Biblical people of faith believe God will eventually save them from the evil forces which inhabit the concrete, historical environments in which they live. Salvation isn't a matter of just getting into heaven; it plays out in what's happening right here and now.

Baruch, for instance, trusts Yahweh will free the Chosen People from exile (Bar 5: 1-9). God will bring the captives back to the Promised Land, changing the face of nature in the process.

In the same way, Paul reminds his community of his deep faith in God's concern and care for them (Phil 1: 4-6, 8-11). "I am confident of this," he writes, "that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus." Paul's confidence revolves around his prayer that his peoples' "love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ." The future only makes sense when the present is being addressed.

In context

Luke is also a great proponent of putting salvation into an historical context (Lk 3: 1-6). He sets the historical stage for Jesus' ministry by describing John the Baptizer's ministry. Here, he inserts John into the political and religious situation of the day.

John begins ministering "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas."

Faith isn't lived in a vacuum. God's word always breaks into our lives while something else is going on.

The reason Luke often ties the Roman Empire into the events of his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles springs from the fact that his readers are living their faith against and within this environment. They experience the empire every day. It's there that they discover the risen Jesus.

Yet, there's more to John's historical and religious situation than Luke gives us. A clue to uncovering that environment comes from the Deutero-Isaiah quote most known to Gospel readers.

Preparation

Those familiar with Isaiah 40 notice that John doesn't quote the prophet's words exactly as he delivered them. The sixth-century prophet of the exile originally proclaimed, "A voice cries out: `In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!'" The Baptizer changes the punctuation, making the words mirror his wilderness ministry. "A voice cries out in the desert: `Prepare the way of the Lord!'"

Until 1947, most critical Gospel readers thought Mark -- the writer Luke copied -- had been responsible for altering Deutero-Isaiah's words and putting the doctored quote into John's mouth. But when the first five Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, we were amazed to find the same quote, altered the same way, used to defend this wilderness community's lifestyle.

Those who gathered and lived at Qumran formed a community on the fringes of mainstream Judaism. They were apocalyptic: waiting, praying and preparing for Yahweh to come to destroy their enemies and restore them to a place of honor.

Scripture scholars today believe John the Baptizer had close connections with this group, perhaps he even was a member of it.

That insight leads us to believe that John historically wasn't always looking to Jesus as his savior. On the contrary, in the middle of focusing in on one element of faith, he begins to notice something (or someone) else.

Could the risen Jesus be breaking into the historical situation of our lives, even our religious lives?

(12-07-00)