Luke 1:16-17 NIVHe will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
The focus of both Elijah and John’s ministry was not signs and wonders. I am not aware of any miracles attributed to John. These verses clearly state what their life work was all about, what is the passion of all who God regards as “great.” They tell us much about what is important to God, what is his agenda. They give us a clue as to what we too should be committed to, what our priorities should be, if we want to pursue the things of God.
There is a human longing in may of us to be “great.” Not least doctors, who are high achievers, ambitious, seekers of excellence. Many of us long to achieve great things, to make a difference, to be remembered. Luke was a doctor, but he is not remembered primarily for his medical achievements. Even if medicine is what we give the largest part of our time to every day, it may well not be our primary focus in life. Neither should the pursuit of excellence in medicine be our obsession if our goal is spiritual greatness. These few verses give us a clue as to what should occupy our thoughts and our lives.
Israel was God’s nation. The nations around knew Israel as the people with one God, a God so great they barely dared mention his name, referring to him simply as “The Lord.” But what is clear from this passage is that many in Israel were far from their God. It is the same today. Christianity, which is the new Israel, is a transnational movement which has brought millions of non-Jews, as well as Jews, to worship the same one God, the same Lord. Christendom is the name given to the collection of so called Christian nations, of which there are many. Even nominally secular nations that many of us live in are often referred to as Christian, because of their history and heritage.
But just as many Jews had drifted far from the Lord their God, many Christians have drifted far from God. It is easy to do. We live in a world where there are countless distractions, where even if we don’t actively turn our back on God it is easy to simply forget him in the clamour of everything else. This is particularly easy for us in the affluent West, where money, sex and power, and an abundance of material possessions, are so readily within our reach, and which so constantly cry out to be acquired and cared for, the gods of the modern secular world. It is easy for us to forget God. I am constantly guilty of this, and I am not alone. As a doctor I can also easily fall into the trap of letting medicine become a god that I worship. I begin to see medicine, and the science that underlies it, as the answer to the world’s problems. I easily turn away from God. I just have no time left over for him.
John and Elijah’s ministries were to people like me, people who had forgotten the God that once was the centre of their attention and their lives. They brought many back to the Lord their God, by what they did, what they said, how they were as men. There are two lessons we can learn from this: the first, that even we who are the people of God often need to be “brought back.” We need to expose ourselves to the prophets in our midst, the men and women of God who are sent to remind us of where our centre should be. We need to make time to go out (or stay in) and listen to what they are saying, whether that is in our church meeting on a Sunday, or whether it be any one of the multitude of other opportunities we all have to hear the word of God spoken into our lives.
Second, we need to realise that, if we too aspire to greatness, then turning others back to God will be a primary goal of our lives too. We may be doctors, we may be great in the medical world (or we may be ordinary), but medicine should never be our first love, and we should resist the temptation to believe that it is the solution to the problems of humanity. Our first priority should always be to “bring back many… to the Lord their God.” How we do this, in the places in which we find ourselves every day, will vary greatly. But we need to see God as the ultimate answer, and nothing and nobody else. Everything else, medicine, science, material security, everything, as important as these may be, are secondary. The Lord our God needs to be the centre of our hearts and minds. If we have let him be pushed out by something or someone else we need to refocus. If we see that others have slipped into the same error, we need to do everything we can to help them refocus. God must be at the centre.