“Prepare” – that’s what we’re talking about today. We’ve all had to do things we were unprepared for. We’ve all taken a test we didn’t study for or did a presentation at work that we didn’t prepare for. I like to think that’s how some of the best kid’s television shows happened, because a lot of them are so ludicrous, I don’t know if they could have happened any other way. I like to imagine a guy in a morning meeting, clearly hung over from the night before or something, and then his boss is like, “Okay, now Bill will be pitching us an idea for a new show on Nickelodeon.” And Bill is just like, “Oh right…Ummm…just shooting from the hip here…a talking sea sponge who works at a fast food restaurant and is best friends with a squirrel who lives in a giant air bubble in the ocean.” Or my son loves this show called Dinosaur Train. Any of you ever heard of this? It seemslike a low hanging fruit. Kids love dinosaurs; kids love trains; no need to think of something original -- let’s just combine these two things.
Despite, though, the happy accidents that sometimes happen when we’re unprepared, it’s typically in our best interest to prepare for things. We prepare for having kids, we prepare for getting married, we prepare for big life transitions like new jobs or schools. It wouldn’t be good to set a wedding date and then come to the day without, like, buying a dress or renting a tux. It wouldn’t be good to have a baby at the hospital without having a car seat to bring said baby home – that almost happened to us; it’s a story for another time. If we don’t prepare for things, then it puts an incredible wrinkle into whatever is coming. Either our lack of preparation hinders the arrival of the new thing, or maybe the new thing still comes but we’re not ready when it does. Kind of like a new baby or a new marriage, our passage today is about preparing for the arrival of something new. And we’re going to spend a little bit of time this morning figuring out what exactly this “something new” is.
So, unlike the last two weeks, our story this morning takes a look at an event which came, not before Jesus’ birth, but before the beginning of his public ministryas an adult. And the text starts out with a long list of local rulers and government officials. And, as I was preparing, I asked myself “Will it really be worth my time to walk through who all these people are? Will my parishioners really care about these details?” And then, I realized that whether or not you all will really care about these details, you have no say in the matter. You’re a captive audience and I have a PowerPoint presentation with a limitless number of slides. So, long story short – you might want to watch where you step when you stand up because I’m about to drop some knowledge. Here we go!
The first person we’re introduced to in the text is Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was the Roman Emperor from 14C.E.-37C.E., and we’re told that our story begins in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign, so this is taking place somewhere around 29 C.E. Now, the Roman Empire at this time is vastto say the least. It, more or less, encompasses the Mediterranean Sea, and most of the happenings of the gospels, which take place between Nazareth and Jerusalem, are confined to a very small, geographically insignificant area on the eastern edge of the empire.
And this small, insignificant area is ruled by a few different people, namely Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Philip, and Lysanias. Let’s start with the first three of these. So, Herod Antipas and Philip are sons of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the king over all of Judea, basically meaning everything from Judea proper down here all the way up to Iturea. After Herod the Great died, though, it got divided between 3 of his heirs, namely Herod Antipas, Philip, and a man named Archelaus. Now, Herod Antipas and Philip maintained their power in the lands attributed to them, but Archelaus was causing a bit of a ruckus in Judea proper and Samaria, so the Roman officials took it over before long around 6C.E., and in 26C.E. Pontius Pilate was put in charge, namely in order to keep the Jews in check, so he’s kind of an outsider.
For those of you who are fans of “The Office” in here, a good way to think about Pontius Pilate is to equate him with Toby. In this show, Toby is an H.R. representative in the company who technically works for the corporate office and not for the specific branch the show is based on, and the manager, played by Steve Carrell,hatesToby because he’s from corporate. This is kind of the same thing. Pilate is straight from the Roman Empire and charged to keep things in order after all the upheaval with the previous ruler.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: what about Lysanias ruler of Abilene?! Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about him. And luckily, I was able to fit everything we know about him on a single slide: We know there was a dude named Lysanias. That’s it. We literally have no other information, so we don’t need to spend any more time on him. Notice, though, that we’re obviously going from large to small. We started with Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, and worked our way down to some regional rulers in a remote corner of the kingdom. Now, Luke takes it one more level down, going outside the government officials of the area and naming the religious officials, namely Annas and Caiaphas. Now, at this time Caiaphas was actually the high priest of the temple, but Annas still held great sway and influence in the community so he’s also listed here. Get this, though: Annas is Caiaphas’ father-in-law! Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Say it with me: #AncientJewishTempleOfficialNepotism.
Look, we just blew through a lotof information and a lotof historical details. Some of you may be wondering why I would devote so much time to explaining these people, and if you arewondering that, you’re asking the right question. Because it’s the same thing I thought about when I was reading the passage this week. “Why is Luke prefacing all these people? Why does it matter?” And then it hit me: this is what John is up against. Luke lays it out for us: in a time when all the power and influence was held by Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysania, Annas, Caiaphas, the word of God came; not to the emperor, not to Rome, not to the local rulers or the temple or a huge metropolis. But it came to a poor, dirty, nobody in the wilderness.
