Advent 2: 9 December Luke 3:1-6
Luke’s gospel commences with a long and complicated sentence, 1:1-4. It then changes style as it moves into the birth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus in the rest of chapter 1 and in chapter 2. In chapter 3 at the beginning it returns to something more like the complex style of the opening sentence. It is more than just a matter of style, which is appealing to the learned or informed hearer. The content of 3:1-2 identifies political realities of the period. The message is: we speak your language. The story to be told belongs firmly within the political realities of the day. Luke’s ‘march past’ of dignitaries is also in contrast to the freedom songs of Mary and Zechariah, the aspirations of those who would topple the dignitaries and have Israel redeemed and liberated from such powers. And don’t forget the temple powerbrokers: Annas and Caiaphas. The entourage of ‘clout’ in 3:1-2 cannot be just to impress with respectability. It is respectably subversive as well. That emerges from what follows.
‘The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the outback regions’ (3:2). The outback region, the desert, the wilderness, was never spiritual wasteland. Rather it was the place of miracle and divine revelation, of pain and complaint, of hope and visions. Modern day city dwellers can connect at some level to such insights: the outback is often dangerous, stark, beautiful, expanding the awareness, summoning up different values from those twinkling from neon lights and advertising hoardings. To those steeped in the tradition, wilderness evokes stories of Exodus, of Sinai, of preparing to cross the Jordan (just about where John is), of crossing the wilderness in return from exile.
Popular movements excited by the prospect of change moved to desert places, gathered armies, conducted retreats, geared themselves up for revolution – all kinds of groups, military, non-military, prophetic, visionary. The historian Josephus lists many such groups and individuals in the first century CE. Some were slaughtered, others generated bands of supporters, others faded away in delusion. Luke will mention Theudas and his 400 men, and Judas the Galilean in Acts 5:35-37. Josephus rightly places John and Jesus in this broader scene, both of whom were non-military, but at least Jesus employed military imagery in arranging the formation of the 5000 into 100s and 50s (Mark 6:40). The version in the fourth gospel suggests the military imagery was not lost on the people, who sought in response to crown him Messiah (6:14-15), from which Jesus beat a quick retreat.
If we think of Luke’s gospel as a whole, we have just heard the songs of liberation and have seen the march past of powers. Now John the Baptist appears in the place from which people expected divine change. John announces change: metanoia, traditionally, ‘repentance for forgiveness of sins.’ What might Luke have meant? What might John, himself, have meant, if this captures historical tradition? It cannot have meant: only now is forgiveness of sins available to people; before this there was none. This is worth emphasising because there are still naïve Christian expositions of Judaism which assert that forgiveness of sins became possible only after Jesus died on the cross. People forget Psalm 51. They also forget John. The problem which the authorities had with John was not that he propounded forgiveness of sins as an innovation, but that he provided a means of appropriating it which was innovative. It created an ambiguous situation where, by and large, rites for forgiveness belonged within the overall purview of the temple. John was doing nothing illegal, i.e.. contrary to biblical law, but there was at least a kind of demarcation dispute. Jesus faced the same kind of objection in declaring God’s forgiveness to the paralytic lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). The authority issue returned when Jesus entered Jerusalem (Mark 11:27-33; also Luke 20:1-8.
The novelty of John’s approach was that instead of having people wash themselves, symbolic of divine cleansing, John, himself, dipped people under the water and did it in the Jordan (that’s the river to cross!). Because of this he gained the nickname, John the ‘dipper’ or, in traditional terms, ‘baptiser’, whence ‘baptist’. Next week’s reading will provide opportunity for further reflection on its meaning, but basically the rite functioned as an expression of willingness to change and be prepared for change by receiving divine forgiveness. Baptism is submission to this new initiative. It is not simply change of the individual, but change of the individual in readiness for change of the world. Change of the world means transformation, liberation, freedom, salvation.
Luke found Isaiah 40:3 cited together with Exodus 23:20 (see also Malachi 3:1) in the opening verses of Mark’s gospel. ‘Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord’ was also the parole of one of the groups whose writings were discovered in caves near Qumran on the Dead Sea. That was a desert community expecting change and seeking to hasten it by stricter observance of biblical Law. John may have used the same parole and understood himself as having a key role in the process, although he takes a very different approach from that of the covenanters of Qumran. Mark and Luke use the Septuagint (Greek) Old Testament which locates the crying voice, rather than the way, in the wilderness, but the impact is similar. The change John announces is as momentous and more than the Exodus and the return from Exile. In the gospels ‘the Lord’ is coming in Jesus.
Luke’s innovations here include dropping the text from Exodus, so that what Mark says comes from Isaiah is now all from Isaiah, but, more significantly, he cites more than Isaiah 40:3. He adds Isa 40:4-5. The imagery of mountains being flattened and valleys raised, the crooked straight and the rough tracks, roads, is the imagery of radical change and movement. The citation now reaches its climax in the words: ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’. ‘Salvation’ is a key word in Luke. If we had just a few moments before heard the opening chapters of Luke, we would be likely to make the connections immediately. ‘Saviour’ language was common in the political ‘speak’ of Luke’s day. He was portraying an alternative saviour, an alternative peace. It was to be inclusive (‘all flesh’), just as John’s dipping made no exceptions.
Change is for change. Change of individuals is for change on the larger scale. Change for freedom, for justice, for peace! What Luke gives us is profoundly personal and political in the broadest sense. We are taken to the waters of hope to be immersed in renewal and revolution with the trampling feet of the dignitaries and the foot soldiers in our ears. Expounding a text like this means taking people out to that place.
Epistle: Advent 2: 9 December