Anchoring the Gospel Story in the Real World

JordanBy Ched Myers, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (Luke 3:1-6)

Note: This is one of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2015-16.  

The second and third Sundays of Advent focus on the ministry of John the Baptist, first locating him in the wilderness (2. Advent), then focusing in on his prophetic message (3. Advent). Following on his infancy (and young childhood) narrative about Jesus, Luke commences the gospel story proper. More than the other N.T. evangelist, Luke anchors his story in real political space, signaling that we ought not be afraid to do the same.

As an imperial historiographer, Luke has already made it clear that Jesus was birthed into a world of conflict, specifically Rome’s controversial imperial census that sparked a revolt among Judean nationalists (2:1f). He now makes it clear that John the Baptist lived during the reigns of three notorious imperial figures (3:1-2). The first was Tiberius, the successor of Caesar Augustus. Born in 42 BCE, Tiberius was the second emperor of Rome, ruling from 14-37 CE. The problems of a centralizing Roman Imperial State emerged during his administration, especially the “Big Lie” that the Principate represented a return to Republican principles of government, rather than the intensification of dictatorial rule.

In order to underline the reality that Jewish Palestine was colonized by the Roman Empire, Luke’s next phrase stipulates that Pontius Pilate was the local administrator of the occupation. Next Luke acknowledges the native collaborator with Roman rule, Herod Antipas. Antipas was born in 20 BCE, the son of Herod the Great and a Samaritan woman; upon his father’s death he became (at the pleasure of Rome) the tetrarch over Galilee and Perea, where John the Baptist and Jesus were active, and ruled from 4 BCE-39 CE. Two other tetrarchs are also named by Luke (Philip and Lysanias, though not Archelaus). After the succession of Tiberias, Antipas curried his favor by naming his new administrative center at the Sea of Galilee after the emperor, a sharp slap in the face to Jewish patriots.

Finally Luke recognizes the priestly leaders of occupied Judea (2:1a). Having firmly set this story in a real world of violence and oppression, Luke now introduces the first hero of the new freedom struggle he will narrate—John ben Zechariah (as per Lk 1:5ff). But it comes as a jolt, since he could not be more different that the aforementioned elites.

John has already been introduced in 1:15-17 as a wilderness prophet of repentance “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” In 3:4-6 Luke also affiliates him with Isaiah (citing the whole of Is 40:4f). The Baptist calls for his people to “turn around,” not just individually, but as subjects of a historical project that is careening in the wrong direction. It seems that those who would challenge the people of God to repent from empire are forever “voices in the wilderness.”

John convenes his movement in the wilderness, the launching point of all great prophetic renewal movements in Israel—as well as other groups resisting empire. Moreover, he literally immerses people into the wilderness through a nature ritual in the wild waters of the Jordan River, on the margins of settled society, far from the domesticated ritual baths of village and city (Lk 3:3).

The Jordan was (and is) the spine of the land of Israel, running some 156 miles north to south into and out of the Sea of Galilee, then down the rift valley. Indeed, its very name in Hebrew (nehar hayarden) means “descender,” as the river plummets from the mountainous foothills of Mt. Hermon in southern Lebanon to 400 meters below sea level at the Dead Sea. It is a river of dramatic rapids and gorges as well as meandering bends and quiet pools, of trickles in the dry season and floods in the wet. Archaeological evidence suggests human habitation along the Jordan for more than 100,000 years. It wasn’t navigable, averaging only 90 feet in width and 3-10 feet in depth, and often uncrossable (there were some 60 fords along its length in antiquity).

While the river Jordan may not have been so “deep and wide” as the old spiritual goes, it was the watery heart and soul of that dry land. It was a storied place, where Jacob wrestled with the angel (Gen 32), the insurgent Joshua crossed to commence his liberation struggle in Canaan (Josh 3-4), Elijah was raptured into heaven (II Kg 2), and Elisha healed Namaan (II Kg 5). So this setting is important to the life of Jesus’ people, the symbolic center of Israel’s history of liberation. Here begins Luke’s story of prophetic resistance and renewal under the shadow of great Rulers.

Where is that sacred place for us to build similarly spirit-infused movements of hope and healing?

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