This passage from Luke occurs long after Jesus’ birth. It has to do with John the Baptist setting things up for Jesus’ public ministry. But it does explain, in its own way, why Jesus was so sorely needed in that time and place and why we need him just as much.
Let’s start with these names that people have such fun with. On the one hand, Luke as a historian is simply providing us with the date. Tiberius became emperor in 14 A.D., so the fifteenth year of his reign means we’re talking about our year 29. Luke wants us to know that this is not a “once upon a time” sort of story. It’s news, with a byline and a date. What’s taking place is happening in the real world, the world where there are identifiable times and identifiable places, like Judea and Galilee and Trachonitis. The setting is the area around the Jordan.
On the other hand, Luke mentions some very specific people. Just mentioning Tiberius would have been enough, but he throws in a few other administrators for good measure. And what a crew it is!
The first one is Pontius Pilate. For us, and I expect for Luke and every other Christian from the earliest days, he is best known for being the Roman administrator who sentenced Jesus to death. In Luke’s account, he did it with full awareness that Jesus was innocent and at the same time releasing a man named Barabbas
“who had been put in prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.” [Luke 23:19]
Maybe his conscience bothered him a little, because afterward he allowed Jesus’ body to be taken down from the cross, when normally the corpse would have been left on display as a warning [23:52], but that was probably a political decision on his part, helping to exploit differences among the local leadership.
Speaking of the local leaders, Luke also mentions Annas and Caiaphas. In John’s gospel, when Jesus is arrested, he’s taken to the house of Annas, father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, and that is where the decision is made to hand Jesus over to the Romans. It’s there that Peter stands in the courtyard and denies three times that he knows Jesus at all. Luke doesn’t use their names in his retelling, but he does describe all of that. Even for those who might not have known the details of Jesus’ trial, though, their names would not have been heard with warm fuzzies. They were among the high priests who were appointed directly by the Roman governor. That meant that they could only hold office as long as they collaborated with the Romans against their own people. Caiaphas stayed in office for around fifteen years, so he must have done pretty well at that.
Then there’s Herod. He was part of a dynasty of Herods, none of whom were especially kind, compassionate, or moral. Later on, Luke [9:9] mentions that Herod had John beheaded, and if you want the full story you can read it in Mark [6:14-29], where it comes about in part because John dares to confront Herod about having divorced his wife to marry his brother Philip’s wife instead, a woman named Herodias who had a daughter named Salome by her first husband, who was also her uncle.
These are the people whom Luke chooses to name when he says,
“the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” [Luke 3:2]
A lot of scholars think that John was in the wilderness because he was hanging out with the Essenes, who were a religious group that had looked at what was going on in both the political and religious circles of Jerusalem and Judea and had said, “Enough of this. Let’s get away from these people.” They went out into the desert and built their own communities and tried to observe the Law as well as they could. They built a lot of ritual baths to use in purification ceremonies and some believe that John’s practice of baptizing people in the Jordan grew out of that.
That is always an option, of course. When you find yourself surrounded by a corrupt society, get out. That was what the pilgrims did. That is what the monastic movements of the Middle Ages often advised. That’s how the Amish live. Even now, people sometimes enclose themselves in a religious bubble or wrap themselves inside communities that put up very strict fences around themselves. Sometimes those are visible fences, actual walls. Other times it involves a firm view of who is inside and who is outside.
The problem with that project, though, is that running away from one wilderness simply leads you into another because we carry so much of the sin we want to escape within ourselves. John baptized Jesus at the Jordan, and the Spirit of God descended upon him. Mark’s account says,
“the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” [Mark 1:12]
Luke gives a slightly milder wording to it, saying that he
“was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” [Luke 4:2]
Unlike us, Jesus never gave in, but he was not spared the confrontation. The Spirit always seems to send someone, like it or not, however, into those places where they come face to face with injustice and wrong. When that happens, when someone discovers that there is no escape from either from the dangers of the world or from the answering voice of God, the challenge becomes how to do what John did, and what Jesus ultimately did: confront the world in hope rather than condemn the world in fear.
John the Baptist shows up in all the gospels because God’s call found him in his own wilderness and led John in turn to point to Jesus, as the one savior who helps us in our own wilderness, whatever shape that may take, rather than to hide out inside someplace of false security. Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, says,
“Two thousand years later, John’s call remains a wilderness call, a cry from the margins. Because we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” 
“They” were Pontius Pilate and Herod, Annas and Caiaphas, and (by the way) you and me, too.
So if you cannot get away from the wilderness, take heart in the truth that Jesus is right there with you. Take a good look at the wilderness and then set about making it more like it could and should be. Make it a place where God is not only a distant voice echoed in human voices, but a place where God is a living presence.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Luke 3:4-6]