Now, if I were to say that there’s one thing Luke’s Gospel loves, what would that be? Yes, parallels. Luke’s gospel lovesparallels, and Luke shows us that, yet again, in this passage. Let’s take a look at this table. Here we see a parallel between the seven individuals listed in the first couple verses, and John, followed by a list of their attributes. It’s especially important to take note of this “Rome and Wilderness” dichotomy. Wilderness is a motif the Jews of the day would have been familiar with because it is reminiscent of the Exodus; of the Israelites wandering in the desert after being released from slavery in Egypt. Thus, it’s associated with freedom and liberation, while the often-crooked government and temple officials would have been associated with oppression and slavery.
It can be easy to notice this parallel and move on, but it’s worth taking a moment to ask some questions. The government and temple rulers in our passage are representative of systems of power and privilege and oppression. So, it’s natural to wonder what the modern-day systems of power and privilege and oppression are? What about our prisons and criminal justice system, plagued by systematic racism and modern Jim Crow laws that are hidden in plain sight? What about privatized health care that turns a profit when someone is diagnosed with cancer? What about our government, about 75% of which is composed by straight, white, cisgender males? Now, you may disagree with me about this stuff. You may not think there’s anything wrong with privatized healthcare or the prison system or whatever – that’s fine, I’m just pointing out problems. And I’m not trying to claim that I know when and where the word of God is coming into the world all the time, I just know it’s not there. Because if it were, those things wouldn’t look that way. Our passage is a testament to the fact that the word of God comes to critique systems of power and privilege and oppression – not to justify or legitimize them.
That’s what was happening with John in the wilderness, the place not only of testing and temptation for the Israelites, but a place of prophets where a relationship with God might be cultivated, away from the systems of oppression. John is calling people out from the systems – he’s calling those who actively perpetuate the systems to repent, and he’s calling those who are subject to the systems to free themselves from them; to realize that their lives are more sacred and worthy than these systems could ever accept. And if that ever happened on a large enough scale, it would only mean one thing: Revolution. That’s where Jesus comes in. But we’re not there yet! Hang tight. We’ll get there in a couple weeks. For not, we’re still preparing.
And speaking of preparing, let’s look again at John’s quotation of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare 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.’” Now, this passage is taken, more or less, direction from the book of Isaiah 40. There are some weird linguistic things between the Greek and Hebrew, but, all things considered, it’s pretty close. Now, Isaiah is really long: it’s 66 chapters, and we actually believe it was written of a several-hundred-year span by three different authors. Chapters 1-39 is known as “first Isaiah”; chapters 40-55 are attributed to “second Isaiah”; and chapters 56-66 are attributed to ‘third Isaiah.” So, John the Baptist is quoting Isaiah 40:3-5, which falls under second Isaiah. Now, each of the three Isaiah’s correspond to a chunk of Israelite history, revolving around the Babylonian exile, during which time Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the Israelites were enslaved by Babylon. First Isaiah = pre-Babylonian Exile and Babylonian Exile, second Isaiah = end of Babylonian Exile, and third Isaiah = post-Babylonian Exile.
Now, why is this important? Well, first of all, second Isaiah, which John is quoting, presupposes the fact that the Israelites have been in exiled and enslaved to the Babylonians for at least a couple hundred years. So, for the Israelites, this is the first word of hope they’ve received in several generations, and it’s a message of hope in liberation from slavery and oppression. Now John is coopting this same passage and using it to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. And the first line here is interesting: “prepare the way of the Lord!” This is actually a battle cry which was used by military officials to command a way be cleared for their armies, so this kind of statement would have invoked a militaristic image. But even more interesting are the next few lines: “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.”
Now, there are physically high places and physically low placed in the world, but there are also different kinds of high and low places. We live in the Susquehanna Valley, but Lewisburg is kind of a high place, isn’t it? It’s an affluent area, full of successful folks and upwardly-mobile folks. And while that’s great and Lewisburg is, no doubt, a wonderful place to live, we’re somewhat shielded from the low places. We don’t see much poverty here in the borough. We don’t hear many sirens. Many of us don’t want for anything. But our text, John the Baptist’s quoting of Isaiah, repackages the message which initially came to the oppressed and enslaved in Babylon and addresses it to all who have ears to hear, saying, “no matter if you’re on a mountain, or in a valley, no matter if you’re on a crooked path or going a rough way, God is coming. And when he does, the playing field will be absolutely leveled. The mountains will be brought down, the valleys will be filled, and all will have according to their needs.”
When this happens, when the playing field is leveled; when all have healthcare, when African-Americans are no longer targeted and discriminated against by the criminal justice system, when women and the LGBT+ community is afforded the same rights as men; when all is made well and every human being is seen as sacred and respected as a child of God with dignity and worth, then all shall see the salvation of God. Salvation isn’t an otherworldly reality which we’re allowed to access when we escape this place. No, salvation is here and now, and it’s realized every moment we’re moved by God to stand with the other. We can’t achieve salvation; only God can bring salvation. Our task is merely to prepare the way. Let’s pray.