The writer of Luke’s gospel wastes no time in getting to his theme of spreading the gospel message to a wider audience than Israel. You might remember that Jesus was always telling his disciples that time was running out so fast that they did not have time to even cover the whole of Israel.
But this was now very much in the past as far as Luke is concerned. The death and resurrection of Jesus has taken place and with the wonderful asset of hindsight he can tell his readers that the message is being spread among the people.
Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the time of the gentile kings or wise men submitting to the Jesus child. It is the first indicator that Luke is interested in proclaiming that the message is not confined to Jews, but is now accepted by outsiders the gentile nations, of which the writer of Luke is one member. The message of Jesus, he is telling us, is there to embrace the whole of the wider world.
Quite clearly the rest of this world, in spite of what Luke says, is not much interested in being embraced. Go to Iraq or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia among a host of other nations and see just how well you get on in embracing them with the story of Christianity.
The vigorous Western nations of Christianity that have become so unpopular in the world have, in an odd way, helped create the organizations that are now so feared. It is not just that Islam thinks it ought to be the faith by which we all should live, but that it sees itself under threat from Christianity.
The wealth that Christians have managed to acquire over the past five hundred years they now see as a power that will crush Islam. Extremist Islamic groups have proliferated in the last twenty years or so, and all are intent on destroying the western nations and the seat of what they believe is the force of evil in the world.
Should we be surprised?
This is hardly a new phenomenon. We only have to read Luke to see that we have had all this before. John the Baptizer was a considerable force in his lifetime and many people wondered if he might be the Messiah that was promised by God to bring a new order into the world. He was the equivalent of the Christians in the center of a Muslim scene. He was a radical in a world that was controlled by Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Temple headed by the Chief Priests.
Just as Islamic militants have resisted Christianity and Judaism, so the Herod, Pilate, Temple Triad resisted John the Baptizer … especially Herod, who was being made to look foolish by John in front of his subjects. John made Herod look as though he were not in control, so Herod felt he had to take matters into his own hands, and he had John arrested, and later beheaded, in order to forestall any further trouble and prove he was the one with the power.
John was an Essene, or at least followed much of the Essene teaching by declaring that a Messiah was coming into the world. Such a Messiah, said John, following traditional teaching, would be King of the Jews. Hardly the news that Herod wanted to hear.
Bin Laden thinks that George Bush has declared himself king of the Arab nations, and he has reacted as violently as Herod did when faced with what he believed was a terrible threat. Neither Herod nor Bin Laden want rivals.
When John warns that fire will come and burn up the chaff, he is talking about Herod being destroyed. The gentile kings may have come bearing precious gifts, but Herod came with a sword as his contribution to the party.
Both John and Jesus preached that another would come to do the actual inauguration of the apocalyptic change to the world when a new age would be ushered in. However, Luke thinks that Jesus was the one to whom John refers, so he stays with John’s story of someone following him and declares that it is Jesus who is the Messiah, and makes Jesus into the Son of Adam, the expression Jesus uses to mean the person who will make the final changes.
The result is that the concluding message of Jesus — and the Christians who followed him — is so complete, so overwhelming, so all-embracing, so final, that those who come up against it are either swallowed up by it or they turn to become its mortal enemies because they feel threatened by it.
The US and other western nations are so convinced that their culture is right … so certain that the western ways are just and fair … so sure that the world must follow the Christian path if it is to survive and we are to have justice and peace, that there is little room for debate and negotiation.
But do I need Obama or Bin Laden to tell me what faith I must follow or be bullied or terrorized into accepting? Here we have two faiths, Christianity and Islam, that are both convinced of their worth and both are out to include the whole of humanity in their membership.
Can they live together … it seems they cannot.
Jesus reminds us that by their fruits you know them … it does not need a huge intellect to know that, when there are men of extremes in the world, they may resort to violence to support their empires. Although the good we seek is self-supporting, and has the backing of God, those under threat usually fail to take the moderate view that God will win in the end and they look to short circuit the worlds events as did the Zealots that came after Jesus in Israel.
What we must remember is that, out of Israel’s long-recorded history, stands the prophetic awareness that the more obvious is God’s goodness and ways of justice and peace, then the greater will be the terrible reaction against it by those whose ways are malevolent.
As we said at Christmas … Christ brought light into a dark world and those who were afraid of the light ran to shut the light off and out as soon as they were able and do so by any means they could muster.
In this season of Epiphany, we should keep in mind that, when we preach what is good, there will be those who want to silence us. Indeed our preaching will in itself create opposition just as John found his opposition in Herod and Jesus in the Temple. Not everyone is going to welcome the King of Light and his kingdom of Godly goodness.
My comfort against those who want to destroy the world is the solid realism of the Scriptures … learn what this world is like by reading the Bible more often, because in its pages lies a great deal of down-to-earth practicality of what this life is like and what we should expect if we continue to preach the message of Christ crucified.