Practicing the Better: The Shepherds

In the line of those connecting the light, life, and love of the first covenant to the second, we must not forget the shepherds.

They were the recipients of light–marvelous light–the glory of the Lord (Luke 2:9).  Their experience enlivened them to go and see for themselves what God (through another angelic visitation) had revealed to them (Luke 2:15).  Their journey to the manger was the first act of love expressed to Jesus by someone other than a family member.

Light, life, love–the practice of the better.  The story of it continues in ordinary people.  Ordinary holiness is the way of God, with everyone invited to be an instrument of God’s peace.

Mary, Luke tells us, pondered all this in her heart (2:19)–pondered the fact that ordinary people (like herself, like Joseph, and the shepherds) were God’s megaphones for announcing “good news of great joy” to the world. The practice of the better is still carried on the wings of joy by regular folks like you and me.

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Practicing the Better: Zechariah

Just as Joseph was an integral person in the story of light, life, and love–so too was Zechariah.  The parallels between the character of the two men is noticeable. They both practiced the better incarnationally.

Zechariah adds additional instruction to the picture in relation to the priesthood.  Long before we see the conflicts between the religious leaders, expressed toward both John and Jesus, we are shown that there were priests who got it–who recognized what God was doing, and blessed what was happening. Zechariah was likely the first.

Specifically, the prophecy of Zechariah confirms the continuation of the covenant in all that was happening (Luke 1:72)–a continuation characterized by light, “the dawn from on high” that was breaking into time, giving “light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79).  Like Joseph, Zechariah took his place as one who would practice the better and be a witness to light, life, and love. He did this for thirty years, until the time his son would move out to be God’s first prophet in four hundred years.

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Practicing the Better: Elizabeth

On our way from the first covenant to the second, Elizabeth is another person who reveals the practice of the better  As Mary’s cousin and beloved friend, she incarnated life, light and love herself and was part of God’s work in her own right, as the mother of John the Baptist.

On the day the two pregnant women met, they rejoiced in each other’s unexpected favor.  And Elizabeth confirmed Mary’s blessedness in a beautiful exclamation, accompanied by John’s “leaping for joy” in her womb (Luke 1-42-45).

When it comes to practicing the better, Elizabeth reminds us that one aspect of doing so is rejoicing in another person’s good fortune.  Sometimes people see God blessing others, and they become jealous.  Such people rarely declare their jealousy out loud, but their saying nothing speaks for itself. Elizabeth shows that practicing the better includes opportunities to tell someone, “I am so happy for you!”

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Practicing the Better: Joseph

Light, life, and love were incarnate in Joseph just as they were in Mary.  The phrase that reveals it is Matthew’s description of him as a righteous man (1:19).  Inwardly and outwardly, he was a man of integrity.  Our practice of the better (our conduct) is always rooted in the soil of our character.  Joseph personified it.

We have none of his words to use in describing his instruction about light, life, and love.  Joseph taught these things in his actions, summarized in his willingness to believe the unbelievable, and act accordingly.  Joseph practiced the better with his non-judgmental maintenance of his relationship with Mary.

As the story of Joseph clearly shows, his practice of the better arose from a deep attentiveness to God–an attentiveness which was surely stronger than what his natural mind and emotions would have counseled him to do.  He followed the guidance of his dreams, married Mary, and accepted his call to be the human father of the Son of God. Joseph accepted his own set of risks risks and put his reputation on the line, just as Mary did. He is a reminder that in the practice of the better, there are times when actions speak louder than words.

Together, Mary and Joseph loved and cared for Jesus, establishing the home where he grew (Luke 2:39-40), reminding us in their life together that there is no finer practice of the better than to be good parents.  

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Practicing the Better: Mary

When I think of Mary, I see light, life, and love combined in her.  Gabriel’s description of her as “favored one” (Luke 1:28) uses the Greek word for grace.  She is a “graced one”–from which the Church declares, “Hail Mary, full of grace…”. The Orthodox Church captures it in the notion of her shining with grace.

Her instruction about life, light, and love is contained in what we call her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  It is a many-splendored passage.  With respect to life, light, and love it has many insights, but the word “magnify” (1:46) will suffice for this post.  Practicing the better, being a God-bearer (of light, life, and love) includes going into those places and to those people whose vision of God is too small, and “enlarging” their views and experiences.

