Let’s say that we are time-traveling like in the movie Back to the Future. We find ourselves in a desperate situation where we have no choice but getting on a time-machine. Soon, this time-machine takes off and enters into a time loop. Suddenly, we see some spark and smoke around us. Something’s wrong. Yes, the machine is broken. What a cliché! Anyway, we have to land at a place in the unknown past. After a life-and-death landing, we finally get out of the machine and wonder how far we’ve traveled. How can we find when and where we are? I think, we would look for a newsstand and pick up a newspaper, because there we may find famous names in history and get some clues to figure out the time and the location.
The Gospel reading for today is just like this newspaper we may pick up in the past. There we can find a few famous names in history. “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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (Luke 3:1-2). Reading only these two verses, we can get it. Yes, the unexpected destination of our time travel is the time of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Today, the Gospel of Luke invites us to travel back into a particular period of time in history. The time we are entering is when the Emperor Tiberius was the ruler of the Roman Empire. He was one of the most powerful men in the world and was literally called a son of god (Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti filius) as the successor of the divine Augustus. But he was actually a dark, reclusive, and violent ruler and a fierce military general. This Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate as his governor of Judea. And it was when Herod was assigned to be in charge of Galilee in Judea. Pilate watched Herod watching his own people on behalf of the Roman occupation forces. They were effective colony rulers who kept Jewish people silent and crushed any attempts of revolt.
But it wasn’t only their power that kept the Jews underfoot. They had support from the head clergy—high priests Annas and Caiaphas. They worked under Pilate to keep everything as smooth as possible up at the temple. The Romans graciously allowed the Jews to practice their religion as long as it was under the watchful eyes of Annas and Caiaphas, as long as nobody mixed religion with politics, and as long as the God of Israel is not against their son of god, Tiberius, and his mighty power represented by Pilate, assisted by Herod, and backed up by Annas and Caiaphas.[i]
With the names of these powerful men on top, any time-travelers, who made an emergency landing, can track down the exact date. However, the Gospel we are talking about today is not exactly a history book. It doesn’t only invite us to locate ourselves in a certain period of time in history. But more importantly, it also invites us to navigate ourselves across the history of the world and look at it from a different point of view, from the perspective of faith. And from this viewpoint, we all learn that true history is not something we can get by reading newspapers or something that is shaped or controlled by the powers of the world.
Today, the Gospel of Luke invites us to see history from the perspective of faith, and moreover, join that true history, God’s history. Right after the list of all the powerful names and their territories, Luke writes, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2). Here Luke tells us, it was famous people like Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod who had powers to make world history. But when it came time for God to make history, God came to none of them. It’s famous people like Annas and Caiaphas who had the legitimate authority to proclaim God’s word. But when it came time for God to reveal the way of God, the word of God came to none of them. Instead, God’s word came to almost nobody, John the Baptist, son of Zechariah. And God set out the new beginning of history not from the lofty palace in Rome or the awe-inspiring temple of Herod in Jerusalem, but from the wilderness. It may not look like the most efficient and common way to make history, but we know this is God’s work of grace when we see it through our faith.
In the wilderness, the word of God is proclaimed for a new beginning of God’s history with the coming Jesus Christ and his kingdom. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:4-6). John the Baptist proclaims, Jesus is coming and the whole world is going to change. He is going to reshape history into the history of his peaceable reign that levels out the valley of inequity and lowers down the mountain of oppression. He is going to reform history as the history of love and life that conquers the power of death. And he is going to restore the history of salvation, the history of grace for “all flesh” by his death and resurrection. Then, what? We have to repent, renew our heart and mind. Prepare the way of the Lord, and join this history of grace.
In this Season of Advent, we are invited to be time-travelers who journey across history. First of all, we are invited to visit the days of Jesus and understand his time as we wait for his birth. But above all, we are invited to look at history through the eyes of faith and take part in the true history, the history of God’s grace that is still in progress. To participate in this history, Luke suggests us to do one thing: walk into the wilderness. Well, for us, the wilderness can’t be a physical wilderness like a Palestinian desert. But we can find the wilderness in our soul, a time of solitude and a space away from our familiar routine, an environment where we cannot cover us with external things like position, honor, wealth, or power, but expose our bare and vulnerable selves before God. It can be a room in our house, a silent space at your work place, or a time on a public transportation. Let us walk into such wildernesses in our daily lives and renew our hearts and minds through sincere prayer and repentance. Then, I believe, we may hear the timeless word of God more clearly. Then, we may become able to prepare the way of the Lord and join God’s history of grace on earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, today, the invitation from God has been delivered through the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. And now, it is our turn to make our commitment to that invitation. Are we ready to see through the history of the world and navigate our lives with faith in our coming Lord? Are we ready to join his kingdom history and work for the transformation of the world? I hope and pray that we prepare the way of the Lord in our own wildernesses through this Season of Advent. Amen.
[i]William Willimon, Will Willimon’s Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year C Part 1(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 20.