Gospel: Luke 3:1-6

A Contrary Sign

When was the last time something that didn't make sense catch your attention? Did its image have contradictory messages? How was that possible?

Humor and advertising have something in common. Both rely on contradiction to make a point. The humorist will take a commonly shared experience and will look at it in a new way. Voila. The contradictory nature of the experience is laid bare. Everyone laughs because they see the absurdity though the eyes of the humorist.

Ditto, advertisements. Place two contradictory images together, according to the logic of the advertiser, and the public will stop to look. (Whether this works or not is a matter of opinion. But look around. The logic is still in effect).

Before the public appearance of Jesus, a hermit preached in the desert. The preaching and the place created a sign of contradiction. And a way to catch the imagination of the people.

Popular Translation

1-2 After Tiberias Ceasar had ruled the Roman Empire for fifteen years, the word of God came to John in the desert. During that time, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Herod led Galilee and his brother, Phillip, led the area of Ituraea and Trachonitis. Lysanias led Abilene. And, in Jerusalem, Annas first, then Caiaphas, were the chief priests in the Temple.

3 John traveled up and down the Jordan river valley. Everywhere he went, he proclaimed, "Get baptized! This will show everyone you turned your hearts and lives over to God, so he can forgive your sins!" 4 This was just like Isaiah the prophet wrote:

"There is a voice crying out in the desert,

'Get the road ready for the Lord!
Straighten the way for him!
Every ditch will be filled in.
Every hill will be leveled.
The winding areas will be straightened
and the rocky roads will be made smooth.
Then everyone will see God's salvation!"

Luke presented a contrary sign as proof of God's activity: a cryer of news in the desert. A news cryer was an urban activity. People gathered in the marketplace to hear the news from the traveling cryer. But, the desert (literally, deserted areas) was no place to announce news of import. Such a place hid many dangers and traps. Only the hermit endured such environs. Yet, the combination of the two images (cryer in the desert) recalled the Exodus experience and the prophetic tradition. If there was a place to hear news from God, it was the desert.

Literal Translation

1 In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberias Caesar, Pontius Pilate ruling Judea as governor, Herod ruling Galilee as tetrarch, his brother Phillip ruling the regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis as tetrarch, and Lysanias ruling Abilene as tetrarch, 2 in (the time of) the high priesthood (of) Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came upon John, son of Zachariah, in the desert.

3:1 "ruling . . . as governor" This is a single participle. Pilate was the governor of Judea and Samaria, but not of the whole of Palestine.

"ruling . . . as tetrarch" This is a single participle. The notion of tetrarch ("ruling one quarter of a country") had lost its original meaning. A tetrarch was the leader of a small regional area.

3:2 "in (the time of) the high priesthood (of) Annas and Caiaphas" Luke grouped the tenures of Annas and Caiaphas into a single time frame.

Of all the evangelists, Luke had the greatest concern for history. Beginning with the political situation in the known world (i.e., the Roman Empire), Luke reduced his focus from the general to the particular. Luke wanted to pinpoint the person of John the Baptist. He also wanted to raise the historical significance of John's activity. The word of God stirring in the Jordan had the same (even greater) impact than anything the Caesar did! Luke accomplished this feat by name dropping and with the use of a single sentence.

3 (John) went into entire country around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of metanoia for (the purpose of) the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of sayings (from) Isaiah the prophet,

"A voice crying out in the desert,

'Prepare the way of the Lord
make his paths straight.
5 Every ravine will be filled,
and every hill and mount will be leveled,
and the crooked (areas) will be straight,
and the rough into smooth ways,
6 and all flesh will see the deliverance of God."

3:3 "He went into entire country around the Jordan" John preached up and down the Jordan River valley.

"metanoia" is loosely "repentance." The root word is "nous," the organ of feeling a reason centered in the heart. With the prefix "meta," the word meant change in heart and mind. In the context of the times and John's preaching, the word also meant a radical change in lifestyle.

3:4 "book of sayings" is the book of Isaiah in the Bible.

