The Rev. Paul J Cain
St. Luke 3:1-6
Prepare the Way
Second Sunday in Advent, 06 December 2009
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Once upon a time. It was a dark and stormy night. In the beginning. When the time had fully come. December 7th 1941. The Second Sunday in Advent. All these phrases accomplish a smiliar thing. They set the time for a story, a narrative, an historical account. Some are obviously fictional, whether fairy tales, or Snoopy & Charlie Brown. The opening verses of our Gospel lesson this Second Sunday in Advent do the same thing. But they are not mythical, fiction, or a joke. These verses lay out for us actual historical figures who lived and reigned at certain, specific, verifiable times in history. What we read here is a historical account—something that actually happened.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
We hear the odd names. Let’s boil it down. Five rulers are listed. Two high priests. One obscure prophet in the desert. We use what we know of the first seven to teach us about the date of John the Baptist.
Although Tiberius was coregent from 11 B.C., his rule is usually dated from the death of Caesar Augustus in August of A.D. 14. That would make the fifteenth year of his reign A.D. 28-29. The famous Pontius Pilate, confessed in both the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, was governor, or prefect, of Judea from A.D. 26-36. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great---ruler when Jesus was born—ruled from 4 B.C to A.D. 39. His brother Philip was tetrarch from 4 B.C. to A.D. 33 or 34. A man named Lysanias, perhaps the second to have that name, lived at the same time. That leaves us with Annas and Caiaphas. Only one could be high priest at a time. Annas from A.D. 6-15 and his son-in-law from A.D. 18-36, and Annas had some influence over his son-in-law.
This is the real historical context (Herod the Tetrarch at the center) in which the word of God comes to John in the Wilderness. This is not just some made-up story that could have happened this year or that, or even once upon a time, but one rooted in history, for our God is a God who acts in human history. He dealt with real people in real places with real salvation and still does today.
[T]he word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Zechariah, the temple priest who was made unable to speak by the angel because of his unbelief, is mentioned again here. When John was born and named, his tongue was loosed. Zechariah sang these words about his son, John. (Luke 1) And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
John’s preaching was a preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The purpose and result of John’s baptism is the forgiveness of sins. It was a call to turn away from mere trust in one’s Jewish heritage, or from mere outward observance of the law. John’s baptism is to prepare the way…for Jesus.
The baptism John performed is different from the baptism Jesus instituted. We learn this in Acts 19. [At Ephesus] Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in languages and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.
John’s baptism was not “in the name of Jesus,” nor was it given by the Lord Jesus “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It was, however, a preparatory baptism. Like John himself, it prepared the way for Jesus. The text teaches us that it had the power to bring those who were baptized “the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness of sins comes from Jesus. The Word of God came to John….in the desert. The authority for this preaching and the content of his message came from God. And who is the Word made flesh? Jesus Himself. And so John preached a baptism of repentance.
Repentance is important. It is not enough for us to trust in Christian heritage—that we are Christian just because our parents were or merely show up on Sunday and Wednesday and act differently the other days of the week. We may fool others by just going through the motions—but not God! We too preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The law is preached to show us our sin—right in front of our eyes—to prepare the way for Jesus’ Gospel. When God produces repentance inside us, a change occurs. The crookedness inside us wants to be straight. The valley that exists between us and God because of our sin needs to be filled in. And our mountainous piles of sins are made low. The Gospel of Jesus does all these things. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
What baptism did you receive? Yours was “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” for the forgiveness of sins. The purpose and result of Holy Baptism, of Holy Absolution, of Holy Communion is the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins comes from Jesus. He accomplished it nearly 2000 years ago and He delivers the benefit now. Today! Salvation is yours. This one, John, crying in the desert prepared the way for Jesus, who brings you salvation.
4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
Isaiah, chapter 40. One can see the geography of Israel. Paths, valleys, mountains, hills, crooked roads, and rough ways. All must be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. And His work of salvation. Nothing can be permitted to get in the way, not even Peter, who once told Him, May this [the cross] never happen to you!
The Messiah, Jesus, was sinless. But He made His place with us, for us. In solidarity with us. He took a spot among sinners, baptized into a baptism of repentance by John, on His road to Jerusalem, the crooked road and rough way to the cross. John does well in teaching the people, giving the catechetical preparation for the way of the Lord to the place of salvation.
6 And all mankind will see God’s salvation. This brief verse of hope for all nations reminds us of what has gone on before. Consider the Nunc Dimittis, part of our Communion liturgy when we use the Divine Service on page 184 of Lutheran Service Book, what we used to know as page 15 in The Lutheran Hymnal. It is the song of Simeon from Luke 2: 28. Simeon took [Jesus] (him) in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The eyes of Simeon saw God’s salvation in the child he was holding. John saw God’s salvation in the One for Whom he was preparing the way. We see God’s salvation in front of us. Our Lord calling to you, who are in the wilderness of the world, to take and eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. Behold the table our Lord has prepared for you, to make your paths straight in the true faith until life everlasting. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.