Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.”
Here again we have the embryo of the liturgy, showing how the liturgy is not some random assemblage of words written out by some random monk in the 600s, but is truly the world of the Bible brought to life in the moment of today. Without the liturgy, church becomes simply a mental act of remembering – in keeping with the doctrine of communion in non-liturgical settings. It even becomes an act of phantasm projection, as we attempt to “get back into the moment” of time in Jesus’ day and imagine what we would have done or how we would have reacted. Whatever the case, the assumption is that today is far removed from the authentic moment when Jesus was on earth.
The liturgy is something other than this. The liturgy brings the Gospel moment into today, even as today connects to the living Lord of the Church sitting at the right hand of the Father. It’s not a remembrance, but a real presence. The Gospel through the liturgy creates a new world into which we step.
In the context of the Gospel of Jesus raising the widow’s son, and the reaction of the people, we are given to join them, or they us, as fear comes upon us, as we glorify God, and as we confess that Jesus is God visiting us.
And there’s your liturgical embryo. “Fear came upon all.” That’s how the liturgy begins. We realize we’re in the presence of the Lord God. Fear leads to a confession of sins and a prayer for mercy. “They glorified God.” We’ve spoken much about this, how central this is to the Church’s worship. It fulfills the Old Testament prophecy that all nations would glorify the name of the Lord. Then there’s the time of confession, “God has visited His people.” Yes, the Son of God, our Lord, is conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and has come down to us.
We confess He’s come down to us in the creed, and we testify to His presence in His own testament, on the altar, through bread and wine. It’s His visitation.
The phrase, “God has visited His people” is Luke’s way of proclaiming the incarnation. Again, Luke perhaps has the weakest foundation of Jesus’ divinity in the Gospels – we strain to find that simple proof text in his opening chapters which teaches the incarnation. Matthew reveals the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.” John has the passages, “The Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Even Mark, though not as clear, starts off with John the Baptist proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” even as he prepares the way for Jesus.
Luke’s emphasis is on Jesus as the Son of God, and you can hear nay-sayers saying, “The Son of God is not the same thing as God.” Such are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and liberals. But Luke reveals Jesus’ divinity in other ways, and it comes deeper in the Gospel.
Three times the idea of “God visiting His people” comes up. First with Zacharias’ canticle: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people.” The second comes in that same canticle: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us.”
The Dayspring is the Messiah, and His way is prepared by repentance and baptism, which gives the forgiveness of sins. This is where the Lord visits His people.
The idea of God visiting His people first comes up with Joseph promising the Lord will “visit” Israel and bring them to the Promised Land. Exodus was God’s visitation, when God came to save them from slavery. A Psalm says God visits the earth when it rains. Through the proclamation of the Gospel to gentiles, the book of Acts tells us, the Lord visited the gentiles.
The Greek word for “visit” is also used in more mundane contexts, but always in acts of mercy. “I was sick and you visited me.” Pure religion is “to visit orphans.” Paul and Barnabas visited the places where they had preached the Word.
Finally we get to our Gospel: “God has visited His people.” As we’ve seen, what this looks like is Jesus having compassion, becoming unclean, and conquering death – sort of the entire Gospel in a nutshell! Jesus is God coming down in the flesh to bear our unclean-ness and give us eternal life.
The picture emerging of God visiting His people is still not quite a clear doctrinal statement that Jesus is God, at least not the sort of statement we perhaps would like. If God visited His people through John the Baptist, through Moses, through rain, through the preaching of the Gospel, through a visit to an orphanage, or through a visit to the sick, then surely the fact that God visited the widow through Jesus need not be interpreted as a statement that Jesus is God anymore than we would say Moses, John the Baptist, or the rain is God.
Yet, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Luke is expanding the doctrine of the incarnation out of the systematic books. The doctrine of the incarnation isn’t just an academic exercise for catechism class. It’s something permeating the Christian life. It’s the foundation of the ministry – he who receives one who Jesus sends receives Him. It’s the foundation of sanctification – we become the hand of God as we visit orphans, widows, and the sick. It’s even the foundation of natural occurrences that bless us – Jesus fills all things in heaven and on earth, sends rain on the good and evil alike, and feeds us our daily bread.
We have to be careful with this way of thinking, because we never want to have God “leak” out of Jesus’ flesh and blood, such that where God ends and we begin is unclear, or fuzzy, and we begin to think of ourselves as God, or God’s hands, or God’s faces. So we need to make clear and distinct that the way God is present in Christ and “visits” us is unique and wholly other than the way He is present and visits us through the ministry, the rain, and our visits to orphans.
The problem manifests when ministers develop personality cults, when we worship nature, or when we turn deeds of love and sanctification as the essence of Christianity, rather than the Person of Jesus Christ. This is God leaking out of Christ into something else, so that it becomes confusing where God ends and we begin.
Luke certainly centers God’s presence in Jesus Christ, like when the Samaritan leper worshiped Him, and so should we. But Luke also articulates a ripple effect of God’s demarcated presence in Jesus Christ. It ripples out through the ministry in its proclamation of the Gospel, and through acts of mercy.
The doctrine of the incarnation is not an isolated doctrine, but a permeating one. However, the danger of isolating it is not when we focus on it, but the reverse, when we isolate it as one of many theological doctrines – this is God leaking out of Christ and into other doctrines; God is not seen solely centered in Christ and rippling out but rather through all sorts of isolated doctrines, like the incarnation, sanctification, and so on. What this looks like is the church that focuses on, say, good actions you can do as a Christian, and, if you want to find out what they believe about Christ or the Trinity, you can check out their “what we believe” page on their website.
When Christ is center and God’s actions through the other doctrines ripple out from Him, that looks like, well, that looks like the liturgy. Always the liturgy centers on the Triune God and God’s incarnated presence in Christ – in its canticles, creeds, and rites – and the climax of that action, holy communion, results in our prayer to have fervent love for one another – that is the basis for the Christian’s life in the world. (Read Mother Theresa quotes on this truth.)
“God has visited His people.” This means Jesus, of course, as God’s incarnated Person on earth, but it also wraps into it the life of the Church. The Church is the place of God’s visitation today, in the testimony of those who fear and glorify Him. As the Psalm says, the Lord is “Enthroned in the praises of Israel.” Luke’s Gospel subtly articulates a doctrine of the incarnation not isolated, but permeating the entire life of the Church.