Friday, December 21, 2007

DAY TWENTY ONE: John's Unique Role

Today we look at the second part of the Benedictus, the song of praise and prophecy spoken by Zechariah, the Spirit-filled father of John the Baptizer (Luke 1.67-80). After praising God for keeping his First Testament promises and bringing to fulfillment what people throughout Israel's history were longing for, Zechariah now looks at his baby boy and foretells his unique role in introducing the Messianic salvation.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.

When John grows up, he will be the penultimate prophet, the final voice before the Voice of God himself is heard among his people once more. He will prepare the way for the glory of the Lord to be revealed in Israel (Isaiah 40.3-5).

How will he do this? His ministry will involve announcing the coming salvation and encouraging the people to seek forgiveness of sins. This, of course, John fulfilled in his ministry of baptism when he gathered people at the Jordan River (the place where Israel first entered the Land) and called them to repentance.

And then the Light of God himself will arise in the darkness that has enveloped the Land. The "
the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings" (Malachi 4.2), and Isaiah's words will be fulfilled: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." Zechariah's song reflects these and other prophecies that had long awaited fulfillment in Israel.

The result? Peace. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. An end to enmity with God and between warring factions among men. John will be the final herald calling God's people to ready themselves for the dawning of eternal light and peace.

DAY TWENTY: The God of Israel Has Visited His People

Luke must have been a singer, or at least one with an ear for singing. In Luke 1.67-80, he records another song of praise and prophecy, the "Benedictus" of Zechariah, John's father. This song blesses God for his faithfulness in fulfilling his promises. It is a song that announces that the long-awaited day of salvation has dawned, and that the herald of that dawning day will be Zechariah's newborn son, John.

The first part of the Benedictus announces that...

God's silence is broken.
Not only does Zechariah's song represent the opening of his own mute lips, but also the restoration of God's Word to Israel. For 400 years the voice of prophecy had been silent, but now the Holy Spirit fills this man and he speaks forth a prophetic word about the dawning day of redemption.

God has visited his people.
Zechariah blesses God for coming personally to fulfill his promises. The word the NRSV translates, "looked favorably upon" is usually understood to mean, "has visited"—God has visited his people. The priest sees the birth of his son as a sign that the true and living God himself has arisen and come to do something new in the midst of his people.

God has redeemed his people.
In language reminiscent of the Exodus, Zechariah speaks of what God has come to do. He has come to redeem; he has come to save us from our enemies and the hand of all who hate us; he has come to show mercy to us; he has come to rescue us.

God has raised up the Messiah.
God's activity in delivering his people from their enemies will happen through a Savior from the family of David. Here he looks beyond his own baby son to the soon birth of another Son, one even greater than John, who will rule on David's throne.

God has kept his promises.
Zechariah alludes to the entire First Testament story of Israel in his song. What God is doing now fulfills the oath he made to Abraham. What God is doing now is the ultimate rescue operation, which reflects what he did under Moses. What God is doing now brings to fruition the word he gave to David. What God is doing now was predicted by the prophets. This is the mercy he promised to our ancestors. This is God keeping his covenant promises.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

DAY NINETEEN: Mighty Works, Amazed Responses

In Luke 1.57-66, the story of John comes back in view. This passage revolves around the events of his birth, circumcision and naming, and is organized in a pattern of (1) event, and (2) response. Each event represents a mighty work of God in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Each response shows the gladness and astonishment of the people who witnessed these events and recognized the hand of God in them.

Event #1—God gives Zechariah and Elizabeth a baby.
"Nothing will be impossible with God," and this aged, infertile couple here experiences the humanly impossible. They have a baby! Their neighbors and friends acknowledge this as a gift of God's mercy to Elizabeth, and they respond by rejoicing with the happy mother.

Event #2—God gives Zechariah faith to name the baby.
For nearly a year, Zechariah has lived in silence as a sign of doubting God's Word. Now, in a decisive act of faith, he goes against the custom of the community and gives his son the name John. The response? The neighbors are amazed! An unusual birth, an unusual naming. With each new event, the wonder of what's happening grows.

Event #3—God gives Zechariah speech again.
Note the torrent of response that gushes forth when Zechariah receives his speech again and begins praising God. Throughout the entire region, his surprising outburst provokes a profound sense of awe. His renewed voice becomes a piece of exciting news that spreads like wildfire through all the neighborhoods of Judea. His actions form a riveting public event that gets the spiritual attention of everyone who hears about it and they can't get it out of their minds.

Their question? "What then will this child become?" If the first events of his life when he is just a little baby are so amazing, what mighty works will God do through him when he grows up?

DAY EIGHTEEN: God's Faithfulness to Israel

Thus far, as we've considered Mary's Magnificat we have heard this young woman praise God for the remarkable personal blessings he bestowed on her, and we have remarked upon her profound theological insight into God's new order of life as it was dawning in the Child she would bear. Mary herself, a lowly country maiden, saw her personal experience as an example of Kingdom values—in his mercy God had somehow chosen her, an obscure village girl, for the greatest vocation in salvation history. And so the meek inherit the earth!

