June 5, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 3:1-6.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. He went throughout [the] whole region of 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: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
This period of time was an unusual confluence of power in the hands of a few. Tiberius was emperor from 14 to 37 C.E.; Pilate was governor or prefect or procurator from 26 to 36 C.E.; Herod was tetrarch from 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E.; and his brother Philip was tetrarch from 4 B.C.E. to 34 C.E. Little is known of Lysanias, but Abilene was a territory northwest of Damascus. Together they exercised a kind of stranglehold on Israel — resting land from small farmers, enhancing the power of the wealthy, and erecting great buildings and monuments to themselves. The high priests served at the pleasure of the Romans and their responsibility was essentially to keep the peace among the Jews by exercising their religious authority. They aimed to please their masters. Annas was high priest from 6 to 15 C.E. when he was removed by the Romans and later succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas who held the position from 18 to 36 C.E. The fifteenth year would place the beginning of John’s ministry in 28 or 29 C.E.
According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, John was a transitional figure. Luke definitely identified him as a prophet in this passage, as the voice of God chosen to reveal His word. However, he was not a prophet of old in terms of proclaiming the promises of God; he was the messenger of God’s fulfillment of His promises in the person of His son Jesus, the Messiah. In this way, he was a hinge of history in Barclay’s’ view. Luke also was using John as a model for Jewish Christians to also prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus by repenting of sins.
Franciscan Richard Rohr in The Good News According to Luke has an instructive view of John’s mission and ritual of baptizing. “It’s important to know that Jesus’ gospel of love cannot be understood until we’ve first faced John the Baptist’s gospel of repentance. It is the first step into the kingdom.” To repent means not just being regretful or sorrowful for one’s sins; it means to change and turn away from one’s past actions. Being sorry is well and good, but it doesn’t make any difference if it isn’t characterized by a conversion of your heart, mind, and behavior. Thus, changing our accustomed ways is the first step into the kingdom of God. It does no good for us to go to church on Sunday if we don’t repent, change the way we treat people when we exit. Rohr writes, “Untransformed people will always be preoccupied with power — controlling other people, manipulating them, using them for their own gain….The gospel can free us from that.”
Change my ways. That’s the message of John the Baptist for me. In order to be a faithful disciple of Jesus I have to change my ways. It reminds me of the rich young man. He was a follower of Jesus; he wanted eternal life. Jesus told him that he had to change; he had to replace his love of money with love of others. He couldn’t do it; he wasn’t able to take that first step into the kingdom of God.
Change can come slowly if I persist and make decisions over and over to take small but incremental steps to do things differently. It takes awareness and self-control and discipline. That’s one of the virtues of reading the gospels everyday. Change also can come suddenly as an epiphany, an insight leading to dramatic change. That’s one of the values of a retreat like we had last weekend. It’s also one of the values of journaling so that I can re-read and reinforce insights in order to be vigilant in making changes every day. In that way I can assure that “every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low; winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth.” I can slowly level the highs and lows of my journey toward the kingdom; I can take the straight path with fewer detours and dead ends. That’s what happens when I receive the word of God as John did.