One Calling in the Wilderness
Luke 3: 1 — 6
Remember, this Gospel reading is chosen for us to meditate on, ponder over, Christ’s advent and by advent we mean the threefold coming of Christ at Bethlehem, into our hearts, and at the end time. It therefore calls us constantly to be preparing for his coming (Verse 4).
The same prophecies which point to the Lord’s human birth 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’ work in the context of Jewish prophecy.
Notes On Our Text
Verse 1 and 2
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 6 fold specification of the time; it could not be more specific. It was, we can now calculate, between AD 27 and 29, and Jesus was in his very early thirties.
We note that “the word of God came to John”. John did not deduce that it was time for him to stand up and be counted; to blast the population of Israel with accusations of absolute moral and religious degeneracy. (That was the usual stand to take especially against their over-lord — “those Roman dogs”).
John had been waiting upon God for 30 years for his call. No prophet had been heard for 400 years since Malachy. 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 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.
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.
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 either then or 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.)
Like all who listen intently, he proclaims with similar intensity, 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 for humanity. In Rabbinic teaching, Torah existed in heaven before creation. When all was ready, God gave the Holy Torah (Holy Scriptures). 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 John’s O.T. consecration which continues to exist through out the world in various forms.
Returning to our focus on verse 3, recall that the Gospels always emphasize the need of interior renewal as a condition of forgiveness. When John talks of repentance the term always implies a change of 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
Quoting Isaiah 40: 3 — 5 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.
Then: “All mankind will see God’s salvation”.
John 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 the Baptist, “to admit 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 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 be hearing.
No wonder people went out from all the towns to listen!
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