Luke, Transformation, and Preparation

church building with starry sky and shooting star; bridge over a creek; preparing the way for one who is coming; transforming ourselves

Preparing for New Life

Her initial preparation took years. At first, she didn’t realize she was preparing for anything. All she noticed was a niggling dissatisfaction. Over time, however, that discomfort grew, forcing her into a deep introspection, invisible to those who pressed against her in the packed train during each evening’s commute, or sat beside her at meetings as they discussed the sins of poverty, or ate lunch with her, danced with her, smoked pot with her. While those around her continued their mindless distractions, she searched within her heart and spirit with a merciless resolve.

In the end, she concluded there were better ways to build a life than the one she had chosen. She would move back to South Dakota, the place where she’d been born. There she would learn to appreciate the sweat of an honest day’s work and sit out at night so she could savor the stars. Though she hadn’t realized it at first, she now knew that these last few years had prepared her for this decisive moment.

Then she prepared to move. She sold her home, gave away what she could not pack into her sedan, and left her friends with empty promises of Facetime chats. A few scattered cousins still lived in the place where she was heading, but she did not plan to look them up. Instead, she would find a piece of land, tend a garden as her mother had done, and rock quietly on her porch.

Nothing else mattered. She was preparing to live.

church building with starry sky and shooting star; bridge over a creek; preparing the way for one who is coming; transforming ourselves

A History of Emperors

The evangelist who wrote the Gospel of Luke talks about a different kind of preparation. For instance, in this Sunday’s lectionary reading, Luke 3:1-6, John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus and his ministry, a ministry of salvation. To call Jesus a savior was something of a heresy in the days when Luke was writing, which was probably during the reign of the emperor Domitian. Early on, Domitian appeared to be a just and competent ruler, but greed and paranoia eventually made him cruel. Those who listened to Luke’s gospel probably felt oppressed and afraid.

When Jesus was young, it was Caesar Augustus who ruled over what became the Roman Empire. With great military acumen, Augustus conquered many of the lands around the city, building a stable and relatively peaceful kingdom. Ironically, as Pyung-Soo Seo points out, it took victory in war and a continued show of military strength to sustain this peace. [1] Nonetheless, Augustus was the area’s first emperor. After he died, the senate declared him to be, not only a savior, but a god. [2]

This set a precedent that would continue for centuries. Nero, for instance, expected that sacrifices would be made to him, and Domitian executed Christians, and others, who led a “Jewish way of life,” because they “could hardly practice the veneration of the emperor.” [3]

Crafting a History

Nonetheless, it is to Augustus’ heir that Luke refers in his opening to Chapter 3:

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. (Luke 3:1-2)

Why would Luke list all these leaders?

Clearly, Luke was dating his story. The recitation would inform those who listened that this event took place sometime around the year 29 CE. Theologically, he was setting up a contrast between the earthly rulers and Jesus of Nazareth. The theologian Charles R. Erdman talks of “the absolute moral and religious degeneracy of the times.” [4] People were unhappy. Change was needed.

Although Luke has not mentioned Jesus by name, his listeners already know that, unlike Tiberius, Jesus is the true savior. Unlike Domitian, he will never become irrational nor paranoid.

Blessing a Ministry

John was preparing the way for Jesus. Soon, Jesus himself would be baptized by John and blessed, for all to hear, by the God who claimed as a son. But we are getting ahead of the story.

The reading continues:

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.’” (Luke 3:3-6)

According to the evangelist, this is what Jesus has come to earth to do, to forgive sins and save all flesh. It is time for us to “prepare the way of the Lord.”

How do we do this?

Repentance

First, we repent. This is not easy. In her commentary on Luke 3:1-6, Judith Jones notes that repentance is not simply apologizing or feeling sorry for what we’ve done. It means changing our minds and our hearts, making an “inner transformation that bears visible fruit.” [5]

Is that what the woman did as she prepared to take her journey to South Dakota? Did she repent?

Certainly she changed her mind and her heart. She transformed enough to see that she was not living as she felt she should. Thus, you could say she repented of her past choices, the ones that seemed shallow, foolish, or unkind.

Mark Van Steenwyk defines repentance a little differently, calling it “an ongoing invitation to engage the world differently – to see the world the way God does and act accordingly.” [6] He suggests that God’s way is one of compassion and love. But love, being something we do, isn’t simple. It requires that we act in the world according to our previous transformation, that we bear the “visible fruit” Jones talks about.

Thus the importance of preparation.

Mourning as Preparation

For the woman heading West, this preparation, that was akin to repentance, meant years of spiritual practice and existential exploration. It probably took some grieving, as well. To change, we must grieve the loss of who we’ve been, what we’ve believed, and what we’ve held sacred. Any change requires the letting go of once was. We must mourn that loss.

For Van Steenwyk, that mourning is a prerequisite to, not simply a part of, preparation. To truly prepare the way for the coming of God’s world, which is not just something we find inside of us, but also something both external and political, we must mourn “the cycle of greed and violence and oppression” that is life on earth as we know it.

To do this, we must realize, as individuals and as a society, that we are not as righteous as we like to think. We are complicit in the world’s evils, and we must shatter the illusion of our goodness. To do this, Van Steenwyk tells us, we must mourn for those who suffer, but also for our own imperfections. We must acknowledge that often our justice work is more about turning “marginalized folks into middle-class Americans” than about transforming the oppressive regime. This can be difficult to accept. Yet if we can embrace love rather than anger, we will be able to forgive even ourselves.

