Through Advent, I will be writing reflections on the lectionary texts for the website Light Reflections, and reposting them here. Hope you enjoy! Please feel free to use any of them in sermon, teaching or other church education type prep.
3In 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.
5 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;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
These stories about John in the wilderness are so familiar that I risk no longer fully hearing them. I can jump right over the political positioning in the first few lines to get straight to the heart of proclamation because familiarity makes me think that’s where the meaning is. But not this year. This year I’m trying to dwell in the time and space established by those first few lines to see what might reside there.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius locates this moment in time. Tiberius and Pilate as Governor locate it in a particular political regime. Herod, Philip and Lysnias locate it geographically. Annas and Caiaphas locate it religiously. The image we have here is of a bustling, vibrant landscape that perhaps has little energy, space or desire for a saviour to arrive. These opening lines map the time and space of the context into which Jesus’ Good News comes. It’s a time and space marked by political and religious powers that shape how the Good News will be heard.
This time and space marks out the beginning of the story, but also the site of the story’s goal.
This is the context into which John proclaims the coming Lord – in the hustle bustle of the region all around the Jordan he preaches baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. But it’s also the context from which he needs to retreat to be audible. He preaches all around the region, but then he has to go out into the wilderness for the specificity of his words to be heard.
I imagine him standing in the wilderness outside of the city, preparing himself to go back in, and gazing upon its busyness with a sigh. How will the Lord even be seen in that wild topography? How will the Good News be heard over the din of trade and industry? Won’t liberation be squashed by all the powers and principles that rule the state.
I imagine John standing outside of the city he loves for a moment, preparing himself to go back in, and gazing upon its busyness with a sigh before returning to his task – before he begins to straighten paths, to watch the valleys raised and the mountains lowered, the rough ways made smooth. The prophecy holds the kernel of equalizing impulse that conveys the Gospel’s social justice. But it also demonstrates how creation itself will bend to the presence of the Divine.
John proclaims not just the coming of Jesus, but the very fact that time and space itself will bend to make room for Good News to pour out. It will appear that the land is still in the hands of Tiberius and Pilate, Herod and Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. But from the wilderness John can see a new territory charted over theirs. John sees the time and space of the Kingdom of God turning geography into sacred space. He sees the preparatory work required for all flesh to see the salvation of God.
As I gaze out over Toronto, the city I love, I wonder where geography is becoming sacred space. I wonder where eternal time and invisible space are spreading out to make room for the Good News. What valleys are being raised? What mountains being brought low? This year, as I gaze out over the city I love, I wonder where in its hustle, bustle, trade and industry God is laying in wait to release us from bondage, to set us free.
This picture was taken with my phone of an early Toronto morning after I had pulled an all-nighter watching the art installation, The Clock, by Christian Marclay.