Luke 3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
We preachers use the phrase, “wrestling with the text” when we are talking about finding meaning and diving into our sermons. Wrestling doesn’t begin to describe how I’ve felt approaching this text. It was more like a knock down drag out. Now I’m not a preacher who always adheres to strictly biblical education, and in fact, I stray a bit from the text when I have a pressing message that I feel the text gives me – some feel I might be straying too far.
So when I sat down to take a good look at this text, I thought, this time, I’m going to be DEEPLY embedded in the text. I read it. I poured over it. I examined it. I read it again because I was confused. Are you kidding me, Luke? Tetrarch? What the what? So I hit up Google. First site is Wikipedia- it (and I quote!) says “Tetrarch may refer to:” and then offers a list. REALLY?? Definition says that it’s a ruler of a portion of a country – makes sense, but I’m not sure how important I find this information when interpreting.
I notice they say this particular rule has been for 15 years. The articles I read speak of the rule of Tiberius Ceaser as particularly harsh – and that this might make the people of that time less concerned with spiritual well being than just plain surviving. This becomes important in a few minutes.
We are then offered the fact that John the Baptist, son of Zechariah (and Elizabeth thankyouverymuch) has heard the word of God in the wilderness. We then hear the prophecy, which is almost identical to Isaiah 40:1-3 (I won’t bore you by reading the subtle differences. I’m sure Rolf Jacobson and David Fredrickson could argue why they are super different, but let’s just say for now, they’re the same!)
So this prophecy is there, why? Is it telling us that John is saying the quote inside the quote? Is it just telling us that these prophets of the Israelites are legit? That John is legit? Can that really be all I’m supposed to figure out with this passage? I choose to say no. (A yes would just make me cranky at this point, and that’s not terribly productive.)
So John is in the wilderness. Wilderness is important – in chapter 4, Jesus will be sent there to be tested for 40 days, but it doesn’t seem like John is being tested. I’m drawn to this idea that John not just hears the word of God, but he hears it in the wilderness.
John the Baptist is described very interestingly in the Bible. In my class on Mark we talked about him wearing crazy furs, which wasn’t normal even for his time, and eating locusts and honey. In this passage, we learn about John hearing the word of God in the wilderness. Using that emphasis seems to set him apart – he was maybe a loner, definitely strange, and probably sharp tongued.
Ok, so not probably, definitely. Later on He calls people seeking him out “vipers.” This is my kind of guy. To have license to not only have strong opinions, but to offer them very freely, without remorse (or at least we aren’t told of remorse).
Being in the wilderness, dressing oddly, eating bugs and telling people some super blunt things paints this John as a loner. It might have been hard to be him – in fact I’m sure it was! I’m guessing for a long time people told him how weird/wrong he was about life, and now all of the sudden they are swarming him for help with their salvation – that’s probably why he calls them vipers! We see evidence of this when he says in verse 7, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” As if to say, you poops, NOW you believe me?:)
So if you remember, we heard that Tiberius was a harsh ruler, people were probably having a hard time in daily life because of that, yes? This same article asserts that a prophet that was so different as John was needed to reach the people.
What does a proclaimer of faith in the present time look like to you? They probably have a nice white robe, or a shirt with a collar for many of us. They are probably dressed nicely, not in expensive clothes, but dressy, “respectable.” But I’m reminded of preachers like Nadia Bolz-Weber and her fabulous tattoos and I think, I wish I was brave enough to have so many tattoos, and I also think, she looks significantly different than a traditional view of a pastor. For one thing, she’s a chick! For another, she swears. My hero. She’s incredibly real, and very sarcastic – she even has a blog entitled the Sarcastic Lutheran.
I think we need to remind ourselves that proclaimers of the Gospel, not just us in the pulpit on Sunday’s but ALL God’s children, need to find their unique voices in order to spread the salvation offered to us by Christ, and the love and peace that news brings. Some of us do this in a traditional manner. Some of us do this with beautifully detailed biblical study and education. Some of us do this by dressing in costume and putting on a show. Some of us do it by sharing music. Some of us do this with emblazoned passion and earnestness. Some of us do it by being little miss Sassypants.
Whatever your method, own it. God made John very purposefully as a unique individual who played an important role in many faith lives. You might not have historical books written about you, or even have a famous blog, but you impact people. You are unique in God’s eyes, and you make the story come to life for those people you touch. Be your wild, hairy, locust-eating self, and baby, people will listen!