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 of Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book 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.’”
When I am in a large city and find myself downtown there is one voice I expect to hear. There is always a man holding some large sign and shouting at the top of his lungs, “repent you sinners, turn back to God or else!” I assume these loud men are imitating John the Baptist, they feel they are doing the Lord’s work. A large part of the message offered is one of fear, if you do not repent the consequences are dire. The offer is made to save those like us while there is still time. These men truly believe they are saving souls, rescuing the lost, offering the answer we have all been waiting for.
One afternoon when I was living in Ottawa I asked one of these men who was using a megaphone if I could ask him some questions. I think he was relieved, it’s cold in Ottawa in December and I offered to buy him coffee. Over our hot beverage I asked him what it was we were being saved from and being saved for. He didn’t seem to follow, so I tried again, “assuming we don’t repent what happens and if we do repent what happens then?” He pondered, offered a few verses of scripture, all from the Book of Daniel and Revelations, and then explained that those who did not accept the offer of salvation from God would go to eternal damnation and those who did would be ushered into heaven where they would await Jesus’ return to earth and a holy reunion thereafter.
“Why would God do this?” I asked. I wanted to know the intent of the Creator, why the God of Genesis would bring us and Creation to life, what was the purpose of this offering of life? My loud friend thought the question absurd, the answer obvious, God offered us life but with conditions, live by God’s covenant and inherit eternal life, choose not to live in that way and be sent to Hell for eternity.
I recall another voice, a quieter voice, I heard when I lived in Ottawa, that of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche. A lifelong Roman Catholic, professor of philosophy and decorated veteran, Vanier also had thoughts about repentance. At a public lecture Vanier was asked about the human condition, sin and eternal life. Vanier spoke about the Book of Genesis and its references to God creating life in different forms. Vanier believed God made everything in an effort to build holy relationship and that the first humans were placed in a garden with all the life they would need for happiness. Only when humans chose to depart from the abundance offered, to grasp for more than what God has supplied, did the troubles begin.
Vanier thought the public figure of John the Baptist was a voice calling for a repentance of change, a shift of perspective, a move to accept what God had offered and be happy. Vanier identified Luke’s vision of peace as having its roots in the Hebrew word shalom which also means harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. In other words, our completeness, our sense of finding our true identity comes in our relationship to the God who first gave us life. Peace comes knowing I am loved by my God, being loved by my neighbor, being loved in and through Creation. That is enough. That is plenty. That is sufficient.
But a system or worldview that either finds expression in your own sense of superiority to others or in your sense inferiority to others does not bring lasting peace. How can it? If you believe you must have what others don’t you will strive to take, manipulate and consolidate. If you believe you can’t have what others possess you resign yourself to a life of servitude, surrender and hiding your light under a bushel.
Listen to the themes expressed in Luke’s early chapters. God is suspicious of power and has a preference for the marginalized, a major theme of Mary's song. The angel came to Zechariah, not Herod the Great (1:5). God was with Joseph and Mary, not Caesar and Quirinius (2:1-7). Women are quite prominent (Elizabeth, Mary, Anna) in Luke’s stories. And perhaps the central point of our Gospel story this week is the exhortation of Isaiah, through John the Baptist, to "prepare the way of the Lord." (3:4)
Later, Luke in Acts will tell us--and often--that the early Christians were known as "followers of the way." (Some examples: Acts 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22.) This way--the way of God--stands in sharp and antithetical contrast to the ways of worldly power exemplified by Tiberius, Herod, Pilate and all the rest. During the time of Pilate, much of the civil administration of the region was run through the Temple, though Pilate was the one who chose the high priest. The early Christians, of course, would have identified Pilate with the execution of Jesus, as would Christians today. Luke's mention of Pontius Pilate at this early juncture raises the level of tension in the story.
Luke-Acts is not a running political commentary, a call to overthrow one system with another. Rather these texts are a redefinition of peace, to correct and change the stories we tell ourselves, that we find our identity less in the power we yield or the power we serve and more in the enjoyment we find in God’s abundant creation. To find our way back to the original covenant, to reclaim the story of Creation and God’s love for all, this is Luke’s vision embodied in the public figure of John the Baptist.
After Luke runs through this litany of big shots, he says a startling thing: "A word of God came to be upon John”. A "word of God" did not come to any of these powerful, corrupt, pompous, bizarre, rich characters living in high style in elaborate palaces. It came rather to a mere "son of Zechariah" somewhere out in the "wilderness." The "wilderness" held rich associations for Israel. The wilderness had been the place where God had led the slaves of Egypt and supernaturally attended to them. There are no maps or guides to a wilderness. You go in the wilderness and you may never be heard from again. Or you go to the wilderness to find what it is you haven’t been able to locate in your familiar surroundings. If the “norm” of your life only lifts up power and powerlessness perhaps it’s time to go to the wilderness and see who can be heard there.
For Luke, the people needed a "turning" from the way of power and powerlessness. Indeed, John's purpose was precisely to call people to God's new path: "He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God (1:16)." For Luke, repentance and "turning" are God's work (Acts 5:31). The word we generally translate as "forgiveness" means "release," "deliverance," "remission," "setting free." This change brings release from these, and any other, forms of bondage. It means "fresh start." Imagine spending all of your life feeling powerless and worthless and suddenly those crooked paths get straightened and God’s love lifts you up and you feel connected to that covenant love God offered in Genesis.
Or imagine spending your whole life feeling powerful and successful and feeling the only reason people love you has to do with your status. Imagine how hard you will try to keep that appearance up, to maintain that privilege. It is exhausting and often at the end, when the power begins to diminish, people of privilege experience deep malaise and sadness. Then suddenly those rough ways are made smooth, and there emerges a tenderness to relationship, a compassion to one’s life and no longer are you striving for something that can’t last.
And then we hear those magical words, "All flesh shall see the salvation of God". Luke places John in the context of the prophetic tradition of Israel--specifically, the great prophet Isaiah. The Isaiah text (40:3-5) is about the return of the Lord to Zion. When a ruler visited a city, the people were to repair the road of approach and decorate it to herald that ruler. In the case of Isaiah, the ruler is God, and the landscape is to be radically and utterly transformed--low places filled, high places made low, the crooked made straight, the rough made smooth. In our case the birth of a Saviour occasions a promise to reorient our lives to a new vision, a covenant based on relationship, community and the power of exercising our God-given gifts.
The mission of God came through the Hebrew people, but its scope is all of humanity. Striking a strongly universal note, Luke says that everyone "will see the salvation of God." May all of us, all of us, know how gifted and loved we are. May all of us, all of us, know how abundant God’s love is for us. And may all of us, all of us, know that same love, that same abundance, is for the powerful, the powerless, anyone and everyone. Peace be with you! Amen.