November has arrived, and people are getting in the Christmas mood, just as the first batch of mince pies that hit the shelves back in July is tipping over its best before date. I’m still trying to hold off a little longer… but my resistance is being tested. Not by the lights, sounds and adverts, but by the fact that I’ve begun reading Luke’s gospel this week, which has thrown me straight into the Christmas narrative.
One of the things that struck me about re-reading Luke 1 was not actually to do with Christmas, but to do with the sovereignty of God. I’d never noticed this before, but both Luke and Acts open with an act of cleromancy, that is the casting of lots.
The reference in Acts is well-known. Judas, having betrayed Jesus, took his own life, and in order to fulfil Psalm 109:8, the Apostles determined, ‘let another take his office’. So they put forward two options, the abundantly-named Joseph (who was also called Barsabbas and Justus) and Matthias. Having prayed,
‘they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.’(Acts 1:23-26)
I’ve always found this a peculiar passage, since it is so different to how decision making and leadership appointments are conducted through the rest of the New Testament. In Acts 6:3-6, the deacons were chosen by human decision, since they fulfilled the criteria of being full of the Spirit and wisdom. In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, and the process was accompanied by prayer and fasting, but no casting of lots. The epistles don’t ever suggest casting lots as a method for choosing and appointing elders.
Presumably the reason for the difference is two-fold. Firstly, this scene precedes Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all believers. From Pentecost onwards lot-casting no longer features in the New Testament, despite having been mentioned over 80 times in the Old. There seems to be something about the free availability of the Spirit, the gift of prophecy that we are all encouraged to eagerly desire (1 Corinthians 14:1), and the giving of the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:10-16), which renders this practice no longer necessary or appropriate.
But secondly, there is something unique about the twelve, which differs from all other future leaders in the church. Since Jesus had handpicked the original twelve, it would be inappropriate for the twelve to choose the replacement themselves. So Acts 1 emphasises the Apostles’ belief that Matthias is Jesus’ own choice, not the result of chance:
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”(Acts 1:24-25)
Even if the process seems odd to us, the rationale behind it is clear. The Apostles believed that Jesus himself was able to influence the outcome of the casting of lots in order to bring about his sovereign will.
What struck me this week was that Luke begins his gospel with much the same idea.
At the beginning of his gospel, Luke introduces us to Zechariah and Elizabeth; a righteous couple, who lacked and longed for a child. When Zechariah was ministering in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and declared that their prayers had been answered and they would have a child who they would name John.
We’re told that Zechariah was a priest of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Priests were divided into 24 divisions and each served in the Temple for two weeks a year, with all of them serving together at the peak festival times. You can read more about the divisions in 1 Chronicles 24, and should you be interested, someone on wikipedia has calculated all the future dates when the divisions should be scheduled to work up until Summer 2024 (?!)
The point is, there were two weeks of the year, six months apart, when Zechariah would be in the Temple, and it ‘just happened’ that his shift fell at the right time for God to start a chain reaction of announcing Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which would then also intersect with the annunciation to Mary and the birth of Jesus, which in turn would line up with political decisions such as a Roman-world census, and natural events such as the appearance of a very particular star in the sky. How fortunate!
But it wasn’t simply that Zechariah was serving in the Temple at the right time; he was also alone at the altar of incense. How did that come about? Twice a day, priests were required to make incense offerings, before the morning sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice (Exodus 30:7-8) and Luke tells us that,
‘While he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, [Zechariah] was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.’(Luke 1:8-10)
Zechariah was in the right place at the right moment because of a seemingly random process; the casting of lots. I don’t know how many priests were in the division of Abijah, so I can’t calculate the odds, but if it were left to chance it would not be likely. The clear implication is that God’s sovereign hand presides over workplace rotas and seemingly-random selection processes. All of them bend the knee to His will.
Whatever practical questions and rabbit-hole-thought-experiments this may raise for us (Is it ever appropriate to cast lots today? Does God’s sovereignty cover every role of a dice? Does God decide which sports team will win a match? Does God control who I get in Secret Santa? etc…) Luke is deeply convinced of the sovereign power of God, and that no forces, including chance, will stand in His way. He begins both of his two books by demonstrating it. Luke doesn’t even argue for God’s sovereignty; he simply assumes it and displays it through narrative.
All of this calls to mind a third instance of lot-casting in Luke’s gospel. A throwaway line in Luke 23:
‘And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.’(Luke 23:33-34)
This is the moment when the sovereignty of God seems most at threat, when His plans and purposes seem defeated and bleeding-out, as people gamble to divide up the clothes of the failed Messiah. Christ is stripped and shamed on the cross, and the ownership of his clothing is subject to a game of chance. But even in this moment, God remains in control.
Jesus is not there by chance, but by the sovereign plan and will of God, working even through the hands of those who hated him, including Judas, who would himself go on to be replaced by the casting of lots.
Like Zechariah, whose fate was also shaped by the casting of lots, Jesus is performing the priestly role for which he has been appointed; offering his own life as the ultimate sacrifice. And it rises like incense to the heavens. A pleasing aroma that fills the throne room of the Sovereign God.
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