Believing in Jesus is very hard. It’s not hard to believe that Jesus existed – that’s easy to do – almost everyone believes that there was a man called Jesus 2000 years ago and that he had a significant group of followers – but , believing ‘in’ Jesus is much harder. For a start what does it mean … to believe in someone?
St Luke’s gospel begins:
Many people have drawn up an account of what has been fulfilled among us, .. and so with this in mind, , I have decided to write you an orderly account as well – , so that you too may know the certainty of what you have been taught.
Luke’s point in writing Luke’s Gospel is so that we can know …. and so that we can be certain … so that we can believe. …. and by the end of Luke’s Gospel 24 chapters later the disciples, who’ve been on quite a rocky road- are all worshipping Jesus and praising God … they’ve finally worked out who he is. They believe in him … although like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus they didn’t actually get it until the very last chapter!
You might say that’s true of life as well – as long as we finally get it by the last chapter we’re OK.
So St Luke takes us on a long journey so that we can know and understand who Jesus is. Jesus tells us that he has come to ‘ proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free.
And so, for the next few chapters he does exactly that … he starts off by healing outcasts and sinners, – the poor – then he starts teaching a new message about love and forgiveness, and then he starts welcoming Gentiles into his band of followers. He even cures a blind beggar just to make it all blatantly obvious. Jesus is the person Isaiah was writing about – or at least St Luke wants us to think that Jesus is the person Isaiah was writing about.
But the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are very odd – they’re the stories about Jesus being born and growing up- the Christmas stories. and it looks as if Luke’s Gospel had originally started at chapter 3, and then someone handed him a bunch of other stories about the Virgin Mary, the Angel Gabriel, about how John the Baptist was born, about Shepherds visiting the birth, and then today Candlemas – the presentation of Jesus in the Temple when Jesus was just 40 days … the first two chapters end with the adolescent Jesus going back to the Temple when he’s about 12 years old to talk with the scholars and show how wise he is.
So why did Luke agree to put them in? Well, he might just have wanted to make sure that his Gospel was the biggest and best and had all the material in it. – That’s possible.
In a previous sermon I’ve already said that I hold a minority view that Luke was upset, or angry, or whatever when Matthew missed them out his Gospel and wrote different stories instead about Joseph and the Wise Men. But I think there’s more to it than that.
So first of all Luke likes women. In Matthew’s Gospel the angel announces to a man – Joseph… and in Luke’s Gospel – the angel announces to a woman – Mary.
In Lukes Gospel it is a women who is the first other person to recognise who Jesus is and believe in him – even before he was born: – that’s Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.
And throughout the Gospel Luke will go on to stress the importance of women in the New story.
Secondly Elizabeth and her rather dumb husband Zacharias , rather like old Simeon and old Anna in the temple respresent the very best of the old tradition – in Luke’s eyes – Temple and prophecy – The name Elizabeth means promise, the name Zacharias means remember, the name Simeon means listen and the name Anna means Grace – and Simeon and Anna are both able to recognise Jesus even when he is just a baby:
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a quote from Isaiah 49 and a nice little play on words by Simeon – or Luke – with the name of Jesus – yeshua – and the word for salvation which is also Yeshua. Simeon – like Anna – has come to believe ‘in’ Jesus.
Unfortunately, however, it’s not all sweetness and light. Simeon knows that the road ahead will not be easy – not for Jesus, not for his mother Mary, not for any of his followers.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
And St Luke knows this too, and so Luke’s Gospel will trace the opposition Jesus meets from religious leaders and from people in power. When Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors people will criticise him. When Jesus mixes with prostitutes people will criticise him. Today I think we would say that when the church gets its hands dirty and mixes with drug addicts, difficult people, criminals and people with a wild sex life – then people will criticise us. Jesus was not very respectable – and that’s always been a problem for an established church.
So his Gospel – his Good News for the poor – will show an endless series of events and teaching – healings of untouchables, parables about good samaritans and prodigal sons, about lost sheep and lost coins – and only Luke has the penitent thief on the cross next to Jesus – a genuine criminal – going into Paradise.
Ultimately Jesus was not the kind of messiah the people wanted. They wanted someone who would kick out the Romans, punish criminals and establish law and order, stand up for the people against their enemies – and lead them all in worship. It took them a long time to believe in the real Jesus – and I think it’s still taking us a long time yet.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington