A Disciple Like the Shepherds

I wish everyone who reads my blog a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Most of the time this blog is dedicated to advancing an understanding of the wisdom and love of God for ordinary life. First John tells us both that “God is Light” and “God is Love”. In Centered Leading/Centered Living, I call these twin qualities,  “Deep Light” and “Deep Love”. God’s wisdom is beyond our created wisdom, and God’s love is beyond any human love. Instead, God’s Divine Love is the deep ground of all truth and truly unselfish, self-giving love. Next year, for at least part of the year, I will be centering attention on this wisdom and love as it might impact our citizenship, at least that is the plan. With that, here is the next installment of the “A Disciple Like….” series. For now, let us listen again to a familiar story of how the Wisdom and Love of God came to dwell with us full of Grace and Truth…..

angelshepherdGood evening. My name is Jacob Ben Jesse. I don’t appear in your Bible, at least by name. However, I was one of the shepherds present on the night the Lord Jesus was born. My story begins in around the year 4 to 6 BC. Way off in Rome, the greatest of the Roman emperors, Caesar Augustus, was the ruler of a vast empire. The village of Bethlehem was a small and insignificant part of that empire, just as my nation, which was known as “Israel,” was also a small part of Augustus’s empire.

Some things never change. You have a saying that, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” We’re all going to die someday, and governments never seem to have enough money. As the Roman Empire grew, its need for taxes grew and grew and grew. In my day, just as in your day, many people tried to avoid taxes. I think you have a saying called, “Flying Under the Radar,” and another phrase called, “The Underground Economy.” In my time, a lot of people try to avoid paying taxes.

Eventually, Caesar Augustus declared that the entire Roman Empire would be taxed. In order to be certain that Rome collected all of the money it was entitled to collect, Augustus had a census taken. The idea was that if the tax collectors knew the name of each and every individual and where they lived, they would be able to collect all of the taxes due. Therefore, Caesar decreed that everyone should go to his or her own hometown and register to be taxed (Luke 2:1). [i]

I don’t know whether or not Caesar’s plan was successful, but I can tell you was one of the best things that ever happened in our little city of Bethlehem! Hundreds of people had to come to our town! The inns were filled to the brim. People had to be turned away. Every restaurant was filled. People like my landlord, whose sheep I tended, were able to sell all of the mutton and milk they could produce for weeks and weeks and weeks. I don’t know whether Caesar had all the money he needed, but in our little town of Bethlehem times were really good.

You’ve already heard that on the first Christmas, a man named Joseph and his betrothed wife, Mary, came to our little town so that Joseph, who was of the house and lineage of King David, might be registered in David’s hometown. When they arrived, there was no place for them to stay. One innkeeper, who could see that Mary was about to have a baby, took pity on them and allowed them to stay in a little cave in the side of the hill that he had turned into a kind of barn. It was there in his barn, on a cold winter night, that Jesus was born. [ii]

Here is how Dr. Luke records my story in his gospel:

images-2And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Luke 2:8-20).

Prayer: God of Wonders: Take us now to the greatest wonder of all, to the night you came to be one of us. Allow us to sense the majesty of your decision to come and take on human flesh, that we might see and know how to live a divine life. Amen.

 The Story of a Shepherd.

Well as I said, my name is Jacob, and I was a shepherd boy in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. As a boy, I was proud of being shepherd in Bethlehem. Actually, as a little boy I didn’t just dream of being a shepherd; I dreamt of being a shepherd who became a king! Every little boy in my village knew the story of King David. Just like your little boys play cowboys and Indians or soldiers, we played being King David! Our favorite story was about the time he took his slingshot and defeated the giant Goliath (I Sam. 17:1-58). imgresWe practiced for hours and hours slinging rocks at trees and boulders and wild animals, hoping we would grow up to be just like David.

Like my friends, however, I did not grow up to be a king. I grew up to be a shepherd. You would think that in my day being a shepherd would be an honored profession. After all, our great ancestor, Abraham, was a shepherd. His sons and their children: Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s twelve sons, and all those who went into captivity in Egypt, were shepherds. However, in my time people looked down on shepherds as common working people. That is too bad.

Perhaps it was in Egypt when being a shepherd fell into disrepute. You see, the Egyptians did not like the smell of sheep. (Many people in your society today have the same experience.) Therefore, no Egyptian wanted to be a shepherd. One reason the Egyptians allowed my family to settle there during a great famine was that we were shepherds and could meet their need for mutton, goat’s milk, and wool.  I think perhaps that old Egyptian prejudice wore off on my people over the 400 years they were in captivity.

When we returned to the Promised Land, and after we captured it, the great warriors and lords of my people divided the land of Israel among themselves and became farmers, what you could call “Landed Gentry.” Over the years, they too began looking down upon shepherds. By the time Jesus was born, mostly, we shepherds didn’t own the land nor did we own the sheep. We tended sheep for a landlord.

