Here is a fact you may find interesting: The Ford’s Theater Centre in Washington, DC houses more than 15,000 unique titles of books written about Abraham Lincoln. One wonders if there is anything new to say about a person after – oh, I don’t know, say – 10,000 books. Each one of these works will tell you something about Lincoln, to be sure. In addition, they will tell you something about the author. But they also say something about the times in which they were written. Each book attempts to bring Lincoln’s life to bear on circumstances unfolding at the time in which it was written.
We will be reading from the gospel of Luke throughout this lectionary year, which began in Advent. We have spent a few weeks with what scholars refer to as “the birth narratives”, but beginning with today’s reading we dive into the heart of Luke’s story. It is helpful to keep in mind that when he was writing about Jesus’ baptism he was describing a historical event which took place around 27AD, but he is describing it to an audience in approximately 80AD. So the more we know about that period, the more we will understand how Luke is trying to present Jesus to his target audience.
The first thing to keep in mind is the majority of Luke’s readers had not known Jesus personally. They never met him or heard him speak. In fact, some knew very little about Jesus at all. At best, they might be aware of a small sect who followed him and believed him to be the Messiah.
Now the concept of a messiah is something those readers knew much about. Several prominent figures before Jesus claimed to be a messiah, and several people after his death laid claim to the title as well. The most recent messianic figure prior to Luke’s gospel was Menahem ben Judah. He was the leader of a group of assassins known as the Sicarii. They were named for the small knife they used. A Sicarii hid a dagger in the sleeve of his cloak, pulled it out, struck quickly at the target, and faded into the crowd. There methods gave rise to the phrase “cloak and dagger operation.”
In 66 AD, ben Judah led an assault on the Roman stronghold at Masada and captured its weapons. He then orchestrated an attack on the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, which met with incredible success. ben Judah established himself as the ruler of the liberated city, but became such an insufferable tyrant a rival gang of Zealots murdered him.
After the Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem, an uneasy truce between Zealots and Sadducees erupted into full-scale civil war. The infighting was so fierce and destructive that the city’s entire food supply was burned. The Romans breached the city’s defenses in 70AD and destroyed the Temple. Those who escaped were hunted down and killed, with the final battle ending with the famous siege at Masada in 73AD. All told, over a million Jews lost their lives.
These horrific and disastrous events were still fresh in the minds of Luke’s reading audience. They were still living with the wounds and consequences of this serious military and political miscalculation. Israel had longed for a messiah and over the years several different people stepped up to claim the role. Each manifested himself as God’s champion; a revolutionary figure empowered to lead the people in a violent uprising. And eventually each figure and each revolt was put down, and put down hard.
Just as our country takes years and even decades to assign blame and hash out lessons learned when our actions don’t succeed, Luke’s reading audience was engaged in an on-going quest to determine what went wrong and how they needed to change. Luke adds his voice to the national conversation. He says as clearly as possible, “We need to revisit Jesus of Nazareth, a messianic figure from a half-century ago.”
What do you think those initial readers thought when they heard John’s words in today’s lesson: “One is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor. He will the gather the wheat and burn the chaff”? They must have thought, “Oh, this Jesus is going to be just another Zealot or revolutionary. All he will do is guide us into another catastrophe.” But as they continued to read, a very, very different picture began to emerge. Jesus’ embraces a non-violent approach. His beef is not so much with Rome as it is with the leadership of his own people. Yes, he is trying to establish a new kingdom, but it is one not shaped by geographical boundaries or won by military conquest. It is a kingdom located in every human heart where God’s love is allowed to reign.
So Luke is doing more than giving a historical account of Jesus’ life and teaching. He is laying out devastating critique of other messianic figures whose violent ways led the people to great harm. He is proposing a new idea of Messiah, which Jesus embodied through his life, death, and resurrection.
2016 is a presidential election year. Primaries begin soon. This summer, both political parties will nominate a candidate. One thing is sure… the rhetoric is going to heat up as we approach November. More and more, presidential elections take on messianic overtones. Each candidate will portray him/herself as a savior able to solve all of our problems and will paint opponents as misguided (and perhaps evil) figures who will lead our country to ruin. A good number of citizens will buy into this notion and pursue the election as if salvation itself is at stake.
Perhaps it is a good year to work our way through Luke’s gospel much the same way his initial readers did. Perhaps it will be a good year to measure the words and actions of candidates against the words and actions of Jesus. By doing this, perhaps we will gain a more clear sense of the kingdom Jesus brings as well as an awareness of the scale and scope of any president’s ability to ‘save’ us from all our troubles and threats.
Now don’t fear, I am not going to stand in the pulpit week in and week out evaluating the candidates and telling you which one is most like Jesus. This is not my judgment to make. It is not a judgment Luke hopes for us to make. He wants us to take a look around our world, to measure our times, and then take a fresh look at Jesus. I, for one, am looking forward to meeting Jesus anew and thinking about him in the light of our times.