Advent 2 • 6 Dec 2015

Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Rev. Chris Udy

Woody Allen
isn’t my favourite human being,
but he does make
interesting comments about life.
One of them runs like this:
“In my next life
I want to live my life backwards.
You start out dead
and get that out of the way.
Then you wake up in an old people’s home
feeling better every day.
You get kicked out for being too healthy,
go collect your pension,
and then when you start work,
you get a gold watch
and a party on your first day.
You work for 40 years
until you’re young enough
to enjoy your retirement.
You party, drink alcohol,
and are generally promiscuous,
then you are ready for high school.
You then go to primary school,
you become a kid, you play.
You have no responsibilities,
you become a baby until you are born.
And then you spend your last 9 months
floating in luxurious spa-like conditions
with central heating and room service on tap,
larger quarters every day and then Voila!
You finish off as an orgasm!”

You might remember a movie
that came out a few years
before Woody Allen’s quote appeared,
called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.
That movie was based on a short story
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
and Benjamin’s curious condition
was that he aged backwards.
While everyone around him
followed the normal course of a human life,
Benjamin Button reversed it,
and when his life was complete
he’d shed all the scars of accident and illness
and become a baby -
a perfect newborn baby boy -
and then he died.
It’s quite a strange story.
It seems to be suggesting
that we need to turn time around
and go back to simpler days
to heal the damage and pain of human life -
but as Benjamin grows younger
he becomes more and more alone -
he loses everyone and everything
that makes him who he really is,
until, finally, he has nothing:
no character, no personality,
no memory or history,
nothing to make him unique or even special -
and at the very end, he doesn’t have a life.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
“Life can only be understood backward.
But it must be lived forward.”

Woody Allen and Benjamin Button
are probably tapping into
our grief in the face of change
and our addiction to fantasy
and denial about the future,
but there’s a dimension to their stories
that fits well with our gospel reading for today.

Jesus also grew from old to young.
The gospel really begins on Easter morning.
Jesus had been killed three days before,
but on Easter day his life has just begun,
and as his friends remember -
as they tell the story of his life in reverse
the meaning and the truth of his life is revealed.

On Good Friday
he was just another political sacrifice -
one of a long, long line
of betrayed and discarded leaders -
and it seems politics is much the same today.
But what made Jesus utterly unique
was that he wouldn’t stay dead.
He was raised to life -
not resuscitated -
his clock wasn’t set to run in reverse
his movie didn’t run backwards;
the meaning of his life isn’t lost
in fantasy and denial -
but the meaning and the truth of his life
begins in resurrection.

Paul is the first of the Biblical writers
to tell the story of Jesus -
and all he talks about
is the meaning of Easter.
Paul says almost nothing
about what Jesus said or did;
there are no parables in Paul’s letters,
no healing stories,
he hardly even gives an account
of the way that Jesus died -
all Paul needs to talk about
is Jesus crucified and Jesus risen.

But soon that wasn’t enough.
As the Church grew out
beyond the Jewish communities of Palestine
into Gentile congregations
in Asia minor and then to Rome,
people wanted more -
they asked for detail and explanation
of the person behind the proclamation.
So, after the letters of the early Church
we think came collections of sayings -
anecdotes and quotes
and little stories about Jesus.
Then, as far as we know,
Mark was the first
to write a narrative account -
a gospel - “the good news
about Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God”,
those are the words
Mark uses to begin his work. (Mark 1:1)
Mark took those collections of quotes
and parables and teachings,
and he organised them into a story -
an account with a beginning,
a middle and an end -
and that organisation -
that narrative framework -
added another dimension to their meaning.
Mark wasn’t only recording words,
he was preaching;
he wanted those who read his gospel,
or who heard his gospel read
to be convinced that Jesus was the Messiah,
that he was the Son of God -
and he wanted them to find hope
through that larger story.

The story Mark wrote - his gospel -
wasn’t the story of Jesus we think of now.
As far as we know, Mark stopped his gospel
with the women who first discovered
that Jesus wasn’t dead
running in terror from the empty tomb.
And Mark began his gospel,
not with a Christmas story,
but with John the Baptist,
appearing out of the wilderness
preaching for repentance and baptising.
Mark thought that the Baptist provided
the best place to begin -
and the best way to end -
was up in the air, with the gospel readers
filling in what happened next
from their own experience -
but other gospel writers didn’t agree.

