John the Baptizer is a different kind of messenger, and he brings an unexpected message.
interpreted by Deborah
Tiberius had been emperor for fifteen years, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod had been set up as king over Galilee, while his brother Philip and Lysanias ruled the other territories; Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests when a holy Call came to Zechariah’s son John, who was in the wilderness.
He went through all the regions along the Jordan River, preaching ritual bathing as a sign of repentance and a new beginning through God’s forgiveness. This is in keeping with what the prophet Isaiah said: “A voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord: clear the path, level the road. All low places will be raised up, every high place will be brought low, what is twisted will be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all that lives will see the salvation of God.’ ”
“It was a dark and stormy night”
Like any good writer, the author of Luke sets the scene for us as he begins the next part of the story. He doesn’t tell us about the weather, or geography, but about the political, ethical, and spiritual conditions that existed at the time.
He does this by listing a series of names. There is Tiberius the emperor; Pontius Pilate, his fierce, loyalist governor; the puppet “king of the Jews,” Herod, and his brother Philip, whose wife Herod has married, in violation of religious codes. Last mentioned are the two high priests who serve the political system, Annas and Caiaphas, rounding out a cast of characters representing the immorality, violence and oppression of Roman rule.
If this were an old-time play, the audience would boo and hiss as these villains are introduced. Luke has made his point: it was “a dark and stormy night” politically, ethically, spiritually.
The situation looked bleak. The people were downhearted, desperate, stuck. Hopes were dimming, courage was failing. There was no where to go, no one to turn to.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No. No, it’s…. a homeless guy in a camel skin who wants to dunk you in the river.
That’s NOT what they were expecting.
John didn’t look or behave (or smell! Wet camel, phew!) the way we would imagine a Messenger of the Lord would do. And his message isn’t what we’d hope for, either.
As the opening act for the Messiah, the lead-in to God’s own chosen Man for the people, John leaves much to be desi red. Messengers are heavenly angels with gossamer wings, not some stinky fellow wrapped in a dead animal. Messengers are supposed to say things like, “Be of good cheer; I bring tidings of great joy!” — not “Clean up your act and start building a Highway for the Lord.”
Phooey to that.
When times are difficult, we don’t want to be challenged further. We want to be comforted, encouraged, eased … get a little help, maybe. No, that’s not true. We don’t want a little help, we want a lot of help; ideally, we want someone to (magically, miraculously) do it all for us. We want a Mr. Fix-It, a Fairy Godmother, a Genie in a bottle.
Here we are, dealing with all sorts of problems, and instead of telling us to relax or to say more prayers, or offering to help us out, that darned Baptizer starts demanding that we do Road repair work. What the heck is the matter with him? Doesn’t he understand?
What kind of message is this guy bringing? And what kind of Messiah is he leading up to?
It turns out that John is delivering an honest message. It’s not necessarily what we want to hear, but it is the absolute, unvarnished Truth. It is what we need to hear.
Jesus said, “People won’t be able to say, ‘It’s like this,’ or ‘It’s like that,’ because, you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
~ Luke 17:21
If we want the kingdom of God made manifest here on earth, it’s up to us to bring it about. Without our participation and cooperation, it won’t happen. The Baptizer was telling the truth, and he was rightfully preparing us for the teachings of the Lord Jesus, who came after him.
The “heavenly Jerusalem” — that fantasy city of perfect peace and joy — could appear miraculously during the night, but if we went about our lives the next morning with cynicism in our hearts and hatred in our thoughts, it would turn to ashes before midday. Love or hate, joy or despair; it is up to us. We can, as the poet wrote, “make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
The Kingdom of grace and compassion is already here — among us and within us — if we are willing to work to bring it into being. We’ve all caught glimpses of it hundreds of times: in those who have nurtured and cared for us, those who have loved us when we weren’t the least bit lovable, those who lifted us up when we were disappointed or downhearted, who wiped away our tears and bandaged our wounds (literally and figuratively). It is already here in the good Samaritans who selflessly aid strangers in need; in the lives of those who visit the sick, the lonely, and the imprisoned (literally and figuratively). We see the Kingdom in works of extraordinary generosity, and in small acts of kindness.
If we have eyes to see, we will see the Kingdom in the hearts of one another.
The Road that the Baptizer preached about that will bring the Messiah to our doorstep is already here. It needs patching in places, and resurfacing in others, but it is already in place; the foundation was laid a long time ago. It is up to us to help construct it, and to follow it faithfully, even — perhaps especially — when times are difficult.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Reflect on these words of the Lord Jesus:
“The kingdom of God is in your midst.”