Preaching: Luke 3:16
With so much attention given to comparative study of the gospels, the remarkable unanimity with which all four evangelists employ Isaiah 40 to proof-text the Baptist's appearance can set the focus of this week's sermon too quickly. Of course, the prophetic exhortation to "Prepare the way of the Lord!" is central, but if the particularities of Luke are ignored, you might as well preach Isaiah.
In fact, let that be one option you consider. No kidding. With a text like this, such a significant portion of which is a direct quotation of the prophet, I would not preach on Luke 3:1-6 this Sunday without at very least reserving a minute or two of my sermon to simply voice the whole of Isaiah 40:1-11, thereby allowing the people to hear it in its original context, sandwiched between "Comfort, O comfort my people" (v.1) and "He will feed his flock like a shepherd" (v.11). Giving the Isaiah passage a more thorough reading, with little or no commentary, will establish in no uncertain terms that this prophetic word is one of assurance and good will. Where you place it (e.g.—it could make a dramatic conclusion) depends on how much you decide to do with the gospel, as distinguished from the prophet within the gospel.
Don't count Luke out too soon, however. There is definitely sermon material in his half of the pericope (vv.1-3). He dramatizes the Isaiah passage by way of contextualization, and with the parameters he places around Isaiah's voice. Lingering over these features could create the effect, not of displacing the central "Prepare the way!" message, but of delaying it, so that you and your listeners do not rush to the predictable and familiar, and your sermon does not tailspin into another litany of off-the-shelf illustrations and quotations from Bartlett's.
Put your volume of 10,000,000,000 sermon illustrations aside and follow Luke, the cinematographer, as he shifts from a wide-angle, satellite shot of the world (the Roman Empire under Tiberius), creeps closer to that odd joint where three continents connect (Judea under Pontius Pilate), and closes in on the land bordering on a particular lake (Galilee under Herod, Iturea and Trachonitis under Philip, and Abilene under Lysanias). Peer through the camera lens as Luke picks out the features of a particular people (Israel), a particular faith (Hebrew), and a particular priesthood of that faith (Annas and Caiaphas). Follow him slowly toward the southern end of that lake, down the river that spills from its southern end, note the land becoming dry, dusty, and dead. Now, finally, from your aerial view, introduce your prophet, lonely, and far afield from the regnant powers (literally, the hegemonies).
Luke's introduction is more than a history lesson of names and regimes. He has given you a movement to work with, from the global to the local, from civilization to wilderness, from Rome to dusty desert, from Caesar to a hairy bug-eating (Mk 1:6) wild man. You can play this sermon like Hitchcock's Rope, filmed in one long, uninterrupted shot. In doing so, you will help your people to recognize that, by choosing to focus, like a camera, on the lonely prophet in the wilderness, the gospel story necessarily puts the power brokers not at the center, but on the periphery. Cameras not only focus and sharpen; they also exclude and obscure. Filling the camera with prophet, rather than Caesar, especially having taken this overhead approach, you can show the people where God's attention is focused and where it is not, to whom the word (hrema) of God comes (v.2) and to whom it does not.
This stripping away, or marginalizing, of the imperial, the hegemonic, can be applied not only politically and socially, but also spiritually. "Preparing the way of the Lord" involves absenting your listeners from the obtrusive and overpowering, inviting them away from the structures of power and control, external and internal, calculated and instinctive.
Be forewarned. This kind of sermonic camera work can quickly turn cliché, however. The idea is to resist such tired phrases as "The camera zooms in on the lonely figure." You can create the effect without being trite. The best advice I can offer for this, or any sermon, is borrowed from Marco Polo's final speech at the end of Italo Calvino's novel, Invisible Cities: "seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not the inferno, then make them endure, give them space."1 What Luke has done, you must do. The hegemonies are the inferno. John is not. Make John endure, give him space.
The interesting problem of removing Tiberias and the Roman hegemony from center stage is that, while you will have to introduce them in order to remove them, the effect of doing so is to utterly relativize the great high-tech, infrastructural triumph of Rome, i.e.—the Roman road. Remind your people that the Roman road was the precursor to the Pony Express, Federal Express, or the Internet, for that matter. Even in the present age of such post-modern technological wonders, information still follows a transmission path. The prophetic word snorts in derision at all such paths, calling them all snail-paced: "And all flesh shall see the salvation of God." The directness and immediacy of the word of God is unqualified: "Every valley…every mountain…all flesh shall see…"
Pressed to its most literal interpretation, Luke's use of "into" (eis), to describe this "baptism of repentance" in relation to "forgiveness of sins" (v.3), virtually transports or physically relocates the penitent into an immediate (unmediated) personal experience of God's salvation. Such a subtle exegetical point could well warrant a separate sermon. On the other hand, it might also underscore an appeal to your listener's mystical side, usurp current obsessions with media and mediation, and stir remembrances of moments of grace or hints of life under an altogether different kind of rule, realm, or hegemony.
Timothy M. Slemmons Central Presbyterian Church Tarentum, PA
1. ltalo Calvino, translated by William Weaver, Invisible Cities (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1978), p. 165.