A Homiletical Exegesis: Luke 3:1-6 Second Sunday of Advent, Year C ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger




The Third Evangelist begins his birth narratives by simply locating these events and Divine purposes: “In the days of King Herod of Judea (Luke 1:5a).” However, as Luke opens his narrative of the ministry of Jesus, he expands upon the political and religious context of “these things.” This extensive expansion of the context of Jesus’ public ministry has led a number of Lukan scholars to the conviction that this text was initially the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. One factor in these considerations is that with this beginning of the Third Gospel, there is a direct parallel to the Gospel of Mark. Both conform to the same introduction—the story of Jesus begins with a focus on the person and work of John the Baptist. “All of the Gospels reflect the early tradition that related the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the preaching of John the Baptist,” Joseph Fitzmyer[1] observes. These commentators then address the authorship of the Birth Narrative, with most speculating that Luke added the material prior to 3:1 at a later time. On the other hand, the many thematic interactions between the Birth and the Crucifixion and Resurrection accounts would argue to the contrary. The latter—the narrative of the death and rising of Jesus –is organically related to the present state of the Birth Narratives. Both were written by the Third Evangelist and woven of one piece of narrative cloth.

The opening chronology of this new section in the Gospel includes both a political setting of the appearance of the Baptist and a religious context. A sort of descending order of political power seems the organizing principle within the first grouping. Luke opens the chronology with Tiberius Caesar, moving lower on the scale to Pontius Pilate along with Herod (this Herod is not the same as the Herod of the Birth Narratives but is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great). Continuing in a descending order of importance, Luke then moves on to identify Philip and finally Lysanias of Abilene. The two religious figures mentioned are both High Priests: Annas and Caiaphas which is rather confusing since only one person served as High Priest at any given time. By the opening of the ministry of John the Baptist, Caiaphas was serving in that role, having begun his term of office in18 C.E. It is suggested that Luke adds Annas as a sort of contemporary because of his prominence during his time of service. Four of these political and religious leaders will figure in the death of Jesus: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas. The opening verse of this pericope “also introduces three officials—Tiberius, Philip, and Lysanias—who serve only to date the beginning of John’s ministry.[2]

This recital of the powerful figures who dominated politics and religion serves to locate the beginning of the ministry of the Baptist. But the word of the God did not come to any of those persons. Instead, it comes to an unknown except for those of us who have been privileged to have access to the miraculous nature of John “the son of Zechariah” (1:5-25; 57-80). We are also reminded “that John is a prophet, for the words are reminiscent of the introductions to prophetic books in Jewish Scriptures.”[3] That the word of God came to the Baptist and then to Jesus both connects these stories and also keeps them somewhat distinct. Something of great importance has come to the world in this gift of the word of God to John The story of the Baptist will then move on to its ultimate destination—the story of Jesus. John’s ministry, according to Luke, centered within Judea, the governorship of Pilate, and he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”(3:3). Other “baptisms” were familiar to first century Jews: proselyte washing for cleansing, the regular practice of ritual cleansing as pilgrims ascended to the Temple, and, perhaps, even the ritual baptisms of the Essene community down at the base of the Jordan. None of these, however, centered on the Baptist’s insistence on repentance as he “baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins—a concept quite unusual among the Jews…”[4] To be sure, both proselyte baptism and the cleansings at Quran involve a person’s change in behavior and a turning away from past allegiances and sinfulness. Luke describes such an event as “Metanoia,” meaning “a change of mind and heart, the kind of inner transformation that bears visible fruit.”[5] This baptism involves a release (aphesis) of the power of sin, hence full forgiveness.

Now Luke brings the quote from Isaiah to bear as a way of interpreting the meaning of the Baptist. The non-Isaiah portion of the text is dropped (Mark 1:2) and Luke continues the text from Isaiah beyond Matthew and Mark. Robert Tannehill proposes that “The Isaiah quotation is extended primarily in order to include the final statement, ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”[6] This promised salvation will not be restricted to a sect with Judaism or even solely to God’s covenant people Israel. Rather, the Gentiles will also be invited to join among God’s holy people in Christ. Tannehill adds, “Not Gentiles only, however, for ‘all; embraces other excluded groups such as tax collectors and sinners who will soon appear in the narrative.”[7]


Notes

3:1-6

1. “…reign of Tiberius Caesar.” Luke provides a specific date here at the opening of his chronology. However, scholars differ as to which particular date is meant, the vote of the Senate declaring Tiberius to be Augustus’ successor or Tiberius’ date of ascendancy to the throne. Both options would provide a dating of 28-29 C.E as Tiberius’ fifteenth year. when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea..” Pilate will return in the Gospel of Luke for major portions of the Passion narrative as well as three further times in the Acts of the Apostles. “Thus Luke introduces a historical personality who will play a decisive role in the story of salvation about to unfold.”[8]


and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee.” Again, this ruler is the Son of Herod the Great (who figured in the birth narratives, especially in Matthew) whose name is Herod Antipas and will remain a character in the Gospel throughout.

and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region...” A son of Herod the Great, he ruled over a minor area east of Galilee and north of the Decapolis. Mark brings Philip into the intrigues leading up to the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-18).

and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene.” A petty ruler of an area north of the Decapolis and northwest of Damascus. Scholars continue to muse on his inclusion in this chonology.


