jesus Christ but in so doing this, there are people and prophecies surrounding him who shed light on him and who, therefore, we need to examine because they are truly part of his story.

John the Baptist is going to be one such person who acts as a magnifying glass as we gaze upon the One who is Christ but before we get to John we need to look at his parents and see that his coming into the world also had a divine dimension to it. However, as I put the above verses on the screen I am suddenly struck with a new train of thought to anything I have pondered in the past in respect of Zechariah, and this train of thought flows on as a tributary of this main river we have been following – the mystery and questions surrounding the coming of Jesus.

Now so far in this second Part we have considered three people or groups of people who were up front in being told about the One who is coming – Simeon, the shepherds and the wise men (we’ll come to Mary & Joseph later) – two of whom have been wondering for some time about the Coming One and one (the shepherds) who just had the news dropped on them in the middle of the night. Now Zechariah may or may not fall into the category of the ‘expecting ones’ but, even as we have commented before, there is a difference between knowing the theory of the Coming One and coping with the reality. I’m not sure how I would react in similar circumstances so I would like to try to NOT be too hard on Zechariah.

It starts, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Lk 1:11,12) Surprise or being ‘startled’ indicates a reaction to something not expected. Now scholars suggest that your name coming up to burn incense in the temple was a once in a lifetime event, but he would have known many of his colleagues in his division of the priesthood and so far, although they might have said how wonderful it was to be performing that rite, none had even reported an encounter with an angel, so scary, quite possibly, simply because of the surprise element.

But the angel seeks to put him at ease (v.13a) and goes on to tell him that, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (v.13b) Now because of the fact that he is now old, I would suggest that he probably stopped asking for his wife to be able to conceive long back, but the Lord knows he did pray.  Now he’s a good man, this Zechariah, for the record says that both he and his wife “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (v.6) Nevertheless, and this is his stumbling block, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v.7) so a) he no doubt prayed a long time and b) nothing had happened so now c) they are both old people, way beyond child-bearing years.

Now I want to be honest, because those of us in this sort of situation need to be, because I suggest that you need a lot of grace if this is you, not to feel at least slightly gritty about being childless – especially when you have prayed your socks off! So why did the Lord choose this particular priest who He must have known would be a bit on the gritty side when it comes to mentioning children?

The angel goes on to explain to him that this son, John, is going to have a great and significant ministry (v.14-17) but unfortunately Zechariah isn’t listening to the “this is how great your son will be” side of the news, he is just stuck with the reality of being childless in old age: “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (v.18) Oooops! By the angel’s response, this is Zechariah basically saying, “You’ve got to be joking! Go away” Not a wise thing to say to an angel of God who gently reminds him just who he is: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” (v.19) Reading between the lines, a translation: “You idiot, I’m one of God’s top angels and this is a top-flight task I’ve been given, so don’t mess with me!!!! Don’t you realise this is wonderful news?”

Zechariah is clearly still not jumping up and down with joy and so the angel continues, “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” (v.20) Now however you look at that, it is a word of chastisement. OK smart religious guy, you want a bit of reassurance to help you when you go back to your wife? Very well, with your mouth you uttered folly, so to make sure you don’t get into any more trouble, until the child is born, you’ll be dumb. End of this part of the story. The end of this bit is that John is born and Zechariah’s mouth is opened to prophesy (see v.57-).

So look, here is my problem and I say again, I think familiarity has blinded us to the realities of what was going on here. So let’s think wider. First, God knows all things and God knows that this childless old man is likely to be bit gritty and so might not come up with the perfect response to the good news. God knows all this before it happens. Second, God could have enabled Elizabeth to conceive years before but didn’t. Third, God could have chosen a less ‘complicated’ couple to have John, but didn’t. Fourth, when Zechariah gives his less than perfect response the angel could have gone off to find someone else, but he didn’t. Fifth after that response the angel could have said, “OK, it’s going to happen anyway so go home and just get on with it,” and left Zechariah wondering and then sharing with Elizabeth and then trying for a baby, but he didn’t, he made him dumb.