Nevertheless, my job was not unimportant. Today, there are not many wild animals in the land of Israel. In my day there were lions, bears, wolves, and wild dogs. All of them preyed upon sheep. Our job was to watch over the sheep and to be sure that they were safe. In addition, because sheep are not very bright, we were responsible to move the sheep safely from place to place so they could eat fresh grass. Finally, sheep are domesticated animals, and they sensed that we cared about them. [iii]

Your pastor once worked for a farmer way down in Texas on the weekends. The man who owned the property, and the hired men, actually named the cows and sheep and could tell them by sight! We shepherds could do the same thing in my day. Like any good shepherd, we knew our sheep. The Lord Jesus was not a shepherd, at least not a professional shepherd. He was the Good Shepherd who takes care of his flock (John 10:1-16). Perhaps he learned what it meant to be a Good Shepherd by watching shepherds just like me.

One night, as we were watching our sheep, singing songs together, and telling stories, the most amazing thing you can imagine happened (Luke 2:8-20). It was one of those beautiful dark, dark nights in which the sky is perfectly clear. The moon had not risen, but the stars shone in the sky like tinkling white Christmas tree lights in your day. In my day and time we thought of the stars as being alive. (In fact, we thought of them as angels.)

images-1We were sitting looking at the sky when all of a sudden it was as if the sky opened and one of the stars came to us as an angel of the Lord (v. 9). Naturally, just like everyone else who sees an angel, we were afraid. But the angel said to us, “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for the world. Today in the city of David a savior is been born. He is Christ, the LORD” (v. 10-11). [iv] The angel then told us that, if we were to go into the town of Bethlehem, we would find a baby lying in a manger, which would be a sign that the Messiah had come (v. 12).

Suddenly, it was as if the sky was torn apart again, and heaven itself came to earth! A great company of angels suddenly appeared praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those upon whom his favor rests” (v. 13-14).

Just as Mary and Joseph were obedient to the message they received from an angel, so were we shepherds. We decided to go off to Bethlehem and find this manger and see for ourselves whether what the angel had said was true (v. 15). When we arrived at the little cave in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, we saw a child lying in a manger just as we were told (v. 16). imagesImmediately, we began to go throughout the village of Bethlehem and spread the Good News about this child (v. 17). Everyone who heard us was amazed. No one expected such news to be communicated through a bunch of shepherds! I don’t know why, because David was Shepherd, and a Prophet, and a King—just like the man Jesus of Nazareth. Who better to reveal to people the Son of David and Good Shepherd than a group of Shepherds?

Being a Disciple Like the Shepherds Today.

When our night of excitement was over, we returned home giving glory to God for all that we had seen and heard (v. 20). In fact, for the rest of my life I was willing to tell everyone I met about this boy, Jesus of Nazareth, whom an angel proclaim to be God’s Good News to us and to the entire world. I understand that almost no Christians in your society ever share that Good News with their friends. I know that a lot of years have passed, but people in your day, I think, have the same kinds of problems people had in my day. They need to hear the Good News just as much as we did.

There are still uncaring emperors far away in Rome, or whatever you call your capital city. I am sure there are still taxes, and they are still too high. There are certainly still evil people like my nation’s king at the time, Herod the Great, who care about nothing but money and power. There are still people who grow up in dysfunctional families. There are still people who are deeply disturbed and even mad. There are still criminals and highway robbers. There still wars and rumors of wars. I think people in your day need to know about this Son of David, who is a Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace just as much as we did (Isaiah 9:6-70).

That first Christmas, we didn’t go home and pour ourselves a glass of wine, eat too much, and open presents. Instead, we shared the Good News that Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God had come! I was young that night, so I lived to see that boy Jesus do miracles, teach with the power of God, cast out demons, be rejected by his own people, die a terrible death, and rise from the dead. All that I’ve seen in all that I know has not changed what I know and believe: One night more than 2000 years ago I went and saw a baby in a manger, and it changed my life forever.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[i] Critical scholars have sometimes doubted Luke’s account. This is another instance when careful study and giving Luke a bit of grace shows he is accurately recording the facts as he knew them. First of all, while no record exists of this particular census/registration, there are Roman records of censuses taken in the way Luke records. While Quirinius was the legal governor somewhat later than the Luke indicates, he was in the region at a time when a son of Caesar was governor. History indicates that Quirinius, a friend of Augustus, successful soldier, and good administrator, was present and probably “governed,” meaning he did the day-to-day work. Later, he was appointed governor after Herod’s son, Archelaeus, was removed. Likely as not, Caesar appointed Quirinius because he was experienced in the job and understood Jewish politics from his earlier stint in Syria. http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/quirinius.htm (downloaded December 21, 2015). See also, William Barclay, “Luke’ in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 20-21.

[ii] Once again, there is no historical information to put the time of Jesus’ actual birth in winter, though as I noted in an earlier sermon, taking the stories of Elizabeth and Mary together, a winter birth is not impossible. Christmas was first celebrated on December 25 in 336 A.D., a long time after Jesus was born. Pope Julius I officially set December 25th as the date for Christmas. There was a winter holiday celebrated during this period of time, and many people think that this winter solstice celebration is the cause of the date. The Jewish festival, Hanukkah, also occurs at this time of year. No one can know for sure, and the Bible does not say. It is not important. What is important is who the man Jesus was and what he did and taught.

