A Forgiving, Merciful God

The readings for Sunday, December 6, 2015, Second Sunday of Advent, Cycle C, are
Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; and Luke 3:1-6.

In the Preamble to his Gospel, Luke expresses his dissatisfaction with the previous attempts of other Christian writers “to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us.” We assume he refers to other documents which we now call “gospels.” One of those documents is the Gospel of Mark. Although in contrast to Mark, Luke first composes two chapters of material which we now call “the Infancy (of Jesus and John the Baptizer) Gospel,” when he comes to the catechesis which formed the earliest preaching, he follows Mark’s lead. As Mark began with the ministry of John the Baptizer, so does Luke. In Mark’s Gospel, John suddenly comes roaring out of the desert but without any historical setting. In this Sunday’s Gospel Luke attempts to construct a historical setting for John’s mission.

It is the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Ceasar who ruled the Roman Empire from 14-37 A.D. Luke mentions Pontius Pilate, governor (or prefect) of Judea from 18-36 A.D.

Luke notes that John’s mission began during the “high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” At various places in his gospel Luke displays an inaccurate knowledge of Jewish laws and customs. This indicates Gentile (non-Jewish) origin of Luke. There were no two high priests at the same time. Annas was high priest from 6-15 A.D. His son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from 18-36 A.D. Therefore Caiaphas alone was high priest when John’s mission began.

Most of these historical figures would fit into a “Gallery of Rogues” from a Christian point of view. Advent is however a time of expectant joy. Therefore Luke introduces the next historical figure just as the Old Testament sometimes introduced prophets. “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, and he went into the whole region bordering the River Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Here Luke introduces a major theme of his gospel and of his second book, Acts of Apostles. That theme is forgiveness of sins. One thinks instinctively of Pope Francis’ promulgation of a Year of Mercy, the goal of which will be forgiveness of sins. Luke (or the Baptizer) states one requirement to receive God’s merciful forgiveness. Repentance expressed through submission to an external washing called “baptism.”  God’s forgiveness is waiting. Only repentance, a profound change of mind and of a way of life, removes the barriers keeping God’s forgiveness from flowing in.

Luke implicitly connected John with Old Testament prophecy by introducing him as the ancient prophets were introduced. He needs a more explicit connection with these prophets. He finds this connection in the prophet we know as “Second Isaiah,” who  appears to God’s people in exile in Babylon (today Iraq) with words of consolation and healing. How appropriate for a proclamation of God’s merciful forgiveness! The time is about 540 B.C. The prophet hears a heavenly voice, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight, etc.” The context is this. The Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. As was the custom of the time, many of the conquered were sent into exile by their conquerors. About 540 B.C. Babylon falls to Cyrus the Great and his army. It was Cyrus’ policy to allow exiles to return to their homes. Second Isaiah interprets this event as a God-sent change for his people.

The basic message of Second Isaiah was this. “Your suffering is over! Pack up! You are going home to Judea, to Jerusalem — to rebuild your city and country!” To adapt the words of the prophet to the Baptizer, Luke rearranges a few words. The original words of the heavenly voice heard by Second Isaiah, “The voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’” Cool Luke writes, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.’” No longer does a heavenly voice command preparing a highway through the wilderness to return from exile. The voice is the voice of John the Baptizer crying out in the wilderness bordering the River Jordan. No matter what changes Luke made, the message of both prophets, Second Isaiah and the Baptizer, is a message of joy. As those ancient Israelites were forgiven and returned to their homes, so are all Christians invited by this Sunday’s gospel to repent and return to the home of their forgiving Father who is waiting for them.