I want to give you an introduction to the several people mentioned in this scripture passage. The lesson begins with the words: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…” The Roman Empire had gone through the death of Augustus Caesar. Emperor Tiberius Caesar was the successor of Augustus Caesar. We know him as having a mercenary fiscal policy, that is, he was willing to torture and kill to enforcement his law on his colonies all for his financial benefit.
“…when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea…” Pilate was the Roman governor who had final authority in Judea, where Jerusalem and Bethlehem are located. He oversaw this often rebellious and turbulent province. His job was to keep things quiet. Citizens were to be silent, or they would be crucified. This region was prominent in Jesus’ ministry, but in the first century it was small potatoes. It might be like saying that you are ruler of all South Dakota.
“…and Herod was ruler of Galilee.” This is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Galilee is north of Judea. It would be like saying you were the ruler of all North Dakota. That may not be a big deal here, but it would be in the Dakotas. “…and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis.” Then someone named Lysanias ruled Abilene.
Further setting this into history the narrative says it was “during the high priesthood of Annas.” Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, controlled the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and the priests. This represented a lot of power and control, not to mention a lot of income. Annas, the father-in-law, though retired, retained his prestige as religious ruler, and was the power behind the priesthood because a member of his family held the position of high priest for over 50 years.
They ran their operations in the Temple with the permission of the Roman rulers who granted then both religious and civil authority over the Jewish people. It was part of the political overlay where there was rule by Emperor Tiberius Caesar and by Pontius Pilate and by Caiaphas, much as we live under the authority of national laws, state laws and city laws.
This is the list of first century movers and shakers, the power brokers. These were the folks who would be the candidates for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and People Magazine’s Man of the Year. They would be on the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Now listen and see if you get the punchline in this announcement.
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler 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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Did you get the joke? It is not knee slapping humor, but it is a joke. Or perhaps it is better to call it a statement of supreme irony. I know that if you have to explain a joke it isn’t funny, but I am going to do so anyway. Here is the joke. Here is ultimate irony. To whom did the word of the Lord come?
Was it to Annas, who has been high priest for ages? Or was it to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, who held the post and power of high priest? Did the word of the Lord come to Lys-an-ias or Philip or Herod Antipas? Do we hear the word of the Lord coming from Emperor Tiberius or Pontius Pilate? Where would you expect to hear the word of the Lord?
Restated for today the irony goes something like this: In the first year of the presidency of Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron President of France, Angela Merkel in her last days as Chancellor of Germany and Vladimir Putin President of Russian, when Charlie Baker was in his last term as Governor of Massachusetts, Antonio Guterres the United Nations Secretary General, Pope Francis sitting in the Vatican, as the nation’s struggle to overcome the global Covid pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci being a chief medical advisor to the President, the word of the Lord came to Gladys Schwarz, night custodian at Walmart in Falmouth, working half time at minimum wage with no benefits.
If you expected to hear the word of the Lord, would it be at a Presidential prayer breakfast with all the powerful politicians and proper preachers? Would it be at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ with some preacher speaking with absolute certainty on some issue? Would it be in a papal encyclical? Would it come from the Chief Rabbi of Israel? Would it have a postmark from Salt Lake City, Utah?
Or would you expect to hear it from the man taken away by mall security because he kept yelling something about needing to repent to avoid the coming wrath of God? Or would it be from Gladys Schwarz, pushing a broom at Walmart? These Gospel words tell us something about how God just shows up so unexpectedly.
John was the son of Zechariah. But just who, exactly, was Zechariah? Like the name John, it was a common name. In the Bible there are 33 different people with the name of Zechariah. John’s father was the last of the 33 mentioned.
We do know that John’s father was a priest. As a clue to where he was in the pecking order, the only temple duty of John’s father recorded in the Bible involved burning incense. Many of us children of the ’60 have done the same. The other thing we know is that when Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant with John, Zechariah was mute for the next nine months.
Why does the gospel of Luke name these names? One reason is to affirm that the promises of God are fulfilled in times and places that are real. I remember my wife asking our then three-year-old grandson Jackson one time when he was at our home if he would you like to watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Rain Deer. “No,” he answered, “I don’t believe in talking reindeer.” The Gospel lesson is not a fantasy tale about fantasy people, but an event grounded in history.
