The first part of today’s gospel is far from riveting. A list of obscure Roman officials and a Jewish priest is not as compelling as the ministry of John the Baptist. Yet it is extremely important, and it is necessary for us to examine it closely because it tells us that Luke is writing a history of a Jewish prophet, indeed 2 prophets.
He first outlines the political geography of Jesus’ world, noting the date through the reign of the emperor and the emperor’s representative in every place that affected Jesus. He then adds the current local religious leader. This is critical. He does not begin with “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. Luke is writing history and we must read his gospel and the acts of the apostles accordingly.
This is not a myth or legend which may give us a window into truth such as the first chapters of the book of Genesis. It tells the story of a real person, Jesus, who lived at a certain place, Judea and Galilee, who preached a message, the coming of the kingdom of God, and who was killed for this teaching. Should any of these not be factual, then Luke is either a dupe or a liar. His concept of writing history would not be the same as ours. The speeches for instance will all sound the same, because he will make them conform to certain rules. They are not verbatim, and would not be expected to be. But his audience knew what was important and could not be made up for any reason. His immediate audience would have especially understood that if Jesus did not literally die and rise this book is meaningless at best and malicious at worst.
Jesus will enter a bit latter, but we begin with John the forerunner. Luke tells us that the word of God came to him. This is the case with all the prophets. At a certain time and place the LORD revealed himself to them and told them to preach what he told them. This was not a personal insight or the result of scholarship but a gift and command from God.
John and Jesus are offering us divine revelation not human reasoning. We cannot come to this on our own but must accept it as a gift.
Luke tells us this early in the Gospel so we will know how to read it. The church gives us this reading in early advent so we will know how to apply it. The first prayer of today’s mass urged us to set out in haste to meet Jesus when he returns. St Paul has just said that he was confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. The good work began with the word given to John the Baptist that we must repent and have our sins forgiven, in Advent we celebrate that it will be completed when, in God’s good time, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.