- John 3:27-36
- Luke 3:1-6
My dear friends in the Lord, Jesus Christ,
One can easily make the mistake by reading through Luke 2 into Luke 3 and not pick up the time frame between the two chapters. In a quick succession of a few verses, we meet Christ as a newborn baby, and then again as a 12 old boy in the temple in Jerusalem. Then chapter 3 takes us further another 18 years to when Christ was about to begin his public ministry—in total 30 years.
Since the announcement of the birth of the Messiah nothing new basically happened. Simeon died, Anna died, some of the shepherds who heard the angel announcing the message of good hope and joy must have died too. It is not impossible to think that some others who saw and heard the message of the wise men from the East started to doubt the whole thing. And we might have found ourselves in the same boat, wouldn’t we?
But a few things did happen in between.
First of all, Herod ordered all the boys born in Bethlehem, two years and younger, to be killed. This was a terrible outcome of the “peace on earth” of the angel-message. It was a fulfilling of the words of Jeremiah some 500 years earlier who said:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15, ESV)
This meant that the Christ of Bethlehem was ostensibly delivered up to the will of political leaders of the day. Even He, who determined the destiny and times of nations, was subject to the whim of godless rulers.
It was as if God withdrew and left Jesus to live up to the reputation assigned to Him by the wise men, Simeon, Anna and a handful others. Soon the excitement of the star, the crib and the angel choirs were forgotten.
The advancement of the Roman Empire
The Gospel writer, Luke, was correct when he wrote that Jesus was born under Caesar Augustus who ruled solely as Roman Emperor between 30. B.C. and 14 A.D. Right in the middle of his reign Jesus was born. Augustus divided Palestine into three parts, all under his control. The world paid taxes to the Emperor.
So, for all practical purposes, the birth of Christ made no difference to the world stage. The Caesar had sway over about all of the world. Then, another Emperor took over. We meet him in Luke 3, fifteen years later. But at that stage, there was not a word about the reign of the Messiah.
Tiberius Caesar was on the top of his political career. Rome was the centre point of the world. What happened on the world stage was what was decided in Rome. Luke, a good historian, he had to date his writings about Christ according to the years of the reign of the Roman Emperors. The Emperors even referred to themselves as a god. So, up to that point, the anti-Christ had the honour of having history markers referring to a year of his reign.
In some sense, then, the world was in an even greater dismal state of oppression that the time Christ was born.
Jesus had no power base, no support, no army, no weapon, no reserve, no organisation. He kept Himself busy in his father’s carpenter’s worship. So woeful was the state even within the people of God that hardly anyone saw Christ was the promised Messiah. And when He commenced his public ministry, his people rejected Him and even handed Him over to their very political oppressors to be killed.
Why was God waiting so long to deploy the Christmas defensive?
The dismantling of the kingdom of David
While everything kept happening as if the Christ had not been born, the kingdom of David got completely dismantled and destroyed. As a matter of fact, the Roman Emperor thought so little of the Land of Promise that it even added to its national borders territory of historical enemies of God’s people. So we read:
“… Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,” (Luke 3:1, ESV)
David’s kingdom was dissolved into small bits and puppet rulers, mere mouthpieces of the Roman powers, got regions as political gifts from the Emporer. God’s people were bundled in with other nationalities under one government. They had no political say whatsoever.
To understand the question of why God was waiting so long to deploy his offensive, one has to add that the names of the governors of those small provinces would spell only trouble later on. There was Pontius Pilate, who got the city of David as the centre of his power base. He, later on, handed Jesus over to be crucified. And there was Herod who later commanded the beheading of the John the Baptist who announced the public ministry of Christ. If God acted earlier these men would not be there to make life difficult for both Christ and the new church.
