A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The first week of Advent, we began at the end. The second week of Advent this year, we begin at the beginning, or one of the beginnings– not at the beginning of Christ’s earthly life but at the beginning of His public ministry. The forerunner, the greatest man born of woman, comes first to prepare the way.
The Evangelist sets the stage for us. Tiberius Caesar is king. The people of Galilee and Judea wouldn’t have spoken his name without horror and revulsion, for he was their conqueror. They were awaiting the Messiah who would save them from his tyranny. Three years from now, a mob of some of those people will scream “We have no King but Caesar,” because Christ isn’t the Messiah they have in mind. But many others from Judea and Galilee will recognize Him and follow Him. Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea. He is the one who will wash his hands of blood guilt and hand Jesus over to the mob that suddenly doesn’t mind being ruled by Tiberius Caesar, if this is the alternative. But he’ll never be able to live down the culpability anyway.
Herod is tetrarch of Galilee. This isn’t the Herod who tried to have Jesus murdered when Jesus was an infant; this is Herod’s son. Holy Saint Joseph took his wife and child to Nazareth after they got back from hiding in Egypt, to avoid detection by Herod, but in the end it won’t work. In the end, Herod will play a part in having Jesus murdered after all– but Jesus will still win. Herod’s brother Philip is also tetrarch. Herod will eventually take Philip’s wife for his own bride, and John the Baptist will tell him he mustn’t. That’s what will get John arrested. The daughter of the wife Philip and Herod share will be the one who gets him killed once and for all. But that will not stop his message.
Annas and Caiaphas are high priests. They will decide that it is good that one Man should die for the sake of the whole people, and they will be right in a way. But it will not go at all the way they expected.
This is the backdrop against which John goes baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism isn’t a sacrament yet– Christ will establish that when He goes down into the water, to purify it for us and make it the means of our healing. Now it’s merely an outward sign of repentance, like sackcloth and ashes. Go down into the muddy and treacherous Jordan. Let the strange man clad in camel hair dunk you beneath the clay-brown waters, as a sign of your repentance.
And it still is.
We are still living in the days of John the Baptist. The Kingdom of Heaven is still at hand.
There have been many, many Caesars since Tiberius. That particular empire fell, but the world is still in the hands of Caesar. Caesar has had many names, but he’s always been king of this world. He’s the one you end up choosing for your king, when you choose someone other than the Lord. Your Caesar may look different from mine, but we each have at least one Caesar. If we’re honest, we may have dozens. A certain party or politician might well be our Caesar, but so could money, or your reputation, or your appetites, or currying favor with the right people. To you and I, the Baptist says “repent, prepare the way of the Lord.”
In this world that is firmly in the grasp of Caesar, there are many valleys yet to be filled, and many mountains yet to be made low. There are many winding roads to be made straight, and many rough ways to be made smooth. Some of these valleys are in you and some are in me– the low, dark places of which we are ashamed. We need to have the courage to lift them up to the Lord to prepare His way.
Some of these mountains are in you and some are in me– the places we exalt when we ought to be humble. We need to have the humility to bow them down, for the day when the Lord passes by.
Some of those winding roads are in you and some are in me– the habits and patterns we’ve knotted up inside ourselves until we can’t see the way out. We need to have the wisdom to ask the Lord to untie us and make us free, that we may follow when He comes.
Some of those rough ways are in you and some are in me– we have littered the Way of the Lord with debris of all kinds, obstacles and distractions that seem so necessary but are not. We need to have the perseverance to permit the Lord to clear them back out of the way as He comes to us, so we may walk with Him.
All flesh shall see the salvation of God. What they do then, is up to them. Whoever wants to be will be healed, exalted, lifted up from the Earth and drawn into the eternal Life of God. The way to be exalted is to go down to the muddy and treacherous Jordan. Let the strange man clad in camel hair dunk you beneath the clay-brown waters, as a sign of your repentance.
We began at the end, and now we have reached a beginning.
Repent, and prepare the way of the Lord.
(image via Pixabay)