December 6, 2015
Whoa, we’ve got a lot of names here. Before we get into our text, let’s sort this all out. Here’s a potted who’s who and what’s what:
- Tiberius Caesar – he was the Roman emperor, and the 15th year of his reign started Sept 27 AD, so that gives us a good time stamp. The Romans installed a puppet ‘king’ of Judea called Herod the Great (who was the one the Wise Men visited) and when he died his ‘kingdom’ was split between his sons – several also, confusingly, called Herod. The first son was Philip, then with his second wife, Herod Antipas, Herod Archeleus, and Herod Philip. (I said it was confusing.)
- The first Philip was the tetrarch of the two places with long names. (Tetrarch just means one of four rulers) He built Caesarea Philippi, which we hear about in the gospels. (But that’s not the same Philippi as in Philippians – brain hurting yet?)
- The next son, Herod Antipas, was made ruler of Galilee, where Jesus lived most of his life. This was the Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded, and the one who oversaw Jesus’s trial a few years later.
- Herod Archeleus was made governor of Judea, but he was so bad at it that he was sacked and Pilate got the job instead.
- The fourth son, Herod Philip, is not one of the rulers named here, but he married Herodias (not very imaginative with the names, were they?) and they had a daughter called Salome (yes, that Salome). Herodias then left Herod Philip and married Herod Antipas while Salome married the first Philip. Christmas must have been a nightmare!
- Lysanias, fortunately, was not related to any of the Herod clan and we’ve just got Annas and Caiaphas left. Annas had been the high priest but the Romans hadn’t got on with him, so they put his son-in-law, Caiaphas, in office instead. Annas remained the power behind him though, and the two of them were still in place at Jesus’ trial.
But why does any of his matter? Well Luke, who wrote this account, was a doctor by profession, and was very keen to establish solid facts, as any good scientist would. Next, there was no firmly established dating system in place then – they didn’t use AD and BC until many years later. Mostly people went by ‘the something year of the reign of …’ well pick a leader. That’s why there are so many here. Thirdly, Luke was probably not Jewish, and he was writing for non-Jewish people who might not know the story, so he wanted to make sure they had all the background.
What this all makes very clear is that this is a real time, in real history, with real people. It’s not a made up myth or a good story with a helpful moral. This is fact.
So, having established where and when – who? Who is this guy? One who comes out of the desert, preparing the way of the Lord! One who brings people through water to a new life. Jesus said he was like Elijah, but he was also like Moses, or like Joshua.
Joshua brought the people of Israel through the Jordan to the Promised Land, but they never quite managed to live up to their side of the promise. Moses brought their fathers through the Red Sea out of slavery and into freedom – except that it took forty years of mumbling and grumbling before the Israelites could shake the sand of Egypt out of their heads.
We can be the same as them. God, in his goodness, has rescued us from the slavery of sin and put us in a good land, flowing with milk and honey (and baby wipes ‘cos that sounds kind of messy). And what do we do? We continually fall back into our old ways, repeating the same old sins, falling for the same old temptations – failing to live up to our side of the promise.
Back then, as now, when the Emperor went anywhere, there would be a work party going ahead of him, repairing roads, tidying everything up and making sure that all was as it should be. That’s what the quote from Isaiah is talking about, except that it was someone far more important than Tiberius Caesar on his way.
John was sent to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. He was the PR Events Manager who went ahead of the VIP, making sure everything, everyone, was ready for his coming. We need to make sure we’re ready too. Advent is the perfect time for a spiritual spring-clean. After all, if the Queen were coming round for tea, you’d make sure the loo was sparkling and there were some good biscuits in, wouldn’t you?
Draw a line down the side of your paper. Mark the top of your line ‘Pure Fiction’. Mark the Bottom of your line ‘Pure Fact’. Now add some people and events to your line.
Sherlock Holmes would go next to Pure Fiction, as would Batman. At the Pure Fact end, you could put the person sitting next to you, or anyone else who is definitely real.
What about characters like Santa Clause? Before you consign him to the Pure Fiction end, remember that his name is derived from St Nicolas, a 4th century Bishop from Turkey, who had a reputation for secret gift-giving. So while the jolly chap with a penchant for chimneys may be fiction, there is a basis in fact. Add him to your line.
It’s the same with Robin Hood and King Arthur. The popular films are almost entirely make-believe, but there are historical people underneath all the flim-flam. Where would you put these people on your scale?
Now think about the people in our reading; Pilate, various Herods, Zechariah, John, and the one he points to, Jesus. Where do they come on your scale? Please don’t feel you need to put everything at the ‘Pure Fact’ end. Some parts of the Bible are clearly made-up stories – Jesus told many stories and they are fiction.
You do not need to give the ‘right’ answer, the expected, whatever you think that might be. Try to look honestly about how much you see the narratives of the Bible as reflecting actual facts, opinions, embroidered memories, stories or myth.
Wherever you put those people on your line, it’s ok. God won’t be offended if you are not too sure if the feeding of the 5000 really happened. God would much prefer that you are honest and real than pretend you believe something you don’t.
As we look forward to your coming,
Please help us to straighten out any bits of our lives that have become crooked,
To fill in any low parts where we have fallen below your standards,
To bring down any high places where we might have set up idols,
To make smooth any places where we have become rough,
through Christ our Lord.
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Print the pages back-to-back for a mini booklet.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.” ’
New International Version
Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.