So what is the answer to this apparently poor choice of a father to John the Baptist. Mere speculations, simple suggestions. First, these are good people and will provide a good family upbringing for this prophet-to-be. Second, Elizabeth is related to Mary so there is going to be a family link between the two boys. Third, God isn’t averse to a little ‘supernatural activity’ (temporary dumbness and an amazing conception) to encourage His people on. Fourth, this is simply the start of a whole stream of supernatural activities culminating in the arrival of His Son. Fifth, the Lord knows that in the end Zechariah is going to be a true believer – see him prophesying!  Poor choice? No, right choice!

There is an application here that we would do well to observe. At first sight Zechariah doesn’t come out of this encounter very well. By the end, he does. What applies to Zechariah can apply to us. We may get it wrong, we may not respond well to God’s words to us and faith may be slow to blossom, but the Lord does not give up on us. He knows what the end can be, with us as well as with Zechariah. Don’t let temporary failure or setback mean you don’t go on to get God’s grace to come out good.

To reflect: are we open to the Lord still, when the years have passed with His silence? Are we open to His supernatural activity or have we accepted the lie that He stopped being God when the canon of Scripture was complete? Where does it leave us today?

17. John what?

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 17.  John what?

Mt 11:7,8  As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes?

If anyone needs the reminder, we are studying the pictures that Jesus used in his teaching ministry as seen in Matthew’s Gospel. We arrive at a point where John the Baptist’s disciples have come to question Jesus and, now having received answers, they leave. The onlooking crowd watch with interest, and Jesus takes the opportunity to challenge them as to exactly who John was.

If Jesus lived today, imagine him using a PowerPoint presentation and it is as if he clicks up on the screen a series of pictures and asks the crowd about each picture as he asks them so say who John was. After all, they had gone out into the desert to the Jordan river to see and listen to John, so he starts by asking them, “What did you go out into the desert to see?” Why did they go? What did they find when they got there?

Click. First picture: “A reed swayed by the wind?” (v.7b) Had they gone out to the Jordan to just look at the reeds on the riverside? Was John just another ‘reed’, something quite ordinary? Not really! A shaken reed is often used as a picture of someone who is unsure of themselves, a doubter? Was that John? Definitely not! So, “If not, what did you go out to see?” (v.8a)

Click. Second picture: “A man dressed in fine clothes?” (v.8b) This would have produced a laugh. Definitely not! No, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) No, John had had a rather wild look about him. This was no rich man, but a poorly dressed man who lived off the produce of the land. Jesus prods their thinking: “No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces,” (v.8c) No, they definitely hadn’t gone out to see royalty. “Then what did you go out to see?” (v.9a)

Click. Third picture: “A prophet?” (v.9b) Well yes, I suppose so. We hadn’t had a prophet in the land for well over four hundred years, but from all we’ve been taught, yes, John fits the mould of a prophet.

Click. Fourth image. A question mark. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (v.9c) What? More than a prophet? How can you have more than a prophet? What does more than a prophet mean?

Click. Fifth image, just the words, “A Messenger”. “This is the one about whom it is written: ” `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (v.10) Ah yes, the last book of the scrolls, Malachi, spoke of this: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Mal 3:1) If they had regularly attended the local synagogue from childhood, they would have been taught this. But there is also this surprise link to this messenger for after he has come, “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple” Wow! The messenger precedes the Messiah! What is Jesus saying? Is he saying he’s the Messiah?

Click. Sixth image. Another question mark. Jesus is now in full teaching mode: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (v.11) Hold on, let’s take all that in.  John is greater than anyone previously born????  Why? He was just a messenger you said. But what messenger? The messenger who stands at the open doors to the room where all are gathered and proclaims in a loud voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the President of the United States.” (or “her Majesty the Queen, Queen Elizabeth the Second” or whoever the other very important dignitary it is) or in this case, “the Long-Expected Messiah”. Ah! John was greater than any other previous human being because he had the unique privilege of ushering in the ministry of the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah!

But what about, “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”? Well, any one of us who now take the name of Christian, is a child of God, uniquely born of the Spirit of God. Even John wasn’t that! We had better follow through Jesus’ teaching. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (v.12). Of the paraphrase versions I think the Living Bible puts it best: And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, ardent multitudes have been crowding toward the Kingdom of Heaven.”  John had stirred a hunger in the lives of many, to get right with God (hence being baptized by him). As someone has well said, “the kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate.” The word ‘forceful’ above’ could be ‘urgent’, people who have come to see their need and been utterly convicted that they must do something about it – NOW!

Jesus comes to the end of his ‘slide presentation’: For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” (v.13) Yes, the Law spoke and the Prophets spoke about the coming one, the Messiah, who will, according to Malachi be proceeded by Elijah, so….

Click. Seventh image. A photo of John overprinted with one word: “Elijah”. “if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (v.14) That’s it. You’ve been faced up with the ministry of John. Not just a reed, something ordinary, someone unsure of himself, not a rich, influential personage, not even ‘just’ a prophet, but the Lord’s Messenger, the herald of the Messiah, the ‘Elijah’, the heralding prophet that Malachi spoke about. He has come; the Messiah has come. Got the picture?

Pictures and more pictures as Jesus seeks to help us take in truth. Why do we preachers (and why have I) so long focused on rules and principles when Jesus gives us such a clear example of how to get into people’s minds?  Use pictures. When we try to convey the Gospel to others, do we use principles or do we convey it in picture terms, because that is what the Gospels are – a treasury of pictures. Aren’t they wonderful! Isn’t the Lord wonderful that He hasn’t given us a book of laws or principles but a story book, true stories, but a story book nevertheless, because He knows that most of us operate in pictures in our minds and in our imaginations. How wonderful. Thank Him for that.

7. Message of a Prophet

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 7. The Message of a Prophet

Mk 1:7,8 And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

You wonder what people though when they listened to John the Baptist. Initially his message was one of repentance but it was repentance for a reason. The reason? There was one coming after him who was coming with power! But there was more than that; John considered this person so great that he, John, wasn’t even worthy enough to be his servant. But why would he think that? Surely John could have been a servant to a king? So this person is going to be greater than a king? What sort of person is this coming one going to be?

So what more did John say about him? He is going to baptize people in the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? Well John immersed people in water as a sign of their cleansing, so this coming one is going to immerse people in God’s Spirit? How can that be? What do we know from the past of God’s Holy Spirit?  He brooded over creation (Gen 1:2), He came on a man and filled him with creative ability to design and make materials for the Tabernacle (Ex 31:3), He enabled seventy elders to prophesy (Num 11:25), He came on Balaam and enabled him to prophesy (Num 24:2,3),  He came upon a variety of judges to empower them to lead (Jud 3:10, 6:34 etc.), He came upon Saul and enabled him to prophesy (1 Sam 10:10) and also stirred him to lead Israel (1 Sam 11:6) and came on David to lead (1 Sam 16:13).

In other words, whenever the Holy Spirit came, He brought power and change. So this coming one is not merely coming with words, he is coming with the power of God to change people! This is a new era! So far God’s people have sought to follow God’s rules (the Law) in order to be God’s people, but now it sounds like God Himself is coming in power to change His people on the inside. Is this what Jeremiah meant when he prophesied, I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.” (Jer 31:33,34)

Lord, let your Spirit transform my life and keep on transforming it. Thank you for the wonder of what you have done already by your Spirit because of what Jesus achieved on the Cross.

6. Marks of a Prophet

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 6. The Marks of a Prophet

Mk 1:6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Real prophets, I suspect, are fairly few and far between. Prophetic gift, I believe, abounds. You’ve only got to do a simple study in 1 Corinthians 14 to see the use and benefit of the prophetic gift in the local church, but prophets are a ministry to the wider body. John the Baptist is a prophet in the mould of the Old Testament prophets – even in appearance: “They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.” (2 Kings 1:8)

Why such rough clothing? I suspect the answer is so that you didn’t need to change your clothes often, especially if you lived in the desert and didn’t have a wardrobe with you! It may also be a sign of their austerity; these are men who don’t care much for the values of the world; their head is in heaven even if their feet are on earth.