The Gospel of Luke names the names to anchor this in a place and time, not to tell a Christmas fairy tale about talking reindeer. Jesus was a real person who showed up at a real time in a real place. There is no contemporary writing that disputed the Gospel record. God did not break into our world as a legend or a philosophy. The Word of God spoken by John broke into our world during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
That is, by the way, how they counted time in those days. They did not date time beginning with the birth of Jesus. It does not say, “John spoke during the year 30 AD.” They numbered their years by the duration of Caesar’s rule. That sets up the punch line. God’s arrival defies human calculations and expectation. Those named were the famous and powerful. John was rooted in ordinariness and obscurity. They had power and position. John had the Word of the God. That exceeds all the fame and power and wealth.
Recorded earlier in the Gospel of Luke, as Mary carried Jesus in her womb, she spoke words we call The Magnificat which helps set up the punch line. Mary said, “God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
It is into that world of big shots, Luke proclaims, the Word of God was delivered to them not by them. The mighty and powerful generally have this in common. They do not know what is coming and won’t like it when it gets here. Where would you go to hear the word of God spoken?
On Sundays I have sometimes gone to worship in the great churches of Boston like Old South Church and Trinity Cathedral where great preachers preach, places where magnificent church music resounds, places where the rich church architecture never fails to evoke awe and inspiration. Other times I drive a short distance to hear another stumbling preacher like me and regular church music and see plain walls and windows. Where do we go not to be impressed and entertained but to hear the Word of God?
The Word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness. The last place you might expect the Word of God to come is in such a desolate place. It was then commonly believed that the desert was where demons had dominion. It was a place of abandonment and devastation. The wilderness represented the whole panorama of God forsakenness.
Yet it was in the desert that John’s voice thundered, calling the powerful a brood of vipers and telling them to repent. A millennium later St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote, “The love of God is not a mild benevolence. It is a consuming fire. To those who resist it, it becomes an eternal torment. To those who are willing to face its demands, it becomes a fire that cleanses and purifies.”
We are reminded again and again that God chooses unlikely people and places. How odd of God to choose Mary, a young unmarried peasant girl to be the one to bear the Christ child. How odd of God to choose John with his quirky dress and diet to be the voice of God! How odd of God to choose the wilderness. How odd of God not to send the Word to the palaces of power where politicians act as if they are in charge of the world, not to the grand temple in Jerusalem, but to gnarly old John shouting out in the desert.
Where do we seek and where do we expect the Word of the Lord to be spoken? We find the Word in the startling Advent promise that where love abides even the worst of enemies can be reconciled. We find it in the mystical promise that underneath and around are the everlasting arms of God supporting, encouraging, undergirding us even as we feel the world falling apart.
We find this Advent hope in the bold proclamation of a victory that takes on even death itself. That is what we see in the empty cross: a sign of God’s victory even over death. Amid all the power and wealth and fame that seeks our attention, this Advent hope assures us that life and love, in whatever wilderness, has the last word.
I did not expect anyone to laugh, but I do hope you see the irony. We heard the names of all the powerful and mighty in that section of the world in the first century. Yet God chose John to be his voice crying in the wilderness delivering God’s message. We may look for church dignitaries and some even look for political leaders for such a message.
God, who is ever surprising, may actually do that but as usually happens, the lowliest and least powerful and most unlikely are the chosen instruments of God. Instead of listening to the voices of power we should listen for God to speak through the voices of weakness. Maybe that word of God will come from Gladys Schwarz, the custodian at Walmart earning minimum wage with no benefits.
In the season of Advent, we begin preparing the way. In the first century when a king proposed to tour a portion of the land, he would send a courier before him to tell the people to prepare the roads, to fill in the ruts and potholes and knock down the rough places.
You would do this for Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Instead they heard the voice of John telling them they were making the wrong kind of preparation. The King of kings is coming. Don’t mend your roads. Mend you lives. Mend your ways. Mend your hearts.
Where today may we hear the voice of God calling out? Maybe it will be like Moses who heard God’s word in desert wanderings. Maybe it will be like the Holy Family who found refuge by escaping into the desert of Egypt where they had to flee from a murderous dictator. Maybe it will come on our southwest border and the voice will be that of Gladys Schwarz’s cousin who escaped with her children from murderous rage in her nation, a voice in the wilderness crying out for mercy. Maybe, just maybe that is where the voice of God calls out to us today.