"A voice crying out in the desert" This is an emphatic statement. This verse quoted Isaiah 40:3-4. The prophet used the image of the town crier (or advance man) announcing the coming of the king. Isaiah (and John the Baptist) used the image to announce the coming Day of the Lord. The image urged the people to prepare for the judgment day.

The desert reminded Jews of the Exodus experience. The people under Moses encountered God in the desert and depended upon him explicitly.

3:4-5 The image of straightened roads, filled ravines, leveled mountains, and roads where none existed before reminds us of the public works projects for the benefit of a visiting dignitary. When a king would visit an area, roads were cleared (branches were cut back along the roadside), ruts were filled in, new roads were developed (ravines filled in and hills leveled). The improvements meant to impress the visiting royalty and provide for his (or her) traveling comfort.

3:6 "all flesh" meant "every living person."

After Luke justified the activity of John as a historical event, he moved to justify the activity in Jewish tradition (the reference to Isaiah 40:3-4). Even though the Roman Empire condoned (and even legalized) anti-Semitism when Luke wrote his gospel, the general populace still had great esteem for the moral life of the Jews. While they might not understand the Jewish mentality and its insistence on monotheism, they did respect its stature as a religion with a tradition. In ancient culture, tradition was paramount, for it represented lasting values and lasting lifestyles.

Writing for a non-Jewish audience, Luke appealed to that tradition. Possibly Luke knew the young Christian movement needed the legitimacy of tradition. He might have even reported the rhetoric of the Baptist movement that Christians adopted as their own. No matter. Luke gave his audience (and possible converts) a sense of place. The new movement fulfilled that of the old. Followers of the Way were now God's people.

John received the word of God to preach a baptism of metanoia that led to the forgiveness of sins. In other words, John's baptism was symbolic. It represented a reorientation on the part of the sinner toward God. But it did not forgive sins in itself. The baptism looked forward to an act of divine mercy at the last judgement. Somehow, some way, the repentant sinner hoped God would wipe the slate clean as he or she stood before the Son of Man in the Last Judgment.

Even so, John's activity meant to fulfil Isaiah's prophecy. A desert cryer called people to prepare the way for the King of Kings. The road was to be made wide, made smooth, and made new. The improvements made were internal as well as external. The sinner was to reform in heart and deed.

Catechism Themes: John the Baptist (CCC 717-720)

For Christians, John the Baptist represented Elijah, the desert prophet who was swept into heaven on a fiery chariot. Since Elijah did not taste death, the prophet, Jews believed, would return to herald the coming Messiah.

John's prophetic message and baptism revealed the work of God's Spirit. Like Elijah, John ministered in the desert. Like Elijah, John challenged everyone to moral change. Like Elijah, John had an audience of the poor and the true seekers. If Elijah was the first of the prophets, John would be the last. Their appearance, message, and effect created an interesting symmetry to the era of prophets. John fit the image of Elijah, but he did more than the ancient prophet.

John's ministry prepared for the coming of the Christ. His followers would be open to the preaching of the One anointed by the Spirit. His baptism of repentance prefigured the sacrament of baptism. His death prefigured the death of the Messiah. As the image of John pointed backward to Elijah, it pointed forward to Jesus.

What strikes you most about the figure of John the Baptist? His appearance, his preaching, or his baptism? Why?

John the Baptist was God's advertisement. Rooted in the nation's past, his appearance in the desert caught the popular imagination. His message prepared the populace for the coming of One Greater. "Get ready!"

The contrary sign of John brought together historical significance and prophetic tradition. It also revealed God's activity. God was about to do something new, unique, different. John stood in the shadows of the past, but pointed to future events.

As the year ends, we, too, look back to the past for comfort and reflection. But we look forward to the coming of One Greater. Let us take the time to "Get ready."

Take some time this week to review this year. What were your high and low points? How did you "history" affect you? Now, look forward to Christmas. How can you entrust you "history" to the Lord? How can you open yourself to the changes he can make?