The complete collapse of the priesthood and sacrificial system
Luke 3:2 puts us in the picture: all of this happened “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (Luke 3:2, ESV)
The heart of the relationship between God and his people, and the very thing which separated God’s people from the rest of the word, was God’s ordained worship. To oversee this worship, He appointed priests. Caiaphas was the official High Priest, but he was appointed by the Romans. Sometime before him, it was Annas, his father-in-law, who got sacked and replaced by the Romans. But at the time of Luke, the two of them shared the priesthood and made of it some religious power base to determine the official theology and direction of the temple worship. They became the religious elite who ran the show according to their own rules. Thus the priesthood totally collapsed and the people were left in a spiritual wilderness.
Why did God wait so long to deploy his Christmas offensive? Why the silence? Could it not be prevented that Jesus would later have to answer to these two mongrels who concocted a false charge against Him for which Pilate, in the end, had Him crucified?
Yet, when Luke writes the story of this unfolding offensive, he writes:
“and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6, ESV)
We have to just keep God’s promise about Christ in mind. Daniel said about Christ, exactly when he was seeing visions of the different world empires rising and falling.
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13–14, ESV)
Isiah prophecies about the Messiah:
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:7, ESV)
What did God’s Christmas offensive comprise of, and when?
About the “when?” we already knew: when the situation of God’s people was at an all-time low and when the forces of the anti-Christ seem indestructible. God did not act in a moment of weakness of his enemy. There was no crisis. On the contrary, the powers of darkness had the world in its grip; Satan had his puppets in power all of the largest empire known at that time.
What did the offensive comprise of? Luke recorded a stunning statement:
“…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:2, ESV)
The weapons for God’s Christmas offensive were, to say the least, humanly speaking, embarrassing. God had one man, without influence, a lonely soul, a social misfit, a fanatic, a man dressed in camel hair clothes with a leather belt around his waist, a man who ate locusts and honey. He lived in the desert. He had nothing to front the caesar, or Pilate or Herod with. He had never met Caiaphas or Annas and could not reason with them. He seemed to have no friend or support.
Was he the one would lead the offensive? Would his preaching eventually lead to “all mankind seeing God’s salvation”?
It seems as if God’s timing was hopelessly off-target to launch his offensive, and it surely seems as if his weapons were completely ineffective.
And yet, John was a man sent by God. The weapon in his hand, was God’s Word. It was with Word and sacrament that God would win and destroy his enemy. The message was about Christ. For John Christ had always to be more than Him. “There is the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.” The call was to repentance.
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:8, ESV)
This was a new beginning. It was a time of chopping out the wood. This is Messiah’s offensive. It was never aimed at political structures and power bases; it was aimed at sinful and rebellious hearts.
Even today, mighty rulers might assume political power, but Christ’s power is aimed as the liberation of rebellious souls. A man and woman who are crushed by the Word of God are made new, they receive new minds and new hearts, their life-purpose changes, they stand under a new command and they do not bow before the gods of this word. And against the power of God there is no power. This life-giving Gospel infiltrates the dark corners of the world, the small villages and the big cities, it destroys the powers of resistance and the plans of rulers.
What do you know about Augustus and Tiberius? And Pilate and Herod? And Caiaphas and Annas? What’s left of the Roman Empire? What year are we living in— is it not the year of our Lord, anno Domini. We understand the words of Psalm 2
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.” (Psalm 2:1–2, ESV)
But—and this is the crux—the church must never ever soil itself with the things of this world. This church dare not try to find acceptance in the world by what it can loot from the world. Our success does not lie in methods of this world and our strategies; we must march under the orders of our Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ. Should the church forget or compromise its mission to proclaim the Word of God in purity and faithfulness, it will surely fail.
Let’s cling to the Word of Revelation 19:
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war … the name by which he is called is The Word of God …From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11–16, ESV)
The Christmas offensive started with John the Baptist. The strategy is just the same. The word stage is showing the same characteristics, the battle is just the same—and the outcome will be the same. Christ is victorious because of his completed work. The proclamation of the Word is made powerful and irresistible by the Holy Spirit. The work is not completed yet. God leads his church in perfect timing to completed the mission.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 29 December 2019