I don’t approve of ellipses in stories. You know, when something dramatic happens in a story and then you get those terrible words, “Two Years Later….” What happened in that dot-dot-dot? How did our hero recover from that car crash, and what? he married someone else? and he has kids now? and the dog died how?
The Gospel According to Luke gives us what is probably the worst ellipsis in the history of the written word. We see Joseph and Mary’s failure to remember (or recognize?) the divinity of their twelve-year-old son, they leave for home, and —
Eighteen Years Later…
Friends, that is harsh. Most likely Joseph died during this time (see John 19:26-27). Most likely Jesus learned his father’s trade and then threw it away. And don’t forget about John. What was he like as a teenager? Was it hard when he left home for the desert? Did Zechariah suffer disgrace before the teachers of the law? Is Zechariah even still alive? And odds are, since Jesus and John were cousins, they may have spent time together as children, as young men. What did that look like?
But no, friends, we will have to be grateful for what little we’ve been given, and like the Beloved Physician, we will move on to the important stuff.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. – Luke 3:1-3
For much of my life I was confused about John the Baptist. If Jesus came to call us to repentance, to directly address our sins, then John the Baptist seemed unnecessary to me. He was almost a tragic character, called to do something redundant, then die alone in prison. But now I think there must be a difference. I don’t think John is called to be a lesser Jesus.
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’” – Luke 3:4-6
John makes straight paths by calling sinners to repentance, and Jesus…calls sinners to repentance? But then, it would seem to me, there is no difference between the making of the road and the traveling on it. And surely there’s a difference. And if there’s a difference, what then is Jesus doing that John isn’t? Again, I don’t think this is a matter of degree. John builds the road, and Jesus walks it. John opens people’s eyes to the light, and Jesus shines it (John 1:6-8). John is not a lesser Jesus any more than men who lay train tracks are lesser trains. So again, what is Jesus doing that John isn’t?
I think this may all come down to what Isaiah means by mountains, valleys, crooked roads, and rough ways. On the face of it, these are all obstacles on a journey, things that can stop you and trap you, even turn you around and send you packing. And my first thought here, my gut reaction, is to think of Pilgrim’s Progress. The obstacles are sin, right? The things that must be cleared out of our hearts before we can accept Jesus into them? Well, sure. Of course. But I think there’s something bigger here. I think John has been sent to aim at a much larger target.
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? – Luke 3:7
According to Matthew 3:7, John is not speaking to everyone who has come to see him. He’s speaking specifically to the Pharisees and Sadducees, to the representatives of the religious establishment who have come out to the desert to check John’s credentials. Luke, however, goes a step further, showing us the reaction of the laymen who have also come out to see John:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” – Luke 3:10-14
Here’s what I think is happening, friends. In Matthew, and especially here in Luke, I think we see John acting as a watershed as Israel flash-floods out to him in the desert. The Pharisees and Sadducees, those who represent a religion that has sold out to the World, to the Curse, to the Dragon in the Garden, are deflected away, back to their systems and rules. And the “sinners,” those who are subject to that sold-out religion but reap none of its earthly benefits, those who hate the World but are bound to it in chains, are turned to the Jordan to be baptized. Luke eventually addresses this point in a parenthetical, when Jesus himself discusses John’s ministry in Luke 7:18-35:
(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) – Luke 7:29-30
So, friends, how exactly has John cleared a road for Jesus to travel? According to Luke’s commentary above (as well as Paul’s in Acts 19:1-7), I think John’s baptism of repentance is not about entering into freedom from sin and the World. I think it’s about recognizing that freedom from sin and the World even exists. I don’t think the existence of freedom is a given at this point in the story. The actual means of freedom has not yet been revealed. I believe that John’s job then is not one of directly saving souls, but one of identification and demarcation. The religious establishment of the Pharisees and Sadducees is over there, those of you who are being baptized are over here. And because you are over here, with a vision of the possible future, you will have eyes to see the light when it shines:
John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:16-17
And that leads us to the final question, friends. If John’s clearing of the road is different from Jesus’ traveling of it, and John’s baptism of repentance is part of the clearing and not of the traveling, what’s left for the traveling? After Jesus is baptized, he’ll have his own time the desert, and that’s when I believe we’ll find out.