When I was in Rome last year, we had a change of plans, at least as far as pastoral care is concerned. As many of you know, one of the issues facing us in this fight against slavery is the “silo” nature of the ministries. Everybody does their ministries—some very well, and yet we do a poor job of connecting or being connected to one another. Such a claim might sound strange in our ears, given our episcopal nature and ecclesiology. But we do a poor job of supporting those engaged in this ministry.
It was because of the need for some “down time” or spiritual care or whatever that you want to call it that the Pope and ABC were able to move quickly. During our first four days we engaged in what I term heavy ministry. We talked about and watched things human beings should never talk. Ever. Yet here we were, mostly lay and a few clergy engaging in a viscerally evil spiritual warfare, even as we were trying to rally the Church to the fight. So, as part of our care, Justin and Francis sent us to this former prison in Rome.
This prison was located well below ground. You and I would call it a dungeon by our imaginations. The only problem is that the prison was really a house or villa. Back in the 1st century AD the windows looked to the streets and sky outside. Now, however, the house is well below ground. What struck archaeologists who found it, and I must confess the details were a blur, was the fact that it was the basement or catacombs of a church, which served as the same for another church, which served as the same for another church. I can’t remember for sure now, but I think it was nine churches built over this house. The number was high enough that archaeologists knew it was very important to early Christians. That’s how they preserved sites back then—they built churches over them. In this location, the floods of the Tiber over the following centuries had forced the Christians to build new churches above the older churches. Naturally, everyone was excited to see what was at the bottom.
In the prison/house/villa at the bottom was little remarkable. There were windows, a well, and other accoutrements one would expect to find. Then on the walls the archaeologists began to notice quotations from the Epistles. Finally, on one wall, there was a beautiful mural. It was a scene that painted various Apostles and disciples doing their work, even as Mary held her son, Jesus. Ironically, the Eastern churches have a tradition that the picture of Mary holding the Baby Jesus with his halo was done originally by Luke. Being a physician, Luke had painstakingly tried to draw a likeness of Jesus based on his conversations and interviews with Mary and those who knew our Lord during His earthly ministry. We might say it is the closest we have to a photograph of our Lord. The Church in the West, as you might imagine, poopooed this idea. It made for great storytelling, but there was no way to know whether it was true. Until they unearthed this house/prison/villa.
There, on the wall in the villa, was a scene that included the very picture of our Lord and His mother the Eastern Church knew so well. The Church being the Church, that is all being worked out. Officials from the Vatican have taken control of the mural and had it removed for study. What is no longer debated now, though, is the resident of one who stayed in the house/villa/prison. Yes, Paul. The house is thought to be the site where Paul was imprisoned before he was killed by the Emperor. We believe now that his faithful companion, Luke, drew the mural to help remind his master and friend of the work of our Lord. Though Paul was imprisoned in a house in Rome, the Gospel had spread throughout the kingdom! And though the Emperor within a few years or months, depending upon when the drawing and painting occurred, would put Paul to death for his faith in Jesus of Nazareth, an emperor some 26 or 27 decades later would bend the knee to Christ.
It was a great place of silence and reflection and pictures for those of us present. Archbishop David gave us many of those details for which some of you no doubt hunger, but for us dealing with atrocities that disgusted us and shook us to our cores, it was the perfect place to meditate on that question of why God allows such evil to exist. The reminder, of course, was that in the end God wins. Yes, the battles during the intervening years will be brutal. Yes, we may face mockery, derision, and indifference, but He wins in the end! We don’t know the purpose behind the mural, of course, but it seems reasonable that Paul must have wondered from time to time what God’s plan was. How could he evangelize anybody while imprisoned? Yet, the artwork would have reminded him that it was not up to him to reach the world, only those with whom he had contact. God was taking care of the rest, even while Paul was confined.
Why do I share the story? Partly, I think it gives us insight as to one of the driving focuses of Luke. The other reason is that it speaks to an eternal truth of which Luke wants us to know we are a part. Luke is very good about going from the abstract to the close, from generalities to specifics, from out there, to in here, our hearts.
Luke at your readings from Luke today. Every three years we read this passage from Luke. To those who must preach on this passage without a bit of knowledge of Luke, it must be incredible hard. Why does Luke mention these rulers? Why the big quote of Isaiah? Why not add more to the reading to give us real preaching material? Yet Luke has a particular focus and mindset he wants to share, if we will just pay attention.
Luke sets the passage in history. Specifically, the passage is set in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. To us, the date may seem obscure, but we live under a calendar set up by a successor of Tiberius. This is the way they counted dates in the ANE prior to the calendar you and I know now. This is the way we count things in the Church even to this day. Bishop John will have confirmed Robbie last week in the ninth year of his episcopacy—that’s how the certificate will read. But the emperor was this far off power whose impact on daily life and work was non-existent. Put differently, if Luke wrote about something happening in the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, how many of us would feel any tie to him? We live in a democratic republic where we vote for our president, but I think it fair to say that most in the country feel no personal relationship, for good or for evil, with our President or with any President.
So, in the political realm, Luke moves closer. When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Ah, now we are getting a bit more local. In our modern language, Luke might well be saying In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, when Haslam was governor of TN. The Emperor might be a far off figure, but Pilate was much closer, and people knew his influence, for good or for ill. Chances are, people blamed him for high taxes, poor municipal projects, bad roads, brigands on the loose, and any number of other problems that beset them. Pilate would, of course, journey to Jerusalem on important occasions. Heck, on one such journey, Pilate met our Lord and sentenced Him to death!
And Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene. Now we are getting specific. Herod and Philip ruled as vassals of Rome. In fact, when Jesus is first presented to Pilate, Pilate sends Him to Herod to let Herod decide the fate of the Jesus of Nazareth, since most of Jesus’ ministries and activities had occurred in the territories ruled by Herod. When Herod the Great had died, he had left a will dividing his kingdom among his surviving sons. Without going in to great detail, this was the Game of Thrones in real life. The problem was, of course, that the Augustus had to ratify Herod’s will or make his own decisions. Eventually, after the three brothers had journeyed to Rome to make their respective cases before Caesar, the emperor largely upheld Herod’s will. Herod Antipas managed to rule Galilee for some 42 years, a rather remarkable feat given the winds of change that drove the empire.
For those who lived in Galilee, Herod was Rome. He set the specific policies. He placed whom he favored in whatever position of power. The governor held greater authority, to be sure, but it was Herod and Philip who controlled the daily application of Roman power and law to the lives in their lands. It was Herod who determined to rebuild buildings or to build new towns in honor of his patrons in Rome. It was Herod who decided whether to build defensive walls or not around the cities who claimed they needed them. Heck, it was Herod who decided to build a city over a graveyard and force people, most poor Jews, to relocate there, that despite the ritual uncleanliness of a site. It was Herod, of course, who killed the prophet of God, John the Baptist, over an oath, knowing full well that his subjects knew John to be a prophet. More on that in a moment.
Phillip was Herod’s brother. In essence, Herod Archelaus had been given half of his father’s kingdom, the west side, and Herod Antipas and Philip the other (eastern) half. Phillip ruled the northern half; Herod the southern half. Between the rulers, of course, all political power was covered. And, both men had their share in ungodly behavior. Philip, as it turns out, ended up marrying Salome, his niece, she of dancing before her mother’s lover or uncle and, as a result, securing the death of John the Baptizer.
Little is known today of Lysanias. His coins bear the inscription “high priest and tetrarch.” Josephus claims that Lysanias offered a Parthian satrap 1000 talents and 500 women, if he would place his son Antigonus on the throne of Judea. Of course, Josephus also claims in a later work it was someone else who made the offer. What seems clear is that Lysanias ran afoul of Cleopatra, who wanted his territory. So, near the time of Jesus’ death, Marc Antony put Lysanias to death.
Putting these three positions in modern political language might be to consider them glorified mayors, with Herod and Philip splitting Nashville while Lysanias ruled Clarkesville. The end would be that most of us in central TN would be familiar with the political powers that be.
Luke, of course, is not done. He goes on to mention the religious rulers. During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Annas had been removed from being high priest by the Roman authorities, but his influence behind the scenes was rather strong. Five of his sons and at least one son-in-law, Caiaphas, served as high priest. All faithful Jews knew this family. Who do you think it was that was responsible for turning the Lord’s house into a market? A den of evil? Who do you think it was that adopted policies which elevated their words to the words of the Lord? Who do you think it was that placed in positions of power those who like to mouth pious words or be seen as religion, rather than lead the people in the worship of God? It would be like us naming a time of a bishop or pope as reference.
In the midst of this grand narrative, however, Luke does something remarkable. As the political powers and winds are shifting around the people, elevating some while killing others. While politics have invade the Lord’s sanctuary, the Word of the Lord came to John bar Zechariah in the wilderness. Yes, politics is important. Yes, religious institution is grand. But out in the wilderness, as far as one could be from the seats and thrones of power, God was doing something new! He was raising up a prophet! For the first time in three centuries, God was speaking again! And this honor and obligation fell not on Herod or Philip or Lysanias or Caiaphas or Annas, but upon someone on the margins of society.
John’s ministry, we are told, was very specific. He went about the Jordan proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Baptisms were not unique in the worship of the Jews. Gentiles would be adopted into the family of God, as full descendants of Abraham & Sarah, through a ritual bathing. It is likely that Ruth, about whom we read a couple weeks ago, underwent such a ritual, such a sacrament. How else do we explain her determination to follow and serve her mother-in-law Naomi, as part of her service to Yahweh. Yahweh had become her God. And her service of Him and loyalty to her mother-in-law, as much as her good looks, captures the eyes and ears and imagination of Boaz.
Jews would also cleanse themselves after the appropriate sacrifices. Righteousness was something they felt was conferred and earned by one’s attention to the torah and one’s observance of the sacrifices. When Paul claims he was righteous under the law, he is not being arrogant. He is stating a fact that, when he sinned, he made appropriate sacrifices and underwent the ritual cleansings whenever he was made unclean.
John’s baptism, though, was new. He was proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness. If I had cross words with Shane, and we determined to make amends before the next service at Temple, each of us would be required to make some sort of sacrifice. If we were just a little mean to each other, we each might owe a turtle dove. If we had been ruthless in a business transaction, we might each owe an oxen. You get the idea. In this way, appropriate sacrifices, righteousness, became the purview and opportunity for the wealthy. They could rob foreign visitors or blind or steal widows’ houses, but as long as they made the sacrifice required, everything was supposedly ok with God. Think in terms of the mafia and its relationship with the Roman church. Think in terms of those who claim to be Christian in our midst, at least for ninety minutes a week, but then spout evil or engage in activities that are supportive of evil. If you were poor, of course, you were screwed. Absent the appropriate sacrifices, you could never be righteous.
Heck, this week I received a letter from a US Senator in my former state. In it, he was proclaiming how proud he was to support efforts to curtail child slavery in the US labor markets and how supportive he was of our efforts to end slavery. I have not yet heard back his response to my letter (I forgot to mention I had moved, but I will repent of that in a moment), but I wonder why the language was changed. The original bill introduced in the Senate called for the end of all slavery in our labor markets. All slavery. Male. Female. Adult. Child. All. Yet this self-described Christian senator seemed to think that the fight against child slavery was somehow morally superior to the enslavement of adults, this coming as a follow-up to his vote against the federal effort to fight slavery in our midst, that despite his promise to a bishop that he was on the side of God in this fight, as if God cared a whit for the political ties that caused him to vote against the federal legislation, as if God was somehow more supportive of adult slavery than He is child slavery. Can you imagine? To those whom much is given, much is expected. Naturally, he wanted me to share with members of my congregation about his wonderful support.