[iii] See, “Shepherds” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Ronald F. Youngblood, ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986, 1995), 1164-1165). When I was young, I had a good friend who kept sheep near Cisco, Texas. He was a wonderful person. His hired men often named the animals and recognized them by sight. I could never accomplish this feat.

[iv] This phrase would be “Messiah God” in Hebrew. The term “Christ” is the Greek term for “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” in Hebrew. The two accounts, Mary’s in Luke and Joseph’s in Matthew are remarkably similar in their common details. Both agree that the boy was to be named “Jesus,” would be a savior, and would be known as the “Son of God.” (For a human being “Son of God” and “God with us” have similar meanings.)

A Disciple Like Joseph

Good morning! My name is Joseph. I was the husband of Mary and the earthly father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not surprising that my story was left until the last Sunday before Christmas. Scholars know more about many other characters in the Bible than about me. There are even people, like Herod the Great, who plays a part in my story, about whom we know a great deal more because they are historical figures. There are only a few references to me in the Bible. In my opinion, that is as it should be, for I am one of those people who are satisfied to work behind the scenes.

I was a carpenter (Matthew 13:33; Mark 6:3). [i] imgresThe first chapter of Matthew is written to show that Jesus was descended from Abraham, and thus a true Jew, and from David, our greatest king. I am the last person mentioned in that genealogy. It is from my line that Jesus was legally qualified to be the Messiah. [ii]

David lived 1000 years before my time. He had thousands of descendants, many of them more prominent than me. The fact that I lived in Nazareth in Galilee, far from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture, indicates that I was of an obscure branch of David’s the line. So many years had passed, and there were so many descendants of David, that, although my family was proud of its history, no one expected anything special to come from me or almost any other member of my family. We were a bit like Americans who can trace their family history to someone like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. It was a matter of family pride, but most family members did not behave anything like David, just like most people descendent of your great families don’t necessarily continue on their values, their character, or their strengths.

The Situation.

Here is the way my story is told by the apostle Matthew:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife (Matthew 1:18-24).

Prayer: Eternal God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, please come today that we might learn from the example of Joseph to be better disciples of you today and every day of our lives. In the Name of the Word Made Flesh we pray, Amen.

A Kind Reaction

In order to understand my story you need to know something about my world. In your day, couples marry for love. In my time, marriages were arranged. Generally speaking, the parents of a young man approached the parents of young woman and contracted for a marriage. If a man were older, and perhaps married before, he might contract for a bride himself. A contract was reached specifying a dowry price to be paid to the woman’s parents, among other matters. Sometimes, it took as long as seven years for a husband to earn enough money to pay the dowry and marry his wife. As many of you may remember, in the Old Testament, Jacob worked seven years to marry Rachel (Gen. 29:20)!

Most young people had marriages contracted long before they actually married. Men in my culture waited to marry until they could pay the dowry and support a wife. Most women in my time were contracted to be married about the time they were able to have children. In other words, they were quite young—in their teens. Once a marriage was contracted, the couple was “Betrothed.” [iii] This could last a long time.

I was, therefore, considerably older than Mary. [iv] Before we could be married I had to save enough money to have the right to marry her. Now here’s a funny fact about our system: once a marriage contract was signed, the couple was actually legally married. If a couple were to begin living together during this period, the husband had no right of divorce. However, if a husband found a character defect in his wife during the period of betrothal, he could divorce her (Exodus 22:13-19).

This is the exact situation I faced. During our time of betrothal, Mary came and told me she was pregnant. She explained that she had been faithful to me; however, an angel had appeared to her and explained that she was to have a child by the power of the Holy Spirit who would be the Messiah of Israel (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:35). What the angels said, had come true!

Being a practical man, I didn’t believe a word she said. As a devout Jew, what my people called “a righteous man,” I knew my rights under the Law of Moses. I had the right to divorce Mary. Nevertheless, I loved Mary and did not want to publicly humiliate her. I wanted a divorce, but I did not want to hurt Mary (Matt. 1:19).

Supernatural Intervention.

I have always thought of myself as a kind man and a careful thinker. I don’t make decisions easily. Most of the time, I pray long and hard before doing anything that I think might hurt another person. Day after day, night after night, over and over again, I went over in my mind my options until I finally decided that I would “put her away privately” (v. 19). That is a fancy way of saying that I decided to divorce her without publically disclosing her infidelity. I didn’t want to be married to Mary; but I didn’t want to hurt her.

imgres-1One night, as on so many nights, I fell asleep pondering the problem. That night I had a dream in which an angel of the Lord appeared and told me that I should not be afraid to take Mary as my wife because her story was true. The angel told me that Mary was carrying a child by the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 20). I was to name the child “Jesus,” which, as you learned last week, is the Greek term for “Joshua” which means “God our Savior” (v. 21-22). In addition, the angel told me that this was happening to fulfill a prophecy, and that my son was to be known as “Immanuel,” which in my language means “God with Us” (v. 22-23). In other words the angel told me almost exactly what the angel told Mary: our son was to be the Savior of Israel and God present in our history—the Son of God (Luke 1:35).

