The first verses of this gospel lesson sound like something straight out of Who’s Who in the Ancient World.
Luke the gospel-writer really drops the names here, ticking off an impressive list of movers-and-shakers: Tiberius Caesar the Roman Emperor....Pontius Pilate the Governor of Judea....Herod and Philip and Lysanias–territorial rulers all...along with the Jewish high priests Annas and Caiaphas to boot!
Luke just runs right down the chain of command, from the top dog in far-off Rome to the local powers-that-be!
He does this, I think, for two vital reasons.
First, Luke wants us to see God’s saving Word at work in the midst of concrete human history.
God’s Word, you see, doesn’t come to some hazy, timeless, never-never land.
Rather, God’s Word invades this particular planet, the Third Rock from the Sun!
God’s Word enters a specific slice of human history. God’s Word finds a home in a locale, in an era populated with personalities we can read about in history books who lived at particular GPS coordinates.
It’s vital to say that because we’re forever tempted to imagine that faith and spirituality are about somehow escaping from the real world. We try to round off and smooth over all of the embarrassing particularities about the God we come to know in Jesus Christ.
And Luke the gospel-writer will have none of that.
Real faith, true spirituality, the Holy Spirit-uality of Luke’s gospel nails us down and nails God down to a chunk of real estate and a moment in time.
God in Christ scandalously stooped to show up....in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.
This same God is always stooping down and getting specific with you and me, too.
This same God stoops down to you and me TODAY--December 9, a frosty morning in the “lake country” of northern Minnesota, the 343rd day of the year of our Lord 2012.
But there’s a second vital reason why Luke does all this name-dropping here in chapter three of his gospel.
Luke speaks of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas....because they are all being surpassed....they and all that they represent are on the way out.
This “Who’s Who” list of first-century celebrities represents for Luke an old world order that is passing away.
It’s as if Luke is imaging the Word of God as a jumbo-jet coming in for a landing, but this jumbo-jet “overshoots the runway,” so to speak.
God’s Word passes over the imperial palace of Tiberius; over the governor’s mansion of Pilate, over the castles of Herod and Philip and Lysanias; over even the sacred temple precincts of Annas and Caiaphas. God’s Word “over-shoots”all those hallowed halls....“landing” instead in the Judean wilderness where a nobody named John the Baptist is starting his work.
God’s Word does not land where you might think it would!
So also, God’s Word doesn’t come to us just when everything is hunky-dory, when we’re sitting on top of the world, when all is swell.
No–God’s Word finds us, God’s Word makes its home in our hearts most often when we’re barren, bereft, barely able to hold our heads above water. When doubt sways us, when sickness lays us low, when grief o’ertakes us–then God has a chance to get a Word in edgewise with us.
Luke stresses that the Word of God comes to John “in the wilderness,” in that desolate desert where God has been meeting his people for centuries, teaching them “in the wilderness” how to walk by faith.
It is critical that Tiberius and Pilate and Herod and Caiaphas and all the rest are named here in the first couple of verses of Luke chapter 3.....because they and their kind are on the way out.
The power of all these bigshots was a “let’s make a deal” sort of power. Their power declared to all those living under it: put up, pay up and shut up. Their power-grabbing ways, according to Luke chapter 3, are coming to an end.
Their old age is passing away, being supplanted by the New World Order that God is establishing in the most unlikely of places, in the barrenness of the Judean outback where John the Baptist is proclaiming something startlingly new: a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
And what might that look like, this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”
Luke unpacks this pregnant phrase for us by quoting from the thrilling 40th chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Luke conjures up Isaiah’s ancient image of a divine excavating, earth-moving, road construction project....a super-highway for God being laid down in the wilderness.
And why does Luke use that strange sort of image to speak of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”
It’s because of what actually happens every time a highway is built.
Road construction always involves two basic steps.
First the roadbed has to be prepared.
Workers in hardhats need to remove all obstacles, lower the high spots, fill in the low spots, sweep away all the old rocks and debris that clutter the roadbed.
Only then can the second step follow. Only then can a brand new highway be laid down.
The rhythm of road construction is like the rhythm of repentance and forgiveness: repentance, the clearing away of the old–and forgiveness, the advent of the new.
Here’s another way of picturing it.
Let me describe a transformation that took place at over the Thanksgiving holiday. Our house underwent an extreme makeover.
That’s because Advent was coming: this delicious season of watching and waiting for the Christ Child.
And one of the persons who lives at our house is an interior decorator. She knows how to work wonders this time of the year.
It’s a two-step process, though.
The conversion our home underwent after Thanksgiving began first with a massive taking down, sweeping aside, and putting away of all the boring, ho-hum, regular stuff we normally have sitting around. All of that had to go (and where exactly it went, I’m not quite sure). But it’s all gone for now!
And in its place, where all the old stuff usually sits....there are now angels and evergreens and sparkling white lights and manger scene figures and holly and ivy and ornaments galore.
Our house has become an Advent- Christmas wonderland!
Repentance and forgiveness are something like that.
Repentance is the miracle God works in our lives when God frees us to put away all the old, boring, humdrum stuff–the stuff that needs to go for Christ to have his way with us. Repentance is the clearing away, the setting aside, the smoothing out of all the obstacles between us and God and us and our neighbors.
And forgiveness–forgiveness is the good stuff that follows–like dazzling lights and Christmas finery–forgiveness is the wonderful gift that fills us with newness and freshness and boundless hope.
But here’s the deal: there isn’t enough room in our house for all our old, boring, every-day stuff AND the beautiful seasonal Christmas stuff. We always have to put away the old to make room for the new.
So also, there simply isn’t room in our lives for all the old, boring, death-dealing stuff AND the new, life-giving, hope-restoring stuff in Jesus Christ. The old has to go to make room for the new!
So, for example, if you’ve got some torn, frazzled relationships that you’re aware of, if there are persons you just can’t abide–folks you avoid like the plague--all of that old enmity and grudge-holding needs to go. And God’s gift of repentance means that all of it will go so that we have room for the reconciled, restored relationships that Jesus brings.
Or if, for some reason, you find yourself fresh out of hope…running on fumes…your “gas tank” empty—all of that has to go, too. God means to sweep that out of your lives, to make room once again for the only Good News that never disappoints!
Or, if your possessions are possessing you rather than you possessing them, your money always being spent only on yourself....all of that needs to go as well. And God’s gift of repentance means that all of it will go so that we’ll have room for the gracious generosity that the Christ Child always ushers into our lives.
You get the picture?
Whatever it may be–whatever it may be: some grief, some guilt, some obsession, some wonderful possession, some shame that gnaws at you, robbing you of joy....all of that needs to go!
And God’s gift of repentance means that all of it will go so that we have room once again for the faith and the freedom and the forgiveness that God in the Christ Child is always bestowing upon us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.