The Death of Pessimism (A Reflection on Luke)

Two thousand years ago, in a small town in a backwater province on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, a child was born. His birth was foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (9:6-7).

Everything about the birth of this child was rich with paradox: a king who was born to common folks, the Son of God, born of a virgin, yet lain in a feeding trough. The angel of the Lord and a heavenly host appear—to shepherds, who travel to Bethlehem to see the savior, Christ the Lord (2:12). No true king would be born in this way, and yet this one was. Jesus’ kingship is the deconstruction of kingship, and his life and death would reflect the same upside-down logic as his birth. He declares the poor to be God’s blessed. He proclaims God’s justice for those who hunger, those who are weeping, and he teaches that is it good when people hate you, when they exclude you (6:20-22). That will be the inevitable result of living in God’s reality. You will act, think, and speak differently than others, and they won’t like it. He teaches that we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. We are to pray for those who abuse us (6:27-28). He tells stories about a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one, a father who shows ridiculous forgiveness to his sons, a compassionate Samaritan, and a tax collector who finds God’s favor in humility. He is a healer who is wounded for our sin. He saves others, but cannot (will not) save himself (23:35). His death is not the end of the story, but a new beginning. God defeats death through Jesus’ resurrection, and his departure does not hinder the work of his followers, but empowers it (Acts 1:8).

Luke’s Gospel is such a strange, surprising, disturbing, and wonderful story. It confuses and disorients us, so accustomed are we to a world that teaches us to look first to our own interests. It is a story of miracle after miracle: a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin; lepers healed; a storm stilled; food multiplied; demons cast out… And yet there are other miracles that do not baffle the laws of nature, but human nature: to favor those who are least and lost, to live in humility when entitled to honor, to give of oneself out of love for others, to sell one’s possessions and give alms….These are miracles as well in a world bent to sinning as ours is, and as Christ’s was.

It is a great tragedy when the church stops believing in miracles, both small and large. If Luke teaches us anything, it is that, in Jesus Christ, God entered into the messiness of human life and showed us what it looks like when God’s way of doing things supplants our own. That is a miracle, and without it, Christianity is nothing more than a set of shallow platitudes. There is a constant pull within us to do things our own way and impose our own will upon the world, but that will never bring wholeness to ourselves or others. It will never really make the world better. God’s ways are strange to us, and yet they are nothing less than a great light to a people who walk in darkness. As God works upon our minds and reshapes old patterns of thinking, acting, and wanting, we are made to think in terms of God’s upside-down world. Things don’t have to be “the way they’ve always been.” The stranger is our friend. The enemy is one for whom we pray. Cynicism is shown to be a liar, and pessimism is put to death. In Christ, we see that the world is messy and painful and gluttonous, but God is present in the mess, redeeming and sanctifying, turning blunders into beauty and the ordinary into the extraordinary.

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