This morning I’d like to introduce you to Luke. Our Sunday Scripture readings come to us from a cycle of readings shared by many churches, called the Revised Common Lectionary or RCL. It’s a three-year cycle, and each year we mostly use one of the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C, which we’re three weeks into, is Luke. (John doesn’t get his own year but we get bits of John throughout the cycle.)
The Gospels are fascinating in their differences and similarities. Back in seminary, one professor had us read just the first verse of each Gospel – to show that you can get a pretty good sense of their different voices from even that small a sample. Similarly, some of you saw a wonderful proposal from a friend that I shared on Facebook: that churches should have four different Christmas pageants based on what each of the four Gospels say (or don’t say) about the birth of Jesus.
So here’s a quick overview of each Gospel’s voice – and what their Christmas pageant would look like. Mark, the earliest written Gospel, tells you what he’s going to tell you: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1.) Then Mark dives right into John’s preaching at the Jordan. Mark’s Christmas pageant: dead silence, then a ragged man jumping out shouting REPENT!
Matthew is deeply interested in how Jesus fulfills Jewish history and prophesy. His Gospel begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A Matthew-based pageant would have to start with a historical lecture on every person named in Jesus’ genealogy. John’s gospel begins with theological poetry, beautiful and paradoxical, and pretty much goes on that way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Christmas pageant would involve children running around in the dark with glow sticks…
And then we have our friend Luke. Here are the first four verses of Luke’s Gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
Doesn’t that give you a strong sense of personality, right out of the gate?Someone wordy, maybe a little fussy and a little self-important, but also lovable? Luke casts himself as a historian, the one who’s going to actually offer a coherent, clear account of all these important events. Theophilus may have been a real person, but I find it more likely that the name – which means “God-lover” – is kind of a stand-in for anyone seeking God. Perhaps Luke has Gentiles, non-Jews, especially in mind – note that Luke explains Jewish customs, like John’s father Zechariah taking his turn serving in the Temple.
Unlike the other gospels, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts, written by the same author, which tells the story of the first Christians after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. From clues in the text, we can tell that Luke was educated and probably a city-dweller – but he also cared deeply for the poor, the sick, and those at the margins, including women. (Somebody a lot like many St Dunstan’s folks, in other words.) There’s even a semi-serious theory that the author we know as Luke may have been a woman.
The Gospel of Luke was written in the late first century, but used older sources, including the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels; the Q source, a lost document containing sayings and teachings of Jesus, which Luke and Matthew both used; and what scholars call the “L Source” – which basically means the stuff in Luke that’s not found anywhere else. That includes basically all of the first two chapters of Luke. So Luke’s Christmas pageant would include most of the usual stuff – except the three Kings or wise men; they’re in Matthew.
Each of the four Gospels has a distinctive voice and particular themes or hallmarks that emerge, as they tell the story of Jesus. One of Luke’s hallmarks is his interest in the intersection of the cosmic and the concrete. The fulfillment of the great prophetic promises in a particular time and place, in the lives of real, ordinary people. Each of the first three chapters of his Gospel begins with anchoring events in history: Luke 1 begins, “In the days of King Herod of Judea…” Luke 2, the beloved Christmas Gospel, names Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria. And Luke 3 starts with another list of officials. This is the opposite of “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Luke wants us to know that these were real events that happened at a particular time, in a particular place.
But the events, to be sure, transcend human history. Alongside his historical bent, Luke is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures and their promises and prophesies. He’s looking for those big themes of restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, to come to fruition in the concrete here and now.
Another hallmark of Luke’s account is that the Gospel shows up at the margins, the edges instead of the center. The good news of God’s love gets proclaimed and manifest among the least, last, and lowly. Luke shows us divine grace among the poor, the sick, the powerless and scorned. He expects God to be at work there – both for the good of those at the margins, and also for the greater good of the whole. For Luke, the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving love, is preached to those at the fringes of society – and FROM those fringes, as well.
