How do you get ready for Christmas? Hectic shopping trips to the mall? Shuttling back and forth from school plays and church pageants? Sitting stiffly in starched shirts and choking neckties while choirs sing Handel’s Messiah? Many things we do to prepare for the coming of Christ bring more stress than peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
The Gospel of Luke 3:1-6 tells how John the Baptist prepared for the Savior’s coming. Luke was the most historically minded of the gospel writers, and he gives us chronological signposts such as: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar . . . Annas and Caiaphas being high priests” (3:1,2). From this we deduce when John came on the scene (ca. 29 CE) and get an idea of his times. Tiberius, the Roman emperor who came after the first emperor, Augustus, was living in semi-retirement while the wicked Praetorian Prefect Sejanus ran things in his absence. Under pagan rule even the high priests in Jerusalem were corrupt. These were bad times with bad government and bad religion. During these dark days John the Baptist came on the scene, proclaiming that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” though it hardly looked like it at the time.
God’s calling changed John from a hermit into a prophet. In contrast to the political and religious leaders at the center of power, the wild holy man lived quite literally on the borders of society. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all quote Isaiah to describe John’s mission: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (4). But unlike the other two evangelists, Luke extends the quote to include words familiar to most of us from Handel’s Messiah: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (5,6). The last bit exemplifies Luke’s emphasis on universal salvation—the preposterous idea that the Jewish messiah would also be the savior of the whole world. Even more preposterous was the notion that this universal savior would come out of a backwater of the Roman Empire like Palestine.
Not only did God change a hermit into a prophet, he makes hills into valleys and both crooked roads and crooked hearts become straight. Also sinners in the dry, barren desert enter the cleansing waters of baptism. Jews knew about baptism. When Gentiles wanted to convert to Judaism they would have to undergo proselyte baptism. John baptized Jews for the forgiveness of sins. Jews! Many years ago I inquired in a Brethren church about the possibility of joining their fellowship. They told me I would have to be baptized again because my baptism was not valid. I hadn’t been dunked three times. I was offended. That puts our Bible passage in perspective. Jews were traveling out into the desert, confessing their sins publicly, and being baptized by John as a sign of their repentance. They willingly allowed themselves to be treated like new converts when they accepted baptism.
Now back to that preposterous promise of salvation to everyone: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (6). The gospel calls us to look not only inside, to see our own need of forgiveness and restoration, but also outside, to see others needing the same—whether they are Jew or Gentile, white or black, young or old, natural-born citizen or illegal immigrant, gay or straight. The gospel always pushes us to open our arms wider and cast our gaze farther. To be able to do that we must first take a trip out to the desert. But who has time for that with Christmas coming?