The Word that Works
“The word of God,” the Lukan author declares, “came upon John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2b, my translation). This is the way of beginning for all the prophets of the God of Israel. While the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, renders “word” in “the word of the Lord” most often with the word logos, there is a difference in Isaiah 40. That matters because the Lukan author uses an extended quotation from that passage to undergird John’s ministry of preaching and baptizing.
On the one hand, what is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet is “words” (logon). On the other hand, what comes upon John is the word of God (rhema). These Greek terms come out the same in the English translation, but they are not the same in the rendering by the Lukan author. The work of the Markan composer is of no help here since these phrases don’t appear in the Markan composition. This is all on Luke.
We might simply say that this doesn’t matter. The Lukan author may have changed up the words for aesthetic or stylistic reasons. That’s certainly possible, but I find it neither interesting nor likely. The Lukan author uses better than average Greek grammar and style. It doesn’t seem likely that the vocabulary at such an important point in the document would be left to the whims of personal preference.
On the one hand, this change in vocabulary can distinguish between John and the great prophets of old. John is not Elijah. Nor is John Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. The “word” that is quoted in Luke 3 comes from one of those great prophets and deserves the designation that later the Gospel of John will reserve for the Incarnate Messiah himself. The “word” that came to John is different. At least that’s one way of looking at it.
On the other hand, there is the fuller context of Isaiah 40 to consider. The Lukan author expands the quotation in the Markan composition. But that expansion is also selective when it comes to verse 5. The Hebrew of Isaiah 40:5 as reflected in the NRSV declares, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The Septuagint rendering is a bit different, and it renders the Hebrew in more literal terms. “And the glory of the Lord shall be seen, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God because the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 LXX, my translation). To be fair, the Hebrew of the verse says, “all flesh,” but often this phrase means, in fact, “all human beings.” The Lukan author exploits the multivalence of the term to support the author’s agenda of universal inclusion.
What does the mouth of the Lord have to say? In Isaiah 40:1-2, the Lord speaks words of comfort to the people of God. Those words of comfort come to Jerusalem announcing the end of the consequences for previous unfaithfulness. In verses three through five, the speaking is regarded as an accomplished event – the Lord has spoken, and therefore it is done.
The prophet hears the command to declare the limits of creaturely existence and the unending faithfulness of God’s promises. In Isaiah 40:8, the prophet is reminded that, despite the mortality of flesh, “the word of our God remains into the ages” (my translation). The word for “word” here is rhema. This is the word that comes to John as the prophetic call. The word of God that outlasts the ages of mortal life is the word of comfort in the face of chaos, of hope in the face of helplessness, of life in the face of death.
The rulers listed in Luke 3:1-2 are not there to serve as mere markers on the divine timeline. They are the guarantors for and beneficiaries of the status quo. This is the status quo that demands domination, despair, and death as the price of existence. They are the forces of power masquerading as peace, of violence pretending to be virtue, of enslavement under the cover of extravagance. They are the ones who want to determine the content of the “word” – to declare what is true and good and beautiful and to punish all who might disagree.
It is to that historical place and structure that the undying word comes upon and then through John. I am running ahead of the text a bit at this moment, but we should notice that John’s actual preaching is, on the surface, anything but comforting (more on that next week). In my experience, such “prophetic” sermons have not produced much of anything except for complaining calls and anonymous emails in the week following the sermon.
John’s call reminds me of the call of another odd prophet, Jonah, the son of Amittai. Jonah hears the word (logos) of the Lord to go and proclaim against Nineveh, archenemy of Israel. On the first go-round Jonah flees in the opposite direction, and we get the ship, the storm, the fish, the psalm, and the unceremonious puking of the prophet back on the shore. But the Lord is not so easily deterred.
The same word comes to Jonah a second time. He is, apparently, trainable. So, this time he goes a day’s journey into the great city and gives the worst and shortest sermon in human history. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be turned upside down!” (Jonah 3:4b LXX, my translation). The verb I translated as to “turn upside down” is the same root as our English word, “catastrophe.” Jonah declares that in less than six weeks the Lord is going to “catastrophize” Nineveh unless things change radically.
The story, of course, is that things do change radically in Nineveh, things are turned upside down, from the humblest home to the highest palace. Even the livestock wear sackcloth and ashes and engage in repentance. It is the Gentile king who is the best theologian in the book. “Who knows,” the king wonders, “perhaps this Lord will turn around and not carry out the catastrophization.” That is precisely what happens and is precisely the outcome Jonah had hoped to avoid.
Jonah is the anti-prophet by which all other prophets are to be measured. John’s call comes in the midst of regimes that make old Nineveh look like a social ministry organization. In the midst of that setting, John proclaims (just like Jonah) that, in light of the new Reality coming into being, things have to change.
I have wrestled with how much of Luke three to read this week and how much to save for next week. I am not often a fan of repeating verses from one week to the next, but I think that preaching will be served by some repetition this time. I would suggest that we might read through verse nine this week rather than through verse six. I think it would be best to get the whole sermon from John rather than just the first half. I think it’s fine to repeat verses seven through nine next week to make the connection in the text.
If we think Jonah’s sermon was a homiletical train wreck, John’s is not much better. He, too, calls for repentance. He includes an insult to the ancestry of his audience and the threat of Gehenna thrown in to boot. I don’t think John’s preaching is likely to be held up as a model in most of our “nice” mainline shops where people expect to go home feeling better than when they arrived (a presumption of privilege, of course).
The real similarity between Jonah and John is in the outcome. People begin to change! I, for one, need to hear this part of the message over and over again. I have so little confidence in the possibility that people might be changed by the word that comes through me that I usually don’t even bother to try. Of course, I’m really assuming that it is my word rather than the word of the Lord which comes from my lips. If that’s the case, then my pessimism is well-founded.
I know from experience, however, that I underestimate the impact of the authentic word of the Lord far too often. I give God’s people far too little credit for listening with open minds and hungry hearts to the message the Lord is sending. I am therefore too often surprised when behaviors actually change, when priorities alter, when hearts are transformed.
Jonah was not surprised that the word of the Lord has such transformative power. Jonah was so sure of that power that he resisted speaking. And when he did speak, he said as little as possible. “Didn’t I tell you, Lord,” he complains in chapter four, “that this is precisely what would happen?” Jonah is so put out by the effectiveness of the Lord’s word that he wants to die in frustration.
Nor is John surprised by this power. Next week we will examine the ways that John urges people to change in preparation for the Big Event. He doesn’t appear surprised when folks ask what they should do. He’s ready with specific answers and advice. I’ve rarely found myself in that position and would have had to scramble to come up with helpful answers to the question.
But this is part of the Good News of Advent, at least for me. The word of the Lord remains when the ages have all ended. That word is effective in bringing about change, in spite of my jaded cynicism. People hunger for that word, even if it means judgment on the current state of affairs. Many of us know that things cannot continue as they are, and we long for a way forward into a different age.
Stir up our hearts, O Lord – we pray this in many liturgical traditions in this Advent season. I hear the call to trust that the stirring will happen and will bear fruit worthy of repentance.
References and Resources
Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.