‘In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius…’
Luke starts chapter 3 of his Gospel
in the style of a good historian.
After marking the time based upon the beginning of Tiberius’s accession
to the throne of the Roman Empire,
Luke goes on to list the many men
who ruled on behalf of the Emperor in the lands of the Jews:
Pontius Pilate, and Herod Antipas and Philip and Lysanias.
He mentions the religious leaders:
the high priest at the time, Caiaphas,
advised by the last high priest, his father, Annas.
Finally, after all of this,
Luke gets to what happened when,
something he could have mentioned without the names and dates,
‘The Word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
Now again, Luke could very well have said that
without the history lesson.
Why is it important?
Well, probably Luke’s initial reason
was simply to tell his readers when John received his message,
so that they would know.
But having the date and the names
is meaningful in another way too.
It reminds us that God is the God who acts in history.
History is the stage for God’s action.
Not everything that happens in history is God’s saving work,
but God’s saving work takes place in history; in real time.
We’re not dealing with myth here.
This history is real verifiable stuff.
For those who are aware, it is as living and real as the history of today.
It is as if Luke said,
‘In the seventh year of the Presidency of Barack Obama,
when Vladimir Putin was President of Russia
and just after the terror attacks in Paris and Egypt
and Mali and San Bernadino,
in the eleventh year of Facebook,
in the papacy of Francis,
the word of God came to a little Lutheran congregation
in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.’
As, of course, it has.
Perhaps not as dramatically as to John the Baptist,
but the Word of God comes indeed,
into our history, our world history and our personal history,
to do its work.
The word came to John the Baptist at a specific time.
And this specific time was a dark time
in the history of the Jews.
The halcyon days of the Maccabees,
when it seemed like God’s people
might have a kingdom of their own again, were over.
Herod the Great had attempted to rule over a united Judea on behalf of Rome,
but he was dead and gone,
and the Emperor before Tiberius had divided the kingdom between Herod’s sons,
and a foreigner was in charge in Judea and Jerusalem,
and there were no leaders in which the people could put their trust.
In the religious world,
Annas was pulling the strings behind his son Caiaphas,
and the question was open as to whether these guys
were legitimate high priests anyway.
The faith of Jews was as fractured as it had ever been.
Pharisees and Sadducees and Zealots and Essenes
and who knows what all.
Sounds a lot like Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox.
Or even just Lutherans these days.
In other words, things were a mess.
It is into this history that the messenger of God came;
when nothing was going right,
when the kingdom of God seemed the farthest away
than it had been in many years.
Perhaps this explains the intense interest in his message,
because a lot of people were of the opinion
that God wasn’t working anywhere else.
Into the darkness comes a light,
saying that God is about to act.
John comes preaching a specific message,
that people are to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
By so doing, they reject the false ideas that aren’t working,
and the sins in which they have participated.
They open themselves to God’s coming action.
They prepare the way of the Lord,
not by cleaning and decorating their homes,
but by cleansing their hearts
and adorning them with righteousness and holiness.
It was a note of hope
when all seemed beyond hope.
God sends a messenger,
as if to say,
‘Despite it all –
the hypocrisy and the glad-handing,
the violence and the greed,
the conflict and the confusion,
I am about to act.’
And doesn’t that sound like
a message for our time as well?
Despite it all;
violence and greed,
conflict and confusion,
God has acted in Jesus Christ,
and he continues to act
because his Word is spoken in history,
and we are addressed.
In Advent, God calls us to leave the ways of sin behind,
leave behind the unfruitful ways
and come to be changed.
And God promises forgiveness and salvation,
that he will change our fortunes,
and lead us into the new world.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low,
and the crooked ways made straight,
and the rough places made a plain,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.