Luke sets the scene. Having completed his prologue, events that took place 30 years ago, with a brief reference to a slightly more recent incident, he now turns to the main event, the substance of the story he wants to tell. Luke situates his account of the Good News very carefully in history. This is not simply because Luke intends to be recognised as a thorough and complete historian. Though perhaps by the standards of his day he is at least that. He is also making a specific claim about the events he is describing, since he is not only an historian, he is also a Christian believer and witness, and that makes him a theologian. The story he tells testifies to something about God. Luke asserts that God’s actions in brining about his reign, in establishing his rule over his people, Luke insists this takes place in history. This is not something that is separated off from history, that might be timeless or eternal or even called spiritual. This is something that has happened in time and in space. It is located in what we might call the real world. That God acts this way brings with it risks. The risk that his actions can become subject to the kind of analysis which historians like Luke conduct. Gods actions become the object of debate, and open to alternative explanation, God becomes part of the contested space of history. The risk is that God becomes forced to appear as one actor among many, one voice in a clamour of voices. Whereas in reality God is the source and the ground of all of these things. But it is the grace of God which makes all of this necessary. God becomes part of history in order to make it possible for our lives, that are caught up in history, to be redeemed. As with the birth narratives Luke’s historicising is an assertion of the incarnation. God’s will and God’s action, God’s kingdom is something that takes place with real people, like us. Because God acts in history God’s action has a bearing on history. Not least because the story which Luke is about to recount provides a direct challenge to those who claim to be the makers of history. Luke’s scene setting is list of historical individuals, all but two of whom (Philipp and Lysanius) have an active role in his story. This is the list of the protagonists in Jesus’ story that makes up the Good News.
Tiberius Caesar never appears in person in the Gospel. He continues to sit at a (great) distance, aloof from what is happening here, presiding over the “whole” world from Rome. He claims that it is he who is the source of the “Pax Romana.” He claims that he and his rule are origin of all order and security that exists in the world. He takes for himself the titles “Lord” and “Saviour.” The most fundamental challenge which the Gospel makes, to Caesar and to all who make similar claims in history, the most fundamental challenge which the Gospel makes is that their claim is false! Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah:
All flesh shall see the salvation of God
John the Baptist makes way for the one who will show that it is God who saves, who demonstrates that God is the source of all true order and security. And God does and is, not at a distance, impersonal and aloof, but close at hand in person in the messiness of ordinary human existence. The number one protagonist in this story, though he doesn’t appear in person, is Caesar. He ruler of this world whom Jesus challenges directly as Lord.
The rulers who do appear personally in Luke’s account are Herod and Pontius Pilate. Herod is not the Herod, this is Herod Antipas. He is that Herod, Herod the Great’s son. Despite the fact that this Herod gets called a king, he isn’t one. His is not even half a king. His title, in Greek, is “Tetrarch” literally a quarter ruler. He reigns over a fourth of a kingdom. After his father died the Romans carved up the old king’s kingdom into four bits, and shared it among four of that Herod’s sons, of whom this Herod, Antipas is one. Herod Antipas is the protagonist in John’s story. John speaks truth to power. In the very next verses in Luke’s story, the ones we’ll listen to next week, John denounces even the crowd who come to listen to him as a “brood of vipers.” And the there is a warm place in John’s anger for the un-king Herod Antipas He condemns Herod quite directly and very specifically for his incestuous marriage to his brother’s widow Herodias.
Herod is both fascinated and infuriated by John. But in the end he is manoeuvred and duped into killing John. After which he rationalises his actions as necessary and effective. He imagines that he has used his power to silence truth. Which is an error of judgement which those in power consistently make. But truth and particularly God’s reign over history and God’s judgement against those in power cannot be silenced. So when Jesus’ ministry begins, Herod is horrified. Herod believes and fears that John the Baptist has been brought back from the dead!
