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The Messiah, Ironically
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
Before God spoke his first words, "Let there be light," the words that began the making of the world, what was he thinking? What was he thinking during the eternity of silence when "the earth was formless and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, and God's Spirit breathed over the waters" (Gen. 1:1)? In its opening words, the Gospel According to John consciously echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis–"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth"but establishes its own beginning at a time before that famous beginning. Back then, it says, is when this story really began.
HIS LIFE BEFORE HE WAS BORN
What was God thinking? The thought that he entertained in silence before he thought or spoke any other reality into existence, John says in his oracular way, was the all-encompassing thought of himself. This is the Word that was with God and was God at the beginning before the beginning. All God's subsequent self-revelations, everything that he has said or done, made happen or allowed to happen, the whole of history and reality since thenall of these later words, John suggests, derive from the great Word of primeval divine self-consciousness. And as all of them in their different ways have enlightened mankind about what God is like, all have been life that gave light:
Through him all things came into being,
And without him nothing was made that has been made.
What came to be through him was life,
And the life was the light of mankind.
Now comes the premise of the Gospel itself. At a certain point in time, this unspoken divine self-consciousness itself came to expression. The all-encompassing Word itself "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). God spoke himself aloud in the form of a human being who lived a human life among other human beings.
Why did God do this? Because the human race, to whom God had given dominion over the world, was estranged from him: "The world did not know him" (John 1:10). God had chosen a special people to be his own, but even many of them rejected him: "His own received him not" (John 1:11). At length, in a final effort to achieve reconciliation with the human race (collectively, his own self-image and therefore intimately connected with his own identity), God became one of them. This time, too, he was rejected, yet through that very rejection he accomplished something glorious. He began his own life anew; and because he did, his human creatures are now able to begin their lives anew as well, living them not as human beings ordinarily do but rather with a portion of the all-encompassing "fullness" (John 1:16) that was his before the beginning and will remain his after the end. The Gospel is the story of how this new, all-transforming relationship was inaugurated, and John gives his own credentials by confessing, in a tone of awe, "And we have seen his glory":
For the Word became flesh
And dwelt among us.
And we have seen his glory,
Glory as of the Father with his only Son,
Full of gracious truth.
The prologue to the Gospel of John says not a word about crucifixion or resurrection, and never so much as mentions the name of Jesus. In the way of all such mythic proems or "prologues in heaven," it delivers, in poetry, the quintessence of a story that it assumes we all know. It sets the tone and, above all, makes the true identity of the protagonist known to the reader in a way that it will not be known to most of those to whom the protagonist will say what he has to say through the action that now begins.
"the winnowing-fork is in his hand"
The act of divine self-expression by which the Word became flesh might not seem to require either birth or death. If God neither begins nor ends, then these two definitive features of human existence might seem exactly wrong for any divine self-revelation. Far more in character for God, at least for God as a reader of the Old Testament may recall him, would be an appearance, without warning, in the form of a grown man. In the Book of Joshua, for example, the Lord appears just before the battle of Jericho in the form of a warrior with sword drawn:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him, grasping a naked sword. Joshua walked up to him and said, "Are you with us or with our enemies?" He replied, "Neither one. I am here as the commander of the Lord's host." Joshua fell flat on the ground, worshipping him and saying, "What does my Lord command his servant?" The commander of the Lord's host answered Joshua, "Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so. (Josh. 5:13-15)
Joshua's reaction makes it clear that this "commander of the Lord's host" is the Lord himself, the divine warrior in person. The Lord confirms this impression by giving Joshua the same order that he gave Moses when he appeared to him as a burning bush: "Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." It is no more beyond God to appear in the form of a man than it is beyond him to appear in the form of a bush. To be sure, it is one thing for God to make an isolated appearance in the form of a bush and another for him to plant a seed, water it, cultivate it, and have it grow up to be God-made-bush. And it is yet another thing for him to conceive a human being with a fully human (and, not incidentally, Jewish) genealogy, gestation, birth, and childhood, and have it grow up to be God-made-man. But this last step, incomprehensible as it first seems, is a step in a known direction.
The question of why God the Father chose to proceed in this way, choosing to experience human birth and death as God the Son, is best dealt with later. Suffice it to say, for now, that it is the adult Jesus who was first recognized as Messiah and as God Incarnate. All four of the Gospels initially began with Jesus, as a grown man, being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. All four recognized the descent of the Spirit of God upon him at that moment as the inauguration of his career if not of the Incarnation itself. This, they all agree, is the moment when the Gospel story begins in earnest. Postponing genealogies and Christmas legends to a later, retrospective moment, we may enter the Gospel story at the dramatic moment when God Incarnate appears full-grown and as if from nowhere like the Lord Commander of Joshua 5, but this time without a sword.
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar's reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the territories of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during a term when the high-priesthood was held by Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, in the desert. He went through the whole Jordan Valley proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Clear a way for the Lord!
Make straight his paths.
Let every valley be raised,
Every mountain and hill lowered,
The crooked made straight
And the rough smooth
So that all flesh will see the salvation of God.
