2018-19 RCL-C Advent 02
Additional Resources for Proclamation & Preaching
Second Sunday in Advent: December 9, 2018 • Gospel Text: Luke 3:1-6
Rural Life and the Tetrarchy
Proclamation for Today
by Rev. Dr. Clint Schnekloth
So Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and through a very complicated set of circumstances left his kingdom (roughly the Southwestern Levant) to his family. This tetrarchy was composed of Herod Archelaus as ethnarch, Herod Antipas and Philip as tetrarchs, and his sister Salome I over the toparchy of Jamnia. Our understanding of the historical context is made more complicated by Luke’s failure to mention Salome, while at the same time mentioning a tetrarch not recorded in most other sources, Lysanias, who ruled over a region centered on the town of Abilia. By about 6 CE, the tetrarchy under Archelaus was transformed, joining together Judea, Samaria, and Idumea into the Judean Province. Salome’s region was also incorporated into the Judean Province at her death. Meanwhile, the areas of Galilee and Perea remained under Herod Antipas until 39 CE, and the region further northeast also remained under Philip until 34 CE.
That’s quite a lot of complicated geographical and political data, perhaps more than a preacher would want to mention on a Sunday morning. But it does foster a better understanding of some regional dynamics during the lifetime of Jesus. Notice, for example, the political division between Judea (including Jerusalem, Samaria and Caesarea) and the northern regions (what later becomes the region of Syria, plus Galilee, the rural region in which Jesus spends most of his early life and public ministry).
Notice also the significant transitions. A rather new governing structure right before the birth of Jesus. Another set of significant political consolidations some time shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion. To those of us at some historical remove from the period, it can all sound complex and distant, until we try to describe to a foreigner U.S. geopolitics, which includes overlapping elected officials from each state (representatives and senators) while maintaining individual state powers (governors, state houses), all of which is governed by periodically taking censuses that help define regions and voting districts.
If this weren’t a complicated enough all by itself, for good measure Luke then mentions the local religious rulers. It’s like describing the county structure of Arkansas and its relationship to the republic, and then going on to mention the current episcopal districts for the Roman Catholic Church. Such regional districting is important, but is drawn so differently, signifying in ways so starkly distinct, it’s hard to know why such densely described is offered, or what to do with it. Not to mention who you name and how they relate matters to different kinds of hearers. It’s a surprising amount of data compressed into a few short lines, the net effect of which is to solidify a sense of historical gravity. This happened, at this time, in this place.
What happened? Well, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (3:2). God didn’t act through the tetrarchs, or speak to Annas or Caiaphas. God speaks to the son of a country priest. Zechariah lives in a country house in Hebron, in the hill country of Judah. He makes the 19 mile trek to Jerusalem periodically, when it is his lot to perform the incense offering there. This is to say, the word of the Lord comes to the son of a man grounded in rural life but not unfamiliar with the city and temple. A country priest, his wife also of the same family line (of Aaron). His son, when he grows up, takes strict religious Nazirite vows (much like Samson and Samuel before him) and spends his days in the desert wilderness of Judea.
He gravitates to the Jordan, the river, water flowing through parched places. It is in this context, proximity to the river, that Luke then finally quotes the evocative poetry of Isaiah. It is as if all the politics, all the religious life, even the geography itself, serves as a funnel leading to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so that the carefully lined language of the prophet can encompass world history in a hinger prophet, the voice of one in the wilderness through whom God’s salvation will be seen. The offense is that it arrives here, rather than those many other expansive places, or on the lips of the tetrarchs or high-priests.
It is also precisely why it is so smooth.
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Historical Exegetical Resources
"John the Baptist," The Jesus Database, an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus. Dr. Gregory C. Jenks, FaithFutures Foundation.
Sermon: "Keeping Christmas Well"
Rev. Lauren Lorincz, Sermon, Pilgrim Congregational Church UCC, Lexington, MA, Dec 9, 2012
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Dramatic Reading of the Text
Readers: Narrator, Isaiah
Narrator: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler 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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
Isaiah: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”