Word from the East

Where God spoke and acted

IN the gospel this week, John is in the Judean desert. In the epistle, Paul is in a Roman dungeon. Neither a desert nor a dungeon is a place that you’d expect to experience the presence of God. A dungeon, by contrast, epitomizes confinement and constriction.Nonetheless, the desert and the dungeon were both places where God spoke and acted.

Luke specifies the exact time when “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah.” The “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” dates his story to about the year 26 AD. Luke also identifies the political context; the word of God came to John the Baptist “when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.”

After naming Rome’s political powers, Luke identifies Jerusalem’s religious establishment; the story takes place “during the high priesthood of Annas and [his successor] Caiaphas.”

These minor details reveal a major theme in the story of Jesus. The “word of the Lord” through John the Baptist didn’t originate with the imperial powers of Rome. Nor from Israel’s religious establishment, even though John’s father Zechariah was a priest in the Jerusalem temple. It didn’t come from someone dressed in fashionable clothes who lived in an expensive palace, said Jesus(Luke 7:25). Nor from a business board room, university laboratory,ski lodge or power lunch.

God’s word to all humanity came from a wild and woolly man who lived in the deep of the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its corridors of power, at the periphery rather than at the epicenter. The divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source. John would have been easy to ignore if you expected or wanted something normal, safe, or traditional. But neither John nor his message was normal by any stretch of the imagination. His message of repentance was both an”invitation and indictment,” says Marcus Borg.

John was a prophet of radical dissent; his detractors said that he had a demon(Luke 7:33). In the end, he paid the price for faithfulness to his prophetic calling. About six months after John emerged from the desert like some scraggly lunatic and baptized Jesus, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the Tetrarch.

As for Paul, the historian Garry Wills describes him as a “heroic traveler” who logged more than ten thousand miles spreading the good news of God’s love. Given the subsequent global expansion of Christianity, Paul remains one of the most influential people in history. But in the epistle for this week, Paul isn’t going anywhere at all. He’s languishing in jail.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions the “chains” of his imprisonment five times. In other epistles he mentions them another five times. Paul spent significant time in prison.

But Paul wasn’t concerned about his confinement. He told the Philippians that the gospel was spreading because of his imprisonment. Indeed, under house arrest at Rome he was able to meet with friends. It’s thought that he composed his four “prison epistles” during this time – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. He learned how the gospel that had started in the religious center of Jerusalem in the east had migrated to the imperial center of Rome in the west.

In the desert,in a dungeon. Whatever space or place we find ourselves this Advent,God will meet us there. For Mary, a peasant teenager from a working class neighborhood of carpenters in Nazareth, a village so insignificant that it’s not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the historian Josephus (c. 37–100), or in the Jewish Talmud, her angelic encounter took place in an unknown, ordinary house.

In his book Searching for Home (2003), Craig Barnes, uses Dante’s Divine Comedy and the journey toward home metaphor to explore the pilgrim motif of discipleship. He reminds us that the truly good news of Jesus is that “all of the roads belong to God,” and that”the Savior can use any road to bring us home.” Quoting CS Lewis, he reminds us that God can even use the wrong roads to take us to the right places.

The Rev. Isaias Ginson is a priest of The Episcopal Church. He is currently the priest in charge of the Episcopal church of St. Margaret’s in Plainview, NY.

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