3In 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:
Luke knows how to name drop. The list at the beginning is naming all those in power during that time. Luke names them together - including the names of the Chief Priests - as the people of consequence.
It's as if he started it this way: Barak Obama was president of the United States, Janet Yellen was the Chair of the Federal Reserve, Francis was the Pope, John Watson was the head of Chevron Oil and Adele was number one on the charts.
Luke does this for two reasons: First to place these events in a social, economic, political and religious context. John's proclamation both emerged from and was directed to changing this context.
Second, Luke does this contrast the powerful folk with John, a nobody who lived in the wilderness with the Essenes - a group of people seeking to separate themselves from the increasingly Roman culture they felt was infecting the People of Israel.
The Word of God did not come to Caesar, or Pontius or Herod, or even the high priests.
The Word of God came to John, son of one of the priests at the temple who was struck deaf when he could not believe he and his wife could bear a son.
John called people out to the wilderness, to the birth-waters of the People of Israel in the land. The "wilderness" reminds us of the journey to freedom in the wilderness from slavery in Egypt. The "wilderness" reminds us of the journey to freedom after the Exile in Babylon. Both of these journeys to freedom required deep change in the People of Israel. They had to move physically. More deeply they had to change their vision of what the world could be like.
While their current situation might not require them to move physically, they would need to go through a change just as deep as when they escaped Egypt and Babylon. N.T. Wright has written that they were experiencing an Exile at Home - occupied by the Roman army, but more deeply their minds and hearts were occupied by the Roman dog-eat-dog, bullying culture.
So John called them out. He called them to the wilderness, a place of deep symbolism. He called them on how the Roman vision of the world had eclipsed God's vision of a people called to be a blessing to all nations, a people who cared for orphan, widow and immigrant. He called them out on the behaviors that arose from their easy acceptance of Roman ways.
But there was a place among the Jewish people for being "called out" on their crap. While they might not like what a prophet said, while they might even stone that prophet, they did recognize and honor the place of truth tellers among them.
Some say that the Jewish people were always falling short of their part of the covenant with God. This is true. But we know this because they chose to put their self critique, or rather, God-inspired critique into their holy book.
All to often our current empire is not willing honor truth tellers. They are called "bleeding hearts" with who only speak what is "politically correct." Climate scientists are just a part of "Big Grants" and are not telling the truth about the impact of so much carbon being put in our atmosphere. Black lives matter are encouraged to be quiet because "all lives matter", or more precisely because that general statement lets us off the hook for the specific lives that are being crushed by racism in all its forms.
Being Christian is recognizing that we are loved so deeply we can be wrong. Not just personally wrong, but a part of institutions and structures with their economies and energy policies that are destructive to the future of human beings and this fragile earth, our island home. Not just personally prejudiced toward those with black or brown skin or those of other faiths, but part of systems that benefit some while stealing from the labor of others.
We are wrong.
But we are wrong, held in the gentle embrace of the God who both calls us on our shit but refuses to call us shitty.
May we recognize the ways that we are being called out and take the moment-by-moment invitation in baptism to die to the way we are living by the vision of today's Roman Empire, and rise to live God's way of love in its midst.