Baruch 5:1-9 – Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Malachi 3:1-4 – See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
Luke 1:68-79 – The Psalm is the Song of Zechariah. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. The Song of Zechariah may be sung, ELW 226, 250, or 552, or the Gospel Canticle from Matins on p. 303.
Philippians 1:3-11 – I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Luke 3:1-6 – John the Baptist: As written in the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
Malachi: The Messenger
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
I have never quite gotten used to the recent use of “See” for הִנֵּה instead of “Behold.” I get that no one uses “behold” or “lo” anymore. But, “see” lacks the gravitas of a divine pronouncement. What would we say today? Here are some of the ways NASB translates it: after all (1), behold (938), go (1), here (41), how (5), if (18), if he sees (1), if he has indeed (1), indeed (11), lo (16), look (3), now (3), now (1), see (4), surely (2), there (2), unless (1). I suppose in Texas, a divine oracle might say, “Look here, y’all!” or “See here!” but I can’t bring myself to do that, so I’m sticking with “Behold!”
In contrast to Jeremiah’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple a couple of weeks ago on December 18, in today’s text from Malachi, YHWH is now returning to the Temple. This is a post-exilic text. The people have returned from exile and the Temple has been rebuilt. Already there are problems, like before. The people are worshipping foreign gods and the priests are misconducting themselves, again. YHWH is going to come and purify the priests, the sons of Levi.
YHWH is sending a messenger in advance. The word for messenger is malach, מַלְאָך. Malach can be translated “messenger,” “ambassador,” “envoy” or even “angel.” So Malachi, the very title of the book, means messenger. It is likely that the author is referring to himself.
People often pray for God to come, but they don’t know what they are asking for. Do we really want this? We think God will come to give our enemies their comeuppance. It often doesn’t occur to us, that we ourselves might be the object of divine judgment. When God comes, who can stand? Who can endure the day of God’s coming? If we are washed thoroughly with fuller’s soap so that all our dirt is washed away, will any part of us be left? I once had a car that I was afraid to wash, because the rust and dirt seemed to be holding it together.
Zechariah: The Song
As mentioned above, since it is the appointed psalm of the day, the Song of Zechariah may be sung, ELW 226, 250, or 552, or the Gospel Canticle from Matins on p. 303.
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke is the story of Elkanah and Hannah from 1 Samuel 1. As Samuel is the last of the judges and the anointer of kings; so John is the last of the prophets and the baptizer of Jesus. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed…” Luke 16:16
Zechariah in Luke connects the miraculous births with both the promises made to Israel, and the current events of the day. The preacher is challenged to do the same.
John: The Voice
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, 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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as 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.’”
In Jesus’ day, the Roman occupation was understood as God’s judgment, and the religious establishment was considered corrupt by many. The prophecies of Malachi rang true, and the people looked for messengers to purify the religious structures of the day.
Luke is the only gospel writer who painstakingly grounds the events of John and Jesus firmly in history.
“In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius…” Tiberius Claudius Nero, the reclusive man who never wanted to be ruler (Pliny the Elder called him “the gloomiest of men’), was the Roman Emperor for 23 years, 14-37 A.D. If Luke has his dates right, the Word of God came to John at around 29 A.D.
“When Pontius Pilate was the Governor of Judea…” Pontius Pilatus was the fifth prefect of the Roman Province called Judea, 26-36 A.D. 29 A.D. falls neatly into that time frame. We know this by a stone known as the Pilate Stone, pictured here, discovered in 1961 at the archeological site Caesarea Maritima, the administrative and military headquarters of the province. Prior to this discovery, scholars had questioned the historicity of this figure in Luke’s gospel. The stone established Pilate’s historicity, and also increased Luke’s credibility as a historian.
This week, a new find was announced. Pilate’s ring has been identified. It was actually found nearly fifty years ago, but unrecognized. One of thousands of items found at the Herodium, it was recently turned it over to staff that currently works at the site. They cleaned it up and were delighted to discover “Pilato” on it. (The article says “Pilatus,” but readers of Greek will notice it appears to say ΠΙΛΑΤO, reading right to left, clockwise.)
