Did you notice how Luke chapter 3 begins? It begins with a number of names, in fact the names of seven VIPs. Listen again:
In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…
Luke is setting the scene here and letting us know just when all this was happening; with the detail Luke provides, we can date it around AD 28–29.
What happened in AD 28 or 29, according to Luke? Nothing that Pilate, Herod, Philip or the others were concerned about—at first. It was this:
…God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Herod would have dismissed this. Caiaphas would have sniffed. It would be beneath Pilate to even think about it. Who cares if someone called John thinks he hears from God?
A number of books in the Bible start in that way, with a list of names. Can you think of any?
Luke goes on to quote Isaiah; how does Isaiah start? Listen:
The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’skings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
Another list of VIPs, another way of dating Isaiah, at least the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah. We can say that this prophet, Isaiah of Jerusalem, heard the word of the Lord in the eighth century BC.
The Book of Isaiah begins in a pretty standard way for a prophetic book. If you look at other Old Testament prophets, quite a few also begin this way, situating themselves in history. So when Luke chooses the same way to begin his story of John the Baptist, what is he saying? Just this: like Isaiah before him, John was a prophet. A prophet is someone who hears what God is saying, and then speaks that word to others.
God’s word came to John at a very hard time—when the rulers of the people and their chief priests were either representatives of the brutal Roman occupying forces, or they were collaborators with the enemy.
And where did John hear this word from God? “In the wilderness.” Nowheresville. Away from the centres of power, out of earshot of Pilate, far from the Temple in Jerusalem. It took a while for Herod to even hear of John, though in the end Herod executed him. The powerful, or those who benefit from the status quo, often find it hard to let God come to them.
When the scriptures remind us of who the ‘powers that be’ were when the prophets spoke, they also remind us that the prophets weren’t among the powerful. They weren’t VIPs. They were just people that God’s word could come to. And they shared that word with others.
The folk God calls and chooses are people whose ears are open to his words and who want to follow the leading of his Spirit.
That’s how I see John. He was born into a not-so-ordinary situation, the son of a priest; but I suspect he disappointed his dad, not following the family trade—because a word from God came to him.
He heard God’s word in the words of Isaiah:
Make a level highway in the wilderness
for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill
will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
We’re used to our roads being easy to drive on. I suspect no one had to do any roadworks themselves in order to get to church this morning.
This prophetic word from Isaiah was first given to exiles in Babylon, who had been carried away from Jerusalem. It was a promise that they would go home. It wasn’t an easy way back; there were hills and valleys and rivers and boulders strewn across the way. We’re used to good roads and getting places quickly. It wasn’t so in the ancient world; you needed to do the preparation to make the route passable. We may be used to easy roads—but the ways of the human spirit are still as tricky as ever to negotiate.
When people “live the mission of God” by spending time with children at the local school or going on a short-term mission trip to India, they are engaged in making spiritual rough places smooth for others. Prophets may hear the word of God, but other people don’t always get it straight away. Sometimes there is a lot of ‘stuff’ in the way.
I have someone I talk to often, and sometimes the conversation goes to God. At first, when this person heard the word ‘God’ he thought of a harsh, punishing figure somewhere far away. It’s taken a while for him to hear that when I use that word I’m speaking of a God who is good, and that we are bathed in God’s love at every point in our lives.
Even that supposedly simple word ‘God’ may be easily misunderstood. We need to help people clear away the rough places in their understanding, in what we say and what we do, so that God’s word may come to them.
It’s not just ‘other people’ who need to clear away false ideas. If we are called and chosen to serve God, it is all the more important for us to clear away the rough places in our own spirits. We’ve all got them. I’m talking about bias and prejudice; about an unwillingness to follow Jesus into places where he went himself, to the needy ones. I’m talking about a self-image that says I’m not good enough for God to use. God wants this rubbish to be removed from our minds, God wants all that to be ‘made smooth’. You who go to India, or help at the school—you aren’t just helping others to clear their rubbish away. Yours is being cleared away too as you give yourselves to God.
A nun was observing some silent days for Advent. She said:
You have first to listen to have anything worth saying!
Today, we’re celebrating those people who have sat with children at the local school. We’re celebrating those who will go to India in just a few weeks. I’d like to encourage you particularly to keep listening. Allow God’s Spirit to move within your heart. Then, say what you have learned from God. But whatever you do, don’t speak before you listen!
A final word: in Advent, we are reminded again and again to stop and listen. John and Mary the mother of Jesus are the two people we meet at this time of year; the thing they have in common is that both were good listeners. Let’s follow their example as we meet Jesus Christ as he comes to us.