The word of hope

Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) – Baruch 5:1-9; Phil 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6.

Luke begins the account of the ministry of John the Baptist with a list of strange names – what is he doing and why is he doing it and how does it relate to the splendour and integrity of a people lost in a foreign land?

In order to understand why Luke begins this account of the ministry of John, son of Zechariah, with all of those names – we need to do some background work. We need to go back to the first reading – from the prophet Baruch (the secretary of Jeremiah).

Baruch prophesied during the same period – the time of Exile. This was an utterly devastating period in the history of Israel. For us to make any sense of the readings today we need to first attempt to at least get into the mindset of what it would be like for the whole of your life – and of the whole of your country to be turned completely upside down and inside out. They were treated as slaves and they lost all of the land of the promise; the empire of Babylon had swept down upon them and completely destroyed their land, their city and their temple. All that Jerusalem stood for was destroyed and taken away from them when they were escorted under military guard from Jerusalem into exile. Everything that they had based their lives upon was gone. It is hard to appreciate how devastating this was for them.

It is important for us to hear and understand what is happening when the prophet addresses Jerusalem – still in ruins and destroyed. The word of the Lord is addressed to Jerusalem to ‘look to the east’ to see the work of God – to restore and renew this people, who will come from east and west to fulfill the promises of God. Even though Israel knew that the exile was a result of their failure to live the covenant; even though they knew everything had been taken away from them because of their sin and breaking the commandments, the word of the Lord was telling them that God had remained faithful to the covenant that was first made centuries before during the Exodus, when the Lord had addressed the whole nation (not just individuals like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses) and made covenant with them (Exodus 19). God will continue to bring his purposes to pass. So he will flatten the mountains and fill the valleys so that the way of the people would be made smooth and allow their free passage to fulfill his purposes.

The word of the Lord continued to be addressed to Israel to bring them back from their exile and to restore them to their land and to the temple. But as time passed, the prophetic word was no longer heard. The prophet Malachi was the last of the prophets, and he ministered around 460 years before the birth of Christ. So for generation upon generation people longed to hear the word of God again, to receive a fresh insight into the plan of God for his people.

So when the Gospel of Luke opens, it is almost 500 years since there has been any recorded word of prophecy. The expectation that the Lord will speak to his people must have been overwhelming. So when Luke begins this chapter with a list of who’s-who, it would have been even more jarring for the first hearers. The named individuals only serves to remind them of how far they have fallen as a people and community. They are under the oppression of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar (reigned 14-37 AD/CE); with his puppet governor Pontius Pilate (who reigned over Judea from 26-36 AD); then three of the four tetrarchs are named – the 2 sons of Herod the Great (Herod Antipas and Herod Philip II) and Lysanias. Finally, the current (Caiaphas, 18-36 AD) and former (Annas 6-15 AD) high priests are given. Even though Annas had left the office, he retained the title of high priest (cf. John 18:13,24). If there is an expectation that the ‘word of the Lord’ would come to someone, perhaps one of these ‘high and mighty’ individuals could be expected. Certainly you would expect that the Lord would address his people in a place of significance – like in the newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.

No, when the Lord chose to speak to someone after so many centuries, he addresses the word of God to a virtual nobody – to John, the son of Zechariah, out in the wilderness. That it was happening in the wilderness indicates that the great promises of Isaiah were beginning to be fulfilled in the ministry of John.

And what does John proclaim? That they (and we) need to undergo a baptism of repentance. So as we continue our journey through this season of Advent, we need to be mindful of this call of the Lord to prepare and be ready to receive his healing and cleansing word once again, so that we can be formed and prepared into the people that he longs for us to be, so that ‘all flesh will see the salvation of our God’.

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Recorded at Sacred Heart, 9.30am (10’34”)

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