Mary had spoken the truth: Our child was conceived of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I did not divorce her. Instead, I brought Mary home as my wife (v 24-25). As I look back upon my life, I realize that from my very birth God had been acting to do something special. Mary was the virgin who would conceive and bear a deliverer for my people (Isaiah 7:14). Jesus, my son, was to be the fulfillment of all the prophecies and promises of a coming Messiah.

The Rest of My Story.

In due course, I had to go to Bethlehem to register to pay my taxes to Caesar. Because of the rumors surrounding Mary, I took her with me. It was in Bethlehem, the home of King David, that our son was born (Luke 2:1-7). This also fulfilled a prophesy of our prophet Micah (Micah 5:2). You will hear that story later on this week. Next Sunday, you’ll hear the story of how we presented our child to be circumcised after he was born (Luke 2:21-39). Right now, I want to continue with the way Matthew tells the story.

imagesThe birth of Jesus was not the only time the Lord spoke to me. I had several visions that impacted my life and the life of Jesus. One day, three Wise Men appeared where we were living. They had seen a special star, a star associated with the birth of the King of the Jews (Matt. 2:1) and gone to Jerusalem to see King Herod, but he had no new child. His advisors had told Herod and the Wise Men that a King of the Jews, the Messiah, was to be born in Bethlehem in Judea (vv. 2-10). After bowing before Jesus and giving him gifts, the Wise Men returned home.

When the Wise Men told me they had visited King Herod, my blood ran cold. I knew Herod would certainly try to kill anyone he felt might threaten his kingship. It wouldn’t matter that I was an obscure carpenter married a common country girl. The Wise Men were also concerned: They had a dream in which they were told not to return through Jerusalem, but instead to go home by “another route” (v. 12). [v]

After they were gone as I worried and wondered what to do, once again, an angel of the Lord appeared to me. This time I was told to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt (v. 13). I was obedient to the angel, and for some years we lived in Egypt (v. 14). It is a good thing too, because Herod killed all the children of Bethlehem around my son’s age (vv. 16-18). [vi] This event is known to you as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” one of Herod’s worst crimes.

Then, after Herod died, an angel appeared and told me to go back to Israel (v. 20). My intention was to take my son, who was to be known as the “Son of David,” to Judea, King David’s homeland. However, I was warned by God in a dream not to go there because Herod’s son was ruler in Judea—and just as mad as Herod himself and just as likely to harm Jesus. Therefore, we went to Nazareth in Galilee (vv. 22). This also fulfilled a prophesy of the Old Testament. [vii]

imgres-2When Jesus was twelve years old, we took him up to the Temple in Jerusalem, as was our custom (Luke 2:41-42). Jerusalem is a crowded and busy place during festival times. Mary and I had already left Jerusalem when we discovered he was not with our traveling party (v. 43). We thought he was with relatives, but he was not.

It took us three whole days to find him! We were frantic. When we found him he was in the temple courts talking with the teachers of the law. When we rebuked him, he looked puzzled as if we should know that he should be in the Temple. To be quite frank, we thought our son was going to be some kind of the king, and we didn’t expect to find in the Temple courts talking with the religious leaders of our people. When we complained about his behavior, he looked at us with puzzlement and said something like, “Did you not expect to find me in my father’s house?” (v. 49). Actually, we did not expect to find him in the Temple. We expected to find him running around in the streets playing! When we brought him home once again he was our son, Jesus, a person everyone loved and respected because he was such a fine boy (v. 52).

The Measure of the Man.

imgresI did not live to see my son’s public career as a teacher, Rabbi, healer, and Messiah. I died before my son. Frankly, I’m glad I was spared seeing his final moments. While alive, I early on realized that my first job was to be a father to Jesus. Jesus worked beside me from the time he was able. He ran errands. He did odd jobs. He grew up strong. I like to think that in watching me, and how I treated other people, he learned to be honest, straightforward, kind, and gentle. I hope I modeled for him a kind of discipleship that is diligent, kind, and honest.

That is not so say that I was not religious. My dreams show that I had a mystical bent even though I was a practical person. I was diligent to dedicate Jesus, to take him to the synagogue, to attend religious festivals in Jerusalem, and to model for Jesus what it meant to truly worship the God of Israel. I prayed often in front of my son, and he knew what it was to be a man of prayer. I read the Law of Moses, and I taught it to my son. In fact, I think that this is the most important contribution I made to his life.

I hope as you think about me you’ll remember me as a simple, good, thoughtful, ordinary man trying to raise a family and provide for them. I hope you will remember that I was first and foremost a workingman, but that I did not ignore spiritual things. Most of all, I hope you will remember that I was obedient to God when he spoke to me. Not all disciples are called to be pastors and prophets. In fact, most people are called to be an everyday disciple just like me.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs

[i] In Jesus’s time, this could mean that Joseph was a workman who built homes, framing and acting as a stonemason, or, perhaps I owned my own business and had a small carpenter’s shop. The Bible doesn’t say.

[ii] Under Jewish law, inheritance was through the father. Thus, Jesus’ legal claim to the Messiah and King of Israel was through his father’s line, even though he was not the biological son of Joseph. Under Roman law, this was similar. For example, Caesar Augustus (born “Gaius Octavius”) was the heir of Julius Caesar. Although he was not his son Augustus was made heir to Caesar under Roman law. Augustus was the Son of Julius Caesar’s sister. Like Julius Caesar adopted Octavius, Joseph adopted Jesus as his son, making Jesus, technically, only the adopted son of David.