Why the diet? Simply because that was all that was around. Locusts were a ‘clean food’, although some suggests this refers to a form of plant. That’s what he ate because there wasn’t a supermarket nearby!

The thing about prophets is that they stood out like signposts to heaven. They sometimes did freaky things. Isaiah, for instance, went round for three years, probably only in a loincloth (see Isa 20:1-4) as a sign, at the Lord’s command. Ezekiel had to publicly lay on his side for a long time as another sign (see Ezek 4:4). Virtually all of the prophets seemed to get opposition from kings and the people. They acted as a conscience for the nation and as such, especially in times of apostasy, they were unpopular. We aren’t told of anything similar in the New Testament but there were clearly prophets operating (e.g. Acts 11:27,28) who stood out more by the message they brought than for anything else. Today in many churches prophetic gift is common although prophets are fewer.

Lord, open my ear to hear what you are saying about our world today and what you want us to be doing in it. Your word reveals you as a God who communicates with His people, yet so often they did not ‘hear’ because their minds were closed to you and they had turned their backs on you. May that not be true of us in your Church today. Open our ears to hear what you wish to say to the Church and to the world today.

3. Prepared

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 3. Prepared

Mk 1:2,3   “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”– “a voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “

The next verse will tell us that this refers to John the Baptist but here is the marvel, that God revealed His strategy by dropping these hints into Isaiah’s spirit centuries before it actually happened. Many squirm at this, that God knew and so spoke about it before bringing it about. It reveals three things about God: first that He knows the future, second, that He speaks to us and, third, that He acts and brings things about. This shouldn’t surprise us because He is almighty God, the Creator of all things, the Bible says, and so it shouldn’t come as any shock to hear these things.

But it says something else as well. It says that the Gospel writer, Mark, was inspired to link these prophetic words to John as one who would prepare the way for Jesus. Perhaps we take this for granted, but we shouldn’t, this ability of the Gospel writers (for they all do it) to tie in the present circumstances with the declared will of God through the prophets of the Old Testament.

And there’s something else about the content of these words: it implies that Jesus needed help, that John would prepare the hearts of the people – through his preaching and baptizing – for Jesus to come and be received by them. The other side of this particular coin is that the people needed preparing; the state of the land was obviously such that if Jesus came without any warning it would have been harder for him to be received by the people.

But why was it important that he be received, especially when we know that near the end of the story it was important for him to be rejected and crucified for our sins? He had to be received so that he had opportunity to teach and to reveal the love of his Father in heaven. It wasn’t only about the Cross (although that was vital); it was also all about revealing God to His people.

Lord, thank you that you know the future, thank you that you speak to us today, thank you that you act into this world of yours and bring changes. Thank you also that you inspire us and that you send us help in the form of your Holy Spirit and through other human beings. Thank you that you want to reveal your love to us. Help me understand and learn these things and may they be a reality and not mere words.

4. John the Baptist

People who met Jesus : 4 :  John the Baptist

Mt 3:13,14    Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

I have a feeling that John the Baptist would have been an uncomfortable person to be with – prophets, especially Old Testament prophets, often were, but then as John’s Gospel blandly says, There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.” (Jn 1:6), Yes, he was sent by God and he came with a purpose, and that purpose involved him meeting his cousin, Jesus, publicly and proclaiming him.

His birth had had a supernatural touch about it, because of his parents we read, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (Lk 1:7) but that was going to change, as announced by the angel Gabriel: “the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (Lk 1:13). His birth would cause much rejoicing (Lk 1:14, fulfilled in 1:58), he would be holy (Lk 1:15) and he would be a prophet like Elijah (Lk 1:17). Oh yes, there was definitely something about John that set him apart from all other men.

His role was to bear witness to the light, which was Jesus: “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.” (Jn 1:7) to prepare people to believe in Jesus: “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord ….. to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Lk 1:16,17). Now what is interesting is that he was clearly aware of a lot about Jesus, but not everything. For example: “You yourselves can testify that I said, `I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ ……He must become greater; I must become less. The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.” (Jn 3:28,30,31) and yet, as our verses for today show, although he was exercising his ministry of baptizing people, he didn’t realise that that had to include Jesus.

