As we move through the season of Advent, there can be so many themes and ideas thrown in our direction, it can be difficult to keep up.
There is the movement through the four Sundays, which is fairly consistent across the three-year-cycle of readings: Sunday 1 focusses on the ‘end times’; Sunday 2 and 3 on the person and ministry of John the Baptiser; and Sunday 4 on the birth of the Messiah. But we also have the themes which are sometimes captured by the prayers of the candles in the Advent Wreath of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Then there are the themes of promise and fulfillment found in the weekday readings.
Today the Gospel of Luke 3:1-6 takes us to a very specific point in human history – indicated by the reigns of the Roman Emperor, rulers of the different regions of Palestine/Canaan/Israel, and the High Priests serving in the Jerusalem temple – only to be led out into the wilderness where we encounter John. To understand why John found it necessary to leave Jerusalem to so his work we need to visit the setting of our first reading – Baruch 5:1-9. The so-called prophet Baruch is set during the early days of the Babylonian exile, but most likely it was written away from Jerusalem perhaps around 250 BCE. The nation of Israel always had a tenuous hold on the promised land. There was a brief period of unity under King David and his son Solomon, but that soon fractured into the northern 10 tribes splitting off into their own kingdom of Israel. The north stayed together in only the most fragile way, and their Jewish identity was always uncertain and unstable. When Assyria rose as an empire, the northern tribes quickly fell and essentially those 10 tribes were lost to history after 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah centred on Jerusalem was a little more successful, but it was not able to defend itself against the rise of the Babylonian kingdom and the city of Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed, along with the temple, in the year 586 BCE. The nation of Judah was either scattered, killed (many by starvation and acts of civil unrest) or taken into captivity as slaves in chains to Babylon. It is during this period of Exile in Babylon and after they returned that much of the story of the Jewish people was written/edited/compiled – as a minority report prepared by prophets and scribes of the defeated southern tribe. From around 530 BCE, the new empire of Persia defeated Babylon and under King Cyrus, the Jewish people were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple. Many chose to stay and make their homes in exile.
This theme of exile is crucial to understanding Jewish identity. There is a longing to return to their covenant purpose and identity. They long for peace – shalom (Hebrew or eirene in Greek). Shalom is not just the absence of conflict. It is a much richer idea meaning complete or whole; without fault. So a stone might be called shalom if it is suitable for building; a wall might be called shalom once it is finished. Nations after a conflict could only be described as being at shalom if they both lay down their weapons and cease the fighting, and begin to work together in cooperation. Sin is a major personal cause of our experience of being fractured and incomplete. The wilderness represents our desire to strip away elements that prevent us from coming home to ourselves and to God.