When The Word Of God Came
There is a party game in which trick questions are asked. One goes like this: "An archaeologist claimed to have found some gold coins dated 46 BC. Do you think the claim is true?" Of course it couldn't be. Nobody was dating coins "BC" then because they didn't realize they were before Christ until after Christ came giving history its focal point and putting all history in a new perspective.
That's the whole point isn't it? At least its a major point in the gospels. The BC world is rolling along with no sense of impending event. The symbols of order and the curators of the status quo don't know they're "BC". The power-structures don't realize the Word of God is about to be spoken to them or that they are at the breathless brink of a definitive juncture in history. Luke writes in retrospect, himself a responder to the event and wanting others to respond to the BC - AD watershed.
There are two parts to the gospel reading for this Sunday in Advent. The first three verses introduce John the Baptist by fixing his call in world history. The next three verses give the actual call to "prepare the way of the Lord" from Isaiah 40. Now those first verses with all those Roman and Jewish names of rulers which we stumble through or slide over have their own message. Indeed, there's much more here than one can preach in one sermon. Even the throw-away words carry the gospel. That's often the case with scripture, even those lists of hard-to-pronounce names, even those boring genealogies, even those historical introductions have gospel in them. They augment and they resonate with the good news of God's work for us in Christ.
When did the "word of God come to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness"? The first three verses are one big prepositional phrase telling us when. "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberious Caesar Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, etc.." Luke has given us one emperor, one governor, three tetrarchs, and two High Priests as a setting for the grand drama, the world into which the Word comes. Why?
He has dated the "beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ", as Mark puts it (Mark 1:1). He has fixed it in history.
Even a mere generation away from Jesus there was something airy sounding, perhaps flaky and unreal about the gospel. It was an incredible claim that the truth about human life and destiny is found in one person, from a despised race, executed as a criminal in an outlying province of the empire. And some of the stories sound fanciful even in that credulous age. Legends grow with imagination and retelling. Is there really any substance to this thing? Does it have any relation to the real world? Were John and Jesus solid, actual, datable? Or are they creatures of pious imagination?
Luke grounds the gospel in history here, even as his birth story does. "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. This was the first enrollment when Quririnius was governor of Syria.." The Apostles' Creed has its own kind of anchor, "..suffered under Pontius Pilate.." "How does Pontius Pilate get into the creed?" asks Karl Barth. "It is a matter of date. At such and such a point of historical time this happened, happened at a definite time within the time which is ours also."
Luke has reason to talk about secular history. He writes to the secular world. Other New Testament books were written within the believing community. The dedication of Luke's gospel to Theophilus, a Roman official, suggests this book was intended for wider publication and aimed at the outside world. "This was not done in a corner", Paul told Festus, another ruler. God's word came into history. Jesus was a flesh-and-blood person in all the political, military, religious ebb and flow of that time, as a Jew under Roman rule.
What are we preparing to celebrate this Christmas? Let's not get too spiritual or vaporize it into mere ideas ("Love" in the abstract, "Giving" in general!) Before there were Christian ideals, there was the man Jesus Christ who worked and sweated, wept and bled, spoke Aramaic and used Roman coins to buy his food. He is not a lofty idea to contemplate, but our Redeemer and Companion in the world.
"The Word became flesh.." and one of the things "flesh" means in the Bible is kinship (as in "our own flesh and blood", and "the two shall become one flesh".) Christ is our kinsman. He was tempted as we are. He wept at the graveside of a friend as we do. He had to study, obey parents, and work as a carpenter with wood that splintered…and with people who were slow to understand and who left when he needed them most. There is no ache, frustration, yearning I can know that he does not know. There is no valley of shadow I can travel he does not understand. There is no part of my life, personal and social, that he does not take seriously and wish to redeem.
The gospel comes into the real world, for the whole world. Now there are ways of saying that that sound terribly imperialistic, and old missionary hymns spoke of "the benighted heathen" in ways that make us flinch today. But the universality of Christ is part of the power and relevance of the gospel and what sets Christianity apart from Judaism at the very first. Luke wants to assure Theophilus that Christianity is a religion for the empire, not a petty racial or tribal faith. What of those other religions? What of people's diverse cultures? Isn't Christianity Western, and mustn't conversion mean domination, a put-down of others? Must everyone believe, think, worship just alike? These are questions we'll continue to struggle with. But we can be sure of this…the world-reach of this faith was never meant to be arrogant, but good news to all, everyone! Absolutely no one is excluded. When anyone, anywhere (by whatever means) truly encounters God, God has the face of Jesus, we believe. The God who loves and intends freedom and life for all is this God, focused in Jesus.
The world of Tiberius Caesar was a divided world, a world of insiders and outsiders, the pedigreed and the non-pedigreed, the elite and the nothings. The powerful determine who is included and who is excluded. Rulers (whether political Rome or religious Judaism) define acceptability. Over half the people of the empire were slaves. Rome was an uneasy coalition of races, tribes, classes seething with unrest and breaking out in civil war from time to time. Religion was a smorgasbord of gods and rival creeds. Roman peace was partial, uneasy, and explosive.
The Judaism of Annas and Caiphas countered the polytheism of Rome with its proud monotheism, but could not unify or ennoble humanity. It further splintered society and became preoccupied with a "righteous" vs. "sinners" distinction.
Christmas was an international event. The community of faith recorded it as the birth of humanity's savior. "All flesh shall see the salvation of God", shouts the Baptist. Art bends reality to tell its truth. If Japanese Christians show an Oriental-looking Jesus and Africans a black Christ-child in the manger, if Eskimos show Wise Men coming by dog-sled or South Sea Islanders show them in canoes, it does not deny that Jesus was a Jew, but says he is God's good word to all persons. The humanity he blesses ("glorified the flesh of man") and we share is more important than all the divisive and destructive things that set us apart.
Power claims bristle between the lines here. What John announces challenges Rome's and Jerusalem's hold on people, their right to say what is, and their right to control what will be! John came baptizing, and Walter Brewggeman says, "Baptism suggests a disengagement from the claims of power and authority of those named. Tiberius, Pilate, Caiaphas and the rest of the power elites no longer define reality. Christ does."
Let's be careful, however, of making the rulers of the time the heavies in the drama. Caesar, Pilate, Herod were enemies of Jesus, but the common people received him gladly? Well, not quite. In the end the people cried, "We have no king but Caesar. Crucify him!" His very way of loving outcasts and offering "forgiveness of sins" threatened old ways and powerful structures. Jesus was not crucified for being gentle and loving, but for disturbing the settled patterns and those who wanted them to stay that way.
The power-elites are often simply who we want, or need, or allow to rule, to do our dirty work, to preserve our world, to keep order. We are they! They are we! We even need them as scapegoats: "It's the politicians' fault", we protest. "Throw the bums out", we say every four years.
It is we, our world, he claims. Is it possible we both want the loving Christ and resist the disturber Christ...and that finally we cannot have one without the other?
Robert S. Busey Richmond, Va