It is clear therefore, that these two cousins, although closely linked in God’s purposes had not talked about the details of what would happen – and that is encouraging! I say that because there is, in some circles, an assumption almost that God will share everything with His children – He doesn’t!  We are called to a life of faith (2 Cor 5:7) which sometimes means we just have to get on with what God has given us to do, WITHOUT  full knowledge of the details of what will happen and how it will work out.

This truth is personified in John because after he had baptized Jesus he just carried on with his ministry. He obviously felt that he was to carry on until told otherwise by God. It was only Herod’s intervention that stopped him: “when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.” (Lk 3:19,20) Yet that didn’t stop John continuing his ministry of pointing people to Jesus for we read later, “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:1-3). Was this John having doubts in prison? It was more likely his way of sending his own disciples to Jesus as he recognised that his time had come to an end.

John is an amazing example for us. He was the cousin of Jesus but his sole task is to obey what God has said to him and point people to Jesus and to prepare them to receive him. It was a ministry without glory, for it was left to Jesus to give him the honour due to him that others hadn’t recognised: “Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Mt 11:7-9) and then added, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (Mt 11:11). No, John understood this and had declared in respect of himself and Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (Jn 3:30) John didn’t seek any glory. Indeed, to the contrary, he gave it all to Jesus and made less of himself. What a challenge to modern ministries!

John prepared people’s hearts to receive Jesus, by making them realise that they fell short and needed to come to God in repentance. When they had done that, they were ready to meet Jesus. At that time he was a physical Saviour, not a risen Saviour. For the moment he brought God’s words of love and acceptance, and God’s power brought love through healing. Later he would bring salvation and Sonship but John never saw that. John simply did what God gave him to do, and carried on doing it until stopped. What an example!

Practical Righteousness

Readings in Luke Continued – No.2

Lk 3:10-14 10″What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  11John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”  12Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  13″Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

One moment, in Luke, we are thinking big issues about the truths of history, and the next we are considering the practicalities of life. Luke, you may remember we said, is a doctor and doctors are concerned with people. In the previous meditation we saw what Matthew and Mark said about John the Baptist. They tend to focus on his clothing and the general fact of him preaching for repentance of sins. Luke, the man concerned with people, picks up on what John has taught to specific people.

First of all there were the ordinary people – the crowd – who want to know what they should DO? People who do self-improvement courses love to have a list of things they can do. So many of these sorts of books focus on the ways we should think and the things we should DO to improve ourselves. If you compare John the Baptist’s teaching with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you find very different approaches. John was still administering the Law and that included very specific things to do. Jesus focused on attitudes and outlooks before he went on to speak about specific behaviours. John came to deal in practical righteousness; Jesus came to establish relationships with his Father. If you look at the things in these verses, you could do all of them faultlessly, but still be godless. Jesus knits godliness and righteousness together.

OK, says John, let’s deal with very basic issues of justice and equality, which is what God is so often concerned about. If you have plenty of clothing and you come across people with hardly any, share some of yours with them – and do the same with your food as well. Perhaps what we ought to note here is that practical righteousness can precede a relationship with the Lord, but a relationship with the Lord should at least mean we live as He wants us to live in respect of other people. God has given us the incredible wealth of provision of the earth so that we should all be able to enjoy it. It is only Sin that prevents that happening. When we become aware of this, one of the things we should be doing is caring for those who have nothing.

The next group of people that Luke remembers came to John were the tax-collectors. Now that was quite remarkable and an indication of the depth of the work of God, that these men who were so often corrupt and taking a cut from what they collected, were now genuinely asking what they should now do. Now John doesn’t deal with general issues for them, but very specifically focuses on the things they do as part of their profession. They are tax collectors but John doesn’t ask, please note, for them to stop being tax collectors, which some people might have preferred, but John simply wants them to be honest tax collectors. Some saw them as collaborators with the Romans, but the harsh fact of life was that the Romans would still collect taxes, so what could be better than honest Jewish tax collectors.

