Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
Luke 3:1-6 [6C]
Each year we hear from John the Baptist in the Gospel readings for the second and third Sundays of Advent. Although most of his words and deeds are not preserved in the Gospels, John’s role in salvation history should not be underestimated. The common reference to John the Baptist as the forerunner to Christ captures only one aspect of his public ministry. John fueled the messianic hopes of an entire generation of Jews who longed to hear and ponder the prophetic messages of old. Through his ritualized washing (baptism) in the Jordan River, John called his fellow Jews to prepare their hearts and minds for the arrival of God’s holy presence in their midst.
Of the four New Testament Gospel writers, Luke is the most sensitive to historical detail. The opening words of today’s Gospel reading is good example. Luke is very careful to place the activities of John the Baptist within the political and religious leadership of the day. With Luke’s opening historical marker (“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”), scholars are able to date the ministry of John the Baptist between the years AD 27–29. This date falls within the years in which Pontius Pilate governed Judea (AD 26–36), when the sons of Herod the Great ruled over Jewish territories (Antipas in Galilee, 4 BC–AD 39, and Philip in Ituraea and Trachonitis, 4 BC–AD 34), and during the high priesthoods of Annas and Caiaphas, AD 6–36.
It is within the historical context of these religious and political leaders that Luke tells us in the late AD 20s John begins his public ministry: “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” In the opening chapters of his Gospel (Lk 1–2, the infancy narrative), Luke informed us of John’s conception and birth through Zechariah and Elizabeth. The last comment Luke offers about the newborn John in the infancy narrative is that “the child grew and became strong in spirit and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Lk 1:80). Aside from John living in the desert for the most of his life (which is why many have theorized John grew up and was formed by the Essene community), little is known about John until he emerges from the desert as a prophet who proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s call for repentance (in Greek, metanoia) required a total commitment, literally a change of heart and mind, before the initiate would receive baptism from John. Curiously, Luke introduces John the Baptist not by quoting John, but by quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, which were spoken during Israel’s captivity in Babylon, around 550 BC (see Is 40:3-5). Like the great and legendary prophet Isaiah, John was a prophet about to reveal to “all flesh… the salvation of God.”
The first reading comes from the lesser known prophet, Baruch. He was (by trade) the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. His earliest prophecies date to the fall and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC (see Bar 1:2). In today’s reading, Baruch offers words of consolation and hope to the exiled Israelites, many of whom witnessed in horror the destruction of their Temple and the ruin of the holy city of Jerusalem. Baruch reminds Israel that God is in control of history and in command of the universe. And God offers Israel a future beyond their control and imagination.
Like John the Baptist, Baruch invited Israel to turn their hearts and minds in confidence and trust to God. The season of Advent calls us all to do the same.
Dr. Daniel J. Scholz