I want to notice the first sentence of today’s Gospel.
“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…”
Let’s back up: what else do we know about this crowd?
The third chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, [and some other historical details] …the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Back in Luke chapter 1 we heard about John’s parents and his birth, including Zechariah’s song of hope over his infant son: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
Well, now it’s Go Time for John to fulfill that mission. So: He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… And crowds came out to be baptized by him.
Baptized: dipped or dunked into the waters of the Jordan River, as an outward and physical sign of their inward desire to turn their hearts and lives towards God.
John seems to be re-interpreting Jewish practices of immersion for purification and re-integration into community. He’s making those ritual baths into something messy and muddy and spontaneous. Not a response to specific circumstances or causes of ritual impurity – but a physical acting-out of your recognition that your life is fundamentally askew, and your desire to turn towards the path of holiness and mercy.
This crowd asks John what that renewed life would look like: “What then should we do?” We had this part of the text back in Advent. And John says things like, Share your extra food and your extra clothing with people who don’t have enough. Don’t use your position to take. Do your work honestly and kindly.
And that brings us to the first verse of today’s text: As the people were filled with expectation…
So what do we know about this crowd? There were undoubtedly some folks there who were just curious – or suspicious – or hostile, there to heckle this weirdo preacher. But probably most of them were there because of something they heard, or hoped to hear, from John. People who felt like the existing order wasn’t serving them very well. People who felt disconnected or marginalized by institutional religion. People who felt hopeless; people who felt incongruously hopeful. Maybe people who felt a deep need for change in their own lives, that nothing else spoke to.
In short: They were people who were looking for something. That’s what that word means – the word translated as “filled with expectation.” Prosdokao in Greek. Waiting for, looking for, expecting.
It’s a very Lucan word. We’re in Luke’s Gospel here – one of the four accounts of the life of Jesus. Unlike the others, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts. We started our walk through Luke at the beginning of Advent, and we’ll mostly be in Luke for the rest of this year.
There are two related words here – Prosdokao, and Prosdechomai, meaning to look for, wait for, receive, or accept. Together they show up 18 times in Luke and Acts. They are used twelve times in the **entire** rest of the New Testament – the other Gospels, epistles and writings. So I think it’s safe to say that Luke likes this word – these twinned words. That it’s part of his focal vocabulary. (The way that “immediately” is for Mark.)
In this specific verse in Luke 3, the crowd’s sense of expectation is explicitly eschatological. Eschatology is a fine big 50 cent word. It means relating to the Eschaton, which means, The Last Days. The time when God will turn things upside down and right side up. When there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and God will wipe away all tears. When the lion will lie down with the lamb, and nobody will study war any more.
This crowd is wondering whether John is the Messiah, the divine chosen one sent by God to save and restore God’s people, and bring about that new time of peace and prosperity.
When Luke uses these waiting-and-expecting words, it’s not always with a sense of eschatological anticipation. Sometimes it’s more mundane. People waiting for Zechariah to come out of the temple; somebody expecting to be given a coin.
But by my count, a little over half the time, the words are used with that sense – of not just casual, but cosmic, waiting. We’re not talking about waiting for the bus. We’re talking about waiting for the consolation of God’s people. We’re talking about waiting for God.
Things were not great, in early first century Judea. There were lots of reasons to feel fearful and hopeless and disconnected. People were waiting for signs that God was still out there. That they hadn’t been abandoned or forgotten.That God was still acting in the world, in human lives and human hearts; that God still had a plan, despite how fundamentally askew everything seemed.
Prosdokao. Expecting, waiting, looking for. Why might this be such a central word and concept for Luke?
One of my favorite things about Luke is Acts. The other Gospels end soon after Jesus rises from the dead. Luke tells the next several chapters of the story. He tells us how people’s lives were transformed – not just by meeting Jesus, but by meeting people who had met Jesus, and by meeting people who had met people who had met Jesus. And by hearing the story of his life and death and rising, and the things he said and did…
Our Acts lesson today is part of that longer narrative. A period of persecution in Jerusalem drives many out to preach elsewhere. A young man named Philip goes to the city of Samaria to proclaim the Messiah to them; people listen eagerly.
Then Peter and John – Jesus’ close friends, leaders in the Jerusalem church – come to Samaria to fulfill Philip’s mission by baptizing the new believers there.
There’s some stuff in here about the baptism in the name of Jesus versus the baptism of the Holy Spirit; we understand the church’s baptism as encompassing both of those, but apparently they were separate for a while early on in the church’s story.
The point is: These early Christians, Philip and the others – they’ve lost so much. They lost Jesus – twice. They’ve probably lost family, friends, social standing, by being part of this controversial new movement. They’ve had to flee persecution, at risk of their lives. And they’re still so excited about what God is doing through Jesus Christ that when they talk about it, people can’t help but listen.
This is why I think Acts matters to us. It shows us how our earliest faith ancestors carried on, after Easter, after Ascension.
In many ways those closest to Jesus did not see the fulfillment they longed for. Jesus didn’t become the God-King of a restored Israel. Instead he died a degrading and painful death. And when he rose from the dead, it wasn’t to kick butt and take names, or even just to keep hanging out with them. Instead, he gave them some assignments, and left. Again.
They could have been bitterly disappointed. But instead, they seem really joyful. And more: They seem – expectant.
Luke may have been part of some of the events of Acts. He uses “we” in some parts of the narrative. Or that may just be a literary device, to add immediacy to stories he’s heard about from others. Either way he’s clearly close to these events, to the highs and lows of the first couple of decades of Christianity.
And there are both highs and lows. Successes and failures. There’s persecution and disappointment and conflict and loss. Acts ends with the implied death of the apostle Paul, one of the central figures of both the book of Acts and of early Christianity.
But through it all, Luke has seen and heard and experienced enough to believe that God’s people are NOT abandoned.That God IS at work in the world and in human lives and hearts. I think that sense of holy waiting is a hallmark of Luke because that’s how Luke felt. He’d seen strange, wonderful, holy stuff happen – and despite everything, he expected strange, wonderful, holy stuff would keep happening, long after he laid down his pen.
All the expectant people of Luke and Acts, crowds and individuals who are waiting and looking for something… Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna who greet the infant Jesus in the temple, the crowds gathered to hear John, and others… They don’t get to see Rome overthrown, Israel restored, Creation renewed. What they receive is much more partial and fragmentary. Signs and promises, glimpses and glimmers that tell them that God is still out there. That all is not lost. That there’s still meaning, and possibility, and promise.
What happens in Luke and Acts isn’t that people see all that their dreams come to pass. What happens is that they are formed more and more deeply as people of faithful expectation. People who’ve been shown enough – whether in concrete signs in the world, or in God’s quiet revelation deep in their hearts – that they’re able to continue on in hope. And even choose to step into the baptismal waters and seek to become part of the slow unfolding of God’s purposes.
May these faith-ancestors encourage us in our own heavy times. May we, too, be formed to live as the expectant people of God.