The final group that Luke picks up on were soldiers – probably Romans. Do you see the stages that Luke goes through? He simply gives us different groups and illustrations of how John dealt with them. First it was ordinary Jews, then Jews who were collaborators with the Romans, and then finally the Romans themselves. This final group were the ones with the power. When they heard about John, came and heard and were convicted, and then asked what they should do, John’s instructions could be summed up, don’t use your power to abuse or oppress others.

Put very simply, John’s instructions could be spread over society in the following way. If you are just an ordinary person, in your ordinary life, be aware of the needs of others and where you can, help them. If you are someone who works with the public, make sure you do your job honestly and don’t take advantage of your position in the way you deal with people. Finally, if you are a person in a position of power, make sure you don’t use that power to oppress others.

These are, we said, matters of practical righteousness, matters that God is concerned about. They do not lead us into a relationship with God but God will hold us accountable if we don’t take any notice of them. Practical righteousness is about living according to God’s design for His world. He is concerned that we relate rightly to one another. Relationships are a key issue, how we relate to and deal with other people, when it comes to how God designed the world. But don’t forget the point we made: you can be practically righteous and have no genuine relationship with the Lord (it can be self-centred righteousness), but you can’t have a genuine relationship with the Lord without it having practical outworkings.

God in History

We have a pause from the “Why?” meditations to go back into the Gospels for the next two weeks, to see what Luke says about Jesus.

Readings in Luke Continued – No.1

Lk 3:1,2 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.

It’s been a long time since we first started this series and when we considered some of the fundamentals of the Gospels, and especially this one. When we leave the nativity accounts and get ready to move into the life and ministry of Jesus, probably some twenty eight years later from those accounts, we find an example of Luke’s attention to detail. Now we aren’t going to bother to check out each of the people and places mentioned here, simply to note the range of them.

As far as the Roman Empire is concerned, at the top level we have the emperor, and then at the local level we have mentioned the Roman governor. There are then three local governors under him. We also have mention of the two men who were at the ‘top of the pile’ of the religious hierarchy. We also have mention of five geographical localities. Thus there is no doubt that Luke, who has already commented on the care he has taken in writing this Gospel, is ensuring that we understand that what he is writing about is well and truly set in history in a specific geographical location. This is not just some made up story. Luke wants is to realise that it all took place in the time of specific historical figures and places. This IS history.

Now we really do need to emphasise this and, although we’ve already done it before, we really do need to do it again because so many people tend to forget this point and we therefore hear many silly comments about the Christian faith just being a bunch of ideas that men have made up. No, the truth is that the Christian faith is uniquely grounded in history. It is entirely based on things that happened in history, things that, if you were able to travel back in time on this planet, you would have been able to see happening in the part of the world that Luke is writing about. This happened!

So, having set the scene in time-space history, what actually happened? Well according to this doctor, whose life is involved with relieving human illness and suffering who, in other words, is as grounded in the harsh realities of life as you can get, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. Now we should consider this slowly because it makes an assumption and a claim which some would stumble over. When Luke speaks about the word of God, he is making a massive assumption that we, his readers, are quite happy with the idea that a) there is a God, a Supreme Being, and b) He communicates.

The Bible never defends or tries to explain God. As far as these writers are concerned His reality is beyond debate. It’s just a case of recording what He did. For Luke, who has travelled extensively with the apostle Paul who wrote so many of the letters in the New Testament, and who has seen the works of God through the early church, when it comes to recording what he has been told, there is no question of its veracity – it is true, and he doesn’t need to prove it. It is only twenty-first century unbelieving minds that struggle because they have become so self-centred that they leave no room for God.

The claim that Luke goes on to make is that John the Baptist’s ministry started because God spoke to him while he was living, rather like a hermit, in the desert. We know nothing about John’s earlier years beyond what we have already seen in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew tells us, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Mt 3:4-6).  Mark tells us, “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mk 1:4-6).  Luke simply goes on to say, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.3).  Luke isn’t concerned with what he looked like or the other details that the others gave, simply that he was God sent!

