Advent is a spiritual force we never see coming. We watch the news where history is apparently being made by politicians, generals, and CEOs, by sex scandals, drug dealers and mass shootings. But off camera, a young woman is pregnant. She will give birth to a baby and feed it with her dreams and her breast milk. She will change his diapers and he will change the world. In the quiet of a library, an author is pregnant with a story and scribbles the first few words of a world-shaping narrative. A young engineer is daydreaming in class again, about the new world that is sitting in his garage. A woman squints into a microscope and sees for the first time the cure in a single cell. Somewhere a paint brush is poised, numbers are being crunched, fingers tap the keys, a shoelace is tied and the world-changing journey begins with a first step. A woman sits down to pray. Someone is quietly breathing in and out trying to find their center. A Bible is opened by a man wondering what comes next and the pages turned to the Gospel of Luke.
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
That sounds like a welcome change, but first we have a problem:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.
Right! Back to politicians, generals and CEOs; sex scandals, mass murderers and drug dealers. What is the point? We may brush over this list of leaders in our reading, thinking Luke is only locating Jesus in time and place, but who is on this list and how they lived is the point. They are the crooked that need straightening, the rough that need smoothing, the flesh that are in the way of seeing the salvation of God.
Here’s a modern version of Luke’s proclamation:
It was the year 2010, during the Presidency of Benjamin Netanyahu, when the Ultra Orthodox controlled the Knesset in Israel, and Bashir Assad ruled in Syria; the King Faisal controlled the House of Saud, Hamas had power in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; Mohammar Khadafi ruled in Libya. And the Great Powers; Vladamir Putin of Russia and Barack Obama; like a series of United States Presidents, supplied them all with foreign aid and weapons.
That was the world picture just before the Arab Spring, the completely unforeseen and unpredicted shaking of the Middle Eastern order, which toppled quite a few of the most brutal dictators on that list, and certainly shook up the rest. Those who study international relations will debate for decades what caused the Arab Spring. Was it rampant inflation that drove up the price of food, which led to an uprising in the streets? Or did the advent of new technology, cell phones and social media, give access to new ideas, like a voice in the wilderness, so people could imagine a new world?
Luke is not merely telling us who was in charge when John and Jesus began preaching. He is showing his reader the same kind of world-shaking disruption as we saw in the Arab Spring. The educated readers of Luke’s Gospel probably knew something about this list of world leaders, especially if they had read the popular ancient historian Josephus. What would Luke’s readers have known about his list?
In 29 AD, the year John began preaching out in the wilderness, Tiberias was engaged in a bloody purge of imagined opposition back in Rome. Tiberias was much more content as a general crushing the Germanic peoples to the North than being an emperor. He was moody, distrustful and reclusive at this point in his reign. He died four years after Jesus was crucified.
Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who authorized the crucifixion, soon overstepped his authority. Three years later, in 36 AD, a Samaritan prophet claimed that the sacred vessels of Moses were buried on Mount Gerrizim. The prophet had a large following gathered to go up the mountain, but Pilate trapped them between his foot soldiers and horsemen and slaughtered them. In a shocking moment of justice, Pilate was ordered back to Rome, judged for his excessive cruelty, and sent into exile.
Herod, who beheaded John the Baptist, bled his treasury dry with a disastrous war against his ex-father-in-law, a war started over divorcing his first wife to marry his brother’s wife. His brother returned the favor by accusing Herod of conspiracy against Caligula, and he died in exile in Gaul. The High Priests, Caiaphas and Annas, had their fortunes go down the drain with their benefactors. I was surprised to learn that the high priests were Roman appointed in Jesus’s day, so as Pilate was sent packing, the Roman proconsul in Syria dismissed the high priests “for heartlessness when they sit in judgment.”
In sum, all the immediate authorities, both the Roman and Jewish, who ruled Israel in Jesus’s day; a heartless, powerful and entrenched oligarchy, were dead, dismissed by Rome, or in exile within five years of the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazereth.
Prepare the way, indeed. I guess Luke really meant it. Of course none of this was obvious in 29 AD, when John began baptizing and preaching. The Advent Spring was still just a longing, a plea, a dream of seemingly naïve dreamers, a voice in the wilderness crying out, hope against hope, that what is crooked will be made straight and the rough made smooth.
Luke is making a claim about history that is either stunning or ridiculous, depending on your point of view. Sit down and home and read the first three chapters of Luke in one read. It is an unlikely series of dreams, prophecies and angels, from John’s parents, to Mary, to shepherds. Luke is saying that the powers that be- those who make the laws, collect the taxes, send the armies- they can so quickly be undone by prophets and dreamers. The powers can kill the prophets, but they can’t kill the dream. Luke seeks to explain John the Baptist and Jesus, two executed prophets, by reaching back to the words of Isaiah, words of a prophet that are perhaps five to seven centuries old, words from flesh long dead, to be made flesh and alive again, proclaimed by John and fulfilled in Jesus. Its like saying, you have learned that history was made by people like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but don’t forget the people who contemplated out in the wilderness; Edwards, Thoreau, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry. Thank God for Teddy Roosevelt, a president who preserved the wilderness so we still have places to go where we can contemplate and be moved to wonder. Is that where he found the courage to break up the rich and powerful monopolies? Perhaps we should sequester Congress in Yosemite for a few weeks.
Luke is an educated man, a physician, who wrote beautiful Greek, and probably encountered the best of the Stoics, Aristotle and so on. Why did he get so caught up with all these dreamers and prophets? When it comes to John the Baptist, even Luke seems to lose his nerve. Mark and Matthew mention that John dressed in camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. These crazy details are too much for Luke. Even though, by modern standards, he plagiarized vast chunks of Mark’s Gospel, he edited out all the strange, quirky, hippie, vegetarian, locovore stuff about John the Baptist. He didn’t think his educated Greek audience needed to know all that.
I can empathize with Luke, having preached for over 20 years. In trying to make the Gospel relevant and real to the 21st century, I appeal to reason, science, psychological and social research, and sometimes edit out the particulars of the strangeness of God’s voice, coming through the lives of the odd and ordinary. In my busy ministry, filled with the hours of committees and phone calls, budgets, bulletins, and building use requests, am I ready for the Advent word? As we do our jobs, raise our kids, grandkids, count our aches and pains, push our causes, finish our shopping and cross things off our lists, are we preparing the way for God to move among us? Perhaps our problem is that we are too prepared, over-scheduled and set in our routines. And Advent comes, and I learn I am so busy preparing that I am unprepared for the voice of God, crying out in the wilderness. Oh God, please unprepare my heart so I may truly hear.