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"Because We Belong"

#89-14
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 5, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries


Listen (5-10mb)  Download (35-70mb)  Reflections

Text: Luke 1:5-25

Consider these two scenarios: a man's having serious trouble with his old car. He takes it into his mechanic. The mechanic gives him the bad news. The car needs a complete overhaul. It's going to cost him $4,000 to fix it. Four thousand dollars is a lot of money, more than the cars even worth. So he decides to cut his losses, get rid of the car, and use the money to buy a new one. Sounds like a reasonable decision, right? Scenario two: an older man's arm is mangled in a car accident. They rush him to the emergency room, take X-rays, do a full examination, and give him the bad news. It's going to need a complete overhaul. It will take multiple surgeries, weeks of expensive, excruciating physical therapy, and months of strenuous, tedious exercises. He does it, almost without thinking twice, even with all the costs, all the risks and the possible complications, other options aren't even worth considering. Sounds like a reasonable decision, right?

The two scenarios are different and the decisions made are different, but neither is surprising. That's because the thing needing the overhaul is different and the intensity of the bond with it. A car's property, but your arm is part of you. You have a car only because it's useful, but you use your arm because you have it. Your arm is a given; a car is not. Authors Stephen and Alex Kendrick used that illustration in their book, The Love Dare. When I read it, I thought the world sure treats us more like a car than an arm. If you're not useful, you're not wanted. If you don't perform, you don't really belong. Your significance in the world's eyes isn't a given, and Elizabeth knew it.

Elizabeth's experience is recorded in the ancient biography of Jesus of Nazareth called the Gospel of Luke. Even though Elizabeth lived 2,000 years ago, her experience isn't all that different from ours. Like our culture, hers had a standard of usefulness. In our culture, your usefulness in society's eyes depends on your productivity, on your appearance, on your personal contacts, and it wasn't too different in Elizabeth's day. Although, people in her culture were probably more concerned about honor than usefulness, and honor mostly came by birthright. If you were born to an honored father and an honored family, you'd be honored, too. Elizabeth's husband Zachariah, for example, was the son of an honored father and honored family. Zachariah was born to a priestly family, but he was also born in Israel during the time of its occupation by the Roman Empire. So the honor was mostly limited to his own people. In some ways, Elizabeth shared in that honor, but in other ways her society saw her as useless. Because she had no children. As a woman in the ancient world, her main source of honor, of her usefulness, would have been her children, but she didn't have any and apparently she couldn't.

She was a disgraced old woman because of it. She wasn't fully part of her society. She didn't really belong. Her significance was in question. The world was treating her like it treats us. When we are underperforming, unattractive, disconnected, the world sees us more like an old car than it does an injured arm. But Elizabeth's people, the people of Israel, knew that the story should be different. The world as it is now says, "You have to be useful in order to belong," but that's not how it was meant to be. In the beginning, people simply belonged by the surprising grace of God. And because you belonged, you could also become useful.

The book of Genesis, the first in ancient Israel's Scripture said that God created human beings, male and female, in His own image. Now, there was a lot of discussion about what being made in the image of God meant. But one way of saying it is that the bond God chose to create between Himself and humanity was intense, not a functional bond like you have with your car, but an organic bond like you have with your arm.

The story told in the Bible proves this out. Because when humanity ceased being functional, ceased being useful for God's good purposes, God didn't get rid of them; He didn't give up on them. Now, God doesn't need us like you and I need arms, but God chose to treat the bond as organic, even when we severed ourselves from Him. But the Bible continues because we have severed ourselves from our gracious Creator, the whole world is out of joint now. And the evidence for this is all around us. You see it in the way you're treated by others, and in the way you treat them as though they have to be useful to belong. Although, each of us secretly hopes that we might still belong, even when we fail to be useful, even when we get old and die. Isn't death the ultimate expression of uselessness? But secretly, we hope that it's not. And it is that secret hope God shows to fulfill for you through His people, Israel. Surprisingly, disgraced, useless, old Elizabeth is part of the fulfillment.

Listen to how it goes in Luke 1. In the time of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zachariah. He was of the priestly division of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous before God, observing the commandments and regulations of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both of them were well along in years. Once, when Zachariah's division was on duty and he was serving as a priest before God, he was chosen by lot as is the custom of the priests to go into the temple of the Lord to burn incense.

When the time of the burning of incense came, all the gathered people were outside praying. Then, an angel of the Lord appeared standing on the right-hand side of the altar, and when Zachariah saw him, he was terrified, gripped with fear. The angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zachariah. Your prayer has been answered. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you are to name him John. He will be a joy and a delight to you and many will rejoice at his birth because he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He has never to take wine or fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from before his birth. Many people in Israel, he will turn back to the Lord, their God. He will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Zachariah said to the angel, "How? How will I know this? Because I am an old man and my wife is well along in years," and the angel said to him, "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. Now, you will be silent and not able to speak until these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their appointed time." Meanwhile, the people were wondering why Zachariah was staying so long in the temple. When he came out, he couldn't speak to them, but they realized that he had seen a vision because he kept making signs to them, but he remained unable to speak. When the time of his service had ended, he returned home. After this, his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant. For five months, she remained in seclusion. She said, "The Lord has done this for me. In these days, He has looked upon me with favor. He has taken away my disgrace from among my people."

