Dear Working Preacher,
There’s an audacity to today’s Gospel reading that’s easy to miss. But if you listen closely and read between the lines just a little, you’ll hear a promise that at first is easy to overlook but ultimately is as transformative as it is outrageous.
It all starts with Luke’s penchant for situating his narrative amid the historical figures of the day. As you probably remember from your NT 101 class, Luke more than any of the other evangelists writes self-consciously as a historian. Not, mind you, a historian of the twenty-first century, but rather of the first century. That’s when you wrote history to make a point, to teach a truth, to draw people into the community narrative. And that’s what Luke is doing here: placing the beginning of the Christian story – a story that now defines, encourages, and challenges his community of faith – into the history of the world.
This is the third time Luke locates the drama he narrates amid the major actors of the world stage. The first time was the birth of John the Baptist “in the days of King Herod of Judah” (1:5). Next is birth of Jesus that takes place under the rule of Emperor Augustus and while Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:1-3). And now, as John is about to start his ministry, Luke again places his story amid historical figures.
Why does Luke do this? Because, as we would have said when I was a kid, he’s got guts. He makes bold, that is, to say that these events – about as small and insignificant as you can imagine – deserve to be placed along side the world-shaking people and events of the day. “Really,” Luke dares his readers to ask, what does the birth of two small children or the ministry of misplaced prophet have to do with kings, emperors, and governors?” And his reply: “Everything!”
This is the way it is with the Gospel – it seems so small it’s easy to miss. More than that, God’s mercy comes disguised is human weakness – two vulnerable children who will grow up to change the world, an instrument of Roman torture turned into the means by which God reconciles the world unto God’s own self. Yes, there is always something of the mustard-seed about the gospel – it creeps in, unawares, small and insignificant, until it grows and spreads, infesting whole fields and inviting all kinds of creatures to take refuge in its branches.
So Luke begins his story by making the outrageous claim that God is at work in the weak and small – babies and barren women and unwed teenage mothers and wild-eyed prophets and itinerant preachers and executed criminals – to change the world. And, to be quite honest, God’s not done yet. God continues to work through unlikely characters today – unpopular teens and out-of-work adults and corporate executives and stay-at-home parents and underpaid secretaries and night-shift workers and police officers and volunteer baseball coaches and even burned out preachers – to announce the news of God’s redemption. It’s a promise, as I said, that’s easy to miss, but when we hear it – and even more – when we see it taking place in our own lives – it changes us along with the world.
And to be quite honest, Working Preacher, I think that’s enough to preach on. Point out Luke’s outrageous claim that the “word of the Lord” comes to this nobody named John in that no-place called the wilderness and that that small and insignificant thing is more important and all the important people and events of the day. And then point out where that same “word of the Lord” might be coming to the nobodies – according to the world – of our congregation in the middle of the no-places of our various neighborhoods and communities. Yes, that is enough.
But, if you’re game, there’s still a bit more. Because I think Luke is going further than merely locating John amid the VIPs of the day, he’s also setting him against them. Previously Luke mentioned one or two of powerful. In these verses he mentions seven, and as you read the list aloud it sounds like an ominous litany or loud and insistent drumbeat marshalling the political, economic, and religious powers and principalities to war:
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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…
And against all these stands paltry, insignificant John, son of Zechariah. Well, not quite: against all these stands paltry, insignificant John, son of Zechariah…and the Word of the Lord. The word, as Isaiah said, that fills valleys and levels mountains, that straightens out what is crooked and smoothes over the rough places, all in order to build a direct path by which God can bring us God’s love and mercy.
Seven there are representing the collective power of the world and against them all stands just John, armed only with God’s word, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and pointing people to the savior who was soon to come.
By the time Luke’s community was reading these verses, none of those seven are still alive, yet they are still telling the story of John and of Jesus, the one John heralds. And today these proud and powerful men are just footnotes to the story of Christ, the one sent to reveal the salvation of God to “all flesh.”
Perhaps this, too, is worth mentioning, because I suspect that our people at times also feel overlooked, insignificant, and small, surrounded by insurmountable problems, people, and challenges. Maybe it’s not an Emperor that makes life miserable, maybe it’s just a difficult colleague or unhappy marriage. Maybe it’s not a Roman procurator that oppresses, but instead a struggle with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or porn. Maybe it’s not governors that threaten to destroy, but instead feeling lost at school or work with no real friends. Maybe it’s not rulers and priests that overwhelm, but instead a struggle with depression, grief or loneliness.
Whatever it maybe, Luke shares the gospel promise that these things, too, will pass; that in the end they will be but a difficult and distant memory; that over time they will become mere footnotes to a larger, grander, and more beautiful story of acceptance, grace, mercy, and life. The waiting can be hard, which is why Luke reminds his community and ours of this promise that is so easy to overlook but big enough to save and audacious enough to transform.
Thank you, Working Preacher, for pointing out this promise and drawing your people into this story that still defines, encourages, and challenges our us today. When you do this, you are no less than the Evangelist than Luke, and I am grateful for your creativity and fidelity.
Yours in Christ,