[iii] Most marriages in Biblical times were arranged between the parents of the bride and groom. In fact, on occasion the bride and groom might not even know one another. A betrothal could occur at any time, even years before the marriage, since the bride and groom would have to be of marital age before the actual marriage could occur. Betrothal occurred once a marriage contract was signed. In this contract, among other matters, a dowry would be agreed upon. This amount would have to be paid by the groom or the groom’s family to the bride’s parents. Once the betrothal contract was signed, the bride and groom were legally married and only death or divorce could end the marriage. When the dowry was paid, the groom would come and consummate the marriage in the bride’s home. A special cloth would provide proof that the bride was a virgin. If she was not, the groom did not have to accept the bride and could divorce her. After consummation, the bride was then taken to the wedding feast, and the couple celebrated their marriage. The bride’s parents kept the “proof of virginity” in case of a later dispute.

[iv] Scripture does not say whether Joseph was older than Mary. It is an inference both from Jewish marriage customs (grooms were almost always older than brides) and from the fact that Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels after the events of Luke 2:41-52. When Mary and Jesus’ sisters and brothers come to see Jesus in the Gospels, Joseph is not mentioned (Matthew 12:46-50). The theory that Joseph had died by the time Jesus was an adult is given further credibility by the fact that Jesus, when He was on the cross, made arrangements for His mother to be cared for by the apostle John (John 19:26-27). Joseph must have been dead by the time of the crucifixion, or Jesus would never have committed Mary to John.

[v] Most scholars believe that the Wise Men were from what is today Iraq. In my view, the Wise Men probably took a northern route from what is today Iraq through northern Syria, then down to Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem. In the ancient world, this route through the “Fertile Crescent” was the most traveled trade route From Mesopotamia to the Holy Land. I think going home, in order to bypass Jerusalem, they the southern route from Bethlehem to the Jordan River (Jericho) then north up the Jordan Valley to Syria, and back into Mesopotamia.

[vi] What is known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents” is recorded in Matthew 2:16-18). This event is only mentioned in Matthew; however, Bethlehem was so small that the murder of a few children under two years old is unlikely to have caused much contemporary comment. Herod was guilty of worse crimes.

[vii] There is no specific Old Testament prophecy that is fulfilled. This may refer to the use of the term “Branch” (“Nazor” in Hebrew). If so, then it fulfills Isaiah 11:1. It might also be that this refers to Jesus being a Nazarite, who abstains from drinking wine and cutting his hair, though I think this unlikely. See, The Harper Collins Study Bible (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1993), note on Matthew 2:23b.

A Disciple Like Mary

By now, I’m sure most of you are confused over who is actually preaching this series of sermons! Therefore, let me introduce myself: my name is “Luke” and I am a physician. I never met the Lord Jesus during his time on earth. Instead, I was introduced to Jesus by the apostle Paul. The book of Acts indicates that, on his second missionary journey, I joined Paul is one of his helpers. [1] I am the only non-Jewish writer of the New Testament. I’m pretty proud of this.

Some people think that I grew up in the city of Antioch and became acquainted with Paul when he ministered in that city. No one really knows, and I cannot remember. I was a medical doctor (Colossians 4:14), and many interpreters of your Bible have noticed that I have a great interest in medical matters. In addition, it’s been noted that I have a great interest in the miracles of Jesus, in his concern for the poor, and in his ministry and interest in Gentiles. My gospel, Luke, is filled with illustrations of my interest. [2]

searchAt the beginning of my gospel, I indicate that, although many other people wrote Gospels, I decided to make a careful investigation of the life of Jesus and the birth of the church and to record this for a gentleman named “Theophilus,” which in Greek means “lover of God.” My gospel is for every person who loves God (Acts 1:1-5). In my gospel, I also indicate that I was relying upon eyewitness testimony (Acts 1:2). I don’t remember exactly whom I interviewed in writing my book. It may have been Mary, Zechariah, or Elizabeth, or all three, although many people believe that I interviewed Mary.

The Visitation.

Once again, because in your church it’s customary to read Scripture before a sermon, I want to read you just a little bit from my book beginning with chapter 1:26:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her (Luke 1:26-38).

Prayer: God Who Speaks in His Word and Mighty Deeds: we come to you today asking that you would be with us by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might be filled with your spirit as was Mary in be the source of blessings for others.

Mary of Nazareth.

As I said a few minutes ago, I was a medical doctor, so naturally I was  interested in the stories that passed around among early Christians concerning the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. I have delivered a lot of babies in my day and knew a good bit about what you call gynecology, so I wanted to understand the way in which Jesus ws conceived and was born.

Many of you know that Paul was, for a time, imprisoned in Caesarea by the sea. Your pastor had a chance to visit Caesarea this summer. It is still a beautiful place. In my day, however, it was even more beautiful than it is today. Herod the Great, who you have heard many bad things about, was a complicated person. One of his good qualities was that he was one of the great builders of the ancient world. He built the last Temple in Jerusalem. Masada, Herodium, and Caesarea were among the most beautiful cities ever built. Caesarea was a seaport because it had a wonderful harbor. In addition, it was the headquarters of the Roman government during the time of Jesus and for many years thereafter. The apostle Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea for a time before he was sent to Rome (Acts 23:23ff).

While Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, I had a great deal of time to begin work on what would become my gospel, Luke, and my story of the early church, Acts. Caesarea is close to the Galilee, where Nazareth is located. And so during this time I interviewed people who remembered the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of those stories, which many people believe I received from Mary herself, is the story of the visitation of the angel Gabriel.

imgres 3.43.08 PMIt goes like this: In the spring of year in which Jesus was born, the angel Gabriel went to Nazareth, which was a town in the Galilee to a young woman, a virgin, who was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, who was himself a descendent of King David. The virgin’s name was Mary. [3]

The angel began by telling her that she was “highly favored” (Luke 1:28). When Mary showed the same signs of trouble and fear that often accompany the coming of an angel, the angel reassured her telling her not to be afraid (v. 29). Then, he gave her amazing news: Mary was to be the mother of a child she was to call “Jesus” (v. 30-31). The name Jesus is the Greek form for Jesus’ name in Hebrew, which was “Joshua.” The name “Joshua” is important in Hebrew. “Joshua” literally means “The God Who Saves.” Joshua was the name of Moses his assistant, who was the greatest military leader of his day and led the Jews in conquering Israel after their wandering in the desert. [4]

Even more amazingly, the angel told Mary that this child would be called, “the Son of the Most High,” which was a Hebrew name for God (v. 32). He was also to receive the throne of his ancestor David and reign over the house of Jacob, or Israel, forever (V. 32-33). Mary’s son was to commence a kingdom that would never end! To any Jew, this would mean that he was to be their long awaited Messiah.

Just as Zechariah had a hard time understanding how he was to be a father, Mary had a hard time understanding how she could be a mother since she was a virgin (v. 34). The angel explained that the power of God was going to overshadow her and she would be with child (v. 35). A short time later, Mary discovered that she was pregnant.

You can imagine that this event was not without its problems. (Next week, Joseph is going to be here to tell you about his problems with the announcement. I was never able to interview Joseph because he was dead by the time I wrote my gospel.) This particular announcement, and the reality of her pregnancy, resulted in a substantial amount of gossip in the little town of Nazareth. Under Jewish law she might even have been stoned. Therefore, after a short while she made arrangements to visit her relative, Elizabeth, whose story you heard last week.

Mary and Elizabeth.

imgres-7Last week, you heard the story of Elizabeth. As Zachariah told the story, you learned that, when Mary arrived at his home, John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth, recognizing the power of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the child Mary was carrying. Then, suddenly, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and shouted out a blessing to Mary. The end of that blessing is important in understanding the character of Mary the mother of Jesus: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (v.45). Everyone I spoke to in writing my gospel emphasized that Mary’s defining characteristic was her humble faith in the God.

In response to this blessing, Mary spoke the words that Christians call the “Magnificat.” [5] Here is how I recorded it:

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him,  from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things  but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel,  remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors” (Luke 1:46-55).

I am not a Jew, and so I copied this particular passage, exactly as it was given to me. Scholars note that, while it is written in Greek, it bears the signs of having been spoken in Aramaic, the language of Jesus’s day. It is extremely Jewish. [6] The entire passage is designed to show how, through generation and generations of Jews, God was faithful to Abraham and his descendants (v. 55). It speaks of God as a Savior, a reference both to the Jewish notion that God will send a Savior, and to the name, “Yeshua,” the name of Jesus (v. 47). Mary also repeats that God has blessed her in her humiliation (v. 48). She recognizes that God, the Mighty One, does miracles (v. 51). And then she prophesies that the coming of Jesus will bring with it a change in the world. Those who ruled by force of the sword will be cast down. Those who are hungry will be fed. Those who are humble will be lifted up. God is doing a new thing in Jesus (vv. 51-54).

At this point, I’m going to stop my story of Mary and the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve, you will hear from one of the shepherds. He will tell you the rest of Mary’s story.

The Life of Mary Was Not Easy.

Many of you know, that in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives “the disciple Jesus loved,” or John, his mother to take care of after he was gone (John 19:25-27). There is a tradition in the Catholic Church that John made good on his promise. Tradition holds that Mary lived in Ephesus while John was the bishop there. There is also a tradition that Mary was buried near the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, as we all know, Mary’s life was not always easy. All of her life people gossiped about her and about her son and about the circumstances of his birth. We know from the Gospels that she was alive during Jesus’s ministry, and that Jesus’ family did not always understand who he was or what he was doing (Mark 3:31-35). Like us, she had to maintain her faith in the midst of her doubt and the doubt of others.

images-1Mary lived to see both her husband and her son die. To lose a husband is a terrible thing, and to lose her firstborn son worse yet. In addition, her son did not die peaceful death but a terrible, torturous, painful death. Then, at an age when most women want to settle down into the home where they raised their children, surrounded by family, friends, and memories, Mary had to leave her home. Remember, that in Acts we learned that after the new church was formed there was a time of persecution and the church was scattered (Acts 8:1). Perhaps it was at this time that Mary left Israel with John and began her life as a pilgrim. Many people think she did not die in Nazareth surrounded by family and friends, but far away in Ephesus, where John was a bishop.

