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Luke 3.1-6

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TITLE:    A Political Season

SERMON IN A SENTENCE:     God holds us all accountable -- makes us accountable to each other -- and calls us all to repentance.

SCRIPTURE:    Luke 3:1-6




1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler (Greek:  tetraarchountos -- tetrarch) of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler (Greek:  tetraarchountos -- tetrarch) of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler (Greek:  tetraarchountos -- tetrarch) of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Luke, the historian, sets the ministry of John the Baptist in historical context.  In similar fashion, he said, "In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah" (1:5) -- and also referenced the time of Jesus birth by mentioning Emperor Augustus and Quirinius (2:1-2).  

Because verse 1 sounds like a beginning, some have suggested that chapter 3 is the original beginning of this Gospel, but there is no convincing evidence for that.  Instead, chapters 1-2 give us infancy and boyhood accounts, while chapter 3 begins the ministry of John -- including the baptism of Jesus.

In v. 1, Luke introduces four men who will play significant roles in Jesus' crucifixion:  Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas.  It also introduces three officials -- Tiberius, Philip, and Lysanias -- who serve only to date the beginning of John's ministry. 

The "fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius" provides the most exact clue to the beginning date of John's ministry, but even that is imprecise.  Tiberius became co-regent with his father, Augustus, in 11 or 12 A.D., and assumed full power on his father's death in 14 A.D.  We don't know whether the "fifteenth year" dates back to the earlier or the later date.  Therefore, the word of the Lord may have come to John (v. 2) as early as 26 A.D. or as late as 29 A.D. 

It is probable that "A.D. 26/27 was a Jubilee year (i.e., every fiftieth year when debts were canceled; see Lev. 25:10)" (Evans, 50).  In a Jubilee year, God requires people who have bought land to return it to original owner (Lev. 25:23, 27 ff.) -- and also requires that people bound to servitude be freed (Lev. 25:41).  It is very possible that Jesus would choose to begin his ministry in such a year. 

If we assume that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., he would be 30-33 years old as he begins his ministry. 

Pilate served as procurator of Judea from 26-36 A.D.  Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, ruled Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D.  Philip reigned over the relatively minor regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis from 4 B.C. to 34 A.D.  For quite some time, we knew nothing of Lysanias, except for Luke's mention of him.  More recently, an inscription was found in Abila, capital of Abilene (east of Damascus), mentioning him -- and thus verifying Luke's account (Myers, 670-671).

Luke mentions "the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" (v. 2) as if there are two high priests -- but, in fact, there can be only one at a time.  Annas served as high priest from 6-15 A.D. before being deposed by the procurator of Judea.  He continues to have considerable influence, and people still refer to him as high priest, in much the same way that we might call an ex-president "Mr. President."  His son-in-law, Caiaphas, is the current high priest, having been appointed in 18 A.D.  Four of Annas' sons will also become high priests (Barclay, 27).

"…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (v. 2).  This language is reminiscent of the calls of OT prophets (Isaiah 38:4; Jer. 1:1-2; 13:3).  The mention of Zechariah reminds us of the miracle of John's birth to aged parents (1:5-25; 57-80) and the angel Gabriel's announcement that John "will be great in the sight of the Lord" (1:15). 

"…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."  John will be a great prophet, but only because God empowers him.

"…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."  Luke has just spoken of Emperor Tiberius, the most powerful man in the world, and has named six other important political and religious figures.  The word of God, however, did not come to Emperor Tiberius.  Nor did it come, as would seem likely, to Caiaphas, the only priest privileged to enter the Holy of Holies.  Instead the word of God came to John, a man whose only distinction is that the word of God has come to him.  This happened -- not in Rome or Jerusalem or the Temple -- but in the wilderness.  In the Magnificat, Mary said, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (1:52).  That is surely the case here.  It is worth noting that the seven VIPs mentioned in these verses are remembered today primarily because of their mention in the Gospels.  We might think of Tiberius as an exception, because he has a secure place in secular history.  However, most of the people alive today who have heard of Tiberius know him only because he is mentioned in Luke's Gospel.

