“But since the people were looking forward, and all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John replied to all of them saying, ‘I, on the one hand, baptize you with water; but on the other hand, one is coming who is mightier than me…” (Luke 3:15-16a, my translation). The people were expecting, anticipating, looking forward to the coming of a Messiah. But what did that mean to them and for them?
Perhaps it is time for my annual Advent visit to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. I think that title could be the theme for Advent preaching and worship every year (but eventually some alert parishioner would probably catch on). Pip, the main character, was expecting great things to come his way. Everyone around him was aware of those “expectations” and treated him with respect and fawning commensurate with the supposed windfall awaiting him.
Pip was not mistaken in looking forward to a life of some wealth and privilege. But he was quite mistaken about the source of those great expectations. He thought his benefactor was the cruel and capricious Miss Havisham, the local lady of the manor. His actual patron was Abel Magwitch, a convicted felon who was now on the run from the law. This mistake regarding the source of the gift motivates a significant plot line in the story.
A mistaken notion about the source of expectations underlies the conversation we hear in Luke 3:15-17. Based on his preaching and moral teaching, the crowds begin to wonder if John is himself the promised Messiah who will bring about the restoration and renewal of Israel. The word Luke uses in verse 15, prosdokao, literally means to think or to understand “forward.” It is a verb with an arrow of time built into it.
We need to ask two questions here? First, were the people in John’s time expecting someone who fit the description of “Messiah”? Second, was that a live issue in some way for the hearers and readers in the Lukan audience? These questions are related but are not the same. It is certainly the case that first-century Jews with a variety of perspectives were looking for a messianic figure of some kind.
Brendan Byrne offers a brief outline of these expectations in his article. He concludes that there is enough evidence from sources prior to and during the first century to believe that people had this expectation. There is sufficient evidence in the Christian scriptures to conclude that Jesus was at least aware of the expectations of a “Davidic” messiah held by at least some of the folks around him. And it is clear by the time of Holy Week that “he was recognized by some people as Messiah or at least as a messianic pretender” (page 81).
How this played out for the gospel writers is another story. “Reading the gospels, however,” Byrne writes, “conveys the impression that this ‘messianic issue’ was a confounded nuisance with which the authors had to deal rather than a helpful lens through which to view Jesus” (page 81). The gospel writers struggled to maintain the tension between Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the honor status of a Davidic king.
There is no question that Jesus was seen by some, at least, as precisely such a Davidic messiah, or as a failed messianic pretender in the Davidic mold. The dilemma after Easter, as Byrne describes it, was that the disciples as witnesses “could deny that the title…was rightly applied to him, or they could say, ‘Yes, he was/is the Messiah, but….’” (page 82). That is, they could argue that he is the Messiah but in a different way than was expected by those who witnessed his life and death. That is the choice that each of the gospel writers appears to make, although the details of that description vary with the account.
Byrne argues that the Lukan author makes this “Yes, but,” choice “not in a political sense that would pose a threat to the established order” (page 82). Byrne is of the school that believes Luke wants to make the Christian message less threatening to the Gentile authorities and more palatable to the Gentile audiences who occupy at least a part of the Lukan gaze. He contests the view that the Lukan account is intended to be subversive to the Imperial narrative of Reality.
Byrne’s strategy is, in part, to create distance between the notion of the expected “Messiah” and that of Jesus as the “Son of God.” While he doesn’t address our text in his article, those titles are juxtaposed and perhaps somewhat opposed to one another in Luke 3 and 4. In our reading and its context, it is clear that the “Son of God” title is the more important interpretive lens through which to view the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, at least according to the Lukan author.
Byrne sees this pattern of Lukan interpretation having been launched in the Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. “What I am trying to suggest here,” he writes, “is that the annunciation of Jesus’ birth inaugurates a pattern whereby Jesus is presented as ‘Messiah, but…,’ the ‘but’ referring to what the reader knows from being aware of the mode of Jesus’ conception: namely, that he is uniquely related to God in filial terms vastly outstripping any conventional expectation of the Davidic Messiah and that this drastically transforms the nature of his messianic mission and behavior” (page 85).
“Though he may have been crucified by a Roman governor as a dangerous political rebel inspired by messianic delusions,” Byrne argues, “this is a total misrepresentation created by his enemies, as the governor himself several times acknowledged.” Byrne argues that Jesus’ movement was “prophetically critical of, but not fundamentally hostile to, the prevailing civic authority and order.” Byrne concludes that the Lukan author wants to communicate this view of Jesus to establish Gentile Christian identity and to encourage “the success of the gospel in the wider Greco-Roman world” (page 95).
The people were looking forward and wondering. To what were they looking forward and wondering? The answer to that question makes a difference, I believe, in our own Advent expecting and wondering. I think Byrne is quite correct in reminding us that each of the gospel writers is offering a “Yes, but” answer to the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah. But I’m not sure this entails, even in the case of the Lukan account, that the answer serves to make the Jesus movement more palatable to Roman authorities and to Gentiles generally. Please see my previous work on the Lukan account as a hidden transcript of resistance.
We can be clear that none of the gospel writers, and the Lukan author in particular, want us to wonder if John was indeed the Messiah. It may well be that there were sects devoted to the memory and veneration of the Baptizer still active toward the end of the first century. Therefore, Luke needs to tamp down that sort of expectation and to put John in the proper place in the narrative.
Who are we expecting – in general, and in this season of Advent? At least some so-called Christians in the United States are expecting the return, sooner rather than later, of a White, Warrior Messiah rather than the presence of a humble and nonviolent (Brown, if you need a color) Suffering Servant. In fact, for many we live in a time of nostalgia rather than expectation. We are awash in longing for a time when White Male American Christianity was the dominant demographic reality in the West. As that demographic reality fades into the past, the anxiously violent reactions increase.
We can and perhaps should asks ourselves a question in this Advent season. If we are looking for something, what direction are we looking? Are we looking backward with that nostalgic longing, or are we looking forward with expectant hope that something new is about to happen? Of course, we can see and understand Jesus as Messiah (“Christ”), but…
We tend to see precisely what we expect to see. More than that, we accept evidence that confirms what we believe, and we reject evidence that contradicts what we believe. This is called “confirmation bias.” Pip, in Great Expectations, provides a case study in how confirmation bias operates. He collects an abundance of evidence to support his belief about the identity of his benefactor. And nearly all of that evidence is either useless or wrong.
So, the question about who or what we are expecting is a critical one in this Advent season. Our expecting can and will shape what we see and how we see it. In the Lukan account, John has to correct this bias quite forcefully for his first audience. Perhaps the Lukan audience needed a similarly forceful correction in their expectations. Perhaps we do as well.
John himself requires some measure of perception correction. You will recall that as he sits in Herod’s dungeon, he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the Coming One or if John should “expect” another. The verb there is the same as it is here in Luke 3. John receives a correction to his expectation that may have reshaped his perception, both of himself and of Jesus.
In addition, as we have noted before, the Lukan account is helping to manage not only who we expect but when. Luke is doing more than explaining the delay of Jesus’ second coming. Instead, the Lukan author wants to rekindle the flames of gospel hope for the long haul.
As preachers, we may want to challenge our listeners with a simple Lukan question. What do you expect?
References and Resources
Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003; 65, 1; ProQuest Religion pg. 80.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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