What a boring way to start the text! "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 Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John." Doesn't that make you want to yawn? Who in the world are these people? Some you recognize like Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas but who is Lysanias and where is Iturea? What do these have to do with Advent?
I could bore you further, as I do in the Luke Bible class, and tell you the who and what of all these people, but that information won't show you what a comforting thing Luke is saying here. What if I said to you in the eighth year of the presidency of Bill Clinton, when violence threatened American lives in the Middle East, during the upheaval of the 2000 presidential election, when prominent minsters in the mainline churches were denying major Biblical doctrines and promoting every decadence imaginable, the word of the Lord came? Do you see how that rivets your attention? Do you see how comforting that is? The Word of the Lord comes to a lost, decadent, topsy-turvy world. The Word of the Lord speaks to our here and now.
That is Luke's point as he begins telling how the Word of the Lord came to John in the desert and John lifted up his lone voice. The world John's voice sounded forth in was every bit as troubled, if not more so, than ours. Read the Annals of Tacitus and you will be astounded at how many people Tiberius Caesar intimidated into committing suicide. Read Dr. Paul Maier's book Pontius Pilate and see how ruthlessly Pilate oppressed the Jews on behalf of the Roman Empire. Read Josephus and see that our presidential election is noble and upright compared to the intrigue that went into Herod and his brothers coming to power. And if you think the errors and immorality of the present church are disgusting, read Jeremias, and you will see that the church of John's day under Annas and Caiaphas was every bit as bankrupt.
And still God's voice through the prophet John sounded forth. But what can one voice do? Wouldn't it have been better for John to have lit one candle rather than to preach about the Light? You're forgetting two things. How long God had been silent and how powerful the voice of God is.
Prior to John lifting up his voice in the desert God had been silent for 400 hundred years. The Word of the Lord had last come to Malachi about 400 years before this, and then nothing. God didn't say a Word as His Church was defeated and oppressed by one nation after another. God didn't say a Word as political maneuvering and payoffs ruled the day rather than justice. God didn't say a word as His Church was corrupted and dirtied by false teachers in sheep's clothing. Through all the injustices, all the oppression, all the suffering that His Church endured, God remained silent.
Then at long last God spoke; the Word of the Lord came to John. The voice of God sounded forth through one lone man. But don't judge the voice by the man. Psalm 29 tells us, "The voice of the Lord is powerful. The voice of the Lord is majestic." Psalm 29 goes on to say that the voice of the Lord breaks trees, makes nations skip, sends forth lightening, shakes the wilderness, and levels forests. The voice of the Lord is like the voice of the first Sergeant Major I had in the Army. Although he always called me "Sir" or "Lieutenant," he spoke with such command and authority that I heard him in my stomach and my legs responded appropriately.
The God spoke. And what did He say? He said, "Jehovah is coming." Yes, the God whom walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening was coming down to earth. The God who spoke with Moses on Sinai was coming into space and time. The God who dwelled in a cloudy presence in the holy of holies unseen by all was about to be seen by all in flesh and blood. The God who had stood silently by as His Church was oppressed, depressed, and repressed was going to come into this world where evil men rule and prosper on the backs of the poor and downtrodden.
When kings in those days traveled, they sent out heralds in front of them to prepare the way. Everything had to be just right when the king arrived. Of course, preparing for God to come was a much bigger thing. It involved preparation on the order of straightening out crooked roads, filling in valleys, and making mountains flat. In these days of earth movers, bull dozers and dynamite, that might not sound like such a big deal. But to those who heard John that would have been impossible. And that was the point. Preparing for God to come is impossible. It's not a matter of decorating a tree with lights, buying presents, or cooking special food. It's a matter of cleansing people filthy with sins and making alive those dead in sins.
That's impossible for us. We're like children who try to clean up a messy spill with a dirty cloth. We can only make it worse. We're like children before their first dead bird. We can sit it up, make it look alive, but it's still stone cold dead. Thankfully, therefore although God's voice through John did command "Prepare the way for Jehovah," it then spoke in passives. The valleys will be filled in. The mountains will be made low. The crooked roads shall become straight. The preparation is not done by them, but by God.