It is against that backdrop of the human condition that John strolled out of the wilderness preaching the words of Isaiah. The hills will be made low, the valleys will be filled in, the twists and turns will be straightened, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. What John preached was novel. God was going to make forgiveness possible. God was going to make forgiveness possible to everyone. The offer was going to be made to the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, the Jews and the Gentiles. The offer was going to be open to all who would accept it, to all who would grasp at it. There would be only one stumbling block, that of the Lord providing the way of forgiveness Himself, in the flesh of His Son our Lord! That was the message of John. That’s why the people flocked to see him and to hear him. God had been silent for generations. Now, while Pilate was governor, while Tiberius was emperor, while Herod and Philip were tetrarchs, God was fulfilling His promises to Abraham & Sarah. It was an amazing time to be alive. And God was beginning this effort not in the forum of Rome, not in the palaces of human kings, not even in His own temple. No, God was beginning this fulfilment with a word planted in a man in the wilderness and through the birth of a child born in a village!
Brothers and sisters, you and I share in that same ministry of John! You and I are called to remind ourselves that we are heralds of peace, harbingers of hope, and full of joy. We are disciples of that salvation. Each time we gather, each time we come to worship God, we give thanks for the death, resurrection, and coming of our Lord Christ. It is the very heart of our message. When we could not atone for our sins, when we could not hope ever to earn forgiveness, our Lord offered it to us through His own ministry, through His own action. You and I are called to proclaim that light in a dark and dreary world. And you and I are called to proclaim that light, in word and in action, with everyone with whom we interact. It does not matter their ethnicity, it does not matter their education, it does not matter their profession, God’s salvation is open to all who would proclaim Him Lord and join us, through that amazing sacrament of baptism, into new life! He has entrusted you and me with the most amazing invitation, an invitation for which He has paid the cost in its entirety.
As Luke goes to great pains to remind us, all of this takes place in the “real world.” Luke places his Gospel narrative and the action of God in its place in history. Luke reminds us that God acts in this world, through people living in this world, to effect His purposes. To those hearing the Gospel for the first time, it no doubt sounded crazy to think that the work of John could have amounted to anything significant. Certainly, his work would have seemed to pale in comparison to emperors, or governors, or tetrarchs, or high priests. John lacked the funds to reach the rich and powerful; John lacked the education to convince people He was intelligent; John even lacked the religious pedigree to make people think He was anything significant in religion. But John did received the Word of the Lord and responded faithfully. As it turns out, that was all he needed. Those who were seemingly far above his influence feared him and the Word he proclaimed. Those who discounted his wilderness education could not contend with the wisdom granted by the Lord’s Word. Even those who were keepers and stewards of God’s holy mysteries found themselves drawn to his preaching and teaching.
That same word which was active in John’s life is alive in yours and mine. That same Word which frightened the powerful, baffled the intelligencia, and caused the religious elite to pause and listen is present in us. He has promised! And that we might know He is able to keep all promises, He raised His Son our Lord that third morning, raising us along with Him in that life that is to come. Adventers, this is our patronal season. This is our time. Those who founded us named us after this time when baptism of forgiveness goes out. It is in our spiritual DNA and in our heritage that we celebrate His first coming even as we await His Second coming in power. Whatever the obstacle, He will overcome. That is His promise and that is His practice. It matters not whether an emperor fights us and imprisons us; it matters not whether bosses and co-worker mock us or try to take advantage of us; it does not even matter whether a neighbor responds with indifference. In the end, every knee will see His salvation and our glorification in His Son! How will you respond to that call on your life?
In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, when Haslam was governor of TN, when Megan was mayor of Nashville and Ron was mayor of Oak Hill, and when Justin was Archbishop of Canterbury and Michael had just taken over for Katherine in the church, God called you and called me to proclaim His salvation, offered through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.