In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Ceasar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region and Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths, every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding road shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Why is Luke so specific about setting the historical context of the ministry of John the Baptist and, earlier, of Jesus’ birth (Lk 2:1-7)? The Evangelist wants it to be clear that the coming of the Messiah, the Incarnation of the Word made flesh, was a historical event. Jesus is no myth. Jesus is no legend. Jesus is no creation of someone’s imagination. No. Jesus is history. He was born into history as a historical person, and His birth, His life and ministry, and eventually His passion, death and resurrection were historic events, set at a particular place and time in history: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Ceasar …”
Luke sets the historical setting for when the word of God came to John in the desert. Many of the Old Testament works begin with the phrase, “The word of God came to …” (Ez 1:3, Hos 1:1, Mic 1:1, Zeph 1:1). John, then, is clearly a prophet, and the last before the coming of the Messiah. After receiving God’s word, John commenced to go throughout the region, preaching and practicing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptism was a baptism of water and was symbolic, demonstrating a desire on the part of the one baptized to transform his or her life toward following the will of God. It is a baptism in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah, the one Who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16).
John is the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord. A new age is dawning, where God will move His grace to make it possible for all to follow Him. Obstacles will be removed: valleys filled, mountains made low, paths set straight, and rocky roads smoothed. What is more, salvation will be open to all, not just the house of Israel. All flesh shall see the salvation of God! Everyone, every sinner, tax collector, prostitute, pharisee, the rich, the poor, fisherman, zealot, ruler and ruled will see God’s salvation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, His Word incarnate.
This season of Advent, may we allow God’s grace to smooth and straighten, fill and make low the obstacles in our own hearts to hearing the word of God that comes to us, especially the Word made flesh that will come to us this Christmas. This is what Advent is all about: preparing the way of the Lord!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.