Sunday’s Gospel begins not with John the Baptist’s ringing call to repentance, but with a long and detailed list of rulers.
Luke’s litany of imperial, regional, and religious authorities does more than date John’s ministry; it also contrasts human kingdoms with God’s reign. The claims to authority that Tiberius or Herod or the high priest may make are not ultimate. God’s people owe allegiance first and foremost to God. And it is God’s word that sets John’s ministry in motion. John has been commissioned to prepare the way not for lord Caesar or any other earthly lord, but for the one true Lord.
Like the prophetic voice of Isaiah 40, John challenges God’s people to see the wilderness as a place not of desolation, but of hope. God is calling them, like the Babylonian exiles, to leave their captors behind and head home through the wilderness. God is calling them, like the people of Israel in Egypt, to an exodus out of slavery, into God’s promised fresh start. John preaches that the first step on this journey toward freedom is a baptism of repentance.
Twenty centuries after the fact, we are interested in Jesus, not in tetrarchs and obsolete geography. But these details reveal something crucial about Jesus: He is not an abstract God. He weaves his action and presence into the fabric of our day-to-day lives—into our own personal histories.
John the Baptist is Christ’s precursor, the one sent to announce His coming and get people ready to welcome Him. John plays a central role in the liturgies of Advent, the season during which the Church recalls Christ’s first coming, readies itself to welcome Him anew on Christmas, and looks forward to His definitive, second coming at the end of history.
Luke emphasizes the incomparable importance of Christ’s coming by pointing out how Isaiah had prophesied not only the arrival of Jesus but the appearance of the precursor, John. God had long been preparing for this pivotal moment in the world’s history and wanted to alert his people, through John, of its imminence.
Although Christ has come to the earth, and although He has come to dwell in many human hearts and societies, many more have still not heard of Him or welcomed Him. They have yet to have their advent. But even with these God sends His heralds ahead of Him. We are those heralds. Every one of us is another John the Baptist, called to boldly draw others to the truth, love, and life, of Christ with our words, deeds, and example. Among the many responsibilities and privileges each of us has, none is greater than joining with the Holy Spirit to prepare hearts for the Lord.
Let God’s word set your ministry in motion!