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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
As we read these words from the Gospel of Luke, let us pay careful attention to that first verse. It gives the setting for our story, but more than just chronologically. The year is established in relation to Emperor Tiberius and the leadership that the Romans have put in place in and around Judea.
In this opening, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas are all mentioned. Herod would be responsible for the death of John the Baptist and, along with Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, would be in part responsible for the death of Christ.
This opening verse sets the scene for a world that has gone awry, a world where God’s people live as a conquered people in their own land and where those in power would crucify the one God sent to save the world. The first verse sets forth a world ruled from Rome and rife with sin.
In this world gone wrong, the word of God came to John the Baptist and “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Christians believe that John was a prophet who was called to prepare the way for Christ and to speak out against the injustice of his time. The words he quoted from Isaiah would be quoted in modern times by Martin Luther King Jr, as he called a nation to repentance for its sins against the African American community.
In Romans 3:23, the Apostle Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The scriptures consistently paint a pessimistic picture of humanity, as can be seen in Genesis 6:5, which states: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” The Christian tradition has spoken of humanity as a sinful, fallen race.
In the United States, our government was designed with checks and balances because of the sure knowledge of human corruptibility. It is this understanding of human sinfulness which the Church must reclaim at this time.
The root cause of the problems in our world is Sin. Sin is spoken of in Genesis chapter 4 as something that is crouching at our door, desiring to consume us, and we are told that we must rule over it. Instead, we have allowed Sin to rule over us.
Hear these words from Ezekiel chapter 16, verses 49 and 50: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”
Living in rural America, I am surprised by how much poverty can exist in a land of so much wealth. I am surprised by how children go hungry in the bread basket of the world. I am surprised by children who are taught by their parents to make fun of and look down on other children for receiving a free lunch. I am surprised by the “prosperous ease” in which most of us live, when someone a street away could be barely treading water. Have we grown accustomed to sin?
Unfortunately, the answer to that is yes. Do we speak of sin and repentance in our churches? Have we replaced the Gospel with bread and circuses? How can we ask forgiveness when we haven’t woken up to the reality of our own sin?
Are you uncomfortable with how often I am using that “s” word, that word sin? Our world is falling apart and we cannot repair it until we honestly acknowledge the problem. We live in a world stained by sin. Our leaders have turned away from Christ and we ourselves have turned our backs on the very people that Christ came to save.
Jesus proclaimed God’s favor on those who were down and out and called to task the rich and powerful. Let us remember the blessing and woes in Luke 6.20-25:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.”
John the Baptist was preparing the way for Christ and calling us to repentance. When Christ taught his disciples, he told them that the poor, hungry, and sorrowful would be blessed. He also told us that those of us who are rich, full, and happy today have received our fill today.
Our sinful human hearts have become satisfied with the prosperous ease of Sodom and have forgotten the words of woe that Christ proclaims to the wealthy. Are we prepared to repent? Are we prepared to join John the Baptist in the wilderness or shall we continue to define ourselves by the times, by Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas?
I think we need to pause here and say that most of these men thought they were doing what was right. Few men see themselves as evil, but looking back we can see how the pressures of the time led them to compromise with sin.
Are we compromising with sin? What does it mean to repent in our time? Our scripture lesson for today is not primarily about textual exegesis, but rather analysis of our own world and our role in it.
Living in rural America, I can tell you of the lack of opportunity, the lack of funding our schools receive, of people surrounded by food who cannot afford to put any on their plates, of a drug epidemic that is destroying families, and, most devastating of all, the apathy of our society.
There is much that can be said about this little pericope, but, more importantly, there is much that we must do if we listen to it.