The cosmic in the concrete; and the Gospel at the margins. Let’s look at how those hallmarks show up in today’s texts. In today’s liturgy we receive an interrupted chunk of Luke’s text, focused on the figure of John the Baptist. Our Gospel story covers John’s birth, and we read/chanted the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophetic song of joy for his son. The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”
Then we cut away to the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, in Luke chapter 2 – then cut back to find John thirty years older and still hanging out in the wilderness. He’s begun to fulfill the mission laid out for him since before his conception, to be the Messenger, the Voice, the Forerunner. As the angel told his father in the temple, promising his birth: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” And as Zechariah sang to his infant son, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”
In these texts, do we see the cosmic erupting into the concrete? Absolutely. The concrete jumps off the page in that list of names of public officials: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
In her sermon on this text, Megan Castellan wrote, “For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list… would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us: a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things. Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid… and prone to narcissistic rages. Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them. There was a reason people felt hopeless… [And] it’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says ‘prepare the way.’ Not once upon a time… but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.”
Luke balances these concrete historical details with rich metaphoric texts that draw on the poetic language of the prophets – specifically the book of Isaiah. Zechariah’s song to his newborn son draws on Isaiah chapter 60, which we sing in Epiphany: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you! For behold, darkness covers the land, deep gloom enshrouds the peoples; but over you the Lord will rise!” For Zechariah, for Luke, the birth of this baby – and of another baby, his cousin – inaugurate the age when these great, ancient promises will be fulfilled.
And when we turn the corner to John’s adulthood, Luke quotes Isaiah chapter 40. Matthew and Mark both use the same Isaiah text to describe John: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But Luke extends the quotation: Every valley shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low; and all flesh shall see God’s redemption! God’s redemption for all people – beginning here, and now, with this ragged man standing beside a muddy river, telling a motley crowd of the desperate and the curious that God is about to do a new thing.
What about Luke’s other hallmark, the Gospel at the margins? There’s much more of that ahead in Luke; our best example here is in the figure of John himself. Look back at that list of names: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – important people, powerful people – but the word of God comes to John, in the wilderness.
Remember: John comes from a respectable family, probably middle-class by the standards of the time. Zechariah, his father, was part of the hereditary priesthood of the great Temple, established during King David’s reign. And John’s mother was of Aaron’s lineage – Aaron, the brother of Moses, the very first priest of Israel’s God, who served in the tabernacle in the wilderness after God’s people escaped from bondage in Egypt.
When John’s parents were given the divine message that their son would be a prophet of God’s salvation, they might well have assumed that he would fulfill that vocation within the religious hierarchy, as a priest, like his daddy. I wonder what they thought when instead of fulfilling his birthright by going to seminary and getting ordained and wearing fancy vestments, John, their only child, spends all his time in the rocky Judean desert, wears a camelskin tunic, and eats whatever he can find – wild honey and grasshoppers. I’m sure they treasured his faithfulness to God’s call – but they were probably perplexed and possibly dismayed by the way he lived it out.
John started his life in the center, and chose the margins – walked right out of the machinery, like so many following a holy call, over the millennia. He knows – even as a child, it seems – that the message deep in his bones cannot be spoken from the Temple. His words are wilderness words. The Gospel of the margins.
When I’m writing a sermon, I try to have some kind of a “So what”. Something that has a chance of reaching this text, this room, this fifteen minutes. What’s the “so what” here, Miranda? Well, we’ll be hearing texts from Luke’s Gospel for a while, nearly a year – and some from Acts as well, in Easter season. So we can remember and notice these hallmarks of Luke’s account, his understanding of what this Jesus thing is all about: the cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins. It’s worthwhile and rewarding to come to a deeper understanding of the different voices of our four Gospels, and how, together, they give us a rich, complex picture of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
It’s worthwhile and rewarding – but it’s not the point. Or at least, it’s a means, not an end. The goal of church is not to make informed readers of Scripture. The goal of church is to make Christians. People who, in the words of one of our Advent prayers, hold the great hope that God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and love, made known to us through Jesus Christ, shall come on earth; who seek the signs of its dawning, and orient our work and our lives towards that perfect Day.
The cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins – Luke makes these things the hallmarks of his Gospel because this is how he has come to understand God. They’re not just things to look for in Luke; they’re things to look for in life. Where are God’s promises coming to fruition today? Where are restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, being born, even among the broken and the hopeless? Where is the Gospel being spoken at the margins today? Who standing far outside the halls of power, speaking God’s hope, God’s love, God’s call to new life? Where is dawn breaking? Even here? Even now?
Credit to Scott Gunn for the Gospel-specific Christmas pageant idea.
Megan Castellan’s sermon may be read in full here: