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Wilderness Witness

A sermon on Luke 3: 1-6

[For an audiofile of the sermon, click here]

Last week I ended my sermon with a challenge – a challenge to embrace the call that we all share as followers of Jesus to be witnesses; to see our faith as something more than personal and private; to hear, in the “uncovering” language of Luke’s apocalyptic sermon, an invitation to remove the veil from our own lives; to recognize the power of our stories – about how God has showed up in our lives – to become a source of hope in a world gripped by fear.

As I told you last week, we are going to be exploring the theme of witness throughout the season of Advent, because the task of witness is essential to the active waiting that we are called into in Advent. And today’s gospel offers us some important lessons about what it means for us to be witnesses.

Believe it or not, those lessons begin with what sounds like a rather boring list of historical leaders that seem perfectly irrelevant to us today. (Admit it – none of us ever really listen to those verses with lists of names – they’re like the credits that used to come at the beginning of movies. We just want to skip ahead to the start of the story). But in this story about the witness God has chosen to prepare the way for Jesus, those names are an important part of the story.

The story begins with a listing of the who’s who of the power players in first Century Judea. The people with a platform, who could be presumed to be best situated to actually get a message out. But they are not who God chooses as a messenger. God chooses John, the son of Zechariah. More on that in a minute.

First, it’s important to note that the power and platforms of the men whom Luke chooses to name in this introduction to John’s ministry have a shadow side that would have been well-known by Luke’s readers.

Emperor Tiberius was a violent militaristic leader, who “developed a reputation for killing any who challenged him, and worse."[1]

His regents in the area, Pilate and Herod, do not have great reputations themselves, and they will appear later in the story at Jesus’ trial, as well as (in Herod’s case) the beheading of John. These men do not temper the violence of the Emperor.

Luke extends his list of secular authorities to include the officials of the Empire in neighboring regions, as if to say: “the shadow of the Roman Empire in this place and time was inescapable.”

Even the two named religious leaders – high priests Annas and Caiaphas – owed their power and position to the Emperor and they served at his discretion. They are no relief from the shadow of imperial domination.

Why name these seven men? Why set the introduction of John’s ministry in the shadow of the power and violence of the Roman Empire, and of the Temple leaders who collaborated with it?

I think the reason is specifically to remind the readers of that shadow, a shadow that has already been named in connection to John’s ministry.[2] At the end of the first chapter of Luke, Zechariah prophesies about the future ministry of his son, John, and that prophesy ends with this description of the effect his message will have “…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79).

The shadow of death, the shadow of an oppressive, conquering empire was the context in which John was called as a witness. And, in case we have forgotten the earlier prophesy, immediately after the men of power and violence are listed, we are told that “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah” (Luke 3:2), son of the faithful priest who prophesied about the light in the shadow of death.

The call to witness isn’t about having power or a platform; it’s about bringing light, perhaps especially when the powers that be cast a shadow.

The second thing we are told about the witness in this story is that he is in the wilderness.

Wilderness is one of those wonderfully evocative words that can take us a few different places. In her book Braving the Wilderness, researcher story-teller Brene Brown introduces the idea of wilderness this way:

“theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the wilderness as a metaphor, to represent everything from a vast and dangerous environment where we are forced to navigate difficult trials to a refuge of nature and beauty where we seek space for contemplation. What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of spiritual solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.”[3]

Solitude, vulnerability, and quest. Wilderness is the place that all the power and position of Luke’s “who’s who” list gets stripped away. The place where we are forced to confront our own fragility. The place where we feel most alone, and also most aware of how dangerous it is to be alone. But that solitude and vulnerability have a purpose, a quest. They empower a mission that is about “preparing the way,” about opening the path to God.

John’s message in the wilderness repeats the prophecy of Isaiah that promises a way will be opened in the wilderness for God’s exiled people to return home.

The “way” that John is talking about is not a physical path through the desert. But the context for the message is still the wilderness.

Most of us probably avoid true wildernesses, places of scarcity, isolation, and hunger. But New Testament Professor Michal Beth Dinkler makes the point that John grew up in the desert. That’s where Luke left off John’s story in Luke 1:80:

‘The child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.’ John… does not simply appear one day in the desert. Luke suggests that his growth and spiritual strength actually develop there.”[4]

It was in the wilderness that John learned it is GOD who provides for our needs. That whatever hills or valleys appear to block our way, God can smooth the path; “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth (Luke 3:5)."

In the shadow of violence and death, and in the wilderness of isolation and scarcity, God promises to open a way. And it’s a way that leads to salvation. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6).

One commentator writes about this last verse in the reading “this statement is quite a claim. One wonders what it meant…”[5] It could be referring to the end of time, when God’s kingdom comes in fullness, and God’s truth is finally seen by all people… But that reading suggests a spiritualize meaning, and Luke’s quotation from the prophet changes Isaiah’s “all people” to “all flesh.” It’s as though Luke wants to make the point that he’s talking about the embodied reality of human life, not just the spiritual afterlife.

The message that John proclaims in the wilderness is a message of salvation that matters, here and now. In the shadow of seemingly unchallengeable powers, In the wild, barren wilderness where we feel most alone and vulnerable.

Because, John’s proclamation is preparing the way for Jesus.

The six verses in our reading today don’t spell out what is means to see the salvation of God. That’s the job of Luke’s whole gospel (not to mention the sequel of Acts). But they do give us the set-up. They tell us that God’s will is to make a way. To offer forgiveness. To show us salvation. And the story of Jesus picks up from there.

So, what does all this mean for us? What are the lessons I promised that will guide us as we answer the call to witness? I see at least three:

  1. Being a witness is not about power or influence. (In fact, we might do well to be suspicious of the shadows that often comes with power). It’s about bringing a light into the shadow.

  2. It’s in the wilderness, where we feel most vulnerable that God forms and prepares us, because that’s where we learn to trust in God, and recognize the path that leads to life.

  3. The message God has given us to share matters, because it opens the path to see God’s salvation! In the end, the important thing about this story isn’t about the messenger… it’s about the message. The message of God’s forgiveness and salvation. The message that God has reached out to all flesh through Jesus.

And when we share the stories of how God has brought a light to the shadow, or opened a path in the wilderness for us, we too share the mission of “preparing the way of the Lord.”

Thanks be to God.

[1] Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: University Press (2018), p. 79.

[2] This reading is presented in Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: University Press (2018), p. 79-81.`

[3] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, New York: Random House (2017) p. 36.


[5] D. Mark Davis.

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