I’m very grateful that there are people willing to get up in front of a room full of other people and help lead by reading something. Especially when that something is scripture. Even if you invite people to read from the translation or version that they’re most comfortable with, sooner or later it’s going to happen: you’re going to get names. Those old, oddly spelled, awkward to pronounce names from a very different time and place that leave people speechless. There’s the classic “begats” – “so-and-so begat so-and-so who begat …” and so on. Or simply “so-and-so, son of so-and-so.” Those are important to establish lineage, which is often very important in the Bible. But another key purpose is to establish context.
This is a good time of year for that. We’re headed to Christmas and timelines are important, especially when we usually talk about John the Baptist on the second Sunday of Advent. He was the announcer of Jesus, the one who would proclaim his coming – as an adult. But we’re hearing his story – and his call to prepare – weeks before the birth of Jesus. John has a great birth story, too, by the way, very similar to Jesus’. You can find it in Luke 1.
But we also hear about John, the adult, calling us to prepare. So here’s his introduction: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2).
Okay, some of those aren’t bad as biblical names go, but still. It would have been easier to just say “here’s John.” It’s an important piece of the story, though, because it dates the events. It’s kind of like saying “in the sixty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth II, when Justin was Prime Minister, and Rachel was premier of Alberta, and John ruled in BC and Scott in Saskatchewan, during the papacy of Francis.” Right, 2018, more or less.
Luke uses this same technique in another story we’ll hear soon. The story of the birth of Jesus begins “in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2: 1-2).
Except, as a means of dating things, it’s complicated because these rulers and important people and big events don’t always line up exactly. Lots of debate about that.
But is that Luke’s only point, I wonder? And why are we hearing the story of John the Baptist – as an adult – during Advent? Born a few months before Jesus, he was a cousin who’s role was to proclaim Jesus’ coming – not his birth, but his coming as “Lord” and saviour. This story is thirty years after their births. So why hear it now?
Of course, the “prepare the way of the Lord” is good advice anytime. But I think this one sentence reminds us of something else, equally important. It’s not about when, it’s about who.
Tiberius was the Roman Emperor, Pilate was a governor, Herod, Philip and Lysanius were kings (more or less, “tetrarchs,” technically), Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. These were important, wealthy, powerful people. John was the son of an ordinary, everyday priest in the temple.
Augustus was an emperor, Quirinius a governor. Jesus was the just the son of a carpenter.
John and Jesus were nobodies. They had no status or station, no money, no armies, no power at all. But, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” and the angel announced to shepherds that the Messiah is a “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Not what anyone expected.
Maybe this is to remind us to expect less and be open to more at Christmas time. God doesn’t speak to us through the bright lights, shimmering trees and miles of tinsel, but through one solitary star in the night sky.