We are reminded again and again that God chooses unlikely people.  Someone has said, "How odd of God to choose the Jews!"  It was odd of God to choose David, a young lad whose father did not even include him among the sons whom he presented to Samuel for consideration!  How odd of God to choose Mary, a young unmarried girl!  How odd of God to choose John!  Those of us in ministry wonder at our calling.  We also wonder at the ordinariness of the laypeople who do most of the work in our churches.  God has, indeed, "lifted up the lowly."

The wilderness also seems an unlikely place for the word of God.  Why not Jerusalem?  Not only is the Temple there, but also its people need someone to bring them to repentance.  The wilderness is largely unpopulated -- John's proclamation will be unheard unless people travel there to hear him.  However, throughout Israel's history, the wilderness has been a place where God has shaped his people.  It is the place where the nation Israel was forged.  Prophets did much of their work in the wilderness.  Jesus will soon be tested in the wilderness. 

God continues to work in the wilderness of our lives today.  We are most open to hearing God's word when life seems most barren.


3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Greek: metanoias) for the forgiveness of sins,


John's baptism is not a proselyte baptism to make Jews of Gentiles.  Instead, he requires Jews to repent (metanoias) and baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins -- thus fulfilling the angel's prophecy that John will "give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins (1:77).

John spells out the ethical requirements of repentance -- bearing fruit worthy of repentance (3:8) and sharing with those in need (3:11).  When tax collectors and soldiers ask what they should do, he tells them to deal honestly with people and not to use their power in abusive ways (3:13-14). 

If Advent is a time of preparation for the Lord so that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (vv. 4-6), we find here the way to prepare -- bearing fruit worthy of repentance -- sharing with those in need -- dealing with people honestly -- using power justly.

Metanoias involves changing one's mind -- turning around -- proceeding in a new direction.  Earlier, the angel told Zechariah that John would "turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God" (1:16).  This emphasis on turning is reinforced in Acts 3:19:  "Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…."  "There must be a decisive change in direction, for the present course of the nation and individuals leads to destruction" (Tannehill, 78). 

At the close of this Gospel, Jesus will re-emphasize repentance and forgiveness:  "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (24:46-47). Peter will make the same emphasis at Pentecost -- "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven" (Acts 2:38).     

This is our message yet today.  People still need forgiveness, and God still forgives.  Sometimes we are tempted to gloss over the reality of sin and to emphasize only forgiveness.  To mention sin seems somehow unenlightened and judgmental.  That, however, is faithful neither to the scriptures nor to people's spiritual needs.  People know that they are sinners.  They are relieved when we deal seriously with their sin, because they can then believe that there is a serious possibility of forgiveness. 

Furthermore, it is illogical to speak of forgiveness without speaking first of sin.  If there is no sin, there is no need of forgiveness.



4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'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.' "

The quotation is from Isaiah 40:3-5, where the prophet calls people to prepare for the Lord's visitation.  If a king plans to travel, work crews repair the roads in advance of his travel -- to make them straight, level, and smooth.  John calls us to repent as the way to prepare our hearts for the Lord's visit. 

Bock calls this passage from Isaiah a " 'pattern' prophecy, speaking to many periods of history at the same time" (Bock, 67).  In the original, Isaiah called people to "make straight in the desert a highway for our God."  John amends that to "make his paths straight" (v. 4).  " 'His' now refers to the coming one -- Jesus, the Lord" (Green, 171).  We, too, need to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord -- and need to help our families and friends to prepare their hearts as well.

"Every valley shall be filled" (v. 5).  John makes it clear that it is our repentance that prepares the Lord's way -- that fills the valleys and levels the mountains.

"…and the crooked shall be made straight" (v. 5).  "This may be an allusion to the 'corrupt generation' (literally crooked) of Acts 2:40 (cf. also Luke 13:11-13)" (Stein, 129).

