In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
What I am Learning:
The usual frame for salvation is this: "individuals being brought into relationship with God so that they can go to heaven." This frame is terribly flawed and does not represent the witness of New Testament writers.
N. T. Wright has written that the context of the gospels is that the People of Israel were experiencing an "exile at home." What does this mean? It is a twist on the term Babylonian exile. Around year 700 the leaders and many of the People of Israel were taken to Babylon (modern day Iraq) to serve as slaves. During this time they wrote down the majority of the Hebrew Scriptures, wrote the first creation story, and of course, longed to be able to go home.
Here is song of lament from that time:
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows* there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
They longed to go back home. Isaiah comforted them and gave them hope in Isaiah 40 that the day would come when they could go back home, and road would be made smooth and straight to help them on the way.
What Wright means that Jesus' people were in a similar situation, only this time the exile took place in Palestine. Their farms were being taken away and people were forced to be day-laborers. The Temple leaders were selected and controlled by the Romans. Even the Torah, meant to bring a level of equality and harmony between people, was being used oppress the poor. Eighty-five percent of the people were poor, with ten percent being without resources.
So when John the Baptist begins his public ministry many saw him as a prophet like Isaiah, proclaiming a way towards freedom from the Roman Empire, freedom from their exile at home. I will write more about John's message next week, but I see John's message as this: before you can be free from the Roman Empire you need to be free within it.
The word salvation in Luke means "to rescue from a dangerous situation or to bring healing." The dangerous situation was not that people would not go to heaven when they died, it was the very real danger of losing their lives and their Torah inspired life while occupied by the Romans.
But salvation, rescue from danger, would not be just for them. While the bellies of the Romans were full, their souls were empty. When you benefit from and participate in a domination culture you may do okay for a while. But sooner or later you are the dog that's eaten —and soon the violence robs you of a rich life.
This frame of salvation could be called global salvation: God seeks to rescue us and all the world from the grip of domination culture and teach us to be truly human.
Global salvation seems foreign to all of us raised with the usual frame of what "salvation" means. This way of seeing things takes a lot more work.
But individuals are not left out. John was interested, as we will see next week, in the life of individuals and the power of changed individuals to change the larger culture. But salvation was about God's bringing healing and reconciliation to the whole nation, to all nation and between all nations.
Western Christianity's laser focus on individual salvation after death serves to blind us to our need for rescue from our own exile at home, our own participation in domination dog-eat-dog culture. Individuals are an important focus for God's global salvation they just aren't the only one. The Earth, the commons, the community, the culture are also important foci.
And where would our lives as individuals be without these?