December 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
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, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.
- 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;
- and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
- -Luke 3:1-6
This isn’t exactly a reflection on Luke 3:1-6, a third of which is taken up by a gorgeously overwrought date. It is a reflection on the use of Isaiah in Luke 3:1-6.
I tend to picture John the Baptist as the guy from the Jesus of Nazareth movie, with bangs that cover his eyes, shouting at a noisy mob about how God doesn’t delight in their sacrifices. In fact, eventually Luke will select as John’s first words, “Brood of vipers!” But already, I expect a harsh prophet, because preaching repentance tends to come with a warning, an implied threat: if you do not repent, something bad will happen. For example, you might wake up one day and regret your life. Your relationships might suffer. You might get cut down with an ax or burned with unquenchable fire. Or, and this brings me to Isaiah, you and everyone you know and love might get sent into captivity following the destruction of your city and temple.
So it is striking that in providing his interpretive lens for the sayings of John that follow, Luke does not draw from a prophecy of warning. He draws from the opening of Second Isaiah, which promises the end of exile:
Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.
This is what the voice is urging us to prepare the way for, in an emotional tone that is generous, bordering on giddy: God is going to lead a new Exodus. Not only will the desert be blasted into a highway, but when the poor and needy are thirsty, it will become a pool of water (Is 41:17-18).
What does it mean to prepare a highway for God’s liberation? This question seems like it should lend itself easily to inspiring answers, but John’s ideas are ringing hollow for me today. As Luke describes him, he leaves more questions than answers. Suddenly I wonder if I’ve always simply assumed on some level that I knew what phrases like this – prepare the way, bring about the kingdom, God’s liberation – meant. John might urge us to strip (or cut, or burn) these assumptions from our minds, to be filled with expectation, and to meet Jesus as a new person.
– Aaron Miner