In our churches, we must take care lest we give people the impression that the most important work of the church is meeting a budget, constructing a building, or developing a program.  Those are worthy goals, and easily measured.  However, the ultimate goal is preparing hearts to receive the Lord -- a difficult goal to measure.  As we build buildings and implement programs, we must remember that the really important work of the church takes place at this less visible, less measurable, level. -- and that it is the work of the Spirit.  We contribute to the Spirit's work in many ways -- especially by prayer and by preparing our hearts to receive the Lord.

"…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."  Luke is a Gentile, the only Gentile to author a New Testament book.  In Luke and Acts, he makes frequent positive references to Gentiles.  He does not include parallels to Matt 10:5 and 15:24, which exclude Gentiles.  He makes it clear that Christ has eliminated barriers to the salvation of all people.  That might seem like a dead issue today, because the church has included Gentiles for twenty centuries.  However, we live in a highly polarized world in which people are divided by race, tribal and national origins, religion, education, politics, and wealth.  People need to hear that God calls all people -- in every land -- of every persuasion -- to repentance and forgiveness of sins.  Nobody is excluded.

Neither Mark nor Matthew includes this allusion to Isaiah 40:5b -- "and all people shall see (the glory of the Lord) together" -- which Luke modifies to say "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (v. 6).  This verse "helps to balance or moderate the rather stern and threatening tone of vv. 7-17:  the fulfillment of the purposes of God is supremely in salvation and not in judgment" (Nolland).

SERMON:     (Top of page)

This morning may we consider the time in which we live and what it reveals to us and about us. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

During these cold days of early December, we find ourselves in a political season. The name for this political season is Advent.

What? You never imagined Advent as a political season? Shopping before Christmas certainly. A time for holiday frenzy and days of decreasing light.  Blue hangings in the church, and a wreath of evergreen and candles.  But a political season? The thought may never have crossed your mind.

Let me then bring in a lawyer to plead my case. Not an attorney from the city, county, state, or federal system. The attorney who pleads this case is an old Harlem street lawyer, a social activist, a theologian, and even an Episcopalian, though more radical and biblically based than many of us may find comfortable. For the defense then, I offer William Stringfellow, who has something to tell us about Advent, or rather about two Advents: the first coming and the final coming of Christ. Here is what he says:

"The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew that the message of both Advents is political. That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God. In the lordship of Christ they are rendered accountable to human life and, indeed, to all created life." [Quoted in Bill Wylie Kellerman, ed., A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (William B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 387.]

So then, this attorney and theologian named Stringfellow claims that the Advent message is political. Advent means that nations and rulers are judged and held accountable in the Word of God we know as Jesus.

Certainly this is the tenor of today's Gospel. Perhaps those words from Luke are new to you; perhaps they are very familiar. Consider them now, whatever else they are, as a political message, a message about how God does politics.

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. . . ." On the sentence rolls, and still it is not complete. Luke tells us who the big boys were in that time and in those places. He locates in terms of geography and history the account he is ready to provide. That's helpful.

But then Luke surprises us. Here is the rest of his sentence: "...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."

Luke the evangelist tells us who God's Word comes to on this occasion, and who God's Word doesn't come to.

It comes to a guy without a title: Zechariah's son John, who is out in the wilderness, where space is plentiful and people are few.

The Word of God does not come to any of the people you would have expected.  Not the high priests, who alone can enter the Holy of Holies. Not the bigwig governors and the power politicians. Not even the Roman emperor, who exercises life-and-death power over millions.

Notice also where God's Word comes. Not to the holy city Jerusalem, site of the Temple. Not to a provincial capital, or even to imperial Rome, mistress of the world. The Word of God comes to a guy named John -- maybe his friends call him Jack -- who for some reason calls the desert his home.

So in regard to people and place, the Word of God almighty does not hit a bull's-eye. It doesn't land at the center, where you'd expect it to. Rather it comes to this one guy in the desert, a badly dressed ranter who doesn't know when to pipe down and play the game.