Today we look at the final stanza of Mary's song:

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

God's plan of redemption was channeled through a specific people, Israel. The promised "seed of the woman" (Genesis 3.15) would be a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 12.1-3). God chose one nation, that all the nations might be blessed (Exodus 19:5-6). Jesus' coming was the climax of the long story of Israel. It represented God's ultimate act of reaching out to his chosen people, and through his people to the world, to bring them home to himself and to inaugurate a new creation. Theologian N.T. Wright puts it like this:

The God of Israel is the creator and redeemer of Israel and the world. In faithfulness to his ancient promises, he will act within Israel and the world to bring to its climax the great story of exile and restoration, of the divine rescue operation, of the king who brings justice, of the Temple that joins heaven and earth, of the Torah that binds God's people together, and of creation healed and restored. (Simply Christian, p. 88)

This young, poor woman from Galilee somehow understood all of that with astounding clarity. In her own body, through her own life, the hope and promise of all generations was being fulfilled! Mary, the ultimate matriarch of Israel, became the Mother of our Lord.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DAY SEVENTEEN: God's Upside-Down New Way

In Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1.46-55, the young woman continues her song by moving beyond the personal blessings God has bestowed upon her to meditate on God's plan of the ages—his salvation plan to overthrow the world system and make a new heavens and new earth.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

God's plan is one of judgment—he scatters the proud, as at Babel, and takes into account not only human actions, but also the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. The powerful, who rule over humankind through selfish ambition, deceit, corruption and violence, are stripped of their authority and humiliated. The rich, who have enjoyed the luxuries of life at the expense of the poor, are given no seat at the table.

Those who have lived by and advanced the world system—"the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life" (1John 2.16)—that is, those who have lived pursuing the triune idol of sex, money and power; lust, covetousness and hubris, will find themselves with nothing in the end.

God's plan is also one of salvation. Those who fear the Lord; that is, those who see themselves as accountable creatures who live only by the sovereign mercy and grace of their Creator, who owe their lives and all they have to his kindness and generosity, who trust in his Word and his salvation, who seek to live in his presence with faithful devotion, who are often denied satisfaction or "success" in this world—to these folks God's mercy will come. The lowly will one day be exalted. The hungry fed.

We see glimpses of this now, but will one day experience it in its fullness. This upside-down value system invaded our world and became evident in a newer, clearer way when Jesus walked the earth, and when the apostles carried his Good News to the ends of the earth. It should be continually manifested even today in the lives of those who have his Spirit.

Is it being manifested through you? Through me?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

DAY SIXTEEN: Mary's Blessings

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.'

In her song we call the Magnificat, Mary first praises God for his personal blessings.

She begins by rejoicing in God as her Savior. Having been chosen to give birth to the Messiah, Mary praises God by expressing her joyous trust in the salvation he is bringing her. Though selected for the highest vocation any human could fulfill, at the same time she took her place before God with all people as a sinner in need of his grace, forgiveness and justification.

She continues by marveling in the great privileges God has granted her. Though Mary was a simple country maiden without position or privilege, God in his divine favor has bestowed upon her the title of "Mother of the Lord." Though she would have otherwise lived a quiet, obscure life, Mary recognizes that this assignment will give her a notable place in salvation history, and all generations will call her "the blessed one" who was given such honor.

Mary concludes by giving all the credit to God. He is the Mighty One who did all these great things for her. He alone is the Holy One who has magnified his name in and through this faithful woman.

DAY FIFTEEN: Song of the New Order

In Luke 1.46-55, we read one of the great songs of Scripture, Mary's "Magnificat"—so called because of its translation in the Latin Vulgate. Used in liturgical worship since the fourth century, the song is sung or recited in the Vespers (evening prayer) service in those churches which keep the practice of Divine Hours. A few general observations about this prayer today...

The Magnificat shows that Mary was a young woman who meditated on Scripture. This song is filled with Scriptural allusions, most notably from the Song of Hannah in 1Samuel 2.1-10.

Secondly, as Scot McKnight observes in his book, The Real Mary, the Magnificat reveals Mary as a young woman who was dangerous in her world. Her song proclaims the dawning of a new order in the world, one in which all categories are redefined. The poor are made rich; the powerful are cast down from their positions of authority. The proud are humbled, and the meek rule the earth. The Magnificat is a revolutionary vision of God judging the world and making it anew.

Thirdly, the Magnificat portrays Mary as a young woman of humility, submission and worship. She recognizes her own lowliness and the Divine favor which has come unbidden upon her. She worships God as the Mighty One who has done great things for her. She magnifies the Lord and rejoices in God her Savior.

Holy is his name.