Bible Study November 26 for Worship December 9

Bible Study November 26 for Worship December 9

Luke 3:1  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,

2  in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness;

3  and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

4  As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

5  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;

6  and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

COMMENTARY

John the Baptist didn’t intend to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus, but sometimes history has a way of creating connections we only recognize in hindsight.  Probably Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, although, the followers of John the Baptist were a much looser association than the people who later followed Jesus.  One Biblical scholar has claimed that in having people come out in the wilderness to him for baptism, John was like a sole proprietorship, while Jesus in sending his disciples out to spread the message of healing and shared eating to the world was like a franchise.

Sometimes only in hindsight can we see connections.  When Alabama lost to Texas A&M on November 12th, after having led in the polls all season as the defending national college football champion, who could have foreseen that the very next Saturday, both Kansas State and Oregon would be upset by their opponents thus re-opening a possible way to the National Championship for Alabama?  Sometimes the story lies hidden until other developments open the way.  Jesus was a poor carpenter living in the hill country of Galilee until John’s voice crying out in the wilderness called him to leave the village of Nazareth and step onto the stage of history.

John’s message was revolutionary on three levels.  First, he was calling his listeners to a simpler way of life.  Come out into the desert and learn how to simplify your lives.  Since the beginning of the great modern recession many people in our consumer oriented society have become open to a message of simplifying our lives.  Consume less, reuse and recycle, don’t borrow to purchase things we don’t need.  Second, John preached that if everyone shared there would be enough for all.  Jesus enlarged upon this theme by inviting people to sit down and eat together, thus challenging the caste system that had grown up around clean and unclean.  But John’s message originally focused on leveling society by sharing:

Luke  3: 10  And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?”

11  And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

The third revolutionary aspect of John’s ministry was his insistence that faith had to be a decision rather than a matter of birth.  It was not enough to be born Jewish, Luke 3: 8  Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  The practice of Baptism was a ritual cleansing used in the conversion of gentiles to Judaism.  John’s baptism opened the way for the church to convert the gentiles, and the incredible expansion of the message of the gospel throughout the world.

Again John could not foresee how his revolutionary baptism would open the way for a new and different faith with its roots in the Hebrew scriptures would explode onto the world stage.  Indeed, the franchise aspect of Jesus’ message has made Christianity one of the most flexible religions in the world.  The story of Jesus adapts from culture to culture more easily than any other faith.  While Islam has rivaled Christianity in its evangelistic spread, Islam still refuses to translate the Quran into anything but Arabic, while the Bible has been translated into almost every language in the world.  Jesus has been artistically adapted to every race and culture of the globe.  According to Harvey Cox Christianity is now the fastest growing religion in the world.  While the church in Western Europe and North America struggles to survive, the church in the third World is exploding.  The Christianity is growing so fast in China, some church leaders there speculate that China could become a majority Christian nation.  Of course these churches in the third world look very different from our staid, buttoned up white churches of North America and Europe.  There is discussion in the churches of the third world of the need to send missionaries to re-evangelize Europe and North America.

When the Birmingham 8 met with the Dean of the Waldensian Seminary in Rome, he shared with us that the new life flowing into the Waldensian Church was coming from African immigrants to Italy.  The Waldensians are the descendants of a pre-reformation Protestant movement in Italy and Switzerland.  Thus the Waldensian churches are over 800 years old, and new life is being breathed into their fellowship by converts from Africa who are first and second generation Christians.  Maybe John the Baptist was right:  “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  The energy of the Jesus movement at this point in history is among the poor and the non-white.

Of course one of the problems with the adaptability of Christian Faith has been a tendency for the church to become co-opted by cultural forces that can lead the church into unholy alliances with power and wealth.  The Constantinian sell out, the Holy Inquisition, the use of missionaries to advance colonialism are all examples of times when the church has sold out the message of the gospel for worldly preferment.  Again and again as Christianity adapts culturally we need to re-visit the roots of our faith in the Jewishness of Jesus.  Christmas is a marvelous example of the church’s adaptation to culture and its ultimate corruption by culture.

Somewhere in the third century, the church in Rome decided to begin celebrating the birth of Jesus at the Winter Solstice.  The Romans had a wonderful holiday, Saturnalia, to celebrate the return of the light.  Many Christian converts missed this celebration, so the Church adapted by celebrating the coming of the light into the world in the birth of Jesus.  Great cultural adaptation.  St. Boniface the missionary to the Germans had converts who liked to sneak out into the forest to worship the sacred trees.  So he proposed bringing the sacred trees into the church to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.  Of course that meant the sacred trees had to be cut down which proved to be St. Boniface’s undoing.  He was martyred by enraged Frisians, because he and cut down one too many sacred trees.  But again the Christmas Tree was a brilliant adaptation to culture.  The cult of the Saints in the Catholic Church was another adaptation of the church to culture.  Many of the early saints were simply local gods redressed into Christian clothing.  Of course all we have to do is look at the consumerization of Christmas today, and we can see how adapting to culture can become a sell-out of the gospel message.  But sometimes history has a way of creating connections we can only see in hindsight.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. Who was the Emperor when John began his ministry?

2. Who was the Governor of Judea when John began his ministry?

3. Who was the High Priest when John began his ministry?

4. Where did John preach?

5. According to the text, what was the essence of John’s message?

6. According to the text what prophet best exemplified the ministry of John?

7. According to the prophet, who will witness the salvation of God?

8. What was John’s baptism supposed to accomplish?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. How does Luke try to “locate” the ministry of John the Baptist?

2. Do you see any difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus?

3. Do you think John saw himself as a preparation for Jesus?

4. What has happened in your life, where you did not see the connection to a previous event, until you were able to see it in hindsight?

5. Do you think faith is something you are born and brought up in, or something that requires an adult decision?

6. How do you think the faith of converts differs from the faith of people who receive their faith as an accident of birth?

7. Why do you think Christian faith may be the fastest growing religion in the world right now?

8. How do you think the churches of Europe and North America might adopt some of the energy of third world Christians?

9. What is your fondest memory of Christmas?

10. In what ways do you think the celebration of Christmas can become less consumeristic and more meaningful?

Week of December 3 – December 9:  Second Sunday of Advent – Luke 3:1-6 – Make Ready – Malachi 3:1-4, Baruch 5:1-9, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11.

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