December 03, 2009

Who Bears the Weight of Empire?

by Brian Volck
Luke 3:1-6

In today’s gospel, Luke moves rapidly from Emperor Tiberius, in Rome, through a cascade of governors, tetrarchs and high priests, to an eccentric Galilean hayseed (the sort of misfit you’d expect in a Flannery O’Connor short story, with his weird clothes, overwrought speech and hyper-religious obsessions) on a riverside in the nether regions of an inconsequential Roman province. In terms of historical, social and political importance, the downhill slope here is dizzyingly steep.

Still, Luke’s concern – for now – is Elizabeth and Zecahriah’s John-boy, not the movers and shakers of first century Judea. Augustus may have proclaimed a census in the chapter immediately preceding this, but it’s John, not Tiberius, making proclamations now: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The words Luke quotes from Isaiah (40:3-5) speak of reckonings and reversals, themes careful readers of Luke 1 and 2 are well prepared for. (Don’t trust me; read them yourself!) Luke’s narrative delights in paradox and inversions, and rarely strays from the marginalized and cast-offs of the world, those who weep and mourn, forever living in the hope.

As I write this, the President of the United States is announcing his plans to send 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, a land which – for sound historical reasons – is called “Graveyard of Empires.” I’m not competent to critique the geopolitical rationale for this decision. I have no idea how this will end, or when anyone will be able to say with confidence that it has ended.

I only ask followers of Jesus in this season of waiting to hold in their hearts the many who will weep in the months to come. Reckonings and reversals await, and few or none may resemble what the movers and shakers of our day imagine. The marginalized in the US, Afghanistan and elsewhere will almost certainly suffer these more so than you or I or Barack Obama or Hamid Karzai.

Where, in the ongoing narrative of contemporary empires, do you hear the voice of one calling in the wilderness? Where do you hope to see the Glory of the Lord revealed to all flesh?

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