What conditions may have produced this odd character?
Luke outlines rather carefully in his “orderly account” (Luke 1:1) what is happening on the world stage as John (and shortly Jesus) begin their local ministry. Tiberius is the Emperor of Rome. Pilate is the Governor of Judea having direct control over the Southern part of the country. Two brothers: Herod and Philip rule the local Northern regions but remain subordinate to Rome. Annas and Caiahphas serve as High Priests in the Temple. One could cross-reference the dates of these leaders to locate both John and Jesus in history. Luke has gone to great lengths to ensure that we (and Theophilus [Luke 1:4]) understand the context of the story that is about to unfold (Luke 3:-3).
Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright points put there is more going on than just historical precision:
“Behind that list names and places is a story of oppression and misery that was building up to an explosion point…The old prophets had spoken of a time of renewal, through which God himself would come back to them. They had only a sketchy idea of what this would all look like, but when a fiery young prophet appeared in the Judean wilderness, going around towns and villages telling people the time had come, they were ready to listen. Baptism, plunging into the river Jordan was a powerful sign of renewal.” (N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone. [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], pp. 32-33.)
The conditions were ripe for something new.
Luke wants the reader/hearer to know this is not a random fanatic who drew a crowd. Beginning in chapter 1, Luke provides a background narrative for both the coming of John and for Jesus. The first story that Luke (and only Luke of the four canonical gospels) tells – is the angel Gabriel visiting Zechariah to tell him that he and Elizabeth will have a child, and he is to be named John (God is gracious). “He will turn many of the people to the Lord their God. With the spirit and with power of Elijah he will before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). God is orchestrating the redemption plan. The groundwork is being laid for John to set the stage for Jesus.
What is coming?
Looking back to Advent 1C, we heard warnings of destruction and judgment, yet Jesus promising “Your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28) “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 3:31) and “My words not passing away” (Luke 21:33). These are tall orders in wake of the system of power in place, and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the recent memory of Luke’s hearers, and to the us all these centuries later – removed from the historical context, but still longing for hope and renewal in our own time and lives.
Prepare the Way
Our time and our lives are ripe for renewal just as they were in the time of John. We look at the world and see the difference between the wealthy and the poor; the important and forgotten; the powerful and the oppressed; those who are high and those who are low; those who attempt to ensure their own safety and those surrounded by violence; those who are connected and disconnected; those who seem to get away with hate, abuse, injustice and greed and those who suffer for it. We are often left scratching our heads wondering,”How might we respond?” or “Can I do anything about it to change things?” or better yet, “Where is God in all this?” We feel the pinch of changing church participation and the strain it puts on our community, its leadership and shared resources and we fear the future. We wonder of our own lives matter or could make a difference. In a world full of noise we struggle to find our voice, and wonder if anyone is listening.
John reveals that sometimes what God is up to in our world comes to us in odd, unconventional ways; if we are but open to hear it, look for it, believe it and live it. John remains a key symbol of Advent because he represents a voice calling us out of our own wilderness into repentance (a life-change; new perspective; going a new direction); leading to hope, faith, joy and peace. He enters our story just when it feels darkest; not to be the Light, but to point to the Light that is coming (John 1:7-9). We are invited into that same calling us to “prepare the way” for Jesus to come in our lives, relationships and communities.
In the promise of our coming Christ, we are immersed into the way of love as fear is cast-aside and no longer has power over us. We are on the way.
What strange new things might God be doing in your life and/or community?
Look hard and carefully…Do you see them?
Are you odd enough to join-in?