by James F. Kay
James F. Kay teaches homiletics and liturgies at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is coeditor (with Jane Dempsey Douglass) of Women, Gender, and Christian Community (Westminster John Knox).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Nov. 19-26 1997, p. 1067, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Since Christianity has been such a civilizing success, it is doubly hard for us to return to the time when Christianity’s message was primed in the wilderness. But now this "prime time" has come again. As our exile looms, and marginality becomes our reality, is there any word from God? Any word for those streaming back into the wilderness?
Luke does not write for a Christian century. He does not count time from the birth of Jesus. Instead, he reckons the years from the advent of Tiberius as emperor. It was, Luke tells us, in the 15th year of this Caesar’s reign that "the word of God came.
Under great Tiberius’s judgment seat sat the lesser rulers: Pilate up in Jerusalem; the Herod boys down in Galilee and beyond, running things with their usual unbrotherly squabbling; and Lysanias stuck in Abilene, better known to us as the Bekka Valley, scene of Mideast terror. Annas and Caiaphas were in their appointed places, providing communitarian cement for Rome’s social engineers. Luke, in a chronicle replete with these people and places, seems to be saying that when "the Word of God came" it really came. It came all the way down into this world; it came into our world, the world of political, economic and religious power, the world of the Caesars.
Of course, for his subjects, Caesar’s word was God’s word. Herod’s word was God’s word in Galilee. Even Caiaphas’s word had a divine ring to it. Of course, people muttered, "They shouldn’t play God." But such rulers had been playing God for millennia. They’d been deciding who lives and who dies from the beginning. And these pols were real pros. They could outfox the best of them.
Our own clever deities peer down on us from their benches and professorial chairs and stock exchange seats. A thumb turns, a head nods, an eyebrow rises, and you too are history: your livelihood, your loved ones, your reputation, your life swept away in a second. That’s the way it was -- and is. The gods decree, and you are gone. So, like us, John and his cousin, Jesus, died subject to the de facto deities whose word was -- and is -- the law.
Luke is no fool. He renders to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Caesar does mark our days and tell us the time. A Christian calendar with its Christian centuries is not a Lucan passion. So when Luke announces that "the word of God came," it comes in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius; it comes down to this tough turf where the reigning gods number our days.
Yet after this apparent deference to Caesar, Luke begins to render to God a record and a reckoning that no Caesar could foresee. When "the word of God came," it did not come from Caesar’s palace or the senior Herod’s temple. The word of God came to a location far from these tentacles and pinnacles of power. It came to an Israel held captive in its own land, with a new set of pharaohs playing the old role of God. At that unpromising time, Luke tells us, the real word of the true God came, as it once came to Moses and Elijah and Isaiah. But now it came to John the son of Zechariah.
Those who followed Luke’s story out of the wilderness and into Rome itself succeeded in Christianizing the centuries. Unlike Luke, the whole world now counts its time from the birth of Jesus. The Christian era has become the Common Era. Since Christianity has been such a civilizing success, it is doubly hard for us to return to the time when Christianity’s message was primed in the wilderness. But now this "prime time" has come again.
It’s the end of our era, the twilight of our regency, the time of our imminent disestablishment. It’s hard for us to take: an America where there are more Muslims than Episcopalians; where only the Mormons still have a Landeskirche; and where an Ivy League university can celebrate its anniversary with scrupulous silence about the church that gave it birth and nurtured it into maturity. The principalities and powers we have served have grown tired of us. We’re an embarrassment.
The emerging world civilization no longer needs Christianity. Christian colleges, hospitals, charities, political parties, centuries or nations are an anachronism. Civilization no longer needs us robed, anointed or ordained to remind it of its time or to order its days. The world has come of age, and Caesar’s time for our tutelage is running out. As our exile looms, and marginality becomes our reality, is there any word from God? Any word for those streaming back into the wilderness?
We can hear the words, words we have heard before, time and time again: "Repentance," "baptism," "forgiveness of sins." We’ve heard them all before, and so we never really hear them until they come to us in our wilderness, in the shambles of our civilized hopes and plans. Divested of our power, stripped of our rank, no longer running things and keeping time, maybe God will finally get through to us in the wilderness as in the days of Tiberius Caesar. Now that would be an Advent! To discover at the end of the age that God is readying prime time for us; to find as we’re about to go under that what is being cooled in the Jordan is only our fevered panting for dying gods.
If the living God is not a liar, if God is faithful to the promise that "all flesh shall see salvation," then our time, too, is in God’s hands, however we reckon it. And when even John begins to doubt, Jesus sends back word: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
Are we ready for prime time?