New Testament: Gospels

The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) 

Reflections (Bethlehem, Christmas, Epiphany, Advent, Lent, Disciple, Prayer, Treasure, Sparrow, Widow’s Mite, Shepherd, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Doubting Thomas, Emmaus Road)        

At the end of the Old Testament, Malachi prophesies that before the Sun of Righteousness appears, Elijah will arrive to prepare the way. At the start of the New Testament, following the account of Jesus’ birth and childhood, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness to preach a message of repentance ahead of the arrival of the Messiah. Although John claims not to be Elijah, Jesus makes it clear that, in fact, he is (Matthew 11:14). Although four hundred years lie between these events, they appear seamless.

The New Testament starts with the Gospels – accounts of the life, teaching and works of Jesus and his disciples. The first three are ‘synoptic’ and consist mainly of factual overviews; the last (John) takes a more cosmic view of Jesus and offers a number of ‘signs’ which reveal who he truly was. Unfortunately, in three cases it is only possible to write a four-line acrostic, so it’s best to read at least one gospel in its entirety to get a fuller picture. Each gospel is distinctive and I have tried, however briefly, to capture its essence.

Matthew

Many flocked to John the Baptist (who was in fact ‘Elijah’), by the Jordan,
And when Jesus was baptised the Spirit descended on him like a dove.
Tempted for forty days in the wilderness, Jesus resisted Satan and began His ministry.
Then He chose twelve disciples, preached the Sermon on the Mount, taught about prayer,
Healed many, spoke in parables, warned of judgement and boldly entered Jerusalem.
Eventually the authorities bribed Judas to betray Him after a last supper with the disciples.
Walking the way of the cross, He rose from the grave and commissioned his followers.

Mark

Minimum detail, but maximum urgency, Mark tells a gripping account of how Jesus:
Appoints disciples, heals many, forgives sins, teaches in parables,
Refutes legalistic doctrine, commands the weather, is betrayed by a kiss.
King of the Jews was the ironic inscription above his thorn-crowned head.

Luke

Light of the World, announced by Gabriel; Mary’s soul magnified the LORD.
Unsettling traditions, Jesus ate with sinners, exalted the lowly, humbled the vain;
Kingdom values broke out wherever He went, culminating on the cross.
Emmaus-bound, the risen Lord explained to two travellers all that had happened.

John

Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, inextinguishable light
Only begotten son of God, preparing a room for us in Heaven
He is the door, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the resurrection
No-one comes to the Father except by Jesus – the way, the truth, the life.

REFLECTIONS

We might expect the gospels to start with the triumphant and imperial entry of a warrior-king, but instead Jesus arrives as a vulnerable baby. Here are two acrostics about the birth of Jesus, and one about the ‘epiphany’ (the arrival of gift-bearing wise men when Jesus was a toddler), i.e. the ‘revelation’ of Jesus to Gentiles.

Bethlehem

Business booms for innkeepers – this census of population
Emperor Augustus ordered has got the whole nation
Travelling, each family to their native city.
Hostels are crammed, inns full, there’s little pity
Lost on two stragglers, the girl pregnant, needing a bed.
Eventually there’s a hovel where she can rest her head;
Hoping for warmth, they find a chill stable instead.
Each huddles the other; they’d almost caught their death.
Mary gasps in labour – and angels hold their breath.

Christmas

Cold, fragile and aching, this carpenter’s wife
Held her defenceless newborn fearfully;
Responsible now for his every pulse of life,
Isolated from kinswomen, intuitively and tearfully
She somehow kept him warm and fed,
Tried settling him in a makeshift bed:
Motherhood was harsh on this young slip, barely wed.
And then, bearing awestruck certainties, sent to reassure,
Shepherds came rattling at the stable door.

Epiphany

Eastern magi crossed hills and deserts to seek a king,
Princes in their own realms, they brought a royal offering;
In distant Judaea they knew God would reveal his face,
Prophecy and star now combined to fix time and place.
Herod sought a death – to him, God’s new thing posed a threat,
Although the magi sought a revelation and became wiser yet.
Not all who see the Christ-child will accept him in their heart:
You must personally encounter his gift of a fresh start.

Many people lived in expectation of a promised Messiah who would liberate Israel from Roman occupation. John the Baptist, who had a powerful following amongst ordinary people, announced that ‘one greater than he’ would soon appear. He would not usher in an easy life, but would bring judgement and reckoning. Nowadays, we treat the period of Advent (the month before Christmas) as period of reflection on John’s solemn message.

Advent

After the old-style prophets had long gone,
Desert-dwelling, locust-eating, hair-clad John
Vented his venom on viperous visitors,
Excoriated extortioners, faced down inquisitors:
Now was the time to flee from the fire,
To bear fruit of repentance for the promised Messiah.

After Jesus had been baptised by John, he went into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil and to prepare for his earthly ministry. We remember this as another period of solemn reflection – Lent – which precedes Easter in the church calendar.

Lent

Love led Him to inhabit that wilderness of thirst
Empowered by the Spirit as Satan did his worst.
Now is the time to reaffirm our accord
To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.

Jesus then began to gather disciples to support him in his ministry. As Christians, we cannot stand still, but must become modern-day disciples prepared to follow where Jesus calls, and to give each other mutual support. This is an acrostic written for our church’s year of discipleship.

Disciple

Dare we risk opening up, sharing,
Intent on being mutually caring
Sisters and brothers – not fairweather
Christians, but friends growing together?
Inquiring, going deeper, seeking God’s will,
Praying, listening, then going deeper still
Learning what it means to be salt and leaven
Engaging with Jesus twentyfour-seven.

Prayer

The disciples asked Jesus how to pray. Perhaps they expected him to provide a formula for complex theological intercessions: instead, he gave them a simple family prayer which distilled the essence of the Kingdom (Matthew 6:5-15). Sometimes, carefully crafted intercessory prayers are appropriate, but too often we fall into the trap of thinking our prayers need to be long and complicated. This acrostic was inspired by some people in our church who have an easy, natural and implicitly trusting way of speaking to God.

Perhaps, more often, we should just listen, be still,
Receiving God’s guidance, expecting to be blessed
Accepting that God knows our needs and is eager to fulfil.
Yet when we do speak, God heeds even the simplest request –
Each childlike prayer is heard, for the prayer warrior’s skill
Rests in honest everyday words, not just our Sunday best.

The next acrostics reflect on some of the many parables that Jesus told.

Treasure

In the Bible, some people have to sell or give up everything in order to find treasure (e.g. Matthew 13:44)

The Kingdom of Heaven is like
Rare treasure hidden in a field:
Even if it costs everything, you may strike
A vein where pure gold is concealed.
Seek treasure that is safe from moth and rust
Ultimately, it is worth the endeavour.
Riches and wealth will end up as dust
Easter’s cache holds its value forever.

Sparrow

Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29,31)

Scratching amongst stubble after the gleaning
Provisioned by God, the sparrow finds grain,
Anxious for nothing, it’s pecking and preening,
Roosting and resting then flying again.
Restless people, when God’s intervening
Open your heart, offload your pain –
Wealthy is the life to which Jesus gives meaning.

Widow’s Mite

The poor have a central importance in the Christian faith: Jesus chose marginal people to take their place in history (Mark 12:41–44, Luke 21:1–4).

Why do we remember her, this solitary figure?
Is it because we see her as part of something bigger?
Destitute and stooped, at the margins of society,
Overshadowed by powerbrokers’ fake shows of piety,
Waiting on God, she unburdened her cares,
She had no need of fine robes or long prayers.

Many are the honours the rich receive on earth –
In cash and property we calculate their worth.
The marginalised, the displaced, the humble, the least,
End up being invited to Heaven’s feast.

Shepherd

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)

Sheep are wayward creatures, always wandering astray
Humankind is much the same, it’s in our DNA;
Ever envying, ever hankering after greener
Pastures – discontent is part of our demeanour.
Hirelings cannot save us, they’ll quickly run amok
Every time a ravening wolf threatens the flock.
Remember Jesus is The Gate, for both Gentile and Jew:
Didn’t he leave the ninety-nine, just to search for you?

The Gospels culminate with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Palm Sunday

People pack the streets to hail their Messiah
Adversaries keep their distance, out of the way,
Lying in the wings they plot and conspire,
Mobs are fickle, not too difficult to sway.

Scattered with palms, the way is strewed,
Upon the colt of an ass, Jesus prays yet grieves.
Now Israel divides, leaders collude,
Daringly, Joseph of Arimathea believes.
A judgement awaits you, you vipers’ brood,
You who made the temple a den of thieves.

Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, when Jesus gave his disciples a mandate – Mandatum – to love each other and share bread and wine. This acrostic is written as if addressed to the disciples.

Meeting for Passover one final time,
A sacrifice awaiting a traitor’s crime,
Upstairs, far from the madding crowd,
Night wrapped you tight in its ink black shroud.
Dipping your matzah in the blood red wine
You became quick branches in the Saviour’s vine.

Take, eat of my body, drink of my blood
He commanded. How little you understood;
Uneasily, you let him wash your feet.
Remembrance, from now, would be bittersweet –
Suffering in joy, receiving in giving,
Death to self as a new way of living.
A final command, ever old and ever new –
You were to love one another as He had loved you.

Good Friday

Golgotha was a wretched place that day.
One passer-by had helped Him bear the cross,
Others had succoured Him on the way,
Despairing their victory had turned to loss.

Flogged, mocked, spat upon, betrayed
Rejected, stripped, despised, disowned thrice –
In between thieves he hung. One, unafraid,
Deprecated Him for His futile sacrifice,
And the other, penitent, with whom Jesus prayed –
You shall be with me this day in Paradise.

Easter

Even though the cross had staunched His breath,
And the tomb had set its seal on brutal death,
Sins of men yet stung in wounds still fresh,
The word no longer dwelt with us as flesh –
Even these could not prolong that darkest night.
Resurrected life kindled the world alight.

Doubting Thomas

This was a difficult acrostic to compose but I felt it worth the struggle, because there’s a bit of ‘Doubting Thomas’ in us all. Actually, Thomas (also called Didymus) was a powerful disciple who, according to tradition, took Christianity eastwards towards India.

Didymus, the twin, was not in the room
On the Sunday of the empty tomb.
Unless he witnessed flank and limb
Believing wasn’t an option for him.
Then the Lord returned, dispelling doubt:
In front of all, He pointed out
Nailmarks and the spear’s
Gash, recalling God-forsaken tears.

Thomas rarely grasped things first time round –
His doubt was real, his faith profound.
Overwhelmed, humbled he confessed
My Lord and My God – and then was blessed.
And the twin became a saint of steel:
Sincere doubts oft make faith more real.

Luke’s gospel includes an account of two travellers walking along the road to Emmaus, who unwittingly walked and talked with the risen Christ (Luke 24:13-35). When they finally realised the identity of their companion, they said “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Emmaus Road

Every Sabbath they’d heard the age-old story
Many times the rabbi had read from Isaiah
Maybe this year, with great pomp and furore
Armies would arise, led by the Messiah.
Unwary, on the road, they encountered dirty glory
Suddenly the travellers’ hearts were afire.

Religious routine rarely reaps reward,
Only through relationship can our walk begin
And when you first encountered the risen Lord
Didn’t your heart strangely burn within?