One Calling in the Wilderness
Advent 2 Year C
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Luke 3: 1 — 6
Our Gospel reading is presented in the Liturgy at this time of the Church Year to emphasise that it calls God’s people to meditate on two great advents, two important occasions when we pray about the coming of the Messiah. The first of course is our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem. A little less understood is the call to prepare and be ready always for the coming of the Lord at the end of time. (See verse 4.)
The same prophecies which point to the Lord’s human birth also point beyond to fulfilment yet to be achieved. We cannot afford to forget that we are in that stream of events between Bethlehem and the final coming in glory.
St. Luke has spent two chapters placing the historic event of our Lord’s birth in the spiritual context of Israel’s heritage. Now he prepares the ground to place Jesus’ mission in the context of Jewish prophecy.The first step in this process is to introduce St. John the Baptist as the one who will “prepare the way of the Lord”.
Our reading from chapter 3 therefore has very real significance for us and how we are to present it to others in sharing the Gospel message!
Reflections on Our Text
Verses 1 and 2
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, 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.
These verses are one amazing sentence. We are told exactly when the event mentioned occurred, what happened, who it happened to and in what place.
Observe the six-fold specification of the time; it could not be more specific. With our several corrections to the calendar over two millennia we can at least calculate that it was between CE 27 and 29, and Jesus was in his very early thirties.
We note that it was not St. John the Baptist who deduced it was time for him to make his bold proclamation. “The Word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert.”
John had been waiting upon God for 30 years for his call. No prophet had been heard for 400 years since Malachi. But, like Amos, John had been trained and prepared over a long period of time in the wilderness.
Several Jewish sects were located in the valley, the most memorable being the famous monastic community at Qumran where the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were re-discovered.
Qumran is only a few miles from the scene of our Gospel reading. Most scholars today consider that John would have had very close contact at times with the flourishing and impressive Community of Qumran. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem we can still read from the very same Scrolls used at the time of John’s preaching; including Isaiah, from which John quotes in this reading.
Where does the word of God come to John? In the desert wilderness, a place inhabited only by those choosing a habitat close to nature. We know John from his youth was called to a life of disciplined listening to the very essence of God’s Word in the Scriptures. As in the life of Amos the prophet, he was trained to seek God above all else. He was impatient with the glitter of artificial joy, and angered by sham religion and externalism. He sought only to hear the voice of the Promised One. Note his attention to inner listening, a distinguishing feature of Hebraic Biblical Spirituality.
The Word came to John far from the political and religious centres of power — in the wilderness region where Jesus was later led out to confront the power of evil (1: 80). This is extremely significant both in reflecting on John’s ministry, and that of the Church in today’s world. It commands our attention.
He went throughout (the) whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
And what was John the Baptist’s response to the “Word of God”? His response was to do the unthinkable for which many never forgave him neither then, nor ever since. Instead of calling on the pagan people around them to convert, he dared to call his own people to repentance for their personal sin! (We need to understand that this was seen by some as outrageous, even satanic.) But let’s be realistic, in our own day we easily fall into the trap of cursing the proliferation of godlessness before we consider what we have done to bring it on!
Like all who listen intently, he proclaims with similar intensity (a basic principle of evangelisation), the need for repentance and baptism for forgiveness. This was to be for all, not just those converting to Judaism as a condition of entry in to that faith.
We should observe that baptism in this way was not orthodox Jewish custom, but was modelled on the practices of the Qumran community. Although not a member, John was clearly associated with them. Indeed the Apostle John (as with some other disciples) shows in his writing his close associations with Qumran. From this experience he inherited a profound respect for the Living Torah — the Word of God given to be a light for all humanity. In Rabbinic teaching, Torah existed in heaven before creation. When all was ready, God gave the Holy Torah (Holy Scriptures, the Sacred Teaching). In St. John’s Gospel, chapter one, the Apostle reflects a similar mystery when he records — “and the Word became flesh”. This digression underscores an important element in the mission of St John the Baptist. He was not some bizarre, momentary figure who came “out of the blue”. He represents the quintessence of Judaic culture and religious practice. His way of life, its rigorous discipline and complete, selfless commitment to a consecrated life became a source of inspiration to many of the early Christians. In some respects they perpetuated a Christian form of St. John’s O.T. consecration which continues to exist today throughout the world in various forms.
Returning to our focus on verse 3, recall that the Gospels always emphasise the need of interior renewal as a condition of forgiveness. When John talks of repentance, the term always implies a change in mind of the person who has begun to despise their past attitudes and actions and chooses to turn away from them. So there is a turning from sin and a returning to God. This involves, in some form or other, sorrow for sin committed, confession of guilt, and a firm purpose of amendment. (Recall the Prodigal Son.)
For John the Baptist (as indeed for our Lord) forgiveness was therefore never just a magical formula spoken by God. We have to take care we do not unconsciously slip into this way of thinking.
Recall, John offended some of the religious leaders by calling for repentance rather than revolt! He called for a deliberate turning from personal sin to God. So, sin is not just a failure to reach one’s potential. Sin separates us from God. Sin requires repentance. John called a spade, a spade (and of course later paid the price with his execution).
Verses 4 and 5
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one crying out 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 roads shall be made straight, and
the rough ways made smooth,
Quoting Isaiah 40: 3 — 5, (the Greek Septuagint translation), John calls on us to make it a top priority to clear away obstacles and sort out our priorities, for the Lord to have full access into our lives. We are not called just to let it happen to us, but assertively to, “prepare the way of the Lord”.
All flesh shall see the salvation of God’.”