So you heard Elizabeth's disgrace. What's yours? Is it not being able to perform like you used to? Not having the job you once had or the family you had, or maybe you didn't make the team, you didn't make the cut, you didn't get the job, you didn't get the family. Whatever it is that is making you feel useless or fear becoming useless, that disgrace, that shame, it isn't from God. God has come to take it away, but not on our terms, not on the world's terms. Sometimes God's honor looks like disgrace in the world's eyes. Just think how useless Zachariah must've looked not being able to talk for nine months, and Elizabeth endured a lifetime of it before God intervened.

Their son, John, even with such an honored birthright, in the world's eyes, he died a disgraced and condemned man. What God was doing was much bigger than John and Zachariah and Elizabeth. But through them, God was preparing the way, the way for God Himself to be born on earth. God's Son, Jesus, the Christ, the Lord would take on His own set of arms and legs and fingers and toes, a human body that could be held and flogged and fastened to a disgraceful cross. Israel's prophets had spoken of God in this way metaphorically, through the prophet Isaiah, God said to His people, "I will not forget you. I have engraved you on the palms of My hands."

But now in Jesus, the metaphorical would become literal. The Word became flesh, crucified and raised from the dead, God's bond with us is organic. Inspired by God's Spirit, a follower of Jesus named Paul once called the collective body of the followers of Jesus, the "body of Christ," the Lord. By faith in Jesus, we aren't simply His property, we are part of Him. A central mystery of our faith is that when we eat and drink the bread and the wine of the Supper that He instituted, we are truly receiving the body and blood of Jesus. The intensity of the bond between us and Jesus is organic. In Jesus, God's bond to you is a given. It doesn't depend on your usefulness in the world's eyes. It cannot be threatened by the world's disgrace. It cannot be severed by death, because Jesus rose from the dead and took you with Him in His body. You belong to God not because you're useful, but you get to become useful to God and His people, because you belong.

This past week, I was talking with a friend named Jesse. I hadn't seen Jesse in years. He told me how two years ago his son had been born with serious health problems. Things were going so badly. His son was going to need a complete overhaul. To live, the child would need a new kidney and when they told Jesse that he would be an eligible organ donor, he gladly volunteered, even though such an operation would carry considerable costs and risks and possible complications. He did it willingly without thinking twice; other options weren't even worth considering. He gave of his own body to save his child. Not because he could be useful, but because he loved him.

It's not all that surprising, right? A loving father would gladly give his right arm to save his child. What's surprising is that the God who created the universe did it for us. Would you pray to Him with me?

Dear Father, please forgive me when I treat others like they have to be useful before they can belong. Remind me that I can be useful to others only because I belong to You. In Jesus, we pray with His whole body, the church living and reigning with You and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.







Reflections for December 5, 2021

Title: Because We Belong

Mark Eischer: At lutheranhour.org, you'll find FREE resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and much more—all at lutheranhour.org. And now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today, I'm visiting with Dr. Jeff Gibbs. He is an emeritus professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He teaches about life with God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus, and especially in the New Testament of the Bible. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.

Jeff Gibbs: You're very welcome, Mike. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mike Zeigler: I once heard you say that pastors and teachers, they shouldn't bring the Bible down to people, but rather bring people up to the Bible. Do you still stand by that?

Jeff Gibbs: Walter Maier II actually said that. And what he meant by that I think is still a valid point that, on the one hand, it's a danger for theologians, trained pastors like you and me, to use technical terminology, like "justification" or "limited atonement" or whatever when we're talking about things, and those things always need to be explained. Nevertheless, the Bible does have a certain way of speaking, and we'll get into this when we think about the Gospel of Luke. So yeah, I think it is important to help God's people, who are very smart, they just don't have the formal training that you and I have. And what's the jargon? What's the language? And so yeah, to bring God's people's understanding up to the way the Bible talks, so that they can talk that way, too.

Mike Zeigler: Well, that's the goal. We're going to try and do that. We're going to help bring us all up to be more faithful, capable readers, listeners of the Bible. We're talking about the Gospel according to Luke, not the Gospel of Luke. Yeah, so let's just talk a little bit about that distinction. You brought that to my attention once, that these are all, these four biographies, ancient biographies of Jesus, the formal titles are the "According to" Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Not "of." So why is that an important distinction?

Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, that's a small point, but I think it is important that there is one Good News; there's one Gospel; there's one message centered in God's Son, Jesus, and what He has done and is doing and will do for us and for the world. But each one of these, as you call them rightly, are Gospels in the New Testament, are a form of an ancient biography. They have a main character, Jesus, right. But it's the same Good News. But here's that Good News, told according to Matthew, according to Mark.

Mike Zeigler: And you pointed this out to me in class that we should try to read and listen to each Gospel on its own terms. And I notice, even now and before you pointed that out, I kind of have and had a fifth Gospel, so to speak, a conglomeration or a mashup of all the things that I've heard about Jesus. And it's my running narrative in my brain that I think of as the life of Jesus.

Jeff Gibbs: Right.

Mike Zeigler: Even though that's a natural tendency, why is it good to let each Gospel tell us that particular perspective on Jesus?

Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. Well, that's a great question, Mike, and I think it is important. For one thing, it does honor the way, we would say, many Christians would say, the Holy Spirit Himself gave this Good News to us. He didn't give us a "harmony," as we sometimes call it, of all the things that are recorded that Jesus said and did. Of course, we don't even have everything. Of course.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah.

Jeff Gibbs: Not even close.

Mike Zeigler: There wouldn't be enough books in the world.

Jeff Gibbs: Exactly, as John tells us at the end of his "according to." But the Holy Spirit saw fit to give us four portraits or four narratives, if you mish-mash them together, so to speak, it's not that that's invalid, it's not wrong or something, but you'll tend to lose some distinct emphases that Matthew wants to make, or that Luke wants to offer to us that are only offered in Luke.

Mike Zeigler: Something that's a little unique to Luke is this title of "Savior."

Jeff Gibbs: Right.

Mike Zeigler: Matthew and Mark don't call Jesus "Savior."

Jeff Gibbs: Not explicitly.

Mike Zeigler: In fact, it's the first thing we hear of the announcement to the shepherds: "Unto you, a Savior is born, Christ the Lord."

Jeff Gibbs: Right.

Mike Zeigler: And there's much emphasis on Jesus bringing salvation. What does that look like though in Luke? What does salvation mean?

Jeff Gibbs: You might get at it this way, just in general, one way to talk about salvation or a Savior is to finish the phrase and to say salvation, from what, right. Or a Savior from what? And that implies that there's something wrong.

Mike Zeigler: Yes.

Jeff Gibbs: Right? There are dangers, there are enemies, whatever, that the situation into which a Savior comes is a bad situation. And that actually is kind of an entry point into how Luke, over and over, likes to present Jesus as Savior, the salvation that Jesus brings as a reversal of the current situation.

Mike Zeigler: Okay. Because in the current situation, there's something wrong.

Jeff Gibbs: There's a bad stuff wrong in the world. There's sin, there are evil rulers, there is Satan, you know. And so, from the very beginning in Luke chapter one, "Mary's Song," for instance, after the angel announces that she'll be the mother of the Savior, she says things like "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich, He has sent empty away." See, that's reversal, that's God intervening in the world to say, "No, this isn't right. And I'm going to turn what's wrong into right. I'm going to reverse it." And so, I think as you think about that, on the one hand, it's a very common-sense way of thinking, but it's extremely profound. And that explains why a repentance can be so hard sometimes. Because God is calling me to let go of my current sin or my current pride, and let Him reverse that situation. It explains why powerful figures in the Gospel of Luke and today, easily find themselves resisting Jesus.

Mike Zeigler: Jesus has come to bring a change of affairs.

Jeff Gibbs: Right.

Mike Zeigler: Salvation, and that involves overturning or reversing the present situation.

Jeff Gibbs: Right.

Mike Zeigler: Not just change for change's sake, but this is a bad situation.

Jeff Gibbs: I used to say that Jesus turns the world upside down, but it probably would be more accurate to say He puts the world right side up.

Mike Zeigler: Well, let's talk some more about this resistance, because if that's really Luke's Good News, if that's the Good News of Jesus, according to Luke, then it might not sound like good news if you're happy with the way things are, with this present upside-down state of the world.

Jeff Gibbs: It's not a surprise that so many people hated Jesus. I mean, we tend to think of Jesus, gentle Jesus, meek and mild, et cetera, et cetera, and Jesus of Nazareth during His ministry, I'd be willing to say, was able be the most gentle human being that ever lived. And yet at the same time, He was also the most powerful and unstoppable human being that ever lived.

Mike Zeigler: I have been listening to the Gospel of Luke, and one scene that stands out to me is when the Pharisees come to tell Jesus that Herod's after Him, and He said, "You go tell that fox: 'I cast out demons, I heal, and on the third day I finish my course,'" basically: you're not going to get in My way, no one's going to get in My way.

Jeff Gibbs: You can't stop Me.

Mike Zeigler: Well, very good. That's a lot to chew on and meditate on as we read and listen to the Gospel, the Good News, according to St. Luke.

Jeff Gibbs: Amen.







Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"On Jordan's Bank, the Baptist's Cry" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)



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