I was reflecting on the introduction to John the Baptist’s prophetic proclamations by Luke 3:1-6. The lengthy list of the great and the powerful deliberately tell us about the historical context of John and the times in which he was living his vocation. There is the list of earthly powers, the emperor, the governor, the rulers, great and small, and the Jewish religious leaders. We are left in no doubt what political, religious, social, cultural world look like for John.
What might such a list sound like today and what might our times look like? Let me try!
It is the time of the world’s strong men, Putin in Russia, Trump in America, Duerte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Xhi Jing Ping in China, and similarly in South America and elsewhere as far right conservatives make headway. In Australia, it is the time of the five Prime Ministers. Our religious leaders are the Primate Archbishop Philip Freier and Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy ….and so the list goes on.
The world is going through enormous change as we shift emphases in the west around world, definitions of democracy are being discussed. We see a concerted move towards a secular, humanistic view of life. It is in these times we now live and work for God’s kingdom. These are the challenges of our times.
We are told by Luke, it was during the political and religious rule of such people that:
The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
And let’s be very clear. The word of God did not come to the rulers of those times. God spoke instead to John in the wilderness.
And through God’s words to John, God invites us to discover the ways of repentance by following John into the wilderness and finding transformation.
John the Baptist quotes Isaiah 40:1-5 as a proclamation of preparation. By quoting Isaiah, John reminds us and the people of Israel to prepare for a return from exile and the revelation of God’s glory to all people.
In using this passage, Luke reminds us and John’s contemporaries, it is now time to prepare for a return from our exile-like existence because of our failure to live a moral life, and be ready to share as Isaiah says, with ‘all flesh’, in the universal ‘salvation of God’.
By listing the earthly powers, Luke reminds us the earthly powers are subject to God’s power too.
John’s presence in the wilderness, invites us to think about the reality of God coming to us in the wilderness, through the marginal voices of our times. John did not make the ‘who’s who’ list of first century power players.
John is an apocalyptic preacher, talking about the end times as he stands in the wilderness; not a great location or message really to start a radical call to the wider community.
John’s use of Isaiah’s call to ‘Preparing the way of the Lord’ is a continuation of a larger story. It is the beginning of ‘the Way’ as told by Jesus. His ‘way’ which we still follow today.
In Advent we prepare to change and be changed. We prepare for end times and rebirth, finding time to sit in the wilderness and reflect on God’s message to us without the noise and bustle of the world. We prepare for the arrival of God’s Word made flesh.
There is an opportunity for us to reflect on the nature of wilderness for ourselves.
What does our wilderness look like today, in these times and in our lives?
They are places of significant discomfort, where we are not in control, we cannot expect our usual standards of politeness, comfort, security and privilege.
We may complain about our religious and political rulers, but we still prefer the structures we know and with which we are familiar to the lawless, unpredictable wilderness. Going out beyond the conventional into the unfamiliar is scary stuff.
When our circumstances change, financially, socially, family, friends, health, housing, geography, legally, our sense of not being in control comes very quickly to the surface. Wilderness can also be about harsh conditions, loneliness, hardship and suffering. Our wilderness experience is worth exploring
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…
John the Baptist stands as a turning point in the story of our shared faith journey as he preaches and baptises Jesus in the River Jordan. The River Jordan was the ancient border marking the boundary of the promised land. Symbolically John and then Jesus were baptising at the margins, at the point of entry into a new and promised land. God’s kingdom is very present at the margins.
John’s baptism is an act of penance, ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (v.3), whereas the One to come will bring not just forgiveness of sins but also new life, new birth, new creation and entry into the community of believers.
And as will become clear in the next few verses, such a baptism and the commitment we make to new life is directly tied to social justice concerns, like feeding and clothing those in need (3:11) marking the return to righteousness.
John is clearly carrying on the respected Hebrew scriptural traditions of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Malachi and others. All the prophets now finding voice in John, whose life and witness is saying the time has come for repentance and redemption.
John’s apocalyptic prophetic teaching, uncomfortable as it was, cannot be separated from Jesus’ teaching.
As we reflect on what happened to John the Baptist, at the hands of the worldly powers, we know this is the context into which Jesus steps and it is precisely in this world where Jesus chooses to live and work with the same political and religious powers.
We shift from John’s message of radical and insistent demands for repentance towards Jesus’ language of forgiveness, reconciliation and love. As the story moves into the new ‘Way’ we see God’s message being told afresh again.
Mercy judges as it forgives, love reveals as it heals, wilderness and sacrifice divide even as they reconcile.
Mercy, love and sacrifice are the abiding message for us and they continue to triumph, but not by escaping the difficulties of the world in our times.
At one level, it is reassuring to see that religious, political and cultural pressures are always present within our Christian vision and life. They may complicate Christian hope, but they will never defeat it.
God uses our wilderness times to help us understand renewal, rebirth, and see with clarity, God’s purpose for each of us.
The wilderness is not only a place where we are pulled from our comfort zones and challenged to hear God’s word, but also the place where the troubled, hurting, alienated, angry and the forlorn, lost and broken may hear the words of hope and renewal.
It is hard for God to find us and for us to find God when we are surrounded by the comforts of this world.
Perhaps that is why John’s message is so stark and uncompromising. In order to be one of God’s people we must come out of the slavery and seductive consumption of this world.
John makes it clear what is required of us: wilderness places and moments where we might finally hear God speaking the words of challenge, hope and love to transform and renew all of us.
This renewal centres on social justice as we hear in the next few verses of Luke. We already know in giving into this world’s rulers and their demands, we have lost touch with God. We have surrounded ourselves with things to make sure we stay separated.
However, John and Jesus promise us these barriers standing between us and God will be dismantled. Barriers of race, ideology class, gender, education and even religion will be overcome on the way to reconciliation in the love promised, offered and given by Jesus.
John speaks as the one crying out in the wilderness, preparing 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 (Luke 3:4b-6).
The Lord be with you.