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Manifesto!

Advent 2
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

The first point to note this week, is that Luke is very carefully establishing the story in a particular place and time, by the listing of rulers and dates. This is a “down to earth” story, not “a once upon a time” story.

Luke also establishes that Israel is under the rule of Empire and tyrants. He does not say, for example, “in thirtieth year of Jesus’ life,” or “in the tenth generation since Judas Maccabeus,” or “during the long drought.” Instead the Romans and their rulers are named; Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias. The NRSV uses the word “ruler” for these men, but the Greek is tetrarch, which means one of the four rulers of the Tetrarchy of Judea, which is a Roman province. (See Wikipedia) We are introduced to a Roman world. The Jews Annas and Caiaphas, also named, were Roman appointed High Priests, and part of the Roman system.

This beginning to chapter three follows chapters one and two where we are already told this Empire will be defeated.

In Luke 1:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy...

Luke 2:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

After beginning chapter three, and placing us in the context of Empire, Luke introduces John the Baptist with words from

the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low….
and the crooked shall be made straight
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

These words are lifted from Second Isaiah (chapter 40) which addresses the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. Luke’s listeners knew that in Isaiah these words are preceded by this:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

So the reading this week story continues the same deliberate and careful crafting as the preceding chapters. Perhaps this is one of the key points to make about Luke as we begin the new church year. Like the other gospels, it is not simple reportage “as it happened.” It is a carefully crafted manifesto.

In these first three chapters Luke establishes Israel as a vassal state which is to be rescued by God. Its rescue is deliberately and specifically compared with the return from Exile. It has all the universalist overtones of Second Isaiah: all flesh shall see the salvation of God. It has the social justice flavor of the Prophets:

52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 2)

The prophet who comes to announce Jesus, is called John son of Zechariah. Even a speed read of the Book of Zechariah in the Hebrew scriptures, with no commentary consultation, raises the suspicion that this name was also part of the development of the Jesus tradition which Luke and the other gospel authors used.

There is one more thing. The action of God against Empire and oppression is very clear before this week’s reading in chapter three. The reading for this week makes God’s action in history absolutely specific: Rome is the first target.

This carefully crafted manifesto is deeply subversive of the Roman state; the "powers that be," and unavoidably political. It is here that the Gospel begins. We cannot spiritualise Luke in some way; the Good News is inextricably linked with God’s defeat of Empire. The question is, how much will we take the Gospel out of "once upon a time" territory and identify the Empire which we are to eschew, if not subvert?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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