This is Luke who, as we’ve previously commented, is the Gospel writer who, more than any of the others, is concerned to point out the divine working of God, the moving of His Holy Spirit. Thus it is that we’re left with only Luke who makes this point – that John started his ministry because God spoke to him and started him off.

In an age where we do things because WE thought it was a good idea, this comes rather as a bolt out of the blue. In the light of all that follows we need to remember this, that John is doing what he is doing because God has said it to him!

For those of us who are Christian leaders, can we say the same thing? Are we energised and motivated by God’s word that has come to us? Are there leaders who find the thought of God speaking to them an alien thing? Then we need to get to grips with the Scripture. This is how it always was and always will be. We deal with a God who communicates, energises and empowers. Christian ‘ministry’ should always be God inspired, God energised and God directed. When it is, things will happen!

God’s Training

Lk 1:19-20   The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” 
   
Any church leader will tell you that they wish that every one of their congregation were on fire for God with their lives well and truly sorted out – but people are people and unbelief in various forms is often the most human characteristic observable. If only we could wave a magic wand over people and all their spiritual ills would disappear! If only people would respond instantly to God’s word. We even pray for better responses because the hard truth is that most of the time the Lord moves very gently in dealing with people. 
    
This good man, this law-keeper, Zechariah, finds it so hard to believe that he and his wife could have a child, in their old age, even when he is being told by an angel from God. When we look at what now happens it seems as if God feels He has to do something a bit more dramatic to urge him along the path to blessing. The Lord knows that if only He can get Zechariah to respond, the outcome will be the blessing of producing the man who will prepare the people to receive Jesus, a son who will bring joy to this aging couple. God is planning blessing for this couple and for the nation in about thirty years.
   
It all hinges on this. If God can’t get this man to respond there will be no John the Baptist, and if there is no John then the people will not be prepared to receive their Saviour. Could God not have used another family and there been a different ‘John’? Obviously He thinks not! The Lord sees the potential of what this child could be and no one else will achieve what John will achieve.  Perhaps we don’t realise that we have potential and it is the potential to do what no one else can do.  We have a unique place in this world, with a unique bunch of contacts and no one else will ‘fit’ my place in this world.
    
So the Lord has determined to deal with this situation so that there is a good outcome. The angel could have berated Zechariah, flashed bolts of lightening around and him and generally scared him some more, but that isn’t God’s way. That could have turned Zechariah off, it could have made him completely give up, and so no, the angel doesn’t do that. He is operating with God’s wisdom as well as God’s power and authority and so he does something that will stay with Zechariah until this child is established. This has got to be something that will encourage Zechariah to be obedient right through to the naming of the child, not just conceiving him.  This isn’t about punishing Zechariah but motivating him into a place of blessing.
    
So the angel speaks a word and Zechariah is dumb for the next nine months. He doesn’t know when it will end; he just knows he is dumb. It is something that is constantly with him. Time and again he feels the frustration of not being able to speak out and get someone’s attention, or speak out and give an answer. He has to learn to communicate through sign language, and he realises that he’s not too old to learn new things!
   
Does God move like this today? Yes, I’m convinced He does, maybe not so dramatically but He certainly does stuff to motivate us. I am convinced there are things that happen that are the simple, straight forward discipline of God – and remember that discipline in the Bible is not about punishing, it’s about training. I suspect that much of the time we don’t realise what is happening, but nevertheless these things that come as trials will test us and change us, even if we’re not aware of it at the time.
   
When difficulties come into our lives and we complain about them, what we are unable to see is the good outcome that God is working towards for us. We can’t see the future and very often we can’t even see the whole picture of what is happening in the present, and so we don’t realise where this is going and don’t realise that it is working to change us and perhaps change other people, so that at the end of it, blessing will be there that couldn’t have been otherwise.
    
Zechariah no doubt struggled with being dumb right up until the naming of John. At that point, when he confirmed the boy’s name in line with God’s wishes, his tongue was released and not just to talk, but now to prophesy. We need to see the big picture and we need to see the end outcome, and until we can, we need to have and open heart, that says, “Lord, what do you want of me?” and be willing to do what God says in answer. Do you and I have that sort of heart?