We all dream of peace.
We have become so used to a world in which violence is a “normal” part of the landscape that even our dream of peace has become almost a forlorn hope – I mean, we hope for it, but we know it is unlikely, at least in our lifetime.
The days into which John the Baptist was born were so similar to our time that the people of Jesus’ day could be forgiven for losing hope of ever seeing peace again – real peace.
In the beginning of our Gospel reading we have references to a whole lot of people – and we think of them as simply geographical time-markers that enable us to know when in history this story happened. But let me offer you some peace-maker glasses – just like the 3-D ones you can get at the cinema - through which to view these people so that you can make a new kind of sense of them.
Emperor Tiberius – Among his many titles the Emperor was called “Son of God” and “Prince of Peace” and historians came to refer to the Pax Romana as the signal feature of this time. But this peace was not true peace. It was peace established and maintained by military force. What a Jewish person in the Roman Province of Judaea would think of when faced with this name is the oppressive domination of their land by the Romans. The emperor was the symbol of that domination and therefore the cause of their lack of freedom.
Pontius Pilate – As Roman Governor, he held all the powers of the Emperor in this local setting. So, he, too, was a symbol of the oppressive Roman regime that denied them their freedom.
Herod, Philip and Lysanius – Vassal Kings of different regions within Judaea. These men from the political aristocracy of Israel were given their power by Rome so long as they supported the domination and oppression of the people. They too, were symbols of the lack of freedom the nation felt.
Annas and Caiaphus – These High Priests were from the religious aristocracy of Israel but they were appointed by the Governor and only held office so long as they kept the people from rebellion. The average tenure of a High Priest during the period of Roman Occupation was about 2 years – some even shorter than that. They, too, were symbols of the oppressive regime of Roman occupation that denied the people their true freedom.
These people then, were the antithesis of peace-makers in their time. They supported the Roman occupation and thus were a focus of any forms of resistance.
Then came John the Baptist. He was the son of Zechariah and he exercised his ministry in the area we now call “The West Bank” – wandering around these arid places calling people to undertake a baptism of repentance.
In addition to this John had a message that was perfect for times such as those days. “Get the road ready for the real LORD” he says. “He is going to show everyone the SALVATION of GOD.”
When we hear that word SALVATION we associate it with the word SAVE. It seems to fit in with other things that we understand about God’s saving grace. But being SAVED is a really hard thing to describe.
Someone made a joke once about that picture of Jesus knocking on the door of our hearts. It is in the form of what we call a “Knock, knock” joke. It goes like this:
What do you want?
I want to SAVE you.
From what I am going to do to you if you don’t open the door to me.
Liberation is at the heart of the idea behind this word SALVATION and to the Jewish mind of John and Jesus’ day liberation meant real PEACE.
What I think is easy to overlook is the significance of that very last phrase that is quoted from Isaiah:
The whole human race will see God’s Salvation!
We now understand that this liberating PEACE is brought by Jesus. It is a gift that God is offering to all people – no-one is excluded from the offer.
Every year during this ADVENT Season, we are given an opportunity to get our hearts ready to understand something new about this story we all know so well – this story of God relinquishing all his heavenly powers to become a helpless little baby human being limited by time and space just as we all are. And God’s powerlessness continues right through the story of Jesus even in his execution by the Roman authorities even though he had done nothing wrong. But that, of course is not the end of the story. If it were, it would just be a tragedy. The resurrection was a declaration by God that our true liberation can only be found in his way of powerlessness that is totally reliant on God’s grace. It is only in him that we find liberty and peace.
The MIGHT of Rome could not overcome this.
The MIGHT of the Principalities and Powers could not overcome this.
The MIGHT of Materialism could not overcome this.
In this story the whole human race can see the SALVATION God offers us all.