In the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
December 5, 2021
The Bible does not have a lot of extraneous detail. Have you ever noticed that? It never gives us details just to provide some color. It never says, “Jesus looked out at the crowds; he could tell they were tired, though they were still anxious to hear what he had to say. The late afternoon sun was turning the sky into a deeper blue, as the horizon began to take on an orange hue. The scents of the nearby waterfront drifted over; and the voices of fishermen, preparing for the evening’s work could be heard in the distance. He sat down in the middle of the crowd, looked at their expectant faces, and said…” It just says, “Jesus said…”
No, the Biblical authors are very laconic and don’t waste ink or scroll space in composing their narratives. If it isn’t important, it’s not included. So, when we get a detail in the Bible, we pay attention.
II. THE TEXT
Which is why tonight’s Gospel lesson from Luke is so interesting, because Luke provides so much detail for us:
In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…Luke 3:1–2
For the Bible, that kind of detail is downright verbose. It doesn’t just say—as Mark’s gospel does—“John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized….” No, it gives us a date—in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. So, it’s around AD 29 or 30. And it goes on to tell us who was governor over Judea, everyone’s favorite anti-Semite, Pontius Pilate. And it lets us know who the quisling tetrarchs of Galilee, Iturea, Trachonitis, and Abilene were as well as who were high priests that year. That’s a lot of good solid detail. But it’s not as if Luke’s Gospel is fundamentally different from any other book of the Bible. In fact, Luke self-consciously writes his gospel in the style of the Old Testament, even including its formulas like “and it came to pass in those days…”
So, Luke isn’t providing details for us for the sake of color, he’s telling us these details for the same reason the other Biblical authors do: because they matter.
But why do they matter?
III. GROUNDING IN HISTORY
Perhaps there’s something about Tiberius we’re supposed to know. Are we supposed to be reminded that he was the successor to the great Augustus Caesar? Or that he was the Emperor who allowed the wicked Sejanus to unleash a reign of terror over the Empire? Or that he lived out his last years on the island of Capri, removed from the day-to-day running of the Empire? Is there some fact about Tiberius in particular that we are supposed to bear in mind when Luke mentions him by name?
I think there is, actually. The fact we’re supposed to bear in mind is this: Tiberius existed. That sounds like an odd fact to be so important. But Tiberius was a real person. He existed. He was master of the entire Roman world for 23 years. People heard of him and remember him. But why on earth would that be an important fact that Luke would want us to remember?
See, Christianity emerged at the same time as a number of other religions, many of which were known as “Mystery Religions”. Mystery religions tended to be secretive and the religion was limited to those who had been initiated into the religion. Mystery religions also tended toward monotheism and involved understandings of mystical salvation, often through rituals involving blood.
The cult of Isis was a popular mystery religion, but one of the most popular in the Roman world was the cult of Mithras. Mithraism involved rites of initiation that contained a ritual bath and a mark on the forehead. There were also ritual meals and a salvation narrative connected to Mithras slaying a bull and possibly involving the blood from that bull in the rites of initiation. There were a lot of ritual similarities to early Christianity in Mithraism—some have even argued that these mystery religions paved the way for Christianity’s success in the Roman world.
But one of the major differences between Mithras and Jesus was that Mithras appears to have existed in some mythological time: being born from a rock, slaying the bull, having Sol the sun-god bow down to him, and so on. Mithras exists in a time before, an ancient mythical age, like the Greek Gods or the Kings of Numenor from The Lord of the Rings. But Jesus? He began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.
That grounding in history is an important element of the Abrahamic tradition. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in a God who acts in history, not who performed great deeds in some lost age before history. We believe in a God who liberated God’s people after “a new king arose over Egypt.” Whose prophets announced their mission in the reigns of particular kings of Israel and Judah. Who spoke to the people in the midst of Exile in Babylon until the reign of the Persian King Cyrus. And who proclaimed a message of salvation during the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius.
Of course, this God continued to act during the reign of Domitian comforting a people under persecution. Under the reign of the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, this God spoke through Augustine proclaiming that though Rome had fallen the City of God never would. During the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, this God spoke through Martin Luther, reminding the faithful of salvation by grace. During the reign of King George III, this God spoke through John Wesley to lift up the empowering work of the Holy Spirit toward our sanctification in deeds of personal and social holiness. During the administration of Abraham Lincoln, this God spoke through the abolitionists who fought to end the vile institution of slavery. During the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt, this God spoke to those who resisted Nazi tyranny, who sought to comfort a world dominated by fear. During the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, this God spoke through Martin Luther King, proclaiming a message of justice for the oppressed and the marginalized. The God that we proclaim is active in history. The Christ we serve was a real person, in a real time and place. Luke’s little detail here, mentioning emperors and governors and kings, makes all the difference.
IV. GREATER THAN ANY EMPIRE
But there is something else going on, too.
The message that John the Baptist proclaims in the gospels is usually some variation of the proclamation from the Book of Isaiah: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
What is important to remember is that the act of preparing a highway is not simply an act of the Department of Transportation. It is not an ordinary thing. Roads were ordinary. Highways were not. Highways were built for kings.
So, the proclamation that we are called to “prepare the way of the Lord, and make straight in the desert a highway for our God” is a declaration that we are making way for the arrival of a king.
And now, all of a sudden, Luke’s reference to the Emperor, and to the various kings of the region, take on a new significance. These are the kings of the world, those who claim to be powerful and mighty. But John is calling us to prepare for the arrival of the King of Kings. Of a ruler whose kingdom will have no end.
We are often impressed by power. The Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires ever to span the earth. A dread power in the world. Feared. Hated. The great beast of the Book of Revelation. Roman military might was accompanied by economic, political, and cultural might. A network of roads running from Spain to Syria on both sides of the Mediterranean. An army so disciplined that it could defeat foes who outnumbered it two to one. One of the greatest powers to ever stand on the earth.
But Rome is no more. But the Gospel remains.
The Byzantine Empire that survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire lasted another thousand years, until in greatly weakened form it was conquered by the Turks. Its splendor and glory gone. But the Church remains.
The British Empire was so vast that it was said the sun never set on the British Empire and it had territory on six continents. But the British Empire is gone. But Christ’s church remains.
The American Empire is likewise global in its reach, a military, commercial, and cultural power unrivaled in the history of the world. But when our empire falls, the Church of Christ will still remain.
Empires come and go, but the reign of the true King endures. There have been many like Tiberius and Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and all of them are gone. All of their empires and kingdoms have come to nothing. But the Christ who was proclaimed in the midst of the kingdoms of the world remains.
In this time of Advent, we hear a lot of proclamations about the coming king and the coming kingdom. In just a few words, Luke reminds us of the nature of the king and the kingdom we await.
For the kingdom we proclaim at Advent, at Christmas, and throughout the year, is not a kingdom of myth and legend, but of one who was flesh and blood. It is not a kingdom of transient, fleeting power as are the kingdoms and empires of the world, but one of which there shall be no end.
See, there’s always some Tiberius or other on the world stage. Always some power claiming to be the end all be all of human society. Always some seemingly invincible force that causes the rest of the nations to tremble in fear. But we do not proclaim any emperor or empire as our salvation.
We proclaim a king for whom we prepare a way in the wilderness, and a highway in the desert. A kingdom in which every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places plain. A kingdom that will bring a salvation that the whole world will see together.
In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius a lord of violence and fear, we proclaim the real and eternal kingdom of the lord of love and light.
Luke 3:1–6 • In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.
This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.”