The Life of Faith.

images-2The story of Mary teaches us a lesson that American Christians, and really all Christians, need to remember: The life of faith is a blessed life—but that does not mean that it’s always an easy life. So often we look at times of stress and discouragement as times when we are not being blessed. Often, that is true; however, sometimes our hard times are the source of blessing for others. Mary’s life was not easy; but it was blessed. Her humble faith blessed her family, her son, her church, and even the entire world. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had that kind of faith? Amen

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Acts 16, Paul has a vision while on this missionary trip. Up until Acts 19:10, the narrative is in the third person plural (“his companions”). Then suddenly the narrative shifts to the first person plural (“we”). Most scholars believe this indicates the point at which Luke is relying on his memory and journals for the narrative and not third person accounts. Therefore, it was at this time Luke probably joined Paul.

[2] The major source for the historical information in this sermon comes from William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke” in The Daily Bible Study Series, Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1932, 1975), 1-16. See also, Robert H. Stein, “Luke” in the New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 35-88.

[3] Jesus birth cannot be exactly determined. Luke states that is was while Augustus was Caesar and Quirinius was Governor of Syria, during a census of that time (Luke 2:1). Though there are problems, somewhere around 6-4 B.C. fits these dates. One tradition is that Jesus was conceived in our March, “The sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which would comport with a December birth. No one knows.

[4] Joshua means “Jehovah Saves” (or YHWH saves). When Moses was near death, he chose Joshua to lead the people of Israel, which he did until his death according to the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament.

[5] In Latin, the first words of the poem are “Magnificat Anima me Dominum” or “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Since St. Ambrose translated Luke from Greek to Latin, the passage has been known by this name. The song is part of the Liturgy of the Hours in the Roman Catholic tradition and is sung and said in Protestant churches as well.

[6] See for an example, John Noland, “Luke 1:9:20” in The Word Bible Commentary Vol. 35A (Waco, TX: Word Press, 1989), 74-77. The terms, “Most High,” “Lord,” “God my Savior,” and the reference to David, as well as the form and the theology of the passage, point to an Aramaic/Jewish basis for the text.

A Disciple Like Elizabeth

Once again, I am embarrassed to say that, for the second week in a row I have been too lazy to write a blog. Fortunately, Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptist, who spoke at our Arlington campus last week, came to Cordova this past Sunday and I asked him to be a guest speaker. Here is approximately what he said:

Good morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is “Zachariah.” Last week, I was in Arlington, and your pastors asked me to come again to Cordova and talk about my wife Elizabeth. As you learned last week, I lived during the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea (Luke 1:5). I was a priest and a descendent of Aaron (v. 5) As a priest, my job was to offer sacrifices and perform Jewish religious ceremonies. We priests maintained the Temple as the center of the Jewish religion.

My wife, Elizabeth, and I lived a few miles out of Jerusalem in a small place, where I had a plot of land and also worked growing food for our family. Elizabeth and I were both raised as devout Jews. We tried as best we could to obey the laws of Moses (v. 6), which is why we are referred to as “righteous” in your Bible. We were not perfect, but we tried to obey the instructions of Moses.

Unfortunately, we were childless (v. 7). As was common in our society, our friends and neighbors considered us to be cursed by God. Perhaps it was because our neighbors sometimes spoke of our parents or us as having committed some sin deserving punishment that we were so anxious to fulfill the law. Your pastors have told me of well meaning Christians who feel that serious disease is connected to sin and judgments. Unfortunately, as I have learned, the world is not that simple.

I cannot tell you how much I loved and respected my wife. She was always a source of help to me. Both of us had grown up in priestly families, and therefore, she understood my job and its demands (v. 5). She bore the gossip of our neighbors with fortitude and hid the sorrow in her heart from everyone but me. She was always diligent in prayer for our nation and looked forward to the day when God would send his Messiah to save us.

Elizabeth Meets Mary—and John Leaps in the Womb.

imgresMost of you know a little bit of her story, and it is the most well known part of the story that I want to read to you this morning. Hear the Word of God as it comes from the Gospel according to Luke:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45).


Let us pray: God of Miracles, who can bring life from death and barrenness, come with your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life, that we may grow into your image. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.


What Happened.

As was mentioned last week, on one occasion when I was on duty in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to me and told me that my wife and I would have a child whose name would be John. You would think that, as a priest, I would have received the message with faith. Instead, I doubted. I was old and beyond the age when I expected to have children, and Elizabeth was barren and also beyond the age where she could have children. There seemed to be no hope.

imgres 9.37.35 PMThe angel did not appreciate my lack of trust in God; therefore, he told me that I would not be able to speak until the child was born. I went home speechless and unable to communicate. Fairly soon thereafter, Elizabeth told me that we were going to have a baby! At that point I knew that the message of the angel was true.

