Acts 4:23-31; Luke 9:28-36
Last Sunday before Lent
St Barbara’s 03.03.19
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Over the last three weeks we have taken an overview of Luke’s gospel, getting a sense of what are the big themes of the gospel. Three weeks ago we thought a bit about who Luke was, a doctor, a travelling companion of Paul, someone that was deeply committed to providing an account of Jesus’ life that was well-informed and true to who Jesus was. In the last couple of weeks we have seen how Luke’s gospel emphasises how Jesus is good news for all people, for gentiles as well as Jews, for the non -religious as well as the religious, for the poor as well as the rich, for women as well as men, for children as well as adults. Jesus has come to offer love and life to all people.
Well today we finish our overview of Luke’s gospel by looking at three more major themes from his gospel, things that he chooses to emphasise and highlight for us from the life of Jesus: praise, prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have to work at being cheerful. Some people seem born with a cheerfulness gene, the optimists and sunny personality types for whom the glass is always overflowing, let alone half-full, but for me, and I suspect, for most of us, cheerfulness does not just happen, it is not our default mode.
And so the gospel of Luke provides a wonderful means by which to re-set the dial, to live life with thankfulness and joy, for it is a gospel full of praise and joy, thanksgiving and happiness. From the very beginning of the gospel Luke shares with us joyful songs that just burst forth from people who discover they have been blessed by God. Mary’s wonderful song during her pregnancy begins with the words: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” When John the Baptist is born, his father, Zechariah, who has been mute from the day God told him he would have a child, erupts in praise: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people.” And Simeon, holding the baby Jesus in his arms in the Temple, praised God saying: “My eyes have seen your salvation.”
These three great offerings of praise and thanksgiving – which in some parts of the church have become known as the magnificat, benedictus and nunc dimittis – have been felt as so inspiring that for centuries the church put them at the very heart of their morning, evening and night-time worship: inspirations to praise and worship God.
But it is not just in these three songs that praise and thanksgiving bursts forth from the early stages of Luke’s gospel. Its in Luke, that we discover the angels appeared in the heavens to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and their praise is echoed by the shepherds, who Luke tells us, returned from the stable “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” From the outset, Jesus’ coming is cause for celebration, for thanksgiving.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus brings joy to people’s lives. A blind beggar and a leper, both praise God for their healing, and the crowds, Luke tells us, join in too. And Jesus preaches of how joy comes through repentance: the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents; the joy of the father in welcoming back his prodigal son; the joy of the son in receiving the warm embrace of his father. And we see it too in the joy and thanksgiving of Zacchaeus as he repents and receives the love and forgiveness of Jesus, and of the criminal on the cross as Jesus promises him a place in paradise. Even in his death, an onlooking hardened centurion, is prompted to praise God.
And in case we had missed the message, the very final words of Luke’s gospel are these: “Jesus was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” Worship, joy, praise: the hallmarks of Luke’s Gospel. They are to be the hallmarks of our lives too.
If you are like me that can be quite a challenge. That’s why our first Lenten action is to each day this week stop and give thanks for all the good things we have received. To take time out to reflect on all that we can be thankful for, to consider what we can praise God for. Let us work at becoming a thankful, praising, people.
Luke also gives us a unique insight into Jesus’ prayer life. More than any other gospel, we encounter Jesus in prayer.
We find him praying by himself alone in a quiet place, and we find him, as in today’s reading, taking others – Peter, James and John – to pray with him.
We find him spending whole nights in prayer, such as before choosing his disciples, lengthy periods of prayer, such as in the garden of Gethsemane, and short, sentence prayers, like when on the cross.
We find him praying for himself, asking for relief from the suffering he is about to endure on the cross, and also praying for others. He tells Peter, for example, that he has prayed for him that despite his coming denials, his faith will hold firm and that he will come to be an inspiration to others.
He finds time to pray in the midst of the urgent and persistent demands of the crowds coming to him for healing, and he finds time to pray before making big decisions, such as who will be his disciples and will carry on his ministry after him.
He prays at times of great joy, for example when the disciples have returned from being sent out to share the good news of the kingdom, and he prays at times of great sadness and grief.
Sometimes his prayers lead to extraordinary things happening – at his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him and he hears God’s voice; and at the transfiguration, as he prays, Luke tells us “the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blindingly bright.” And yet at other times, such in Gethsemane, his prayers strengthen him but don’t change the course of suffering ahead of him.
Luke gives us a portrait of Jesus as a man of prayer, one that we can identify with, but also one that can inspire us in our own prayer lives. No wonder the disciples turned to Jesus and asked: “Teach us to pray.” Here was someone who knew what it meant to live and breathe prayer, in every place, in every circumstance.
And it is notable that it is Luke who records two of Jesus’ parables about prayer that are recorded nowhere else: the parable of the man hammering on the door at midnight until finally his friend gets up and gives him the bread he is wanting, and the parable of the widow who will keep on badgering the judge until she finally gets her case heard and receives justice. Both are parables of persistence, of keeping praying and asking of God, of living a continual life of prayer. We see this in Jesus, and we see it in the early life of the church. Persecuted as they were, they did not stop praying to God, asking God for boldness to preach his word.
As you read Luke’s gospel over Lent, allow the frequent references to Jesus in prayer to be an inspiration to you, inspiring you to pray alone and with others; to pray short sentence prayers and to put aside longer times; to pray amidst the busyness of life and to seek his will on big decisions; to pray for yourself, and to pray for others. Let us become a people of prayer, as well as a people of praise.
Finally, there is an important theme that Luke will develop far more in his sequel to the gospel, the book of Acts – that is the work of the Holy Spirit. As we read Luke’s Gospel it is worth noting the way that Luke shows Jesus to be one who is filled and led by the Holy Spirit, for in taking forward his ministry, it will be the disciples and the wider church who will be empowered in the same way.
So Luke tells us that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit – the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. The Holy Spirit descends on him at his baptism. It is the Holy Spirit who leads him out into the wilderness and strengthens him against the temptations he faces there. And when he returns from the wilderness to begin his ministry, he does so “in the power of the Spirit”. John the Baptist announces that it is Jesus who will come baptising people in the Holy Spirit, and after his resurrection he assures the disciples that they will “be clothed with power from on high” that they may be his witnesses throughout the world. And that is exactly what we see in our reading from the book of Acts this morning – as the disciples prayed, “the place where they were was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
After Easter we will be re-visiting the book of Acts and seeing how the Holy Spirit filled and empowered the lives of those first Christians. But for now it is enough for us to perhaps acknowledge that if Jesus needed the filling and empowering of the Holy Spirit, how much more us. Lent is a time when we become perhaps more aware of our weakness and failings. It is a good prompt to pray, that like Jesus, we may be filled and strengthened with God’s Spirit.
Luke’s Gospel is a gospel full of praise, prayer and the Holy Spirit. May our lives come to reflect the same.