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, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as 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.
Every 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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’ (NRSV)
Although the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is barely underway Luke presents a glimpse of heaven’s salvation plan: God will work from the margins.
Initially, our passage reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the political and religious world: Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pilate, Herod, his brother Philip, High Priests Annas and Caiaphas. They are all powerful and influential. Each oversees a realm of responsibility and enjoys the benefits. These are people of the centre. Everyone’s lives are oriented in their direction.
Well, almost everyone. Luke writes to redirect our dazed eyes from all the hype: ‘…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
God is on the move and all too many are looking the wrong way.
Against a backdrop of emperors and governors the wilderness wandering John looks, initially, very forgetable. He simply does not belong in this list. Were this a magazine cover everyone else would be known and recognised. John would stand out only for his anonymity: ‘How did that guy get in the shot?’
Outside the centres of power, and influence, however, in the company of snakes and dust, God comes. We are not told more. All we know is that the God of the universe turned up initiating the road-building ministry of this old-time prophet. His project: ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
And he finds a listening audience. Yes, there are others also looking for more.
It is compelling to read of God passing by castles and thrones in search of this desert man. What is God’s motive in all this? Why avoid the power centres? What does this say about the coming mission? What insight does it give about the heart of God?
Perhaps, in the spirit of Advent, these questions are best held rather than answered. Our passage is a foretaste nurturing hope and anticipation. The fullness of this story will unfold in its own time highlighting the quiet, humble activity of God. Only then will we be able to gaze across the panoramic landscape of God’s compassion for the forgotten, poor, and marginalised.
For now, however, all we see is the initiating activity of a remembering God.
Isaiah’s creation soaked poetry speaks of John’s preparation and vocation. John has wandered valleys and scaled mountains; he has walked rough, abandoned trails. If anyone knows what it will take to build smooth roads it is John.
This is his call, however. John is God’s man to prepare and nurture an anticipation. He will say what is needed, go where he is led, confront the powers, lose both freedom and life.
Whatever God said to John it must have been inspiring.
Indeed visions often are – especially God-initiated ones. John nurtures a dream beyond the artificial boundaries Rome fought to create. He looks past the regulations of religious institutions.
John envisions the ushering in of God’s son; imagines the open eyes of all flesh; sees the salvation of God.
Tiberius and all his Governors, Rulers, Generals, and armies could never see so far. Neither could the religious authorities. Comparatively their grand plans look embarassingly short-sighted. Standing next the work of God their preparation is completely inadequate.
Luke’s account of Jesus reveals that our ‘cover shot’ is to be understood in such terms. These epic figures play relatively insignificant roles. They do not shine. They fade. Even the magnificence of John will look somewhat dull next to our central character. Jesus, engulfed in heaven’s radiance, will outshine the power of Rome and the religion of Jerusalem.
As Isaiah’s final stanza reminds us, this light will be seen across all creation: ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’