It was at this time that I realized the importance of faith and trust in God. I also realized that mere religiosity is not enough in the life of faith. Going to church, going to the temple, attending Bible studies, going to youth group, and the like, are no substitute for the adventure of the life of faith. During all this time, my respect for Elizabeth grew and grew. Unlike me, she never doubted the message of the Angel. She also never tried to impress our neighbors by holding over them miraculous circumstances of her conception.

For five months, she stayed indoors. During those months and months thereafter, I had a lot of time to watch Elizabeth and think about my life. To tell you to the truth, I had come to feel sorry for myself. I came from a prominent family, had an enviable job, and was a property owner. I loved Elizabeth and chose her. Nevertheless, as the years went by and I realized I might never have a son and heir, I was sometimes filled with regret. I’m not sure that God appreciated my feelings.

Who Elizabeth was Like: Sarah and Hannah

 One reason I feel ashamed of my lack of faith when the angel Gabriel announced the birth of our son is that I should have known better. As I mentioned earlier, I was a religious professional. I knew the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, who though they were old and beyond the age of having children believed the promises of God and received Isaac after 25 years of waiting (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-1-6; 18:1-16; 21:1-7). I also knew the story of Elkanah and Hannah, who were barren and could not have children, and yet received the child Samuel, who became a great prophet and judge over Israel, in answer to their prayers (I Samuel 1:1-2:11).

I think that like many people, I assumed that answered prayers happen to someone else, not to me. I never thought of myself as a hero of the faith like Abraham. I thought of myself as an average Temple functionary who went to work in the morning and came home at night living out his days in relative obscurity. I wasn’t ready when God called me to experience the adventure of faith. Elizabeth, on the other hand, believed the promise and quietly went about her business until God fulfilled the prophecy that we would have a child. She was the real hero faith in our family.

The Great Meeting.

imgres-1Without any question, the greatest event in my wife’s life, and the birth of our son John, was a meeting she had with Mary, her relative, when both were pregnant. After Elizabeth’s seclusion, when she was able to have guests, she received a note from Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph the carpenter in Nazareth, asking if she could come for a visit. Her note contained a most amazing story. Mary believed that she was with child by the Holy Spirit! Elizabeth promptly responded, inviting Mary to come to our house for a visit. Immediately, Mary made plans to visit us (v. 38).

When Mary arrived, she called out to Elizabeth as she was entering our home (v. 40).  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she felt John the Baptist leap in her womb (v. 41). Suddenly, she was filled with the Holy Spirit! (v. 41). In a loud voice, which was unlike Elizabeth, she cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child that you will bear!” (v. 42). Elizabeth could hardly believe that Mary was the mother of the Messiah and that the mother the Messiah had come to visit her! (v. 43). Elizabeth went on to tell Mary that God would bless her because she had believed the voice of the angel and agreed to be the mother of the Messiah (v. 45). You see, faith is an essential part of receiving God’s blessings.

Mary was so encouraged by these words that she began to speak a song that you Christians call, “The Magnificat.” Here is some of what Mary said that day:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his Name. (Luke 1:46-49).

In this great song of praise, Mary worships and thanks God for blessing her.

Mary stayed with us about three more months, after which she returned to Nazareth. At this point, all that was left of our story was the birth of our son, John, which you heard about last week. The most amazing part of that story is the fact that I, who am not a prophet nor a poet, was able to sing what is been called the “Song of Zechariah” praising God for the birth of John, who would fulfill the role of Elijah in the coming of the Messiah, and for the deliverance of my people that would come to the hands of the Son of David, who I now believed would be the child of my wife’s relatives, Mary!

Lessons we Can Learn.

I have been in heaven for many years now, but I lived long enough to know that many other strange things happened surrounding the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. By watching my wife, and thinking about all that I have learned during these years, I’ve come to some conclusions about what it means to be a disciple of God:

  • First of all, I have learned that it is important to be open to God. If we do not open our hearts to the voice of God we will never hear the voice of Angels or, more commonly, the quiet voice of God speaking in our hearts.
  • When we hear the voice of God speaking in our hearts, whether in words or in silence, it is important to obey. God honors us when we respond to his voice, sometimes even if we don’t really understand what he’s saying.
  • When I watched my wife so filled with the Holy Spirit upon her meeting with Mary, I realized I had not placed much emphasis on asking the Spirit of God to come in to my life and transform me. Elizabeth was able to recognize the Messiah because she was filled with the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t able to recognize the voice of God in the message of Gabriel because I was only religious.
  •  Finally, the reason you have this story is because Mary, Elizabeth or I (I can’t remember which on of us now) told and retold the story. Eventually, a man named Luke interviewed one of us, or someone to whom we told the story, and wrote it down in your Bible. That is why my story is in your scripture today. It is important to pass along the stories of our faith.


 I understand your church desires to share gospel from generation to generation. I am sure you can achieve this because throughout the more than 2000 years since my story occurred, people have told what happened to Zachariah and Elizabeth to their children. Of course, we are only a small part of the Big Story God has been telling ever since he called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and go to a land he would show them. It is a story of how God blesses those who trust and obey him. None of us is completely obedient. The only one who was completely obedient was Jesus who went to the cross so that we might be restored to fellowship with God. My story is over; but your story is still being written. I hope you will tell it to others. They need to hear it. Amen

Copyright, 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserv ed