Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Word of God comes to . . . who?

In the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, when Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip prince of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias prince of Abilene, during high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Luke 3:1-2

The evangelist Luke believes it is important to situate his story about Jesus in its wider historical context. Why else would he take such pains both here and in others parts of his Gospel, to inform us who the various important people are: emperors, governors, rulers, princes and high priests. Yet, whether he intends it or not, he sets up irony by first telling us who the powerful people are, what position they hold, and then informing us that the word of God came not to any of these but to John the Baptist in the wilderness. Compared to all these powerful and influential figures, John is a nobody. Yet it is to John that the word of God comes.

It would be like saying that in the 56th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, when David Milliband was Foreign Secretary and his brother Ed Milliband was Secretary of State, during the Archbishopric of Rowan Williams, the word of God came to Doris the open air preacher in rural Essex!

When those who should be open to God's Word are not; God bypasses them in favour of those who are open and courageous and obedient. However, to the hearers and readers of Luke’s Gospel, John is not a nobody. In chapters 1 and 2 we are introduced first to Zechariah, a priest, and then to his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth is the cousin of Mary who will be the mother of Jesus. Old and childless, Zechariah receives a visit from the angel Gabriel who announces that Elizabeth will conceive a bear a son to be called John. It is this John who is born and grows up to be a preacher in the wilderness. John goes all over the Jordan valley proclaiming that God’s chosen people need to turn away from their sinful ways of life, seek God’s forgiveness, and as a sign that they have done this they need to be baptised in water. John calls them to do this because he is preparing the way for the Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God. There are many ways through which we can prepare the way for God's Word to come to others: friendship, empathy, critique, service and honesty being some of them. It matters not who we are but whether we are open and willing.

1 comment:

Tim Worley said...

Thanks for the insight - I was just studying this passage today! It also seems significant that Luke introduces the passage with the phrase "the word of God came to", which is the typical Old Testament introduction to a prophet's words. Furthermore, he situates the prophetic message within a specific time frame, as was typical of Old Testament prophecy (e.g., Is. 6:1). This is especially interesting in light of the fact that John is to come "in the spirit and power of Elijah", to whom the phrase "the word of the LORD came to" is frequently applied in 1 Kings. It seems that with all this, Luke wants to situate John as the final Old Testament-era prophet, who points toward the new era that is dawning with the coming of Jesus.

Thanks for the insights!