Read Luke 3:1–6.

We’re tempted to imagine the ancient world of the Bible as far more foreign than familiar. In phrases like, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1), we hear the yammering of our high school history teacher. But Luke’s gospel introduces us to a recognizable world. A world where lust for power, celebrity, and wealth reigned supreme. In this world, political might made right. In AD 19, for example, Tiberius Caesar exiled the Jewish community from Rome—because he felt like it. In this world, religious loyalties were corrupted by political compromise. Archaeologists believe they may have found Caiaphas’s house—its multiple stories, water installations, and mosaic floors all bearing witness to the high priest’s coziness with the ruling party. Much like ours, this world was waiting for rescue.

John the Baptist may have been a member of one of the small holiness communities that fled Jerusalem because of the corruption. From the wilderness, John preached his “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3) and announced a loud cry of salvation (v. 6). As the forerunner of Jesus, John was making a way for people to see what Rome, despite its promises, could never provide.

In the Jewish imagination, repentance was a means for restoring the blessing of God. Although repentance reminded people of their sin, it was nevertheless emphatically good news. We see this clearly in the book of Deuteronomy. As Moses reprised the terms of the covenant God made with Israel, he reminded God’s people that sin would always be their ruin. To their own peril, he said, they “invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way’ ” (29:19). But despite the pleasure people may think sin affords, it is always cause for eventual catastrophe—as Israel learned the hard way.

Repentance is a call to turn from our sin and turn toward God. To say it differently, repentance is a call to turn from self-harm and turn toward self-preservation. Repentance is a lifesaving measure.

But as the message of John reminds us, this turning is only made possible because God sent a “word ... to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2). The good news announcement is that God himself has prepared the way for God’s people to return to him. During Advent, we remember that repentance is made possible because God enfleshes a Word—and sends him to speak, to serve, to save.

Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, podcast host, and speaker based in Toronto. She’s the author of four books, including A Habit Called Faith and Surprised by Paradox.

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