“and Herod was ruler of Galilee…” This Herod is not Herod the Great, (37 B.C.to 4 A.D.), whom the Roman client king (who Rome called “King of the Jews”), who Matthew mentions nine times in Matthew 2, who tried to manipulate the Magi and who ordered the death of all the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem. This is not the King Herod who began his reign by slaughtering nearly every member of the Sanhedrin, and replacing them with sympathizers. This is not the Herod of whom Caesar Augustus said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
No, this is Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch, the son of the cruel Herod the Great, whom Matthew calls “Herod the ruler” in Matthew 14. When Herod the Great died, Augustus, fed up with all the uprisings, eliminated the position of King of the Jews. He divided the country among Herod’s three sons. Archelaus was given Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Herod Antipas was given Galilee and Peraea. Philip was given Gaulanitis (the Golan Heights today) and the lands northeast of the sea of Galilee. None of them were given the title of king. They were tetrarchs, which denotes someone in charge of a quarter.
This Herod, Herod Antipas, was called “the fox” by Jesus in Luke 13:32, and had John the Baptist beheaded. David Ewart wonders if “weasel” or “rat” would be a closer approximation of what Jesus was trying to say in calling Herod a fox. Herod reigned from 6-39 A.D. He was later convicted by Caligula of conspiring against him, and against Tiberius, stripped of his position and property, and exiled to somewhere in France, according to Josephus.
“and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,” Philip, son of Herod the great, and brother of Herod Antipas, was sometimes known as Herod Philip II. He ruled from 4 B.C. to 34 A.D.
“and Lysanias ruler of Abilene…” According to the great and powerful Wikipedia, Lysanius was the ruler of a small realm on the western slopes of Mount Hermon, mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, and in coins from c. 40 B.C. He was ruler of a tetrarchy based in Abila. He was put to death by Marc Antony in 33 B.C. Obviously, this is long before our time frame. So, it is likely that the Lysanias in Luke’s gospel is a son or grandson of this first Lysanias.
“during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” This is where Luke may be a bit off. Caiaphas was high priest 18-37 A.D. Annas was high priest 6-15 A.D. We’re good with Caiaphas, but Annas was deposed in 15 A.D. Try as one may, any historian can miss a date or two. If we leave out Annas, and put in all the other dates, we have John around 29 A.D.
Luke’s narrative structure links John and Jesus:
- 1:1-24 = Annunciation of John
- 1:25-56 = Annunciation of Jesus
- 1:57-80 = Birth of John
- 2:1-52 = Birth of Jesus
- 3:1-20 = Ministry of John
- 3:21-34:53 = Ministry of Jesus
John went into the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was unauthorized forgiveness. Forgiveness was the business of the priests in the temple, with animal sacrifices. John was not in Jerusalem, he was out in the wilderness, preaching his unauthorized baptismal forgiveness.
Luke ties John to The Voice in the prophet Isaiah. Prepare the way of the Lord. Level the mountains and valleys, making rough places plain, and the crooked straight. Isaiah was talking about a return from exile in Babylon. Luke’s John the Baptist is talking about a return to the true Israel, from the exile of sin. John’s critique of the religious establishment causes friction. His critique of Herod’s marriage lands him in jail. Both ultimately cost him his life.
If we are to preach a message of repentance and forgiveness in a public place, what will it look like? If we level a critique against the religious establishment, who will it unsettle? If we call out injustice in the world and political corruption in the government, what will be the cost?
For the followers of Jesus, John the Baptist is God’s messenger, just as Malachi was God’s messenger 500 years earlier. John announces God’s coming in person of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s scathing critique of both Temple and Government (church and state) earn him the reward of many prophets: martyrdom.
What kind of reform do we need today? Can we not admit that our own religious structures are under the power of sin? As churches of the Reformation, can we not acknowledge that the church is always in need of reform, as the saying goes: Ecclesia semper reformanda: “the church is always to be reformed”, a phrase used by Karl Barth in 1947, deriving from a saying of St. Augustine? Are we not also called to expose the deeds of the government as well, as did Moses and the prophets, and many others?
The good news on this Sunday comes at the end of our text. The Word of God came to a very historical John, son of a very historical Zechariah. That John was called to be the Voice, preparing the way for the very historical Jesus. In preparing the way of the Lord, in making his paths straight, in leveling mountains and straightening what is crooked, all flesh, all flesh, shall see the salvation of God. It is not that we are so awesome at this proclamation. It is that the proclamation itself has power. John brings us from sin to salvation.
The list of rulers at the beginning of Luke 3 is not incidental. It is intentional. The gospel of Jesus, whose reign is not of this world, will require a reordering of our concepts of power.
As Mary sang, the rich and powerful will be pulled down and the weak and lowly will be lifted up – a leveling of the mountains – a leveling of the playing field. This doesn’t always sound like good news for some, but it is good news. It is hope for the world, which is filled with hungry and oppressed people, longing for the justice of God. Salvation is not pie in the sky when you die. It is a real, historical, incarnate reality.