“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 Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene–during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'” (Luke 3: 1-6)
The setting of this passage of Scripture helps us comprehend the concept of repentance. Repentance has its roots in a nomadic culture and was not originally a religious term. It means to turn around, and was used when one was going the wrong way in the desert. This passage of Scripture tells us that repentance begins in the desert, but before the desert, Luke takes us through the power centers of the day. He does that to demonstrate how God’s word comes to us not in our accomplishments and successes, but at the very humble core of our humanity, the place of our genuine selves underneath any pride that may inhibit God’s message of love.
The passage begins with a time frame, the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius, which would be about 27 A.D. This was a year when speaking Koine Greek was not only most common, it unified the commerce and trade across the Roman empire. It was a time of peace, and the cultural and military might of Rome ruled the day.
In your mind’s eye, if you place yourself where Luke begins this setting, you would be in Rome, in the grand palace. You might hear calm music being played, see the strikingly beautiful sculptures, and watch dignified Roman citizens strolling through the very sophisticated center of the world on polished marble floors. It was an impressive place and time in the history of the world. The setting then moves over to the governors of Rome ruling their regions in the Holy Land. You might hear the measured sound of troops marching in the distance keeping the peace. Then Luke mentions Judea and Gallilee, and then a faith by listing the religious leaders Annas the high priest and the high priest emeritus his father-in-law Caiphas. We have moved very quickly from the power center of the world downward in descending order of geo-political importance. Then as if we were in a helicopter zooming south, we travel across the land to the desert, the wilderness, a dry, barren place.
Luke says the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert—not in the imperial palace of Caesar, or in the governors’ courts, or even in the religious counsels of Jerusalem, but in the very humble desert. What a striking contrast!
God’s word broke a period of 400 years without prophecy- four centuries of silence from God. John the Baptist quoted the prophet Isaiah when he strongly urged everyone to “prepare the way.”
During Advent John challenges us to prepare the way with repentance. Some may feel that this message does not fit in with our Christmas preparation, but in fact it does. Some feel as if John interrupts our Christmas carols with “repent, repent!” but it is not an interruption, it is an invitation to consider preparing ourselves spiritually as we prepare our material schedules, décor, and presents.
In order to view John as a welcomed guest and his message as fitting, we must realize that a way needs to be prepared. It is very easy to fall into the misguided notion that there is nothing that needs to be done spiritually as we near Christmas. Yet there are many potholes that need to be filled, mountains of insensitivity that need to be leveled, and crooked ways that need to be made straight. When we understand that progress needs to be made, freedom finds us.
In the 18 century the Prussian King Frederick II visited his Berlin prison. As he toured the prisoners proclaimed their innocence, all except for one who stayed silent in a corner. “What’s your story?” the King asked. “I’m guilty, King, of armed robbery,” the prisoner answered. The King turned to the jailor and ordered, “Free this guilty man before he corrupts all these innocent people!”
We find our freedom when we admit that we have a lot of work to do on our spiritual path. I don’t know if you have seen the bumper sticker that says, “Real men don’t ask directions,” but there is reluctance in our society to ask directions, especially spiritual direction.
The people who came to hear John in the desert may have expected to hear his directions for overthrowing Rome. He could have mobilized them into a rebellion, but instead he addressed their behavior. John wanted them to prepare for a spiritual, not a physical kingdom.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” he told them. He wanted them to look at their lives and be turned around with a new map, new bearings, and a new destination. This is great news! The Scripture is not saying that if we repent then God will love us, as if we earn God’s love through repentance. Rather, we repent because God loves us and we respond with thanksgiving. We respond by realigning our lives for God’s spiritual kingdom.
“How do we do that?” the people asked John. He answered them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same” (Lk. 3:8,10,11). John also challenged them to be honest in dealing with others. Repentance was a life orientation, not a onetime thing, but a new way to live life.
Paul answers our inquiries about how to live a repentant life when he said we are:
To “give encouragement and keep strengthening one another”
To “be at peace among yourselves”
To “give courage to those who are apprehensive”
To “care for the weak”
To “be patient with everyone”
To “make sure that people do not try to take revenge”
To “think of what is best for each other and for the community” (2
These instructions tell us how to prepare the way for the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ. John says that the one who is coming after him comes with a winnowing fork in his hand, baptizing with fire. Yes, Jesus sifts our lives separating the good and the bad. When we read the story of the life of Jesus, we are convicted by God’s truth. The good is saved and the bad is burned away. In the season of Advent we face many opportunities to let these good things “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We face choices in which we can choose to prepare the way for a spiritual kingdom. Let us learn to consider how we can prepare our spirits for God.
Henry Martin, an Oxford University student who excelled in his studies of math and science, faced a decision that was highly criticized by his professors. He had learned and become fluent in Persian, Hindustani and Arabic as a way to relax in his spare time. He chose to go to India to serve as a missionary instead of allowing his science and mathematic academic distinctions to open more lucrative career opportunities. A professor publicly challenged him, “Henry, the whole world lies before you. Don’t throw it away!” Henry turned to the professor and responded, “Which world are you speaking of, sir?”
This Advent season, as we adorn our world with Christmas decorations, let us prepare the way for a spiritual world as well. It is a positive message that tells us to turn our lives around. Remember that the word of God does not come to you in your place of power. Instead, God’s word comes in the quiet, silent, dry desert….your genuine, good self, before any titles or distinctions, any accomplishments or achievements, any failures or disappointments…you that God loves for who you are calls you home back to your true self. God wants to realign your life toward the spiritual kingdom. There is a voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way!” Amen.