1In 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— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 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. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
We are told that Luke was a doctor by profession, but he also shows himself to be a pretty decent historian by 1st-century standards. As he begins chapter three, the good doctor gives us some information that seems to be totally irrelevant. But what he is doing here is situating this story within a certain time period.
If I asked you when you were born, when you finished high school, or when you had your first child, you would probably give me a date. I graduated high school in 1998. But Luke didn’t have access to our dating techniques yet, in large part because we use the birth of Christ as a starting point.
So we are told that this event took place in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius. Tiberius was the Caesar from 14 AD until about 37 AD. Today we would say that this event took place around the year 29 or 30 AD. The exact date isn’t all that important, because many of these dates are estimates.
If Luke was writing today, and we still hadn’t adopted the system that we have, he might have said, “In the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was president, Terry McAliffe was governor of Virginia, and Carolyn Dull was the mayor of Staunton, during the years when Ervin Stutzman was the Executive Director of Mennonite Church, USA, the word of God came upon John the son of Zechariah.”
Notice that there is more going on here. By stating that Tiberius was the emperor at this time, Luke is also drawing attention to the issues of the day. Tiberius was known as a great conqueror. He is given credit for expanding the Roman Empire into what is modern-day Germany. Pilate, historians tell us, was a pretty ruthless leader. He comes across as a pretty nice guy in the New Testament, but he had a reputation for killing a lot of people. Herod and the high priests are named because they are going to be important in the development of the story that Luke is looking to proclaim.
So it was during this period of political unrest that the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. The phrase “word of God” is used in our culture in a number of ways. The first way that I think of is as a reference to Jesus. This reference is found in John chapter 1, where we are told that the Jesus is the word. This isn’t how Luke is using the phrase. Often today we hear people use the phrase word of God to refer to the Bible. But I’m pretty sure Luke didn’t mean it that way either as the Bible had not been written yet. And a 1st-century Jew would not have referred to the Hebrew Bible as the word of God. That’s not to say that they didn’t believe that the Hebrew scriptures were inspired by God, just that this isn’t how they referred to their holy texts. They called them the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim; the Teaching/Law, the Prophets, and the Other (Wisdom) Literature. You may hear a Jewish person today refer to the Tanak, which is an acronym for the Hebrew Bible.
So what does Luke mean when he says that the word of God came to John? This is Luke authenticating the message that John is delivering. When Luke says that the word of God came to John, Luke is claiming that John is a prophet, like the prophets of the Old Testament. Luke is situating John among Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Remember that these prophets came on the scene during times of turmoil and suffering; times of pain and political unrest. Isaiah is the one who warns the people that their sinfulness has led to the downfall of their nation, that they will be taken into exile. As you might expect, this message wasn’t always welcomed with open arms.
So in this period when Tiberius the conqueror and Pontius Pilate the ruthless were ruling over the Israelites, the word of God came to John. And like those prophets of old, John was given a message that many didn’t want to hear: repent for the kingdom of God is near.
We tend to think of repentance as something that other people need to do. This is for those sinners out there in the world, the ones who abuse and steal from others, who intentionally hurt one another. The rapists, the murderers, the adulterers. And indeed, all these people need to repent. As do all of us.
The Greek word Metanoia simply means to turn. There are some things that we need to turn a complete 180 degrees away from, and there are others that simply require a little correction along the way. But notice that John does not differentiate between those who need to repent a lot and those who need to repent a little. Everyone should continue to turn, to turn toward God. So I am a little hesitant to share this story, because it seems quite extreme.
This past Thursday I went to hear a presentation in Charlottesville by a theology professor from Iowa. This professor had taught in Atlanta for a while where she participated in a program in a women’s correctional facility. It was a Bible study, like you would find at any of our local jails and prisons. While teaching there, this professor made friends with a woman named Kelly Gissendaner. We were told that Kelly was warm, outgoing, and had a thirst and hunger to learn theology, to learn about God. To know her, you never would have guessed that she was on Death Row. She was awaiting execution for her part in the murder of her husband 18 years earlier.
I don’t know all of the details, but an interesting aspect of this story is that the person who actually killed Kelly’s husband will be eligible for parole in eight more years because of a plea bargain, while Kelly was put to death this past September. Put to death in spite of thousands of calls, signed petitions, and even a plea from the Pope himself to offer clemency.
But I tell this story not because it is a story of death, but a story of life. Kelly’s is a story of metanoia, of repentance, and the forgiveness of sin. This video was shown at the presentation I attended, which includes several former inmates as well as pastors reading Kelly’s proclamation of faith. These friends were forced to read this on Kelly’s behalf because no recording devices are allowed inside the prison. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaBsm4jWI4A
As amazing as this story is, there is more. After Kelly’s final clemency trial was denied, she was visited by a family member who came to her asking for forgiveness. This family member said that earlier in the trial process that they had the ability to keep Kelly alive, had they not pushed for the death penalty. And Kelly forgave them.
Kelly’s own children, who had spent the last 18 years without a father or a mother, at first wanted nothing to do with their mother after she was found guilty. But they too came to forgive her, and they testified to that fact in court. This metanoia, this repentance isn’t just for the person who commits the heinous act or sin. Those of us who have been sinned against need to repent as well. We need to turn from our hatred and turn toward forgiveness.
I want us to notice the words from Isaiah that Luke quotes here as a reference to John the Baptizer. Beginning in the second part of verse 4, “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.’”
It hasn’t been very long since the city of Staunton underwent a pretty hearty renovation project along Churchville Ave. The city removed the old, broken and cracked sidewalk from downtown to Gypsy Hill Park. I’m sure that we have all walked along uneven paths before. I’m not the most graceful person in the world just walking back and forth on level ground, but put me on an uneven surface and I’m even more of a klutz. I like to hike in the woods, but I find myself always looking at my feet, because if I don’t I usually end up tripping over a root or a stone. Walking along a broken sidewalk can be even more dangerous because you may not be looking at your feet. At least in the woods you expect a few things to trip you up. But walking on pavement should be safe! So our city tore up these old sidewalks and put down our new, beautiful, brick pavers.
The first step in laying a pavered sidewalk is to first remove all of the old debris. The broken concrete, the rocks, the sticks, everything is hauled away. Then the real work begins. You must prepare the path. This means measuring and checking for level and evenness. It means taking time to make sure that things are just right. Because if you are off by an inch in one place, that paver is going to be a stumbling block for whoever comes along next. So sand is used to level the path, making it smooth and even. And only after it is even do you begin to set the pavers. And how do you do that? One brick at a time. Any progress you make is slow because you only progress four inches at a time. So from downtown Staunton to Gypsy Hill Park, these pavers were laid four inches at a time.
Luke tells us that this prophesy from Isaiah is fulfilled in John the Baptizer, and surely that is true. But I also think that it applies to each and everyone one of us who calls ourselves a follower of Jesus Christ. We are called to make the path straight, smooth, and level. No heaving pavers, no roots or sticks, no stumbling blocks. Prepare the way for the Lord.
So what does Luke and Isaiah before him mean when he says in verse 6, “And all people will see God’s salvation?” Are Luke and Isaiah universalists who believe that all people will be with God in heaven for all of eternity? I think that you could argue that, and some people have. But that’s not the way I read this. There is a difference between seeing God’s salvation and experiencing it firsthand. I think that all people are to see God’s salvation through our lives.
Let’s put this all together now, because it seems like we have covered a lot of territory in these six verses. Luke starts out by contextualizing the coming of the word of God to John the Baptizer. It was during the reign of a dominant Caesar and a ruthless prefect when the Jerusalem and much of the known world were occupied territories. This phrase “word of God” is an authentication that John speaks on behalf of God, just like the prophets of old. And in the middle of all of the turmoil and political upheaval, John calls upon his fellow Jews to metanoia, to repent, to turn from the things that keep us from loving God and loving our neighbors. And in this turning, we change from being stumbling blocks to being road pavers. Straightening the crooked paths, leveling the surface. Bringing people and God together.
In the video that I showed you earlier, there was a woman that I pointed out who read some of the words that Kelly Gissendaner was not able to speak on tape. That woman was in the cell right next to Kelly while Kelly was awaiting her execution. What you didn’t see in that video is the scars that woman bears on her wrists. One night Kelly heard this woman screaming in her cell, screaming in agony and pain. Self-inflicted pain. The woman was trying to commit suicide.
In that moment of pain and confusion, Kelly called out to her neighbor through a little screen. And the only woman on Georgia’s Death Row became an evangelist for hope. As I watch that video again, I hear the voice of this woman as she reads Kelly’s text, and I know that the words are her own as well. She says, “Hope is still alive.” Sometimes, all we need to do is turn toward it. Other times, we need our fellow sinners to pave the way.