And how did God prepare people for His coming in flesh and blood? Repentance? Was that all that was needed? Did they just need to feel bad? Do children solve the mess they made by being sorry? Don't we often say to them, "Sorry isn't good enough?" Is the dead bird helped by feeling bad that you killed it? Something much more radical is needed than repentance if dirty sinners are going to be made clean and dead sinners are going to be made alive. That something else is God's power of forgiveness, God's power to make the dead live.
How was this awesome power of God to get to helpless, dead sinners? Baptism. John preached baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and where there is forgiveness of sins, sinners are also made alive and saved. The powerful voice of God which can break tress and make nations jump pointed sinners to plain, ordinary looking water because in the waters of Baptism the voice of God speaks forgiveness and life for the sake of Jesus.
Sinners are to prepare for Jehovah not by being good or better but by being baptized. Baptism is the answer to their sins. Baptism makes the crooked straight, the rough smooth, the valleys full and the mountains low. But this preparation, this salvation is not just for God's people. God's voice declared that "all mankind will see God's salvation." Jehovah was coming into flesh and blood, coming into the political, religious, and moral chaos of the world not just for some but for all. He wasn't just coming to deliver His people but all mankind. He was coming to bear the sins of the world. He was coming to suffer for the whole world of sinners. Jehovah was coming to bleed, cry and die for all people. That's what the voice of God declared after 4 centuries of silence.
But guess what? The voice of God hasn't shut-up now in these politically, religiously and morally disturbed times. It still speaks today as it has for the last 1,600 years. The Book of Hebrews says the blood of Jesus speaks (present tense) better than the blood of Abel. Abel's blood in the Book of Genesis cried for vengeance. The blood of Jesus still speaks today not for vengeance but for pardon. The blood of Jesus that you have been sprinkled with in your Baptisms cries to heaven for your forgiveness. The Blood of Jesus which is applied to you in the Absolution cries for your pardon. The Blood of Jesus which He places here on earth right now for your drinking cries to heaven for God to turn His wrath away from you. Even in these times when decadent lust is only a billboard away and idolatrous greed only a commercial away, the blood of Christ speaks louder than your lustful greedy hearts.
The Word of God has been made flesh and He is still speaking today. He speaks of your redemption not of your judgement. Jehovah in flesh and blood knows how to do what is impossible to us. He knows, according to 2 Peter, "how to rescue the godly from temptation and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment." Your Lord is not unaware of how political and religious leaders in our day ignore justice, truth, and morality. They will not escape judgment for such things, but while He speaks judgment to them, He is speaking redemption to you. You will not be swept away by the wrath of God that is coming upon the sons of disobedience. The voice of God in flesh and blood will deliver you.
The voice of God still speaks today, and it speaks a word of life and hope even now, even today. There are all sorts of things threatening the life of God's people today. There are more diseases than any doctor could know about. There are criminals, accidents, and natural disasters. Even if these don't get us, we know that old age itself will decay us to dust. In the face of all these deadly things, God's Word, God's Son, Jehovah in flesh and blood still speaks a word of life to you. "You will not die," it says, "I have taken away your sins."
Yes, yes, the voice of God speaks life to baptized sinners. Although the monitors you be hooked up to, speak of death, God's Word speaks louder. Although your aches and pains, your hair color and hairline speak of death, God speaks in your Baptism of you being born again, of you being a new creation that cannot die. Although mortality rates and actuarial tables speak of how long each of us have to live, God doesn't listen to them. Nor does He listen to genetic science or family history. God listens to His Son who says in your Baptism, "I have called them by name they are mine. Joined to me in Baptism, they can no more die than I can."
In a world preaching death to us, the voice of God speaks of life and that everlasting. In a world that preaches hopelessness, the voice of God speaks of hope. God's people have never been at the mercy of political or religious leaders. They have never been at the mercy of moral decadence and decay. They have always been at the mercy of God who speaks of hope. When John spoke to the world ruled by wicked Tiberus, cruel Pilate, decadent Herod, and faithless Annas and Caiaphas, he didn't say they could be hopeful because Tiberus, Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiahpas might change. No John's message to them and mine to you is that you can hope in God. Yes, though the world is wicked and though your sins would dash your hopes, you can hope because God really reigns over the world and God deals with you in the forgiveness His Son has won.
What can one voice really do? Nothing if it speaks of politics, moral improvement, or religious zeal. But if that voice speaks of God in Christ and what He has done and will do, the sky is the limit. Actually heaven is. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent II (12-10-00) Luke 3: 1-6