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,
‘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.”’
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Luke marks the date. He does it with a cast list of the principal players of the time – Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests. We shall see those names again. Herod will execute John before the drama reaches its tragic climax when they will be back on stage for the last act, and the curtain falls on the crucifixion.
I sometimes like to speculate about what might have happened if Herod had not executed John the Baptist. He appears in Luke like a whirling Dervish coming out of the desert to baptise the repentant in the Jordan and promising the wrath to come. In contrast, Jesus walks the length of the land telling us to become like little children. Yet both of them believed passionately in the promises of the Second Isaiah who taught the downtrodden exiles in Babylon that the day of salvation had dawned.
I once produced a programme with Billy Graham and the late Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins – another contrast in styles – but in the end they were delivering the same message: the kingdom of God is here and now, and we need to put our respective houses in order. John told us that “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”.
Jesus told us that the vines which do not bear fruit are thrown away and burned. If John and Jesus had not lived, we would never have heard of Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas. But because John opened the way, and Jesus trod the path to Calvary, we have the chance to become citizens of the new Jerusalem and know that the kingdom of God is a reality as we play our own modest bit parts.
Ah! Jesus health of sinful souls, Give ear unto our loving prayer; Guide now our wandering feet again, And hold our doings in our care.
The Oxford Book of Prayer
The Rev’d Peter Moth, retired minister and former broadcasting executive, St Andrew’s, Kenton, Newcastle upon Tyne.