Kthump! Kthump! Kthump! Kthump! Kthump! Kthump! Kthump!
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his bother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” Luke 3:1-3:
Theophilus may have had his foot on the rungs of the ladder of power and Luke offers him assurance that what he had been taught was dependable (1:1-4). He didn’t offer him a lecture on political science, or on any other useful subject of study. Luke is certainly interested in the historical accuracy of what he writes but if we think he isn’t “preaching” we’re dreaming.
There’s something very deliberate about the way he lists the names above. He’s describing the world as he names the heavy-hitters! Sounds like massive steel spikes are being driven into the ground with a series of thuds from some huge machine: “Tiberius!” Thud.
Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas. Thus, Thud, Thud, Thud! Seven of them! World-builders.
By these you live.
Stand here, sit there, move up, step down, pay this, forfeit that, sign there, believe this.
This was “the world”—defined by the powerful at various levels and ways. This was a world that Israel and some others hated but since nothing was going to change they adjusted and learned to make the best of it. For some, Rome’s rule was better than the rule they once lived under and beleaguered kings were more than glad—they were eager to submit to the emperor’s legions and have Rome as an ally. For many others life under Rome became a familiar and mostly a dull plod or they were sucked white by vampire Roman representatives. “Should we remove these officials?” they asked Tiberius at one point, “They’re feeding on the subject.” The morose emperor told them not to bother—it was for the best, he thought—the current rulers were like well-fed flies on a carcass; new ones would only be hungrier.)
In any case, the central story that tamed and shaped that world was this: ROME RULES!
What we hear as Luke announces the names of these political and religious rulers is this: “The story I’m telling you doesn’t begin with, “Once upon a time in a land over the rainbow.” He doesn’t say, “Middle Earth! Narnia or the Enchanted Forest!”
He says, “Rome! Judea! Galilee! Jerusalem!”
He doesn’t say, “Zeus! Apollo! Poseidon! Hercules!”
He says, “Tiberius! Pilate! Herod! Philip! Caiaphas!”
But there’s also something sarcastic in the way Luke uses the names. At some point each of them would have seen himself as some big wheel but Luke uses them as circles on a calendar to mark the day when a nobody came to town from the desert. He named him John, the only child of an old priest and his old wife. “The word of God came to John…in the wilderness.” (3:2).
He came because God spoke to him—not to Tiberius or his servants, not to the lawmakers in the centers of power but to a strange, waiting, untamed young man who heard God, “It’s time!”
The stranger had a message for the world and for Israel in particular. He called for an entirely new way of seeing and thinking (repentance) that was to express itself in a baptism that committed them to a coming one. This repentance embraced a confession of the historically faithless nation’s sin but it was also a commitment to the faithful God who was making it known that the Redeemer He had promised was at the door.
Luke says this newcomer was preparing the way for “the Lord” and he wasn’t talking about the emperor who wore that title. Luke said John’s essential message was that humanity would see God’s saving purpose and power at work in this coming one.
John dealt with individuals of course but his message had national and cosmic ramifications. It meant they were not to settle for the world as they now saw it and that kind of preaching was subversion! it was more than an offer of personal forgiveness of personal sins, it was about the salvation of the watching, chained, tamed, think-what-you-are-told-to-think, accept-things-as-they-are nations of the world.
It was about the personal forgiveness of sins of course but to reduce it to that is to miss Luke’s point altogether. John’s message was about the arrival of a new “Lord” and about his nation’s need to get ready to receive Him; it was about the world coming under new management. (But not everyone wanted it—John 11:47-50.)
John knew much but didn’t know it all and he himself would feel disappointed with how things would develop. Why do the world structures still stand, why are the Tiberuses, Pilates, Herods and Caiaphases still around calling the shots? It wasn’t only John who felt disappointed (see the book of Hebrews) and even now we wonder how it is that nothing has changed despite two thousand years of Jesus’ lordship and why it is that sickness and death are all too visible.
It’s distressing today, particularly for those who haven’t come to a negotiated settlement with “the world of Tiberius” but who feel that the “new Lord” has made little difference in their experience. (How can that be hard to understand?)
If they could only turn away from Jesus it might not make their lives better but would it not ease the strain of “hoping against hope”? Would it not be better to accept that what is as all there is? But they can’t! They know in their bones that the word that comes out of the corridors of power is the word of the moment and the word of dying men. They know that the word that came to John in the desert is the eternal word of the ever-living God and that’s why they keep coming back saing with Peter, “Who would we go to? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-59)
Like John, we know much but we don’t know it all. While our longing for better is fully understandable—something we shouldn’t apologize for—we’ll remain assured of what we’ve been taught until the ever-present and presently absent Lord comes in keeping with the proclamation that occurs in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
These ordinances and their place in the life of a Community of faith are not just for believers and they aren’t just about believers. They are a judgment in Jesus’ name on the “world’s” story and the character of “the world” and the proclamation of living and vibrant hope based on the commitment of the God in Jesus. The Lord Jesus is Himself—HIMSELF—the embodiment of the faithfulness of the faithful God and the hope of the world and all who now constitute his Body, the Church, are (peculiarly but not exclusively) the visible and embodied covenant faithfulness of God. Certainly they are God’s treasure in clay pots (2 Corinthians 4:7)—but that’s where He has deposited it, so He tells us. God will be God and it’s best that we come to terms with that—Christian and non-Christian alike.
Kthump, Kthump, Kthump….
Ali Khamenei, Putin, Xi Jinping, Merkel. Assad May, Turnbull, Kim Jong.un, Fattah, Netanyahu, Hollande, Ashraf Ghani, Trump, Macri, Masum, Cazeneuve……………………