Luke 3:1-6, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

[December 9, 2012] Last week we focused on the coming of the Lord as our Judge. In contrast, this week the message is focused on the coming of the Lord as our Hope. The Gospel according to Luke pegs the Jesus story to a particular time in history at a particular place in the planet: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” Yet the repercussions of what happened there and then affects “all flesh”—that is, every living thing—for all time: “All flesh will see the salvation of God.” This is, in fact, the thrust of Luke’s message in both his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. He sees everything from the point of view of the mission, the apostolate. From Jesus the message of Jesus goes into the whole world; the hope of Israel becomes the hope of the Gentiles (and of every living thing; perhaps even of everything that has ever lived).

Our passage this morning began with this recital of rulers, the powerful of the earth: the emperor, the governor, three tetrarchs, and the high priests. These are men of power, political figures, men who had the means to force their will on others, men who were at the center of civic life, men of influence and responsibility, who could make a difference in the affairs of the world. These men and their world they are so much a part of—what a contrast they form to the words that follow: In their days, “the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.” John, too, is a particular individual—“the son of Zacharias”; he is connected to a priestly family that serves the Temple in Jerusalem. But John is in the wilderness, where the priestly connections of earth matter little. The wilderness is the opposite of the civic life and the seats of power. In the wilderness there is nothing of the world—nothing except what we bring within us, or what we can fit in our backpack.

The wilderness is a place of plenty, but not with the things of the culture. It is a place of testing: It is a place of solitude, where one has to face the evil that lurks within oneself; it is also a place of dependence, not on society but on “Mother Nature,” that is, on the ways of God and on God’s special providence—it is a place of self-judgment and faith.

Or not. Many go in and come out of the wilderness unchanged; some may even be made worse. For the wilderness is also a place of culture. We perceive the wilderness through a cultural lens, the culture—or cultivation—that we bring to it. We are guests in the wilderness; we ourselves are not wild. We cannot get into that raw state in which we see the wilderness for what it is. When we go into the wilderness, we see it from a particular perspective, the perspective of our cultivation, our culture. How have we been cultivated? And how have we cultivated ourselves? Have we been active in this process, or have we simply let society pour its own images and values into us? and have we chosen that society or have we simply allowed ourselves to be in whatever society we find ourselves?

The Bible invites us into its own society, to be cultivated with its own images and perspectives. The Bible is not just the product of our own society, as its interpretation usually is, but it also has a society of its own, and invites us out of our native society into something different. The Bible for certain is situated within different societies—the societies of the patriarchs, the societies of Israel, the societies of the Hellenistic world—but it also has a society of its own, the society of its prophets and sages and holy women and men, a society that distances itself from the surrounding societies in which it finds itself. Sometimes we might confuse these two worlds; often our interpretive task is to recognize the difference, and to locate ourselves within the one in contrast to the other.

But in the interests of time, let us get back to Luke. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. It came to him when he was prepared to receive it—alone before God, not interested in the approval or disapproval of others—alone before God in the place that his “cultivation” has imbued with a particular meaning. The cultivation that I refer to is his Jewish background, his background in the history of Israel. The wilderness means something there. Not only did Israel have to leave Egypt and cross the wilderness to enter the Promised Land, it was also forced back into the wilderness when it turned its back on God. Instead of Egypt, Israel was captive in Assyria and Judah in Babylon, on the other side of the wilderness. It was in this context that Isaiah said that the way back to the Promise Land was through the wilderness. The wilderness represents a rejection of the great civilizations of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon, but it was also the place where one found oneself when one accepted God’s judgment. It was not the Promised Land. It was the place where we find ourselves when we give up our slavery within the systems of Egypt and Babylon. It is a place where we are sustained by God in mercy, but sustained under God’s judgment. If we are in the wilderness of the world, it means we have accepted God’s judgment on the world and live day by day in dependence on God’s mercy. It also means that we accept not only that God’s judgment is on the world, but that it also hangs over us. We are among the condemned; we also live by God’s mercy.

This was the place where John found himself, or rather, where he put himself. It is a place where in fact God put him, by the hidden and interior movement of grace—as we see already in his birth narrative—but it is also a place in which he took an active role in placing himself, even though it was God’s grace acting in him that freed him and empowered him to be active in this way. Grace prepares us to meet grace. But from an experiential point of view, we are not sitting back watching but are deliberately putting ourselves, interiorly, where we choose to be. It was in this place—this place of deep agreement and sympathy with God’s judgment on him as a sinful human being, a human being who is also enmeshed in a society of sinful human beings—that the word of God came to him.

