The Edge of Nowhere
John the Baptist Prepares the Way (Luke 3:1-6)
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
The edge of nowhere.
The story of John the Baptist is the story of a man who was never supposed to be John the Baptist. He was supposed to have been named after his Father and have worked as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem as his Father did. So according to tradition, he was to be not John the Baptist, but Zechariah the priest, a man who lived in the capital, in the big smoke, and served at the centre of religion and faith and power and intrigue in Israel.
And Luke sets the scene to show just how busy and complex the religious and political scene was in the heart of Jerusalem. Luke prepares us for the fact that God is preparing to send the Messiah into world that it ruled by great and powerful men. These are men of varying nationalities, and empires and religions: men like Emperor Tiberius, Phillip the Tetrarch, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. It is almost like we are given this roll call of rulers, both civil and sacred, to set a sharp contrast to what was to follow.
The foretelling of John’s birth to his parents, and his divine naming by an Angel, as well as the call of God on his life to be a prophet, took John from the centre of the institution, of all that interplay and byplay of power and agenda and ambition, to the edge of nowhere, as he made his home in the Judean wilderness.
Now the wilderness is, by definition, not the place to go if you are wanting to reach people with your radical message, there are far more people to prophecy to in the city! Yet the wilderness places, and the peripheries and fringes are always where people seem to end up when their message is radical or strange. They are often pushed there by those who tow the party line. They are too uncomfortable to those in the middle.
And so we have the wilderness. The voice of one calling “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”. And they think they have pushed John to the edges, away from where the worship of God takes place, where the institutions rule and the men of power sit. But they didn’t understand how God works.
We have heard stories before that take place in this thing called “Wilderness”. Wilderness in the Bible has a lot of meanings: it is a liminal space, an in between space, a transitional space, a space on the edges. The wilderness is a place of vulnerability, a place of uncertainty. In the gospel of Luke, we see in the story of the temptation of Jesus that the wilderness is a place of testing, a place of hunger. Who knows which way things are going to go?
But the wilderness is also a place where other distractions are stripped away. I love the story of the call of Elijah where the prophet is sent out into the wilderness and to the mountain of God, and after spending time in a cave God calls to him not in the earthquake, not in the fire, not in the great wind, but in the sound of a gentle whisper or some translations say, the sound of absolute silence.
Because whatever else it is, the wilderness is also a place where God often appears. In a pillar of fire and cloud in the Exodus, in the call of a prophet, or a mountaintop gift of commandments, in providing manna and quail or parting a sea to save a nation. It is where the Spirit drove Jesus out into, after his baptism. It is a place where things tend to happen.
The meaning of the ministry of John was not just to prepare the way of the Lord in a place, it wasn’t about the difference between Jerusalem and the desert, but to prepare the hearts of people to receive the Lord. His was a message of repentance, of turning around, of tipping over, of turning everything on its head. Lifted valleys, sunken mountains, rich being sent away empty, hungry filled with good things, it was indeed a radical message and one that those at the centre of political and religious life in Israel were not likely to hear kindly.
Maybe to really hear it, people needed to venture out to a place where all the busy-ness of life is stripped away. Sometimes it takes a wilderness, before we are ready to hear the still, small voice.
Having endured two years of wilderness level pandemic and political and economic confusion and turning on its head, we are now in the wilderness spaces ready to hear the message that in the midst of all of this, just as he did with the very birth and call and message of John, God enters our world concretely in time and space with the message that “all flesh will see the salvation of our God”.
And Just as the gospel writers anchor God’s action in sending Jesus securely in the objective facts of time and space (you remember from the nativity story: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)) Why was this there, to anchor the event in time and space. This was real, you can prove that these things happened, there was a Quirinius, Governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus did order a census. These things happened at a real place at a real time, it isn’t a fairy tale. No “once upon a time” here.
So God comes again now in a concrete time and a real place. He comes when Scott Morrison was Prime Minister of Australia, and Anastasia Palaszczuk was Premier of Queensland, and after a minor flood on Dalby in 2021 to you and me.
And amidst all the uncertainty of the future, the promise remains: All flesh will see the salvation of our God.
Every Advent time of waiting, and every Christmas is a sign to us that we are one year closer to that time. And so, we wait. Jesus is coming. Amen