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Luke 3:1-6

These first lines of Luke’s gospel beyond the introductory chapters force us into certain habits as readers and preachers of the Scriptures.

First, to the ever-shrinking crowd who would make the argument that the gospel is timeless and contextless, that the events on the front page of the Sunday morning paper don’t really matter to the preacher, you are wrong. This is the third chapter in a row that Luke has begun by naming current emperors and rulers, all the way down to local religious authorities. Context is important.

Second, details of context are maybe less important than we would like to admit. Although we get an overall picture, Luke’s primary concern is to announce a gospel that is a part of the history which God has wrought in the world. It concerns the fulfilled word of God to Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Isaiah and David. Ultimately, we see the zenith of God’s promises to all of Israel being made manifest within the story that God is working. And so, yes—you will find your commentaries disagreeing on the details of who ruled what and when.[1] But the preacher ought to focus the bulk of their time on what God is doing in and through John and the way that reveals who God is.

Third, the church is not a slave to detailed chronology. We rarely talk about John the Baptist outside of Advent, even though the chronology is all wrong—this is not a “Christmas” passage! But even though I struggle with every child I know calling Christmas “Jesus’ Birthday,” that is not really what is happening at Christmas. Advent is not just preparation for a party—it is preparation for a new way of being, characterized by the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and faith in Jesus Christ. For further explanation visit this site Christmas, where the sheep and donkey play an apocryphal role is preparation for the Passion where the donkey bears the True Lamb into Jerusalem. It is an anointing of a helpless baby in a cave-stable wrapped in swaddling clothes that prepares for the anointing of a helpless corpse in a cave-tomb wrapped in linen. Chronology makes for such poor imagery and colorless theology. The preacher should hold it loosely.

So in the midst of this world which includes a foreign power occupying the land of Israel John the Baptist goes into the wilderness. While there, he receives a message from the God that is far from the practical pattern of the high priests in Jerusalem.[2] It is a message that will not be received well by the powers listed in verse 1. And yet it is not a land-grabbing power, but a people-transforming power. I am not sure that it immediately smashes ancient Palestinian or contemporary American borders so much as transforms them into something unrecognizable to the ruling majority.

As an example of this, we can look at the way that John deals with the Isaiah 40 text. Joel Green tells us that Luke has John absorbing the text into his moment in five ways:[3]

  1. connecting “wilderness” to the new exodus,

  2. placing John in the place of preparer for the Lord, who we understand to be Jesus,

  3. giving us a clear idea of what this “preparation” is: repentance, baptism and transformed ethical living,

  4. designating “the way” as a kind of new faithful people which will become the church in Acts, and

  5. “straightening” and “smoothing” as preparing our lives to receive the Lord through repentance.

John’s message is one of salvation for all flesh through Israel by means of the True Israelite, Jesus. It has brought Isaiah into the depth of first century Palestinian wilderness and as such, it proclaims something to us, even now. It is ultra-specific and yet refuses reduction to its context. My prayer for you as you wrestle with this text this week is that you will also find the little cracks and micro-contexts that require your proclamation of the Gospel which is ultimately so much more cosmic than any of us might imagine. May we live, pray and preach with an eye toward all flesh and a heart toward the living, breathing flesh that is right in front of us.

[1] Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Gospel of Luke. Edited by Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991, 63-64. [2] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, 166. [3] Green, 171-172.