Jesus Christ is our salvation and every person who seeks Him shall find Him and, insofar as we are permitted, see Him. The day is coming, of course, when all humanity will see Him when He returns, whether they want to or not! Those who have been preparing the way will be pleased at His coming, and rejoice.
St. John the Baptist does not call us to accuse others of all the faults we see in them. Even less does he call us to rise up against evil oppressors and other ungodly forces confronting us. No, he highlights only one requirement: sort out your own act before heaping guilt on others. The enemy to be conquered is sin, and we don’t have to look past ourselves to find enough of that!
“It is time now,” says John, “to confess the sin in our lives, and let it be washed away — that we may be able to welcome the One who brings the love and mercy of God”.
His call remains as loud and clear today as it was two millennia ago. He was a great man of God to whom we owe so very much.
This passage is one of the great foundation sources for a study of meditation and the spiritual life in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. John epitomises the one who gives up all, in response to the Holy Spirit’s call to consecrated service. He ponders the Holy Scriptures which command him to meditate on God’s Word and listen to His voice. At God’s beckoning he proclaims with great power what we need to hear and, in fact, to hear frequently and put into action:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.”
No wonder people went out from all the towns to listen!
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“Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature”
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in
One Calling in the Wilderness
Advent 2 Year C St. Luke 3: 1 — 6
1. St. John the Baptist prepared long and hard in a place far removed from the business of life at the time. Our Lord lived in the towns but went out frequently to a solitary place for prayer. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage calls us to establish some simple rhythm of daily life with times and places for withdrawal in accordance with our own circumstances.
2. St. John quickly became known for calling the people to repentance: to accept that they needed to repent and to have the humility to do it. This came to be a cornerstone of our Lord’s message as well. The Church encourages us to recall our failings daily, and to seek God’s forgiveness before we retire at night.
3. Each follower of Jesus, down through the ages is called to clear away obstacles to God in our lives and to make the Teaching of Jesus our chief priority. The continued existence, let alone the growth, of Christianity will depend largely on this simple, homely and intensely personal witness.
Let us pray for one another to respond to John the Baptist’s call, and grow in spiritual stamina and robustness.
Luke 3: 1 ― 6
Advent 2 Year C
1 1 2 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when
2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 3 the word
3 4 He went throughout (the) whole region of the Jordan,
4 5 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
5 Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
1 [1-20] Although Luke is indebted in this section to his sources, the Gospel of Mark and a collection of sayings of John the Baptist, he has clearly marked this introduction to the ministry of Jesus with his own individual style. Just as the gospel began with a long periodic sentence (⇒ Luke 1:1-4), so too this section (⇒ Luke 3:1-2). He casts the call of John the Baptist in the form of an Old Testament prophetic call (⇒ Luke 3:2) and extends the quotation from Isaiah found in ⇒ Mark 1:3 (⇒ Isaiah 40:3) by the addition of ⇒ Isaiah 40:4-5 in ⇒ Luke 3:5-6. In doing so, he presents his theme of the universality of salvation, which he has announced earlier in the words of Simeon (⇒ Luke 2:30-32). Moreover, in describing the expectation of the people (⇒ Luke 3:15), Luke is characterizing the time of John’s preaching in the same way as he had earlier described the situation of other devout Israelites in the infancy narrative (⇒ Luke 2:25-26, ⇒ 37-38). In ⇒ Luke 3:7-18 Luke presents the preaching of John the Baptist who urges the crowds to reform in view of the coming wrath (⇒ Luke 3:7, 9: eschatological preaching), and who offers the crowds certain standards for reforming social conduct (⇒ Luke 3:10-14: ethical preaching), and who announces to the crowds the coming of one mightier than he (⇒ Luke 3:15-18: messianic preaching).
2  Tiberius Caesar: Tiberius succeeded Augustus as emperor in A.D. 14 and reigned until A.D. 37. The fifteenth year of his reign, depending on the method of calculating his first regnal year, would have fallen between A.D. 27 and 29. Pontius Pilate: prefect of Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. The Jewish historian Josephus describes him as a greedy and ruthless prefect who had little regard for the local Jewish population and their religious practices (see ⇒ Luke 13:1). Herod: i.e., Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. He ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. His official title tetrarch means literally, “ruler of a quarter,” but came to designate any subordinate prince. Philip: also a son of Herod the Great, tetrarch of the territory to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 34. Only two small areas of this territory are mentioned by Luke. Lysanias: nothing is known about this Lysanias who is said here to have been tetrarch of Abilene, a territory northwest of Damascus.
3  During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas: after situating the call of John the Baptist in terms of the civil rulers of the period, Luke now mentions the religious leadership of Palestine (see the note on ⇒ Luke 1:5). Annas had been high priest A.D. 6-15. After being deposed by the Romans in A.D. 15 he was succeeded by various members of his family and eventually by his son-in-law, Caiaphas, who was high priest A.D. 18-36. Luke refers to Annas as high priest at this time (but see ⇒ John 18:13, ⇒ 19), possibly because of the continuing influence of Annas or because the title continued to be used for the ex-high priest. The word of God came to John: Luke is alone among the New Testament writers in associating the preaching of John with a call from God. Luke is thereby identifying John with the prophets whose ministries began with similar calls. In ⇒ Luke 7:26 John will be described as “more than a prophet”; he is also the precursor of Jesus (⇒ Luke 7:27), a transitional figure inaugurating the period of the fulfillment of prophecy and promise.
4  See the note on ⇒ Matthew 3:2.
5  The Essenes from Qumran used the same passage to explain why their community was in the desert studying and observing the law and the prophets (1QS 8:12-15).
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised