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Bible Study: Advent 2
Text: Luke 3:1-6 (7-18)

Dennis Bratcher

The Gospel of Luke opens with an extended narrative of the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus. The narrative style, the structure of the first two chapters, the use of Old Testament quotations, as well as the flow of thought all serve to connect Luke’s Gospel with God’s work in the Old Testament. It is obvious that Luke is relating the story of Jesus as a continuation, even as a climax, to the "salvation history" of the Old Testament. Luke sees the Incarnation as another revelatory act of God in human history in which He reveals Himself as a God of grace and deliverance.

Many Lectionary Readings for Advent continue this theme both in relating John the Baptist to Jesus, but also in linking both by various images and themes to the work of God in the Old Testament and to several major theological themes that track though this passage into the larger Gospel narrative.

Observations from the Text

1. The introduction to this section (vv. 1-2) recounts in unusual detail the historical setting of the Gospel story within the framework of world history.

Significance: In firmly anchoring the Gospel story in history, Luke prevents this event from being mythicized into some cosmic drama or of degenerating into sentimentality. The impact of the events that are unfolding in the story are very this-worldly, in the real life flow of human history. It is that "this-worldly" dimension of the Incarnation to which Luke will return as He tells the Gospel story in terms of the difference the coming of Jesus makes in how we see our world, and how we respond to it.

There is also the overtone in this introduction of the political forces of the world that seem to overshadow the story. There is great contrast between the power of the Roman leaders portrayed here and the vulnerability of the eccentric wilderness prophet, the teenager from Galilee, and the child born in a stable and paid homage by shepherds. Yet, there is a clear affirmation early in the book that earthly powers and rulers do not have the last word (1:51-55). There is also likely intended here some connection with the book of Acts as the early church leaders repeatedly are called to judgment before the political and religious leaders of the world, without knowing that they are being judged rather than sitting in judgment.

2. As is typical for the early chapters of Luke, the OT provides the background for the development of the story.

Significance: There are several theological themes drawn from the OT that carry the weight of communication here. Verses 1-6 revolve around the quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5. It is obvious that the Gospel tradition is re-interpreting the Isaiah passage to apply to John the Baptist, especially in the use of "desert" and "prepare."

Rather than reading with Isaiah: "A voice cries, ‘In the desert prepare. . .’", the Gospels read: "A voice cries in the desert, ‘Prepare. . .’". By adapting this quotation in this way, the Gospel traditions bring attention to the desert as the arena of John’s ministry. But the "desert" is much more than just the location of John’s public ministry. It takes on larger significance as a theological metaphor. While the "desert" could be a negative symbol for devastation and destruction, prophetic traditions often recalled the desert as the place where Israel first encountered God and faithfully responded to Him (Hos 2:14; Jer 2:2-3). This new voice, crying out in the desert, is a call to Israel to return to the desert, to return to faithfulness, to respond to God’s grace as they had long ago in another desert.

The original context of the Isaiah passage was amid the hopes and expectations of a return from exile in Babylon. This quote makes an important theological link with the future expectations that had been associated with the return from Exile. At that time they envisioned a new Kingdom where God would elevate Israel to its proper place among the nations, where she could fulfill her calling as the people of God and be a source of light to the world. Luke’s use here implies a similar action of God to fulfill those hopes in Jesus.

Also, in the second line of the quote, Luke changes the Isaiah reading, "make straight in the desert a path for our God," to "make his paths straight." Luke clearly wants us to see John’s preaching and the coming of Jesus as closely related, as he has already done in the earlier infancy narratives. With John and Jesus "related", and tied to the "voice" of Isaiah and the Coming of God in salvation and deliverance to His people, Luke clearly establishes the expectation of a significant impending work of God in history.  It both recalls and anticipates the transformative nature of the actions of God in the world, both historically and spiritually in the life of the community of Faith.

3. There is a clear note of threat in his preaching that unfolds from the call to repentance.

Significance: The background of John’s call to repentance is also from the Old Testament. The primary Old Testament term for "sin" means "to walk on the wrong path" or "to walk in the wrong direction." The term usually translated "repent" (Heb: shub), means "to turn around" or "to change direction." The implication is that the people are going the wrong way, that they are not following the correct paths. Perhaps that is why they need a new "highway" built by God in Jesus.

Other writers in the New Testament use the metaphor of "walking" to refer to the manner in which a person lives life (e.g. Phil 1:27). "Repent," in this context in the mouth of John, then, does not mean to go through any legal or ritual process, even of baptism, but is a call to a certain kind of lifestyle that puts into practice in day to day living the grace of God. That not only is the fundamental idea of Torah in the Old Testament, but also reflects both the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

The repentance for which John calls is not just a ritual action or a legal transaction that could be carried out at the temple in Jerusalem or even in the Jordan River. He is calling for a return to covenant faithfulness that will be lived out in the reality of the world, as he goes on to specify in following verses. He is calling for a different way of being religious, a way of living out covenant relationship that goes beyond dreams of glory, expectations of privilege, or legal obedience. That new way works out in the concrete realities of sharing coats and food, of dealing fairly and honestly, of respecting others (10-14).

It also gives a clear context for the overarching resonance of threat and judgment with its corresponding call to faithful response that echoes through John’s preaching. That helps to establish the twin Advent themes of hope and judgment that had long been a part of prophetic expectation (e.g., Amos 5-6), and will sound again in the teachings of Jesus.

4. The newness of this action is underscored by the radical dimensions of the unfolding of this work of God.

Significance: Mountains will be moved! Valleys will be filled in! The scope of this may be diminished in our day of multilane superhighways cutting across the mountains. But the physical possibility of this happening is not really the point. The images here are intended to portray an action of God on a grand, unprecedented scale. God will remove every obstacle that will hinder the coming of the Lord! It is not that the people have to undertake the task of leveling the mountains. That is God’s work. Repentance is the preparatory work of the people, so they will be in a position to recognize the work of God in the world. Note Luke’s comment in 19:41-44:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

5. The conclusion of the Isaiah quotation places the coming of Jesus in a global context.

Significance: Just as Simeon had proclaimed as he held the infant Jesus, this new action of God in the world, this new path that God is building for the reconciliation of humanity to Himself, is for all people. That is significant here when we consider that the Book of Luke is structured as a journey, as Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. But it will not end there. Others will continue that journey in the book of Acts from Jerusalem to Rome, and to the whole world. We will continue that journey. In fact, we are still on the journey as we still prepare for a Second Advent.

Questions from the Text

1. How can we hear this story as something more than just the recounting of historical events that happened 2,000 years ago? Or should we? Is retelling the story at Christmas enough?

2. Why does Luke provide all the historical detail of rulers and governors, yet gives us so few historical detail about other things, like what Jesus looked like?

3. Why does the Gospel story of "Good News," love, and peace on earth, begin with such a negative aspect as a call to repentance and a warning about judgment (3:7-9)?

4. Why would the people respond to John’s message with such expectation that he might be the Messiah (3:15)? If they were so looking for a Messiah, why was John’s message of preparation even necessary?

5. Given our popular views of prophecy as "prewritten history," why did Luke think it necessary or helpful to change the passage in Isaiah in order to make it apply to John and Jesus? What does that do to our view of Scripture? Or are there other ways of understanding Scripture and prophecy?

6. What exactly is it that John wants the people to do to repent? Is it the Baptism? How does John’s response in the following verses (3:11-14) to the people’s question of "What then should we do?" relate to his call to repentance and the fact that he was baptizing people ("a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," 3:3).

7. What difference can this passage possible make in our lives in the 21st century after Jesus as we go out into the routine of Monday morning? Does it really need to make any difference?

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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