In the midst of the current election cycle, there is a Religious organization (the Alliance Defending Freedom) arguing for the right of preachers (priests and rabbis) to talk about politics from the pulpit...1 This is the kind of thing that makes American Christians (among others) nervous.
As is often noted, the staging of Luke's Gospel employs temporal markers to situate the Good News within a historical landscape (cf. Luke 1:1-5). Here, the arrival of the word of God to John is not just "in the wilderness" around the Jordan, but in the wilderness of the political world: during the reigns of emperor Tiberius, governor Pilate, and "ruler" Herod. Luke's purpose is to situate the advent of the revelation to John the Baptizer in the context of the temporal framework of the native ruler Herod, the local but foreign governor Pilate, and the final authority who sits above all, Tiberius.
This is a top-down look at the political reality of the day. In a sense, this would situate the word, which comes to John, and the Messiah whose path John prepares, in very bottom-up terms; the small, the unexpected, the apparently trivial comes as answer to the problems of the hierarchical political structure under which it is apparently pinned. There's your sermon. Throw in some reflections on justice and the preacher is good to go.
But Luke doesn't stop there. He goes on to list the "spiritual" or "religious" power-structure as well. Not only are Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod noted, but the high priests Annas and Caiaphas are highlighted as well. Now, it may be that these religious leaders are situated where they are because at that time the high-priesthood was subject to annual re-appointment by the Roman authority. It may be, then, that Annas and Caiaphas are referenced merely as another part of the political hierarchy. But there may also be a sense in which the religious parallel to the political hierarchy is intentionally an "other."
The word comes to John in the midst of the messy reality of a world defined by both secular and religious powers. In the Old Testament books of Haggai and Zechariah, the re-building of the Temple in Jerusalem is set with a similar context of secular and religious leadership, but in a positive and hopeful way. The tension here seems quite different. Like a two-edged sword, the word comes to John, dividing religion and politics, and speaking directly to a wounded world.
So what is the word, which comes, interjecting itself in both the political and religious realms? Two things stand out.
First, is the quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5. This quotation, in Isaiah, has to do with a promise of return from Exile. God will make straight paths through the wilderness, a smooth and easy return -- in essence a new "exodus" -- bringing the people of Israel out of bondage and back to the Promised Land. The path is for the people; God-made, God-led. This is the proclamation of the prophet (Isaiah), made to the people; it is declarative, promising, hopeful.
In Luke the quotation works somewhat differently. Here, the promise is re-interpreted to apply to John. John is the one who is out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. The path is by the people, who are called to repentance, to return themselves to their Lord; God-focused, human-centered action. This is the promise of the prophet himself (John) who calls for a different kind of return to God; his message is exhortation, challenge, command.
There might be some temptation to see these different uses of Isaiah as simply contradictory, 2 at least from a "spiritual" standpoint; one promises God's action, the other calls for human action. But there is no reason the two cannot be held in tension. John is the one promised who will make the paths straight, and prepare the way for the advent of Jesus -- who comes to empower and finish the re-turn of God's people to their God.
In the midst of a world divided by politics and religion alike, the word that comes to John is a call to return to the Lord.
A second key aspect of the interjection of the word to John is the summary of the content of John's preaching, as of a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." John's invitation is to ritual action, ritual cleansing, which is symbolic of a turning from sin and a re-turning to God. This, too, is something of a new "exodus." There is ample scriptural support for such human-oriented ritual action, things we do in order to re-orient our lives toward our God. Consider the following:
The baptism that John proclaims is not to be confused with the baptism, the one baptism, which Jesus brings. Rather, this might best be understood as the daily efforts to live into the grace, which is out in Christ Jesus.
1 Pastors to Defy IRS on Political Endorsements (Salon.com) 2 Compare: Isaiah, "A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way...'" ; Luke "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord....'"