[T]he word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.Luke 3:2b-3
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
With these words, Luke introduces John the Baptist. The message? Repent! Matthew (3:2), Mark (1:4), and John (1:23), all affirm this was Jesus’ cousin’s calling and ministry.
In fact, Jesus Himself begins His public preaching ministry with precisely the same message as recorded by two of the evangelists (see Mt 4:17 and Mk 1:14), while Luke is not specific about Jesus’ initial message (4:15), and John, I would argue, conveys the same message more through Jesus’ first actions than His words (2:13-16).
It seems to me that the biggest problem today is that this message is lost on vast swaths of the public, as it was on many of the Jewish religious leaders of the Baptist’s day (see Mt 3:7-10), because nobody calls it sin anymore. What is there to repent for? Actually, even more concerning, is that the poles have been reversed in modern society. Isaiah saw this over 2,500 years ago:
Ah! Those who call evil good, and good evil,
who change darkness to light, and light into darkness,
who change bitter to sweet, and sweet into bitter!Is 5:20
And we see the effects, as did Isaiah:
Their root shall rot
and their blossom scatter like dust;
For they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts,
and scorned the word of the Holy One of Israel.Is 5:24b
And the final result:
Therefore the wrath of the LORD blazes against his people,
he stretches out his hand to strike them;
The mountains quake,
their corpses shall be like refuse in the streets.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched.Is 5:25
An age old problem about which we should not be surprised. It will get worse. But God is in charge and will render a just judgment in time and in eternity.
Through all this, our challenge is to maintain the joy the psalmist has in today’s Responsorial:
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.Ps 126:3
How to do this? Paul — in prison mind you — encourages this prayer today to the Philippians (and to us):
[T]hat your love may increase ever more and morePhil 1:9-11
in knowledge and every kind of perception,
to discern what is of value,
so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ
for the glory and praise of God.
Yes, “pure and blameless” is how we must face our “judges” on earth, without counting the cost, and our true judge when we meet Him when we are released from this mortal coil.
LUKE THE HISTORIAN (AND JESUS HISTORICAL)
I have long been fascinated by the dating of biblical events, most especially when Jesus lived. And He did live. Both videos make the point, particularly Bp. Barron, that there is no question Jesus is a real historical figure, and this is most explicit in Luke who specifies almost to the year the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (through John the Baptist) in today’s Gospel:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,Lk 3:1-2
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
So, I went to my trusty commentaries and found this breakdown in the Luke volume of the great “Opening the Scriptures” series by George Martin:
- Tiberius Caesar’s reign began, according to most scholars, in A.D. 14, so the year is 28 or 29
- Pontius Pilate was governor from the years 26 to 36
- Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39
- Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis from 4 B.C. to A.D. 34
- Lysanias was tetrarch o Lysanias and Abilene in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign
- Annas was high priest from A.D. 6 to 15 but retained that honorary title ongoing
- Caiaphas was high priest from 18 until 36
It all lines up very neatly — Luke was true to his word when he says at the beginning of his Gospel that he investigated “everything accurately anew” (1:3). And since we know, from Luke again, that “[w]hen Jesus began his ministry he was about thirty years of age” (3:23), our calendar on the wall, when it tells us the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) is pretty accurate. I have seen date ranges for the birth of Jesus anywhere from 10 B.C. to 1 B.C. but 4 and 1 seem to be the most likely candidates.
JOHN AND THE WORD
A brief last note on something I only picked up on today that appears as the last words of the excerpt with which I just dealt: “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (Lk 3:2b).
We know from the beginning of John’s Gospel that Jesus is the Word of God. Interestingly, John the Evangelist intersperses the John the Baptist story with the theological explanation of Jesus’ origins and the role attributed to Him (Jn 1:1-18). That may say something about my next observation.
That is, what if “the word of God” coming to John “in the desert” was Jesus Himself in the flesh? Jesus was certainly not immune from having His own desert experience (see Mt 4:1-11), although likely after John had already been in the public eye for a while. But why might He not have approached John at that earlier event? They were relatives after all. They first met in their respective wombs. And it seems unlikely to me that they would have never met afterward. But even if they did not have a personal encounter again before their respective public ministries, I would think Elizabeth would have relayed something of this first encounter to John, as Mary likely would have to Jesus (certainly the possibility exists that John’s parents kept silent, died soon after his birth, or sent him of to the Essene community at a young age). Additionally, John’s mission was clear to his father (see Lk 1:76-77) and to Jesus (see Mt 11:7-19).
Now, it might seem from later events in Scripture that John was unclear on Jesus’ identity and mission (although this is disputed, but see Jn 1:31, 33 and Mt 11:2-3 for starters). I do think it could be worked out, though, that Jesus and John still had this desert encounter.
I wish I had more time to get into it now, but it is food for thought, contemplation, and further study.
Week two of Barron and Hahn and Bergsma.
I mentioned last week that as part of my Advent reading, I would be working through the first volume of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. What a treasure! Not the first book on the Lord I would give to the newbie (that would be Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ), but for anyone who loves Jesus, it is a magnificent way to enhance your knowledge of and deepen your love for the Messiah. The pope emeritus’s textual, historical, and spiritual insights are the exceptional work of a man who has been intimate with his subject over a long life.