Where God's Word comes and where it doesn't is a clear statement about divine politics.

The priest in his temple, the governor in his palace, the emperor in the heart of imperial Rome--each one thought he was the center of his own little human world.

That the Word of God comes to John in the wilderness proves that these other fellows are wrong in their presumptions. They are not the center, and the real world is immensely more than they imagine, and their power is at best derived, relative, secondary, but on other days entirely bogus and laughable. Somebody else is in charge. Always has been, always will be.

The world of emperor, governor, high priest is shown to be fragile, ready to collapse. The Word of God blazes bright in the starkness of the desert, illuminating all the flaws and cracks of empire, city, and temple. The just and righteous God, who loves this world too much to let it fall into utter ruin, judges all human arrangements, all human politics, and, inevitably, finds them wanting.

It is a sobering experience to read chapter after chapter of Old Testament history, and find that the kings of Israel and Judah, one after another, appear deficient in the eyes of the Lord. Even the ones who merit some commendation are not free from their flaws and cracks.

So it was then in those times. So it was also when God's Word came to John in the wilderness and others sat elsewhere in seats of supposed power. And so it is now in the present political season. Human political structures are shown to be flawed and cracked. The Word of God appears somewhere out on the margins, there in the wilderness.

John, spokesperson for the Word, calls for repentance, a repentance so deep you can bathe in it. The need is desperate. Yet there is hope here. With our repentance, God builds a better realm than any we can make. He constructs from the outside in: from the desert margins to the center of the reborn culture. He constructs also from the inside out: from hearts made new to lives that blossom and bear fruit. Stubborn with a divine stubbornness, God does not give up, but remakes.

This God is no tribal deity or mere metaphysical necessity. This is the cosmic Creator, with a thirst for justice as broad and deep as the universe.  This is the Holy One who bends down, becomes flesh, and enters into an eternal covenant with humanity.

The Lord does not choose to ignore our faults, or simply to punish us, but instead decides to perform the greatest miracle: make us accountable to each other and all created life. The Word blazes forth that we may live: live in communion with God and creation, rather than shrivel and die by ourselves.  When prophets demand repentance, it is a call to life, an invitation to the politics of the reign of God.

So this is a political season. A new realm is proclaimed, with John the Baptist as the strangest royal herald you ever saw. But don't think that all this has to do solely with politicians and candidates, lawyers and lobbyists and bigwigs. It has as much to do with each and every one of us.

For each of us, whether or not we are politicians or even voters, likes to build our own little kingdom with ourselves at the center. That kingdom may be a business, a classroom, a family, or even a tiny apartment. Regardless of the size of our empire, the same thing happens to us as happened to Tiberius: God's Word comes to someone out on the margins, away from the center, somebody we don't know about or don't want to listen to.

Divine politics has its personal version. God casts down the mighty from their thrones in our hearts as well as in the world. John still calls for a wilderness road to be built through our lives so that we can quit our little thrones of power and run out to meet the Lord in the freedom of the desert.

Let us pray.

Jesus, in this political season we call Advent, help us recognize you as the true and only king. May we trust not in human arrangements, whether big or little, but in you alone. Make us heed the warnings of your prophets, both old and new, that we may welcome you joyfully when you return at last in glory.


"Sometime, I'd like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice -- when he will start doing something about it!" "Why don't you?" "I'm afraid God might ask me the same question."

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,  baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross,

grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nests and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again,

the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his son: 

"Ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.

Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God. Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. 

It is therefore the living word, the word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus;  it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says:  "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates (BH #128; CH #129; JS #169; LBW #32; LW #23-24;  PH #8; TH #436; TNCH #117; UMH #213; WOV #631)

O Come, O Come Emmanuel (BH #76; CH #119; CO #179; GC #317; JS #161; LBW #34; LW #31; PH #9; TH #56; TNCH #116; UMH #211; VU #1)

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