When Luke and Matthew wrote their gospels
they added extra chapters,
both to the beginning
and the end of the Gospel of Mark.
Most of the time
they used his narrative framework in between -
but sometimes they change the order of the stories,
they add things in and they leave things out
and they slightly adapt what was written
because Matthew and Luke are also preaching -
they’re also trying to convince and to encourage -
and the people they’re writing for
have different lives and live in different contexts
from the community
who first read the gospel of Mark.

The passage we read from Luke’s gospel for today
is where Mark starts his gospel -
with John appearing to preach and to baptise -
but in Luke’s gospel this is not the beginning;
Luke’s already written two full chapters,
and in these chapters
Luke continues to tell the story of Jesus in reverse.

Matthew added on to Mark’s beginning
with a story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem,
and wise men coming to see him,
and Herod doing all he could to kill him -
but Luke says nothing about that.

Luke goes even further back than Matthew.
Luke starts his gospel story,
not in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth,
and not with the birth of Jesus,
but with an announcement
to Zechariah and Elizabeth - Mary’s cousin -
an announcement by the archangel Gabriel -
that they would have a son,
whose name would be John,
and that he would be a prophet like Elijah.
Only after that comes the announcement,
again by the archangel,
but this time to Mary -
and Mary is told that her child
will not be just a prophet:
his name will be Jesus
and he is the Son of God.

Next comes Luke’s description
of the birth of John the Baptist -
and it’s a wonderful story.
Zechariah had been struck dumb
for questioning Gabriel’s message,
but when John is born
Zechariah’s voice returns
and he praises God.

But when Jesus is born
it isn’t only his parents who praise God -
the angels - the highest of the high -
and the shepherds - the lowest of the low -
all join in songs of praise that echo around the world.
Jesus is revealed
as the hope and promise of God
for everyone all over the earth
and up into heaven above.

Luke’s still telling the story backwards,
but as he takes things further and further back
he’s not just padding the story out -
Luke’s intention is to add meaning
to the heart and core of his story -
the resurrection of Jesus -
the final revelation
of God’s meaning and God’s truth.
These early chapters set the scene.
They show that the life of Jesus
is good news especially
for those who are poor,
for those who have been rejected and excluded,
and - in a message that’s unique to Luke -
the life of Jesus is good news for women.

Luke shows women centre-stage and floodlit.
Zechariah and Joseph have a part,
but Elizabeth and Mary are the stars,
and through the rest of his gospel
Luke reveals the crucial role
that women play for Jesus -
not only in supporting him
physically and financially,
but also as disciples.
It’s the women - starting with Mary -
who glimpse the truth about Jesus,
and it’s women
who understand what his life means.

In these early chapters
Luke does one more thing:
something that doesn’t mean as much to us
as it did to those who read his gospel first.
Luke sets up a comparison -
a kind of parallel - between Jesus and John.
It looks like many Jewish communities,
especially in Asia and beyond,
were very aware of John the Baptist,
many had even been part of his baptism -
but didn’t understand who Jesus was.
Luke then draws out parallels -
sets up comparisons -
and while he affirms that John is very special -
a prophet, a man of justice and courageous truth -
Jesus is more and greater in every way.
John is the one who cries out in the desert -
prepare the way for the one who is to come -
and the one who is to come,
the Messiah, the Son of God - is Jesus,
the man who would be killed by those in power -
just as John was killed -
but unlike John, Jesus would be raised,
and the meaning and truth of his life
would change the world.

While Mark also ended his gospel
with the women running in terror from the tomb,
Luke went on to add a whole new book
to the end of the story.
The Acts of the Apostles goes far beyond
the end of any other gospel -
but in it the theme is the same:
Jesus is the one
in whom God’s meaning and truth has been revealed.
He was killed, but he is risen -
and while we only woke up
to who he really was
by looking back on his life -
it’s Jesus, alive and present now,
who leads us into the future.

Every Advent we begin by looking back.
We celebrate the prophets
and the promises of hope that they proclaimed -
but then we turn to look into the future
and we prepare ourselves,
not just to hear more words, and extra promises,
but to receive the gift of life.
Christmas shouldn’t be about nostalgia;
it shouldn’t be a sentimental indulgence -
we can’t turn back the clock
to a world that never was quite real -
God’s truth is now,
and he comes to us
in children, and in family,
in our neighbours all around the world -
especially those who are poor,
and those who’ve been rejected and excluded.
So as our Christmas preparation quickens,
and as we go to parties and shop for presents,
may we also be looking for signs of resurrection,
opportunities for redemption,
options for forgiveness and renewal -
and although we understand our lives
mostly in reverse -
may we also realise
that the only way into the future is with trust -
trust in the God
who reveals himself in Jesus.