If we cannot, then we will have to settle for the peace that comes from, and is sustained by, violence. The empire will continue to stand. In that case, all our preparation will be for naught. [7]

Exalting the Lowly and Humbling the Exalted

Luke’s gospel is just as political as Van Steenwyk’s argument. The evangelist points to a similar pattern of victory, peace, and salvation that Seo describes when talking about Caesar Augustus and the emperors who followed him. In the case of Jesus, however, victory arrives not because of war, but because of love and justice. The peace that Jesus brings will last forever, not because his armies threaten the people, but because he has the one, true God on his side. Though Augustus may have saved the people with his military protection, Jesus one-ups him and vanquishes death itself.

This gives Jesus the authority to declare that our social hierarchies are wrong, and that justice is for the poor, not the rich. It is for women, children, lepers, tax collectors, and shepherds. The world as we know it must be turned upside down.

When Luke quotes Isaiah, he is declaring that the earth shall be transformed. As Jones points out, filling in valleys, leveling hills, and straightening the crooked mean that those who are low will be exalted, and those who are powerful will be humbled. All will be equal, and the poor will be fed. To prepare for God’s coming, we must topple “systems and structures that we see as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked.” [8]

The Rewards of Repentance

But how do we do this? To challenge the empire, especially if we are to do so from a place of love, requires an internal transformation that many of us cannot face. Repentance is more painful than we know. It takes facing the truth of who we are, working through our shame rather than denying it, grieving all that we have lost, and striving to be our best selves evermore.

According to Richard Neill Donovan, the rewards we receive when we repent make it worth the struggle. Not only will our sins be forgiven, but we will find “freedom from compulsions and addictions and habits that threaten to undo us.” [9]

Unfortunately, not even repentance and forgiveness guarantee that will truly be free of our sins and compulsions. So many addicts I’ve talked with wonder how they can repent more honestly, or surrender more completely. They see that as the way to be freed from their cravings, yet they can’t figure out how to get it right. Surely if they did, they could stay clean and sober for the rest of their lives.

When Life Happens

Yet even when we think we have repented, even when we have transformed ourselves mightily, we may find ourselves backsliding. Life just happens, surprising us with setbacks and losses we don’t expect.

The woman who prepared to live and drive across the country, never made it to South Dakota. Before she could look at a single piece of property, she got so sick she could no longer take care of herself. There she was, with nothing but a car and a few boxes of clothes, alone and helpless. Finally, her sister in Oregon agreed to take her in, a sister the woman didn’t even like.

By the time I met her, the woman had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that had metastasized to her liver. It looked as if, no matter what they did, she would be dead in maybe six months.

Instead of buying property, tilling the land, watching the stars, she would be forced to stay in her sister’s home, a burden more than a guest, lonely in the midst of family. Her weariness, her aching bones, left her fragile and empty. She barely had the strength to think through what had happened to her.

How could she be dying? She’d just started to live.

Preparing to Die

In bits and spurts, she grieved, though the enormity of her illness was too great for her to face all at once. Even talking about it was too difficult. The first time I went to see her, she shared her shock and anger, but soon had enough. The second time, she was too worn out even to start the conversation. Before I could visit her a third time, she had discharged.

How much will she be able to heal her past, soothe her present, find peace in a reality she doesn’t like? Will she come to terms with death, or will she reject all thoughts of dying until the darkness overwhelms her? If does face her death, will she become more alive?

The Universalist minister Robert Killam wrote about a parishioner who was terminally ill. He said that she “had the opportunity to change, to grow, to prepare for dying.” [10] Killam understood that looking at death is a way we prepare for life. On the other hand, when we prepare to die, we also “prepare to live.” It is circular. Life and death, and the preparation for either, are almost the same thing.

Always One More Transformation

I don’t imagine I’ll ever know if that woman will be able to face her life as it currently is. Will she prepare for the next stage or will she cease preparing?

None of us know the end of our story. Not yet. Who among us can fully repent, leaving us forever forgiven and saved? All we can do is continue to prepare to live. Living does not fall upon us like ripe fruit. It takes the merciless resolve of the woman from South Dakota.

Like her, we might think we have arrived only to discover there is one more transformation for us to make. Even so, it is not that simple. Luke’s gospel reminds us that not only must our own souls be remade, but so must our society. Until all laws are just; until peace comes not from violence, but from love; until hunger of all kinds has been banished, we have work to do. We must prepare for the coming of that which will turn upside down all we thought we knew about life and death and love.

Some days, we won’t be ready to face the pain of truth and transformation. Yet we can always start by preparing. Eventually, if we are faithful to the work, we may find that our hearts have changed and our world is new.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Seo, Pyung-See, Luke’s Jesus in the Roman Empire and the Emperor in the Gospel of Luke, Cambridge, England: James Clarke, 2015, 122.
  2. History.com editors, “Augustus,” History, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/emperor-augustus, November 9, 2009, updated August 21, 2018, accessed 12/1/18.
  3. Stegemann, Ekkehard W. and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century, trans. O. C. Dean, Jr., Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1999, 330.
  4. Erdman, Charles R., The Gospel of Luke: An Exposition, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1936, 94.
  5. Jones, Judith, “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6,” Working Preacher, December 6, 2015, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2702, accessed 11/27/18.
  6. Van Steenwyk, Mark. The Unkingdom of God : Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance, InterVarsity Press, 2013, 76.
  7. Van Steenwyk 133.
  8. Jones.s
  9. Donovan, Richard Neill, “Bible Commentary – Luke 3:1-6,” Sermon Writer, 2015, https://www.sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/luke-31-6/, accessed 11/27/18.
  10. Found in my readings about death with no publication information other than the author’s name.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens

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