And there they all were, and it didn’t matter.
Tiberius Caesar was on his throne in Rome.
Pontius Pilate was in his palace in Jerusalem.
Herod was living lavishly and savagely in his many mansions in Palestine.
The high priests were firmly in control of all things religious in the Temple.
Everybody who was responsible for good order, peace and quiet was carrying out his duty—assisted by brutal military bloodshed when necessary. Which was regularly. They named all of that the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome” and of the Empire. It was firmly in place at the time of Jesus, and it didn’t matter. Not to God, and not to Jesus.
St. Luke in today’s gospel offers us this laundry list of names and places, politicians and tyrants and clergy—only to make the same point. They don’t matter; not when God has something new to say, something disruptive of precious law and order. The word of the Lord, we are told, came to John in the desert. That would be crazy John the Baptist, the wild man on the fringes, with a loud voice and not much respect for authority, at least not to the extent that authority was undermining of God’s intentions, to the extent that authority had become an end in itself, a “Pax Romara” of decadent control under the pretext of “peace.”
God was up to something new, something liberating and hopeful—especially for the most poor and beaten down. Something unimaginable in its power to upend enforced patterns of order. And nobody with any stake in the dominant order wanted to hear about that. That’s why Jesus rarely got along well with authority, and it’s why the same tension needs always to be part and parcel of the Christian life today. What people call “good order” is always coming at the expense of somebody who is made to suffer from that very alleged order.
John the Baptists’ message today, quoting ancient Isaiahan prophecy, is to imagine and to work each day for what seems impossible.
“Make straight the crooked paths; flatten the mountains; fill in the canyons.”
And the message certainly is not to be intimidated by those people in authority who imagine themselves to be invincible and eternal. They didn’t matter to God then and they don’t matter now, not unless and until that power is conformed to the reign of God.
Long ago God’s word came to John the Baptist in the desert, a nobody in the structure of organized religion or political scheming. And his preaching changed the world because what he spoke was God’s truth, and it echoed in the hearts of the masses of people who were being suffocated by the Pax Romara, that phony imposed peace that was nothing other than repression for the benefit of those in charge. Today we still live within our own version of the Pax, the “Pax Americana.” It’s that set of social and economic and military and political structures that is simply presumed to be the way things are and ought to be, in which God’s prophetic word is rejected, and which automatically privileges some and crushes others, all in the name of order.
Advent is a season for serious examination of what Fr. Bill in his bulletin article this week describes as our addiction to our uncritical patterns of thought and judgement. If we aren’t ready to welcome a fresh new word of challenge and hope from God, a new way to imagine a heavenly order, then this is a season of little importance.
We come here to Eucharist each week not only to be consoled and sustained, but also to be appropriately shaken awake by the truth of God’s word. Let it be so for us this month as we await the birth of Jesus Christ again.