Advent readings can feel a bit strange in their chronology; there is the preparation for the birth of Jesus, there is the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (today’s focus), and there is the being prepared for the coming of Jesus in glory. Three very different time-frames and foci and we sometimes move between them even within the one week’s readings.
So in our reading today Jesus and John the Baptist are adults. Luke dates this for us very carefully, more carefully in fact than he dates the birth of Jesus which is in the time of Herod and the Emperor Augustus.
We could say “in the 69th year of the reign of Elizabeth and when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, the Word of God came to ##”. I wonder who we think does speak the words of God today or what we think the Word of God for today is. John the Baptist started by reclaiming words from Isaiah 40, the essence of which is “Prepare for God!” or more particularly so that “all flesh, (all people) may see the salvation of God”.
In this 69th year of the reign of Elizabeth, and in a time of Covid, post-Brexit, desperate migration of people wanting a safer life, is the message still timely. The HS2 rail-line may feel like a highway where valleys are filled and mountains are made low, and many; the police-patrols in the dunes of Northern France, and in the Channel are the opposite of making travel easier or freer; both are controversial in that they evoke strong opinions.
John did not just preach from Isaiah, he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and the people went out to him. He called on the people, corporately as well as individually, to repent and turn back to God and God’s ways. Baptism in the Jordan was a commitment to become once again the people of God who would do the right thing.
Amid the power politics of Herod, Lysanias, Tiberius, Pilate, Caiaphas etc, God raised up someone from the edge, from a small village, to call back his people to their true task. To be honest it was not that successful, the majority chose their own way; it led to disaster. History continues like that too often! What would John say to us today I wonder?
In Isaiah the voice cries out that the highway should be built in the wilderness, to bring the people back from exile. In Luke, the suggestion is that the person calling is out in the wilderness themselves. Luke has already told us that up in the hill-country God has been quietly at work, albeit 30 years before, and Mary, a very ordinary young woman, has been obedient. Things have been quiet for that 30 years – God’s timing and patience sometimes does not fit with our timing! Luke 3 is precise about the history, but the timing of God still feels a mystery.
God is present in our world but the timing of his Kingdom’s arrival remains a mystery – Can we, do we, hear his voice in the here and now?
Rev’d Peter Reiss