When Luke wrote his gospel he wanted to make sure that people knew that he was talking about real persons who appeared in history so he began the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1-6) with historical references, to anchor his story in time.
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…
Tiberius Caesar Augustus reigned from 14 to 37 CE. The fifteenth year of his reign would have been 29 CE. Pilate was governor of Judea from 26-36 CE. Herod reigned until 39 CE. *
Luke’s historical references remind us of the opening words of his second chapter, about Jesus’ birth,: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) It is clear that Luke intended that Jesus be seen and understood in a real, not a mythical, context, so he situated them in the political era.
The gospel for the second Sunday of Advent continues, …the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. We may think of the word of God as a voice that John heard or a dream that was clear, but it is also possible that the word of God was a strong sense of a call, a vocation, a sense of ‘spiritual gravity’ pulling at him in a new direction.
John’s call came to him while he was already in the wilderness. It was a remote place that could include shrubs with wild fruits, berries, nuts and streams that could sustain life. Judea has a number of such places, some distance from settlements but accessible. John had already sought out such a place to live when the word of God came to him.
(The readings for Advent this year do not include Luke’s full expansion of the content of the call, but, in the next beyond the passage that we read this Sunday, John expanded his response to some who thought that he might be the Messiah, by saying that his call was to announce … one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 2:16-18) John’s call was to be a prophet and announce the advent of someone who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.)
The gospel for Sunday resumes, He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘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 people will see God’s salvation.’” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
Even though we may recognize the phrase, there is something a bit odd about preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John had to preach about baptism because it was not at that time a ritual of initiation, as it is today. For Jews, especially males, circumcision was the rite of initiation.
While ritual washing was part of Jewish history (Exodus 19:10-14, 29:4 and 17 ) and law, (Exodus 30:20-21 and 40:12 and extensively in Leviticus) John’s preaching of baptism was something new. The word baptism appears only in the New Testament. John was creating a new concept.
In particular, his baptism focused on repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is a modern translation of the Greek word for ‘turning around’ or ‘changing one’s outlook’. While he urged people to reject their sins, he intended the change of outlook to be future-oriented and an affirmation of God’s love in one’s life. John did not preach regret, guilt and shame. Instead he urged people to turn their lives towards God.
Moreover, where ritual washing was something that one did for oneself, in response to contact with some form of impurity, John would perform the baptism as a public ritual… less as a repudiation of sin and more as a building up of the community in its alignment with God’s will. As such the community needed to be part of witnessing the pledge of a new way of behaving.
Beyond removing external impurities, John’s baptism included the whole person, not just the visible parts of hands, face, feet or clothing. His baptism was to mark a change in the way of living.
Luke tied John’s preaching to Isaiah, popularly called “the prophet of hope” for the promise of salvation. The most significant line in the quote from Isaiah is the last one: And all people will see God’s salvation.
In its historical context Isaiah 40:3-5 referred to the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon and the restoration of Israel: liberation of the whole community. It was a statement about the reassertion of the rule of God. Luke appropriated this passage (as did Matt 3:3 and Mark 1:3) as referring to the imminent arrival of the person who would be seen as the anointed one.
The issue with salvation is that people invested the word with their own ideas about what it meant. For some it was political freedom from the Romans. For others it was a personal spiritual afterlife. As Jesus would teach, it was freedom from sin, a capacity to worship God without fear (Luke 1:74) and a way of compassionate, caring behaviour towards others. It was simultaneously personal and communal. It was also an existential experience of peace, power and joy. (Rom 1:16) Something would happen to men and women that caused them to perceive their lives in a new and radically altered way. And this salvation would be available to all people, not just Jews.
That salvation would soon become personified and recognized, by some at least, as Jesus.