A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 9 December 2018
Luke has already told us in his gospel about the births of both John and Jesus. Now with chapter 3 he tells us how their respective ministries begin. He starts with John, the forerunner, who leaves his home in the desert and comes to the Jordan to preach and baptise – that’s why he’s called John the Baptist!
What’s led him to do this? Why has he left his life in the desert?
Luke gives us no psychology to go on, no background information, no motivation. Instead, with extraordinary dramatic power, Luke writes:
‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
How’s this happened? What did it entail? Luke isn’t interested in these questions! He simply says:
‘the word of God came to John…’
To the Hebrew people at the time, this had huge significance! There’d been many great prophets in their history, great figures in the life of their nation, but for the last 300 years or so the voice of prophecy hadn’t been heard.
God had been silent!
But now, the word of God comes to John! Crowds gather, speculation runs riot, people begin to wonder. Luke conveys all this and more in that extraordinary concise phrase ‘the word of God came to John’.
It’s said with such brevity! But Luke prefaces this with a preamble that’s the very opposite!
‘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 Iturea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
during the high-priestood of Annas and Caiaphas…’
You begin to wonder whether he’s ever going to stop!
So why, when in fact he could simply have given the year of the emperor and have done with it, does he go into such detail, listing all the key leaders around at the time?
Two suggestions come to mind.
Luke is probably writing his gospel for educated Romans, and he wants to place this hugely significant moment not just in a Jewish context, but on the world stage! He wants his readers to sit up and take notice. This is not an obscure event in a remote region of the Roman empire, but an event of world history!
And Luke’s also sounding a warning bell!
Because who are these characters? Just below the surface of this grand, eloquent setting full of all the names of the powerful and the important, Luke is hinting at another story!
In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea – and under him Jesus was crucified!
The next person that Luke mentions is Herod ruler of Galilee – and neither John nor Jesus get on very well with him!
And then there’s the high priest Caiaphas – later in the story he has a crucial role to play – not for good but for ill!
So while Luke places this moment on the world stage naming all the great and the not-so-good, at the same time he reminds his readers of the threat that surrounds this moment of history.
The word of God comes to John – a word of huge significance – a word that will provoke hostility from those in power – a word of boundless hope:
‘Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill
shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight,
the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
The context within which the prophet Isaiah originally spoke these words was a context in which hope was impossible to sustain. The Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon. And they’d lost everything.
The period of the Baylonian exile in the Old Testament was a sort-of crucifixion when everything that the Hebrew people held dear was taken from them. It’s into this desperate situation that the word of God comes to Isaiah:
‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.’
The exile had already lasted nearly 50 years! To hear the prophet Isaiah talk like this, about a way being made in the wilderness and the Hebrew people returning home – it was unbelievable!
In my mind I have a picture of Africans celebrating the end of apartheid with singing and dancing – and those pictures of the Berlin wall coming down and people dancing on the tanks – and the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down and trampled on!
‘Every valley shall be filled,
every mountain and hill shall be made low…’
The context of John the Baptist many centuries later was every bit as desperate as the Babylonian exile of Isaiah’s day.
True, the Hebrew people are no longer in exile – but while they’re back on their own soil they haven’t got their country back! The Romans are now ruling them, taxes have to be paid to Caesar and they’re not in charge of their own affairs. Again a deeply disheartening context – and God breaks his 300-year silence!
The word of God comes to John son of Zechariah. His message and style takes people back, back to the great Hebrew prophets of old – Isaiah and before him Elijah. His message is once again one of unimaginable hope.
It’s one of the great themes of Advent. A hope based on a relationship with the living God that gives confidence and purpose to our lives. A tough hope that kept the people of God going through difficult times, whether in exile in Babylon or under Roman oppression.
And it’s not a blind or naïve hope either, as Luke makes abundantly clear with that rogues gallery – Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiphas!
This hope seizes John by the scruff of the neck, drags him out of the wilderness, and pushes him to preach and baptise by the river Jordan!
The word of God comes to John!
People are on tenterhooks!