(Luke 3:1-6; passage in italics from Isa. 40:3-5)
The action of the New Testament begins with the memory of a broken promise. Isaiah's language is wonderful, but he describes a triumphal march that never occurred. Mountains were going to be leveled and valleys filled to create a parade route for the Israelite exiles marching home from Babylon to Jerusalembut the parade was canceled. The exiles to whom the Lord spoke through Isaiah did not return home in glory. Many of them never returned at all, and those who did merely exchanged one imperial ruler for another. The Persians defeated the Babylonians, but Israel was just one part of the spoils of war. Yes, a new temple of sorts was built by imperial order in the tiny, Persian-governed province of Yehud, but no Psalms were ever written in its praise. For those old enough to remember, the sight of the Second Temple was a cause more of grief than of joy: "Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first House [Temple], wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this House. Many others raised their voices in a shout of joy. The people could not tell the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping"(Ezra 3:12-13). The Lord himself had to apologize for the paltriness of the Second Temple:
Who is there left among you who saw this House in its former splendor? How does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing to you. But be strong, O Zerubbabel, be strong, O high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak; be strong, all you people of the land, and act! For I am with you. . . . The glory of this latter House shall be greater than that of the former one. (JPS; Hag. 2:3-4, 9)
But the glory of the Second Temple never did become greater thanin fact, it never approachedthe glory of the First. The Zerubbabel whom the Lord exhorted through Haggai was a son of David, an anointed son of Davidthat is, a messiahbut he was a failed messiah, and his name was half-expunged from the record.
As the Baptist speaks, five hundred years have passed, and a spectacular Third Temple is nearing completion in Jerusalem, but this Third Temple, King Herod's Temple, whose remains can still be seen in Jerusalem, is the work of a Roman puppet, an Idumaean married into a collaborationist Jewish clan. Is this Temple the fulfillment of the Lord1s ancient promise? Many in the Baptist's day are impressed by it. Indeed, the entire ancient world is impressed by it. But dissident Jewish groupsnotably the Pharisees (forerunners of the Judaism of today) and the Essenes (who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls)keep their distance. John does the same, preaching in the desert rather than on the steps of Herod's monument to himself. The memory of the past and the reality of the presentthe great and holy temple that never was and the great and unholy temple that isconspire against elation of the sort heard in Isaiah. That promised triumph did not happen the first time. Will it happen this time?
What the Lord says through the Baptist, moreover, is disturbing in another way:
He said . . . to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, 3Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear the fruit that accords with repentance, and do not start telling yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father,' because, I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Yes, even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Any tree that fails to bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9)
It is not that the rhetorical question "Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" is particularly disturbing. This is the usual prophetic idiom for a call to repentance. The Lord is accustomed to saving his friends by destroying their enemies. What disturbs is the fact that the Lord seems audibly irritated with Israel for making so much of its national identitywhich is to say, of course, for insisting so much on being his people: "I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones."
The Baptist is identified elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke as the Old Testament prophet Elijah come down to earth in fulfillment of a prophecy made in the very last verse of the Old Testament:
Behold, I shall send you Elijah the prophet,
Before the great and awesome Day of the Lord.
He will reconcile parents to their children,
And children to their parents,
Lest I put the country under a curse of total destruction.
(Mal. 4:5-6; some editions, 3:23-24)
When the Baptist speaksprophetically, in the name of the Lord, just as Elijah didwhat he says is not altogether unlike things that the Lord has said before. The Lord has shown himself capable of mocking his chosen people for ethnic pride on more than one previous occasion. Speaking through Ezekiel, he said with blistering contempt for mere pedigree:
Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. At birth, on the day you were born, there was no one to cut your umbilical cord or wash you in water to clean you, or rub you with salt, or wrap you in swaddling clothes. No one looked at you with kindness enough to do any of these things out of pity for you. You were dumped in the open fields in your own filth on the day of your birth. I spotted you kicking on the ground in your blood as I passed by, and I said to you, lying there in your blood: "Live!" And I made you grow like the grass of the fields. (Ezek. 16:3-6)
Ezekiel is a fairly ferocious precedent for what the Baptist says, yet the Baptist1s tone is still jarring when directed at an oppressed people living in an occupied land. The passage from Isaiah that Luke uses as keynote for this episode is, after all, an oracle of consolation, not mockery. It says, to quote the King James translation familiar from Handel1s Messiah, that God is done punishing Israel:
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,
saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
(KJV; Isa. 40:1-2)
The Baptist, however, seems intent less on building confidence that God will eventually save his people than on undermining it.
Finally, there is the surprise that the Baptist1s message is preached to the oppressor as well as to the oppressed:
There were tax collectors [Romans or Jews in Roman employ], too, who came for baptism, and they said to him, "Teacher, what must we do?" He said to them, "Exact no more than the appointed rate." Some soldiers [Jewish mercenaries under Roman command and perhaps a Roman officer or two] questioned him as well: "What about us? What should we do?" He told them, "No intimidation! No extortion! Be satisfied with your pay." (Luke 3:12-14)