Monday, December 3, 2012

Preparing the Way in a Broken World

In the third chapter of his gospel, Luke introduces John the baptist as a prophet. He does so by giving him the literary introduction typical of prophets. Consider the following:
"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzzah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." Isaiah 1:1
"On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal..." Ezekiel 1:2
"The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem." Micah 1:1
These are only a few of the introductions of the Old Testament prophets but they are enough to show that Luke is doing the same thing for John when he says:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
Not only does Luke give John a prophetic introduction. We also see in the next few verses that John does what prophets do; he calls Israel to repentance. Clearly, Luke wants us to see John as speaking on behalf of God in the same way that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets had done before him.

In addition to letting us know that John was a prophet, this prophetic introduction, like its Old Testament counterparts, also locates John's prophetic word in history. More than merely giving us a date for John's ministry (which any commentator will tell you it actually doesn't do all that well), it tells us something about the world in which this word from God came to John. It tells us that John ministers in a world where Rome reigns supreme, its power overwhelming and unquestionable. It is also a world in which the largely despised Herod Antipas serves as an underling of Roman power. In other words, it tells us that, not unlike the days of Israel's earlier prophets, Israel finds itself under the thumb of foreign rule. I imagine that for a first century audience the simple mention of the names of these rulers would have been a reminder of all they felt was wrong with their world.

In the midst of these hopelessly corrupt politics, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. This, I think, is an enormously important statement by Luke in its own right. That even as the Caesars and Pilates and Herods of the world seem to hold all the power, God still speaks. And of all places, God speaks not in the courts of rulers, the halls of power, or even in the religious spaces of temples but in the wilderness. Neither is John's message a profound one; a simple baptism signifying repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins. But Luke tells us that this is how God speaks.

Furthermore, the word that God speaks through John is one of deliverance from exile. Luke tells us that this is what was written about in the prophet Isaiah when he said:
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
These words come from Isaiah 40:3-5, verses which proclaimed the end of Israel's exile in Babylon. By quoting them here, Luke is letting us know that John prepares the way for the Lord who will bring about the end of Israel's exile.

It goes without saying that although we believe John's proclamation that Jesus is the one who has come to end our exile, that end has not yet come in its entirety. We still live in a world of Caesars, Pilates, and Herods though they go by different names. Luke teaches us that in all the corruption and complexity of the politics of our world,  God still speaks and God's kingdom will still come. We are a people who are called to prepare the way for our coming Lord by our own repentance leading to forgiveness.

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