“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, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3:1-2).
The very particular specificity of our reading today is in keeping with the rest of Luke’s Gospel, which locates us firmly in time and space. What we have at the start of the third chapter is a rundown of political and spiritual leadership, “history from the top,” if you will: a recounting of who was in charge of this or that when the great events of salvation occurred. St. Luke tells a story firmly rooted in history, an “orderly account” (Lk. 1:1) as he calls it at the very beginning of his Gospel. At Christmas, in Luke’s Gospel, we’ll hear how Jesus himself was born during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Lk. 2:1-2).
This specific grounding of the great events of salvation, at a particular time and place, is significant. St. Luke is telling us that God acts, not just generally and theoretically, but specifically and practically. Our reading stakes a claim that we can actually point to times and places where God is present and acting, and that we can do so both at the time and in retrospect. For Luke, one of those pointers was found in the person of John, son of Zechariah, who prepared the way for the birth of the Savior.
The sounding of “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” (Lk. 3:1), in our Gospel today, undercuts our tendency to make God merely hypothetical: that is, a remote possibility. To the extent that we make God hypothetical, we also distance ourselves from God, and any expectation that God will act. “Look,” our Gospel says to us, “God has acted, in the same time we live in now.” The location of past events, by the Gospel writer, is not an attempt to contain them, to set them off from us, but to invite the one who hears to see God acting now.
Though Luke’s Gospel seems to be “history from the top,” from the perspective of governors and kings, it’s actually just the opposite. It’s “history from below,” “history from beneath,” as it tells a story of humble people who disrupt the ruling order. Though rulers provide familiar markers, any expectation that the really significant events emerge from the imperial court is quickly dashed by the way the story unfolds.
The word of God comes to John, as our reading says, not in a city at the center of affairs, but in a wilderness, on the outskirts of the civilized world. In the great scheme of things, John’s a nobody, of “no account” in the eyes of the world. He’s crucial to this story but to nothing else. God’s action to save the world doesn’t emerge near the capital, but in a remote province among marginalized people. It’s not “top down” but from the bottom up.
Luke’s story is not history from above, and neither is the Gospel itself. God’s intervention in history is predicated on his use of small things, humble people and places, to work his perfect will. St. Paul says in Philippians, “Christ Jesus… though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). The story of Christ’s birth and death is “history from beneath,” even as it presumes his descent from heaven and his exaltation to the right hand of God.
So, what is John’s message today for us? What is the word of God addressed to him? The Baptist calls for repentance, and the forgiveness of sins. The message is a humbling one, of its very nature. It’s in keeping with the broader theme of God’s action in humble people and places. Jesus humbles himself to come into the world; his servants, then, function in the same humble mode.
John’s message of repentance is metanoia, a turning away or change in direction. The message comes to us, and calls for us to act. God is at work in us, particular people of no particular note. God is at work in what the prophet Zechariah calls “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10). God’s not looking for the grand gesture, for things that are beyond us, but is at work in our repentance, in the unseen interior work that, through grace, leads to change.
This is the call, here and now, to turn from sin and to embrace a new life. Advent foregrounds the call which comes to us, now. This is the time; we are the people. Our Journey in Faith participants today are reminding us of the journey we must all make, which depends upon this crucial turn or change in direction. It is the day of small things; of the small, humble, and unseen action of God. This is the time; we are the people.