Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:16 Part 5
Luke's gospel is known for its emphasis on concrete historical event. From a theological perspective, this characteristic cannot be overemphasized. Christianity is rooted in history. Its past is inseparable from the divine self-manifestation of God to the Israelite people in all their distinctive uniqueness. Its climax is associated with an historical event documented to have occurred under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. As an historical movement of its own, it first emerges within the time-frame of the early Roman Empire, in an era when Hellenistic cults and mythological cosmologies provided both escape from ambiguity and anxiety as well as offering philosophical meaning and hope for religious consciences. Luke goes so far as to pinpoint the date as accurately as the science of chronology then would allow him: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias," i.e., AD 26 or 27.
The theological significance of the self-manifestation of the divine within the historical cannot be overstated. This is especially so in our own time with the emergence of the New Age movement and its gravitation toward mysticism. The Christianity of the New Testament has to do, not with an eternal, subjective, mystical, human "truth," or even an age-old, universal, religious longing, or a recurring yearning of the human spirit for God, but rather with an event in time, above all with a particular concrete life in time, who became a window onto eternity, both for his and our own finite time. It is this polarity of eternity and time that Luke's gospel preserves.
In his classic work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr brilliantly captures the significance of this polarity: "From the standpoint of an understanding of human nature, the significance of a religion of revelation lies in the fact that both the transcendence of God over, and his intimate relation to, the world are equally emphasized." Niebuhr goes on to elaborate each pole. With regard to eternity, God is more transcendent than "the eternity of mystical faith." As Niebuhr explains, the danger of mysticism has always been that humanity tends to equate the "final depth of human consciousness" with some ontological level in God. That is, mysticism believes that if individuals explore their own being deeply enough, they will come to know God in some redemptive sense. But, for Niebuhr, this finite equating of the self with God fails to take human pride, alienation, and the limits of human freedom seriously enough. The result is the loss of God's mercy that truly sets humanity free from its delusions and despair.
With respect to time, the divine self-disclosure in history reveals God's intimate relation to the world. On the one hand, it underscores God's affirmation of that human longing that seeks after God, or our human transcendence with its capacity to experience the holy. On the other hand, God's involvement in world history provides humanity with that forgiving grace that alone liberates individuals from failure and remorse. At the same time it illuminates the truth about our freedom.
Neither Augustine, Calvin, Niebuhr, nor contemporary theologians condemn "private revelation." That is not the issue. "Undifferentiated theism," as some prefer to label "private revelation," is the nurturing mother of religious consciousness. It is the "testimony in the consciousness of every person that his life touches a reality beyond himself," that his life cannot be understood apart from a transcendent order (Niebuhr). To that extent, the New Age movement is a witness to the hunger within every human breast to know the divine. However, it is only a theophany, a self-disclosure of the divine in history, that has the power to affirm and clarify the theoretical and subjective quality of an individual's "private revelation." Without that affirmation and clarification, humanity remains awash in its private yearnings, adrift in the sea of its own hopes and ambiguities, prey to its own misconceptions or loss of self-significance and self-worth.
What Luke's gospel proclaims is that "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias," the eternal, transcendent God, who alone is God, affirmed and clarified, in an inimitable series of historical events, the true stature of our humanity. The time of "undifferentiated theism" alone was over; the time of good news was at hand.
A second theological theme of note is the redemptive import of the divine self-disclosure in human history. Note that it is "the word of God" that comes to John, empowering him to go about, "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Luke 3:3). Luke associates this call to repentance with Second Isaiah's own call for moral and spiritual renewal following the end of the Babylonian Exile. Indeed, there is a close historical-theological connection between the "fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberias" and the Liberator of the exiles, Cyrus II, who, though he does not know God by name, has nonetheless been chosen of God that the world may know that "from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one beside me" (Is 45:6). Furthermore, it is under this powerful Persian's aegis that God's city shall be rebuilt and God's exiles set free. For Isaiah, the theological theme here is clearly one of God's true sovereignty over all the world, thereby making human liberation, redemption, and restoration genuinely possible. Is not the same true for Luke? This time the world's powerful emperor is Tiberias—hardly comparable to an enlightened Cyrus. Nonetheless, it is still God's world, and "there is none beside" God who can be its true redeemer. It is in this light that Advent becomes the true time for celebrating anew the people of God's liberation, redemption, and restoration, which God alone can effect.
Third, this passage proclaims that there is a "theology of preparation" that is appropriate for the people of God to acknowledge, as well as, practice. Repentance is a religious virtue. Genuine metanoia calls for a sincere reexamination of one's heart, one's commitments, one's priorities, one's lifestyle; for a sincere change in one's life. Sola gratia is the principal theological core in this Lukan passage, where God's gracious action precedes all human response. Still, there is an appropriate human act of preparation, of anticipation, that the divine solicits and makes possible. Calvin would refer to it as docilitas, the capacity for reformation, for opening one's heart to the way and will of God. As Isaiah called his generation to prepare their hearts and souls for redemption and restoration, so Luke calls upon his readers to prepare themselves for the same. It is God who acts, God who saves, God who redeems. God, nonetheless, looks to us to respond, to say Yes to the divine initiative and restorative event that liberates and transforms lives. That event has already occurred. It is not a matter of speculation, of mystic contemplation, let alone the yearning of a soulful heart; and that event was the Cross, an Occurrence in time, a theophany of God's self-disclosure, for all time.
Four, and finally, is Luke's theological motif of universalism. Christianity is a universal window onto eternity. It is inclusive, embracing all peoples, meant for all ethnic and culturally diverse groups, as Luke's Acts of the Apostles makes so clear. "All flesh shall see the salvation of God," Luke quotes from the Isaac passage. If we take this promise of God seriously, then it should liberate the Christian evangelist, if not facilitate Christian missions. For it means that God, too, shall take the initiative here. "All flesh shall see"...It is God who cares about the salvation of the world, and it is God who shall see that "all flesh shall see."
In his The Future of Religions, Tillich argues for an inclusivist interpretation of "religions." In that now famous little book, Tillich offers five presuppositions for defining religion. None is meant to undermine the unique Christian witness, nor detract from God's unique self-disclosure in Christ. The five, however, point with quiet confidence to God's power to draw the world unto the divine. First, "revelatory experiences are universally human." They are given wherever one lives. "God has not left himself unwitnessed." Second, "revelation is received by man in terms of his finite human situation." It is always received in a distorted form. Third, revelation so received is subject to criticism. Fourth, "there may be...a central event...which...makes possible a concrete theology that has universalistic significance." For Tillich, this is the Christ event, who best witnesses to the divine. Fifth, "the sacred does not lie beside the secular, but it is its depths." That is why all culture and history serves as an arena for the divine-human encounter, which the Lukan passage makes so clear.
Ben W. Farley
Due West, SC