Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson
Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent: Luke 3:1-6
Our text introduces Luke’s narrative of the ministry of Jesus. It begins with a "sixfold synchronism." The first reference, the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar (beginning August or September AD 26 or 27), tells us when the story began. The other five references, identifying various rulers and priests, fulfill the same function, and together they all indicate Luke’s concern to relate his story to contemporary Roman and Palestinian history
These are not the first references in Luke’s Gospel to historical figures. Others were identified when he wanted to locate the annunciations to Zechariah and to Mary (1:5), and again when he wrote a narrative of Jesus’ birth (2:1). Luke valued these synchronisms not only as a means of giving his narrative a chronological and geographical orientation, but also as a way of expressing his conviction that the story he is about to tell has a meaning for this world. To his readers, who as Gentiles had been taught to eulogize Caesar as divine and to view Caesar’s and Rome’s military conquests as "good news," or who, with Jewish contemporaries, had concluded that the prophetic voice had been stilled -- to them Luke writes of another source of good news: the story of Jesus, and he declares that the word of God is still to be heard: it had come to John. The "sixfold synchronism" was used to give a context for this dramatic announcement, signalling the opening of Jesus’ ministry: "the word of God came to John."
This clause was familiar to readers of Jewish Christian scriptures. They knew it from the story of Jeremiah. The word of the Lord came to him, repeatedly: in the days of Josiah (the thirteenth year of his reign), in the days of Jehoiakim, and in the days of Zedekiah (Jer. l:lff.).
The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah was portrayed as powerful:
"I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
And it was effective: "The Lord said to me...I am watching over my word to perform it" (Jer. 1:12). It was understood not simply as some message from heaven. Rather, it was God’s power going forth to achieve something in the world. The word spoken was like a deed done. It was dynamic and vital. It would not return empty, but would accomplish the divine purpose (Ps. 33:9; Isa. 55: 10-1 1). This is especially clear in the symbolic acts of the prophets. When Jeremiah identified Jerusalem with a potter’s vessel, which he then smashed in the valley of Hinnom (Jer. 19), his hearers got the point. They understood this word not merely as predictive of their future. The word was effective. It helped to bring about the results it predicted.
As Jeremiah heard the word of the Lord, so, says Luke, did John the Baptist. His life setting may have been Qumran. There, near the north end of the Dead Sea, a group of priestly and Levitical origin had built a community. In the pure air of the desert, they were making a protest against the worldliness of the Jerusalem hierarchy. Daily they gathered for study, for worship, for ritual washings and table fellowship. Josephus tells us: "They disdained marriage, but had children by adoption. These they reared in accord with their own principles." Very possibly with the death of his elderly father and mother, the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:7), John became one of those children.
These people had moved into the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. By righteous living they hoped to hasten the sending of the messiah. Their ritual baths or washings were designed to help them. One of those various washings was meant to cleanse them of their ritual sins and enable them to enter into the Covenant (I QS 5:8,13). Hopefully, after years of probation they would have a spiritual cleansing as well. The ritual cleansing was open only to the "sons of Light." All others were outsiders -- permanently. They belonged to the "spirit of darkness." To associate with those outsiders was to be defiled.
Somewhere along the way John rejected this exclusive perspective. He left the Qumran community and went north into the wilderness, near to where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea. Here, says Luke, "the word of God came" to him (3:2). Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the struggle John may have had in leaving the community or in rejecting some of its more exclusive teachings. He only indicates John’s response to that dynamic word. He writes that John began to preach a baptism of repentance.
This baptism was more than a ritual washing. It was a baptism of repentance! Like the prophets before him, John called his hearers to repent, to turn around. The Hebrew word which the prophets used for this action was shub. It means "turn back." A person who has been going in a "wrong" direction needs to turn or to return. The Greek word which Luke uses for repentance is metanoia, which means literally, a change of mind. Some commentators warn against making too much of this meaning in this context, yet it remains true that the simple act of turning usually and logically follows upon a change of mind. In the words of Anthony of Sourozh: "When you choose the thoughts upon which you allow your mind to dwell, you choose your life. Thought is the real causative force in life..." As the King James Version of Prov. 23:7 has it: "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he." People were thinking wrong. Accordingly, John began a repentance movement, preaching a baptism of repentance.
John’s baptism was an ethical rite. Not improbably he was inspired by the prophet Isaiah, who before him had called people to the waters of repentance.
Come... though your sins are like scarlet,
Like that, in the preaching of his baptism, John called his hearers to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (3:8). Selfish persons who before had refused to share food and clothing must now begin to do so. Extortioners, whether tax collectors or soldiers, must stop extorting. Their ways of living needed to be changed.
John’s baptism was also understood to be for everyone. He spoke to persons far outside the confines of the Qumran community. Luke was impressed by this. Where Matthew and Mark note John’s use of II Isaiah v. 3: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight," Luke extends the quotation through words expressing II Isaiah’s hope: "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (cf. II Isa. 40:3-5). John’s baptism of repentance is thus given a universal relevance. The words in the next paragraph support this. There John says to the crowds who came out to hear him "Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (3:8). He believed that kind of thinking was wrong. The merits of Abraham and their special connections would not save them. Like everyone else they needed this baptism of repentance.
Further, John’s preaching of baptism was a prophetic, symbolic act. Its purpose was to enable people not only to hear what God was saying to them, but also to experience what God was beginning to do. In the repentance movement which his baptism introduced, they were to share in the fulfillment of an eschatological expectation. They were to be part of the hoped for salvation under the rule of God. The symbolic significance of John’s baptism was plain, the waters of the Jordan had been the gateway to the promised land -- both for the people of the Exodus journeys and for those who had returned from the Babylonian Exile. Now, in these waters of the Jordan, John’s hearers were to experience the salvation of God. His prophetic word was this symbolic act; the baptism of repentance. Through it the way of the Lord was being prepared. The repentant were to experience the forgiveness of sins. That which obstructed their experience of God’s rule was to be overcome. To submit to the waters of baptism in the Jordan meant to move from the bondage of Egypt, of Babylon, of sin, to the land of promise, freedom, salvation. The preaching of this baptism signified and helped bring about the presence of the kingdom -- the salvation of God (3:6 cf. 16:16).
To grasp the significance of the Advent claim that the word of God came to John requires imagination. Often among the twentieth century cerebral types this gift is lacking. Preoccupation with cybernetics and technologies tend to enervate one’s capacity to experience an epiphany. We often fail to make "intellectual space" for God in our reflections about our social and personal lives, and we tend to dwarf our assumptions about the perceptive capacities and destinies of humans. The imaginative way in which John and Luke used their tradition to understand God’s ongoing advents, is an appropriate exemplar for the minister who would interpret both this Advent text and the advents which our God continues to make.
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