And the word that came to him was a revelation of hope. For the Jordan River, where we next find John, is the threshold of the Promised Land. Like the wilderness, it is imbued with symbolic or cultural meaning; it is not just a river, but a river that flows from the snowy peaks of Hermon through the verdant Sea of Galilee to the salty Dead Sea. On the one hand it symbolizes the passage of life into death, but crossing it also symbolizes new life. Joshua brought Israel across it into the Promised Land, the land that was supposed to be flowing with milk and honey, a land whose promise never achieved fruition because of the people’s sin and lack of faith.

But the time has come. The time has come for the promise to be fulfilled. All the promises that God made to Abraham and Isaac and Joseph, and all the promises that God made through Moses and the later prophets—they will all find fulfillment in the Coming One, the Son of David, the Messiah. “’Comfort, O comfort, My people,’ says your God. ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.’” Isaiah says to the exiles in Babylon. “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” Those in exile can now leave their internment in slavery and return to the Promised Land through the wilderness, for their sins have been forgiven.

Isaiah is saying more, though. Isaiah says that we are to go into the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord to come to us. Then, when the Lord comes to us, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see it together,” or as Luke quotes it, “all flesh will see the salvation of God.”

It is not that we must seize our salvation ourselves as if we could save ourselves. No! Rather, it is that the Lord is coming who alone can save us. What we must do is leave the world behind in our hearts by accepting and agreeing and entering into sympathy with God’s judgment on it (the world), and on ourselves as enmeshed and formed by it; and we must then live in submissive and loving dependence on God’s mercy, over which we can have no control, and don’t presume or try to control. When we are there, in this metaphorical “place,” the Lord will come to us. This is what it means to “make ready the way of the Lord,” and “make His paths straight.”

John utilized the Jordan to symbolize salvation. For the coming Joshua (Jesus’ name is Joshua in Hebrew) will bring us into the Promised Land. “He came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This forgiveness of sins—as throughout the Old Testament—was in anticipation of the Sinless One as the heavenly High Priest making Himself a Sin-offering for the sins of the whole world. On hearing the Gospel of the Coming One, the people could repent—by the grace of God moving within them—and receive (in anticipation) the forgiveness of their sins, so that when the Coming One comes, they can enter the place of blessedness, the Promised Land.

Isaiah says, “Then the glory of YHWH will be revealed, and all flesh will see it [the glory of YHWH] together” (40:5). Luke translates, “All flesh will see the salvation of God.” He equates salvation with the glory of the Lord being revealed. The Greek translation which Luke probably heard says, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see the salvation of God.”

Jesus is the revelation of God, which means that He reveals the glory of God, and when He comes again in glory, He will come in His humanity with the glory of God, and this new being of His (His flesh having been divinized by His resurrection) will be revealed to all flesh. This means that all flesh will see the salvation of God, for what has happened to Jesus—this divinization of His createdness (His humanity)—will eventually happen to the entire creation. All “transient” creation will become transparent and solid with the glory of God. This is the full picture, and the lid is opened just for a second for us to get a flicker of a glimpse. But the point Luke brings forth for us is simply this: salvation in Christ. He, the Coming One who has come to us in great humility, is Himself the Promised Land when we come to Him in faith. That is, when we give to Him our trust and fidelity, our commitment and allegiance, our loyalty and fealty.

John the Baptist calls us to repentance, to enter the wilderness with him in preparation for Christ, but Christ Himself, He will bring us into the Promised Land, which is Himself—for in Him is all the fullness of God and every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies.

Let us now reconsider the Collect for today, which used to be the Collect for the fourth week of Advent. “O Lord, raise up (we pray Thee) Thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us—through the satisfaction of Thy Son our Lord, to whom with Thee and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, world without end. Amen.” It is an old prayer that was translated and adapted by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Prayer Book and expanded in 1662 to include the phrase “running the race that is set before us.” “Succor” means to assist someone in distress, and “let” (as in “sore let”) means to be thwarted.

The prayer says that we are “sore let and hindered” from running the race that is set before us by “ours and wickedness.” We cannot overcome this by ourselves. We are trapped and caught not only by the circumstances of our lives and the stuck conditions of the relationships that we are in but also by our irradicable inward tendencies. So we pray for the Lord to raise up His power and come among us in Christ, that God in His “bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us.” Our hope is in Christ, and rests on “the satisfaction of Thy Son our Lord,” that is, on His bearing our judgment on the cross. “Raise up Thy power and come among us and with great might succor us.” This is a prayer that—on the basis of the satisfaction of Christ on the cross—God would come to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome the hindrance of our sin and wickedness that we might run the race that is set before us—a race course that takes us all the way to our participation in Christ’s resurrection—the divinization of our own created flesh in Him. Amen.

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