2. during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” As mentioned, these two high priests are not contemporary in office, Caiaphas being Annas’ son-in-law. Again, there is much discussion regarding Luke’s addition of Annas to the high priesthood during the story of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps his popularity endured among the populace.

the word came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” We receive that translation, “word,” from the Greek rhēma. Famously, Luke employs this term during the Annunciation as Mary responds to Gabriel, “let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). We are familiar with the circumstances that Luke provides regarding the miraculous birth of John. He now appears “in the desert.” Always a familiar location for God’s people Israel. The events of the Passover and the Wanderings were in the wilderness. Given this memory of God’s leading in the wilderness, “John challenges God’s people to see the wilderness as a place not of desolation, but of hope.”[9]


3. …proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Metanoia literally means to change one’s mind, although “in a religious sense, it connotes ‘conversion, reform of life’;…”[10] “Forgiveness” (aphesis) has the sense in Greek of “release, sending away, complete pardon,” hence forgiveness.


4. as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah…” A complex sentence. Mark more simply states, “as it is written in the prophet Isaiah,…” (Mark 1:2a). n Luke gives us “the book (biblō) of the words (logōn) of the prophet Isaiah.” Such a designation of a specific quote from the Hebrew Scriptures “is intended to interpret events of recent history, clothing them with an aspect of salvation history.”[11]

Prepare the way of the Lord…” The connection between Isaiah and John is now complete. John quotes the prophet to announce that this word is now being fulfilled. In the Birth Narrative, Zechariah sings (in the Benedictus) that “you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,…to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:76.79). “make straight his paths.” Implies exactly this—a way without any turning or variation in direction.


5. Every valley shall be filled” “Filled,” from pléroó, meaning to complete or fulfill. “shall be made low.” “Low,” from (tapeinoó) meaning to be humbled or brought low. “the winding roads…” The usual translation—we recall from Handel’s Messiah—is “the crooked straight.” “Winding roads may not bring with it the full connotation of “crooked.” Skolios in Greek means “crooked,” but also is applied to issues of character such as perverse (See: Acts 2:40).


6. “…and all flesh” Once more, the word of God promises that “all flesh” (pasa sarx) will see the salvation of the Lord--Jews, Gentiles, and the outcasts from among them. “the salvation of God) At the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Simeon sings of such a future now being fulfilled in the Nunc Dimittis: “for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples.”(1:30-31).


Homiletical Reflections

One approach to this rich and seminal pericope is to focus the homily’s attention on the portion of the Isaiah text that only St. Luke includes: 3:5-6. One preacher used the sermon title, “Bulldozers of God,” to evoke our righteous labors in joining to fill in those low places and raise up the low. However, such a direction by itself may leave the assembly with a series of “musts,” “oughts,” and “shoulds’ that turn gospel back into law. Two other approaches to the homily may be of more grace-filled merit. On one hand, a homily can image the ways in which our repentance—always a response to Divine initiative—will lead us to do those ministries of lowering the mountains and raising the valleys in our parish, our community, and the world. The crucial difference between being “bulldozers” and being God’s people along the way is all about the priority of grace. John proclaims that a baptism for the forgiveness of sins is at hand. The One who is to come invites us along his way. What are those high and low places for us? How will we join with our Lord in makng the world straight?


A further strategy for the homily of the Second Sunday of Advent is to focus on that term “made low.” We are familiar with Luke’s use of this word, tapeinoó, Here, Judith Jones provides us with perhaps a better way than by bulldozers:

Though his words can certainly be taken as mere pictures of road construction, in the context of Luke’s writings they evoke richer associations: valleys filled full, mountains and hills humbled (tapeinoo), everything crooked made straight and true. Mary sings of the God who has looked on her humble state (tapeinosis). She praises the One who saves by dethroning the powerful and exalting the humble (tapeinous), sending the rich away empty-handed and filling up the hungry (Luke 1:52–53). Jesus blesses the poor and the hungry and the weeping but announces woe for the rich and well-fed (Luke 6:20–26). On the Day of Pentecost Peter warns the people, “Be saved from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). ‘Crooked,’ skolia, is the same word that Isaiah uses for the things that must be straightened out. Preparing for God’s arrival means rethinking systems and structures that we see as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. It means letting God humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied in us, and letting God heal and lift up what is broken and beaten down.[12]


This reference to Mary is fully appropriate here, as she celebrates God’s power to lift up the lowly . And as we delve more deeply into the “winding roads” phrase, we may well discern some very crooked things that need to be made straight.


[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible (New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, 450. [2] Richard Niell Donovan, “Biblical Commentary: Luke 3:1-6, 2015, “ Sermon Writer, 2015, accessed Nov. 27, 2021, https://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/new-testament-luke-31-6/. [3] Robert C. Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: 1996), 77-78. [4] Donovan, “Biblical Commentary: Luke 3:1-6.” [5] Judith Jones, ”Second Sunday of Advent (Year C), Working Preaching, Dec. 6, 2015, accessed Nov. 28, 2021, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-31-6-3. [6] Tannehill, 79. [7] Ibid. 80/ [8] Fitzmyer, 456. [9] Jones, “Second Sunday of Advent.” [10] Fitzmyer, 459. [11] Ibid., 460. [12] Jones, “Second Sunday of Advent.”

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