In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1.78–79)
You won’t be surprised to hear things are different at our house. We have welcomed our new overlords recently-arrived from Chile, in the shape of a six-year old granddaughter and a one-year old grandson.
One of the many changes is that we watch a lot less TV news these days. Miss six continually asks ‘What are they talking about?’, which is distracting. And often we really don’t want to tell her what they are talking about, we’d rather spare her the details at this stage of her life.
What about the late news, you ask? We are in bed, exhausted.
So when the younger members of our family went away for a couple of days this week, I had the chance to look at the news. Just in time for the Jenkins Report.
Kate Jenkins is the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner which has just released Set the Standard, the final report from the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces.
51% of people working in Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces ‘have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault’, (Tweet from Kate Jenkins, 30.11.21) while 77% had experienced, witnessed or heard about such behaviour. Less that a quarter of people said they were unaware.
Most of the people victimised are junior workers who have sometimes (often?) been warned that if they were to speak out, there would be unwanted consequences for them. Most of the victims are young women. Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame have become household names because of their bravery in speaking out. Rachelle Miller may soon be another.
Many (most?) of the perpetrators are Very Important Men.
I mention this because of a detail in our Gospel Reading: it lists a number of Very Important Men. Listen to it once more:
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.
(Ok, it’s more than a detail, it’s almost half the reading ….)
There are all these important names, but my point is: the word of God did not come to any of them. Luke could have just cut to the chase and left their names out: ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
So, what are those names doing there then?
The names do set this passage in history. Tiberius was emperor from 14–37 CE. He was an able army general, but not such a great emperor. Herod was not the Herod who sought to kill the baby boys at Bethlehem but his son, Herod Antipas. This Herod was ruler of Galilee for 43 years, until 39 CE; it was this Herod who had John the Baptist executed. Pontius Pilate we know. He was Procurator of Judaea from around 26–36 CE. He gets a cameo appearance in the Creeds; Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Annas and Caiaphas were priests involved in Jesus’ conviction and death.
Who’s left? Philip and Lysanias? You can google them.
The names of these Very Important Men anchor John the Baptist in history. That’s important, but it’s not the main reason they are there.
The main reason Luke put them there is to show that John is a prophet of Israel in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah and the rest.
Let me show you. Here is the first verse of the Book of the prophet Isaiah:
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Or Hosea, very similar:
The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.
You’ll see others just by looking at chapter 1 verse 1 of the a good proportion of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophets tended to announce their words in the context of a particular time.
Luke is listing these names to say John was a prophet, just as the others were.
That’s why Luke put those names there. But — in the light of the Jenkins Report — could we perhaps see another reason?
The word of God came to John ‘in the wilderness’.
The word of God did not come to someone in Caesar’s palace, nor did it come in the courts of the great Temple of Jerusalem.
Not in the hallways of power, where ‘The Prime Minister has my firm and unwavering support’ is code for a leadership spill in just a few days.
Nor in the the Parliament House chapel, seemingly used more as an assignation point than a place of prayer.
Not in the grubby, leaking cesspit the Australian Parliament has been revealed to be.
Today’s Gospel quotes the prophet Isaiah. (Maybe Luke saw John as carrying on the work of Isaiah?) We read,
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.…’
There are plenty in the wilderness today; some of them are women who entered service in Parliament House in their younger years with very high hopes.
But how do we ‘prepare the way of the Lord’? John the Baptist would say we do it by repentance. By turning around and going in a different direction. By changing our ways.
Our nation’s institutions certainly need to repent, but maybe we do too. We may in our own way look for power over others, or to take advantage of someone else. We may be more concerned with advancement in our career than what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us.
In the end, that’s why the word comes to John ‘in the wilderness’. It is there that he found space to breathe, to listen, to rethink things, to realise the love of God, and then to act.
Our wildernesses may not be literal. They may include fear of the future in an age of climate change. They may be times of loss or grief. Times when things just aren’t necessarily going to plan. It’s then that we too can find that space to breathe, to listen, to rethink things, to realise the love of God. And then, to act to remake the future in the light of the word we have heard from God.
If you are in the wilderness, when you find yourself there, you are not alone. Jesus went into the wilderness too. Don’t run away. Be still, listen for his voice. It speaks to you.
West End Uniting Church, 5 December 2021