Don’t let anybody tell you that religion has nothing to do with politics! Religion has everything to do with politics.
Take John the Baptist in the Gospel reading for Advent 2. How do you think of him? As a pious preacher, a sort of extreme-Billy Graham, a bit of an eccentric (to say the least) in his diet and manner of dress, who called people to be baptised and told them to behave?
Is that how you think of him?
Let’s think again.
The beginning of the passage, Luke is very keen to explain the political context. This is the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was a ruthless emperor, and was already being worshipped as a god in parts of the Roman empire. Rome had ruled over Palestine for about 100 years at this time, but had only had a governor in Jerusalem since AD6. At the time of the story of Jesus, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. He was there from 26-36CE, around 10 years. Herod was ruler of Galilee. This is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who was the one whom Matthew records as having killed the babies when he heard about the birth of Jesus. And his brother Philip was in charge of Iturea and Trachonitis. The two brothers were rather shaky rulers and were only there by Roman permission. Luke also says Lysanias was ruler of Abilene. This is a bit of a puzzle, as Lysanias had been dead quite a while by this point. And it’s not easy to see the significance of this little fact.
And then we come to the religious politics. Annas and Caiaphas were high priest during that time. Annas was high priest when Jesus’ ministry began and then his son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from18-36CE. That is 18 years. Caiaphas was high priest for 18 years at a time when the average length of time was 4 years. And when Pilate was recalled to Rome, Caiaphas was deposed. So we reckon they worked well together, Pilate and Caiaphas. They depended on each other. Caiaphas stays in place by collaborating with the occupiers. “The priest who represented the Jews before God on the Day of Atonement also represented them before Rome the rest of the year.”
That is the political context. Luke wants you to understand that, so that you can understand what John is doing and then what Jesus is doing.
Then Luke says: the word of God came to John son of Zechariah. He is reminding you of the story he told at the beginning of the Gospel, about the birth of John to his elderly parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest. In the Jewish religion, priests were born, not ordained. If you were male and your father was a priest, you were a priest. John, however, is not a priest, serving in the temple in Jerusalem. He has foregone his birthright. You don’t do that easily. Instead, he has become a prophet, answerable to God alone, not to the Temple or the High Priest or the Roman rulers. John rejects the centre of his religion. He has turned away from the institution. He is listening to God and doing something different.
John appears in the desert preaching a Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He soon gets a nickname: John the Baptizer or John the Baptist. What he does is listen to people’s sins and dunk them under the water as a symbol of cleansing from those sins.
John is harping back to one of the big moments in the history of Israel. Moses brought the children of the Hebrews out of the land of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, into the wilderness and from there to the Promised Land. John wants to bring them out of the modern-day Egypt, which for him was Rome. He plunges them into the water as a sign of the forgiveness of sins, like coming through the Red Sea, a sign of turning away from Rome and turning back to God. And he is in the desert, in the wilderness. And that is no accident.
This is all hugely political. John, by his words and actions, is saying that the rule of Rome or Egypt will just not do. We must turn to God. And that turning to God is not just a spiritual thing, it involves all of our lives, including our politics. We must live with God in charge, God as our ruler. And when we turn to God and repent, God will forgive us.
And this truth applies now to us, just as it applied to those who came out into the desert to hear John preach. This means you!
Rome or Egypt for us now can be found in:
- What we do with our money; how we spend it; how we invest it. We live in a culture that tries to get the biggest return for the smallest investment. And that means someone else has to pay.
- How we live in relation to our fragile earth; how we consume the earth’s resources. The climate summit that has fizzled out in Qatar matters to all of us.
- How we treat other people – not just in the way we treat the people we see, but how we deal with the people we don’t see. The way you spend your money has a knock-on effect on the people who grow and make the goods you buy. You have to take responsibility for that. You have a relationship with the people who supply you with what you need, whether you like it or not.
- How we vote and the reasons that make us vote for one person or another.
- The way we treat the poor, the hungry, those who are marginalized, those who have mental illness, those with physical and learning disabilities, the homeless, the asylum seeker.
All of these things. And there are many more issues that challenge God’s rule in our lives. On all of these issues we need to repent and turn back to God and live his way.
Imagine John the Baptist standing out there in the countryside preaching. What do you think he would be shouting about now, today? What would you do – go and see him and allow yourself to be moved? Or would you turn away and go on just as before?