Preaching the Gospel has its own agenda, and it creates its own relevance. This is true whether the Gospel is being preached from a pulpit, or being preached with the lives that are being lived by Christians. The announcement of the Kingdom of God, and living into that kingdom has its own timetable and its own priorities. Of course there is always a risk or a temptation that something else will determine what Christians say or how Christians live. There is always the possibility that some other agenda or a different set of priorities will impose themselves upon us.
Jesus himself endured scuh pressure:
. . . some Pharisees came to him and said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Herod has already killed John the Baptist. John’s challenge to Herod had been very specific. John had challenged the legality of Herod’s marriage to his ex-sister-in-law Herodias. Perhaps that experience had led Herod to realise that anyone who speaks truth as boldly as John had, and as Jesus was now doing, was a threat to anyone in power. And Herod’s power was especially vulnerable since the legitimacy that power could easily be challenged. Jesus quite rightly characterises Herod as “that fox.” Herod was both cunning and wanton in his use of brutality. Perhaps word of Herod raging in his Palace against the “new” John the Baptist had slipped out and reached the ears of the Pharisees. The pressure which Herod brings to bear against the Gospel is that he want it silenced, by any means possible.
The Pharisees’ role in this story is surprising. As a rule the Pharisees are Jesus’ must active opponents. And he, is their harshest critic. But on this occasion they approach Jesus apparently concerned for his safety. When an enemy acts as a friend, perhaps our suspicions should be aroused. Perhaps their motives are sincere. They of course have no more reason to like Herod, than John had or Jesus does, and for exactly the same reasons. There may be some degree of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” They had no desire to see anyone harmed by Herod. Or for all their opposition to Jesus, it was a sincere difference of opinion. Perhaps they disagree with Jesus, but that shouldn’t cost him his life, but be settled through honest debate. Or perhaps their motives were less noble. Herod’s threat could be useful to them. Whilst they may not (at this stage at least) want Jesus dead, they might be very pleased to have Jesus out of the way, so that they could carry on their mission unhindered by his criticism. Or perhaps they were just afraid. They too know that Herod is a fox, and they know that like a fox his violence can be indiscriminate. They don’t want to be too close to Jesus when Herod carries out his threat, for rear of being caught up in that violence themselves. We can’t know for sure, probably the Pharisees weren’t certain themselves. Perhaps like everyone else, they experience mixed motives.
The challenge to the Gospel that we experience is certainly not this dramatic. I doubt there is anyone near us who would like to see us dead because of our living Christians lives, or our speaking Good News. The pressures on us are more subtle. Much of the pressure we feel is because of the decline in the institutional church we have seen. As the church has grown smaller and smaller here, we have tried harder and harder to slow and reverse that decline. In those circumstances it has proved remarkably easy to be deflected from the agenda and priorities of the Gospel and replace them or at least confuse them with the agenda and priorities of institutional survival. Instead of living Christian lives and telling Good News, we find ourselves using all our energies to keep the church open.
One of the ways in which that pressure is experience is in a demand for the church to seem relevant and useful. We find ourselves called to speak out on issues of importance of the day. Those issues and events that are deemed important, not because of a Gospel agenda, but because the world at large is interested or excited by them. Because if it is on the television or in the newspapers or trending on the internet, it must important, and has to be dealt with right away. We lose faith in the idea that the Gospel has its own relevance and an importance all of its own regardless of what might be happening at any given moment. Or we try very hard to make ourselves useful. We do our best to meet those needs which the world and our society is failing to meet. Which may be good, but means that what we do is shaped by the failures of others rather than by the necessity that is imposed upon us by the Gospel. We find ourselves drawn into trying to make the world a better place or to reinforcing certain social orders which the world has decided are desirable. We find ourselves doing things that need and have no theological justification for them. We end upon living lives that could be lived whether or not the true and living God is real and had acted for us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus, of course, resists the pressure of Herod’s threat and the Pharisees’ concern, he says:
“Go tell that fox for me, ‘Listen I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the thrid day I finish my work.’”
Jesus has his own agenda, what he is doing has its own priorities. Jesus’ mission will not be shaped, or even redirected by any outside force. That is true whether the pressure comes from enemies, or even friends. The sole focus of Jesus’ ministry is the Kingdom of God. He draws attention to his work, his casting out of demons and his cures. Those are priorities set exclusively by the Gospel. Jesus’ purpose is to overthrow the power of evil and bring life in its fullness. That is an agenda which is set by his relationship with his Father. That is an agenda which is determined by the establishment of God’s rule on earth. Nothing will be deflect Jesus from that. Jesus does nothing which does not testify to the reality and purpose of the true and living God. The Gospel establishes its own relevance, it has its own agenda.
There is an opposite risk to the one of falling for some agenda other than the one which the Gospel sets. That is the risk of becoming inward looking. The risk that as we try to resist all the pressures imposed on us from the outside, we withdraw into ourselves. When we hear of all the things that the television, or the newspapers or the internet might tell us, and when we find that all of it is bad, we use the Gospel and the church as a means of escape. We create for ourselves in here a still small space of calm where we can pretend that all those things that frighten or disturb us can’t touch us. We run the risk that in resisting the agenda that the world might impose upon us, we become irrelevant. We can make it seem that the Gospel has nothing to say to the real circumstances that people actually find themselves in, and having nothing to contribute to any dicusion as to how our society or the world might be organised. There is an accusation that is often levelled against the view of the Gospel that I have just outlined. It is said of those who claim that the Gospel has its own agenda and creates its agenda are “sectarian.” The accusation is that such a way of seeing the Gospel inevitably leads to a withdrawal from the world into isolated groups who contribute noting to the world outside of themselves. And it is true that part of the church have fallen into an appearance of such irrelevance. But that is not how Jesus acts.
Jesus continues his refusal of the Pharisees’ request, saiyng:
“Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
Jesus will move on from the place where the Pharisees have met. But if and when Jesus does move on it will not be because the Pharisees have warned him, nor will it be because of Herod’s threat. Jesus will move on because that is where the demand of the Gospel takes him. It is very clear that Jesus isn’t trying avoid a threat to his life. He knows that threat is real, and more than once now he has predicted that that threat will be carried out. But the circumstances of his death will be determined not by those who want to kill him, but by the agenda established by his mission. Which means, in his own time, he must go to Jerusalem. He must go to the place where religion and political power intersect.
He has to go where both the temple and the seat of government are located, and confront the power of this world in both its political and its religious form, with the announcement of God’s Kingdom. The Gospel does not allow Jesus, or anyone else, to evade the demands and priorities of the world, but rather it brings Jesus and Christians into confrontation with them, on the Gospel’s own terms! The Gospel does not permit us to became a sect withdrawn from the mess that world is in. The church cannot be a comfortable escapism from those realities. But it does so by shaping us with its own priorities and agenda rather than those of the world. The Gospel has its own agenda and it creates it own relevance. That relevance is made by our shaped as witnesses to God’s Kingdom.