In words close to those penned today by Walter Brueggemann, Mary’s magnification/enlargement meant the end of fallen-world empires.  The proud are scattered, the high-and-mighty are dethroned, the lowly are exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty.  Mary’s song provides the bridge from the first Covenant to the second.  The transformative dynamics of light, life, and love which we have seen in the Old Testament flow into the New.  The practice of the better is in relation to the coming of the new creation.

And we must not fail to see that Mary’s practice of the better began and continued in risk–the risk of her pending marriage to Joseph, the risk of being shamed and shunned by her family and friends, and the risk of her loss of reputation–being nowhere close to “full of grace.” in the eyes of others.  Similarly, we must often practice the better with a willingness to take risks.

Mary’s practice of the better, her willingness to risk everything, is summarized in her response to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me as you have said” (1:38).  We too are called to practice the better in the knowledge that we are God’s servants, at God’s disposal to be instruments of peace in whatever ways we can, wherever we are, and to all.

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Practicing tbe Better: The Genalogies

[Foreword–The posts for the New Testament will explore the themes of light, life, and love.  We will do this by looking at the Genealogies, Mary, Joseph, Zecharaiah,  the Magi, John the Baptist, Jesus, the early Christians (Acts), Paul, Peter, James, and John.  We will look at each of these relative to their incarnation (embodiment) and their instruction (teaching) about light, life, and love]

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The Gospel began before the gospels were written.  All four gospel writers bear witness to this. Two of them (Matthew and Luke) do so through the use of genealogies.  Far from merely being an interesting list of Jesus’ ancestors, they are where the New Testament begins in continuing the look at life, light, and love.  We begin here as well.

Light, life, and love are incarnated in all sorts of people. The genealogies include well-known and unknown people. Women are included in Matthew’s list, as are Gentiles. The practice of the better is not reserved for a particular gender, people group, the prominent, or the few.  It is something we are all called to do.

Light, life, and love are a legacy of goodness to be passed on. Each name represents a generation, and each name is a link in the larger chain of history.  The genealogies show how one person after another was faithful to the Old Testament admonition to “Teach your children.” The practice of the better has traveled down the corridors of time into the present moment.  It is not meant to stop here.

Light, life, and love create a sense of family.  “Wherever they are, God is”  In Matthew, the list is set in the context of Abraham’s and David’s family, while in Luke the list is in relation to Adam and to God–the universal human family.  Each of us practices the good in the context of community, as heirs of the insights and witness of those who have preceded us, and as benefactors to those who come after us.  

The genealogies teach us that it is light, life, and love–together–yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

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Prscticing the Better: The Very Good Gospel

Lisa Sharon Harper’s book, ‘The Very Good Gospel’ provides the bridge for extending our look at practicing the better from the Old Testament into the New Testament. [1]  Her choice to use the phrase ‘very good’ is indicative of her view that just as ‘very good’ was the way the creation was described when it was fulfilled on the seventh day, so to it is the way of naming the New Testament as providing the fulfillment of the Message on the ‘seventh day’ (‘sabbath rest’ day referred to in the Book of Hebrews) of the new creation.  This has some significant implications.

First, it tells us that as we move into the New Testament, we do not leave the Old Testament behind.  Walter Brueggeman has rightly noted that the word ‘new’ does not meant that the ‘old’ is discarded, but rather fulfilled–the very thing Jesus said about himself and his ministry (Matthew 5:17). [2]. This is one reason why the Christian Bible contains both Testaments.  Like a progressing drama, it is one message in two acts.  And that is ‘very good.’ Nothing we have seen about practicing the better in the Old Testament will be displaced or discarded in the New.

Second, it tells us that ‘very good’ is the abiding trajectory that we follow as we move into the New Testament.  The writer of Hebrews rightly said that we do not see all things in subjection to God (sometimes, far from it), but we do see Jesus, and we follow him into the new creation, the final culmination of all things in God, the new creation (Hebrews 2:8-9).  
We follow the trajectory which light, life, and love set for us.  It is set for us initially (in the four gospels) and ultimately (e.g. Colossians 1:15-20) in the incarnation of Jesus–the Word made flesh, the Cosmic Christ (second person of the Trinity,) who personified light, life, and love.  As we follow him (i.e. live “inChrist”) we see the One in whom the practice of the better was fully revealed.  Upcoming posts turn to Jesus, the Christ–who is himself, ‘the very good gospel.’

[1] Lisa Sharon Harper, ‘The Very Good Gospel’ (Water Brook, 2016).

[2] Brueggemann notes this in various places in his writing.

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