Pontius Pilate is the Procurator of Judea. He is the latest in a line of Roman officials who replace Herod Antipas’ brother Archaeleus in that quarter of old Herod’s kingdom. The Romans deposed Archaeleus a quarter of a century ago. Pilate plays in Jesus’ life the same role which Herod Antipas played in John’s. Jesus’ mission and ministry finally collides with the power of this world in the form of Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem. And like Herod, Pilate is both institutionally powerful but personally weak. And like Herod, he is manoeuvred into doing Jesus to death. When it comes to the trial Pilate really cannot see anything in Jesus that should be considered a problem A scruffy itinerant preacher, a carpenter’s son from the middle of nowhere, what sort of threat could someone like that possibly be to the power of empire. But Pilate becomes a further demonstration that power and justice are just not the same thing. It is simply convenient, expedient for Pilate to release a guilty man and execute a man he himself has called innocent. In the end it makes little difference to Pilate who actually dies. Just so long as everyone is shown, in the shape of a helpless, powerless man stretched out on a cross, shown who is in charge and what the price of resisting such power will be. But acting this way against Jesus simply reveals the limits of such power. Jesus may have seemed to Herod Antipas John restored to life. But Jesus is restored to life. Death is the last word which the power of this world can speak. Death is indeed the totality of the power which the rulers of this world wield. But Jesus’ death and resurrection breaks the power of this world. Death does not have the last world over Jesus or anyone who places their trust and loyalty in the kingdom which he establishes. The kingdom which reveals the power of God’s salvation to all flesh, life!
Behind Jesus’ death lie two other characters on Luke’s list, Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests. These are ones who demonstrate the way in which religion and politics do not mix. There can only be one High Priest, but here we have the curious phenomenon of two! Caiaphas holds that office. But only because his father-in-law had been deposed 15 years ago. Luke performs the same nod-and-a-wink as everyone else in Judea, perhaps even Caiaphas himself. Caiaphas is High Priest, but since God, not the Romans appoints the High Priest, Annas remains the High Priest for everyone except the Romans. And no one is going to do anything to disabuse them of their illusion. The High Priest is supposed to bring the people to God and God to the people. The High Priest stands between God and the nation and mediates Gods grace to them. The politics, the organising principle, of God’s people is to be a holy nation, set apart to demonstrate that God is God and therefore be a source of light to all the other nations. But on the whole Annas and Caiaphas have preferred to do politics on the world’s terms. They have tried to carve out what space they can for the institution of their religion, within the Roman Empire, the kingdom of this world. They try to carry on doing what religion does, ceremonies, sacrifices and collections, with as little interference from the Romans as possible. Caiaphas is a measure of their success, or failure, a High Priest appointed by the Romans!
If Jesus replaces Caesar as Lord, he also replaces the High Priest as mediator between God and God’s people, who in him are extended to include all humanity. There is some sense in which Jesus abolishes altogether religion which priests represent. If God is present in person, Annas and Caiaphas and everyone like them are starting to look rather redundant. And perhaps they knew this which is why they wanted Jesus dead. If Herod and Pilate reveal that the danger for those in power is to prefer effectiveness or expediency over truth or justice. Then Annas and Caiaphas demonstrate show that the risk for religious people is to prefer religion over God
The word of God came to John
The real action of the story which Luke is telling begins. It is simple and profound. God acts in the world. Having written as a conventional historian, Luke now reveals that to see God in action we have to look in the other direction. God acts in the world in the voice of one at the margins:
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
We already know something about John. He is a relative of Jesus, through their mothers. He was born of a priestly family. His father was serving in the Temple when he received the news of John’s surprising if not miraculous conception, news that struck him dumb. But nothing prepares us for where we find him now. Like his father we might have expected that God would speak to him in the sanctuary of the Temple. But was he like Jesus after him driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit? The wilderness is after all the place where the children of Israel first learned to God’s people. The wilderness is an empty desolate place where there are no resources which human ingenuity can use to secure survival, where only complete reliance on the grace of God makes existence possible. It is from that place which John announces the transformation that is needed to be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom. It is a transformation that is so profound that it will reshape the world. On the banks of the Jordan he offers a baptism, immersion in waters that represent both death and deliverance, in token of the gift which will be the theme of the rest of Luke’s writing: repentance and forgiveness.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
Dramatis Personae by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0