Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Second Sunday of Advent.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Reading: Luke 3:1-6

Our Gospel reading sounds like it could itself be the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel. It is, in fact, the beginning of the second section of the Gospel. The first section has described the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus and also Jesus’ growth in favour with God and man. We are going to be reading extensively from this first section over the next few weeks!

St Luke’s Gospel is itself going to be the main source of our Gospel reading each week for this coming year, year C in the lectionary. To begin, then, a few words about St Luke’s Gospel.

St Luke’s Gospel is the first volume of a two-volume work. The second volume is the book of Acts. You will sometimes see them both referred to as Luke-Acts, that is, with a hyphen between them to show they are linked. Both volumes are dedicated to someone called ‘Theophilus’, which means ‘friend of God’. We don’t know anything about Theophilus, but he was probably a believer who acted as St Luke’s patron, which is to say that he paid for the volumes to be produced!

If this is the case, then he certainly got his money’s worth[1]. St Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four Gospels with over 19,000 words in Greek (19,482). Matthew has over 18,000 (18,345); Mark over 11,000 (11,304), and John over 15,000 (15,635). Acts, the second volume has over 18,000 words (18,451) and is slightly longer than St Matthew’s Gospel. This means that St Luke not only wrote the two longest books in the New Testament, he also is the New Testament author who wrote the most. Out of a total of about 138,020 words in Greek, St Luke wrote 27% of them; St Paul 23%; and St John, 20%.

There are those who think, given the way Acts ends, that it may have been St Luke’s intention to write a third volume. I am one of them, but that is a story for another time! Suffice it to say that the length of each of St Luke’s volumes roughly corresponds to the length of a standard size papyrus scroll. The English word, ‘volume’ comes from the Latin word, ‘volumen’, meaning a papyrus scroll. The fact, however, that the Gospel and Acts were on separate scrolls has led to them being read and studied separately and not together as they should be.

In his actual opening to the Gospel, St Luke acknowledges his debt to the others who have written before him. It is worth quoting St Luke’s introduction in full:

‘Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ (Luke 1:1-4)

St Luke’s Gospel has a lot of material in common with both Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke have about 20% of their content in common; Luke and Mark, 40%. St Luke says there were ‘many’ others who had written before him, so we don’t where exactly he got the 40% that is unique to him, although that doesn’t stop scholars from speculating!

Who, then, was St Luke?

We don’t know for certain, but from the earliest days most people have thought that it is the Luke who is described as a companion and co-worker of St Paul (Philemon 1:24; Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11). In Acts, there are passages where the author writes in the first person suggesting he is part of the events he is describing (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). Not all agree with this identification, but I see no reason to doubt it. In Colossians 4:14, St Luke is referred to as the Beloved Physician. St John’s Gospel was written by the ‘Beloved Disciple’; St Luke’s Gospel by the ‘Beloved Doctor’!

You will often hear or read that St Luke was a Gentile. This, however, is far less certain than people make it sound. St Luke is certainly concerned with the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles, but whether he was himself a Gentile is another matter altogether. Jew or Gentile, he is concerned with what happened, with the ‘events that have been fulfilled amongst us’ (Luke 1:1), as he himself puts it in the words he addresses to Theophilus.

Which brings us to our Gospel reading.

St Luke begins this second section of his Gospel with a series of people who are all historical figures. Some of the names you may recognize. Tiberias Caesar was the Roman Emperor from AD 14-37. Tiberias was the adopted son of Caesar Augustus, the great Roman Emperor who was Emperor when Jesus was born. Pontius Pilate everyone has also heard of. He was the ‘Governor of Judea’ from AD 26 -36, a period which covers the whole of Jesus’ ministry.

The role and relationships of the next characters perhaps needs a word of explanation. Rome ruled its conquered territories in a variety of ways. Some parts came under a directly appointed Roman governor. Others were ruled on Rome’s behalf by people who were approved by Rome, but who had greater independence. Herod the Great was one such, and he ruled as King over the whole of Palestine. Herod the Great was still King at the time of Jesus' birth.

After his death in about 4 BC, Herod the Great’s Kingdom was divided between his sister, Salome, and three of his surviving sons.

Salome received an area to rule known as a toparchy, which included the three cities of Yavne, Azotus, and Phasaelis. Herod Antipas was appointed ‘tetrarch’ of Galilee and Perea (‘tetrarch’ means ruler of a fourth) and ruled from 4 BC to AD 39; Philip was appointed tetrarch of the territory to the north-east of the Sea of Galilee and ruled from 4 BC to AD 34; and Archelaus was made ‘ethnarch’ of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea. Archelaus’ title was ‘ethnarch’, which means ‘ruler of a nation’, and he was told he would eventually get the title ‘king’. Archelaus was, however, a disaster, and Rome removed him in AD 6 and brought his territory under direct rule by a ‘prefect’ responsible to the governor of the Roman province of Syria.

Not related to the Herod dynasty, Lysanias was the tetrarch of a small area on the western slopes of Mount Hermon in the north near to Damascus, centred on the city of Abila.

Although under direct Roman rule, Judea, centred on the city of Jerusalem, enjoyed a measure of autonomy, at least in religious matters. Local rule was provided by the high priest who presided over a governing council, the Sanhedrin, which had 71 members.

Annas (or Annanias) was the high priest from AD 6 to about AD 14-15 when he fell out with Rome. His influence continued, however, with the appointment, after a brief spell, of his son-in-law, Caiaphas, as high priest. Caiaphas held office from AD 18 to AD 36. Subsequently, Annas’ five sons were also in turn to become high priest.

Having, then, assembled this cast of historical characters, St Luke writes about the appearance in the wilderness of John the Baptist, whom St Luke describes as the son of Zechariah, who was himself a priest.

All of which is doubtless really interesting, if you are interested in history, which, let’s face it, many of us are not! But by introducing the ministry of John the Baptist, and with it the ministry of Jesus, in this way, St Luke is making a very important theological and spiritual point, and one that we need to take seriously.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to be hearing the story of the birth of Jesus a lot. At our Carol Service, we will hear it read to us in nine lessons. We will also sing of it and hear it sung to us. But it will not just be in church; we will, for example, hear Christmas carols being played in the shops and the malls and many other places besides.

The story of Jesus will have a fairy tale quality to it and that is how many will hear the Christmas story this Christmas - as a fairy story. As a magical and much-loved story certainly, but as a story much like many other stories that are also popular at Christmas, whether that be the Nutcracker, a Christmas Carol, or the Gringe Stole Christmas! Not, that is, as a historical account of something that really happened.

One reason for this is the way we celebrate the story of the birth of Jesus. We don’t celebrate it as the birth of a real person. We have added all sorts of traditions and embellishments to it that only emphasize its fairy-story like nature. In addition to the story of Jesus’ birth, there will be loads of other additions: decorations, cards, Christmas trees, presents, pictures of Father Christmas, and much more, all of which have little to do with the story of Jesus himself.

It’s not helped by how we tell the story in Church itself. We don’t even bother to get our facts right. For example, Jesus wasn’t born in a stable as such. The Wise Men after all, St Matthew tells us, when they found the place where the holy family were staying entered the ‘house’ (Matthew 2:11), which certainly wouldn’t have had a Christmas tree and wouldn’t have been covered in snow. There would not have been shepherds in the fields keeping sheep if it had been snowing. And we don’t know how many wise men there were just that they brought three types of gifts!

The traditional nativity is great fun and the traditions and the way we tell the story all add to its magical character. And we like it because there is so little magic in our lives. Christmas is a time for children especially, we say, but we say that because we don’t think it’s real. The fairy tale elements often blunt the reality of the story and result in us missing its message.

It is because of this that some church people get very negative about it all. In the parish where I served my curacy, my clerical colleague used to get very upset when lots of people turned up for church at Christmas who didn’t normally come to church, and he used to tell them off at some length for not coming during the rest of the year.

The Puritans in the 17th century tried to ban Christmas altogether and, in Scotland, for example, there were churches that, until relatively recently, didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. They saw the way Christmas was generally celebrated as all very pagan. Christmas Day in parts of Scotland was just another day.

Others took, and take, a different approach. You will hear talk at this time of year of putting Christ back into Christmas. The minister of the Church I belonged to before being ordained used to preach about Easter and tell people it was Jesus’ death and not his birth they should be focusing on.

Interestingly, the early Church doesn’t seem to have celebrated the birth of Jesus at all. They saw celebrating someone’s birth as something the pagans did and they wanted no part of it.

Well, as you know, I am not one of those who thinks we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. I love Christmas, and I love all the traditions associated with it. But I love them not because they are a way of escaping reality into a mythical, fairy-tale world, but because they are a way of celebrating Jesus entering this world and becoming part of the reality of human life.

There is a real challenge to us here as a Church and as believers. We have to be careful not to let the magical take over from the historical and, in the process, silence the message that Jesus came to bring.

But what is the message he came to bring?

When Jesus was just a month old, his parents took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, where it was said of him:

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed …’ (Luke 2:34-35)

If you ask people what the message of Christmas is, many will tell you that it is, ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all people’, which is strange as Jesus himself said:

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ (Luke 12:49-51)

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says he came to bring not peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34). Mary herself was told that a sword would pierce her own soul too (Luke 2:35).

Yes, the Christmas story is a good news story, and it will have a happy ending, but not for everyone and not without pain, suffering, and death.

On Christmas Night, at Midnight, I will light the Christmas candle; I will read the Christmas Gospel and the famous words, ‘In the beginning was Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). But the amazing thing, St John tells us, is that the ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).

Unlike the Christmas decorations and traditions, this isn’t an addition to the Christmas story: it is the Christmas story. If it isn’t true, if the baby in the manger isn’t the God who made us and through whom we continue to exist, then there is no Christmas story.

St Peter writes:

‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (2 Peter 1:16)

St Luke tells Theophilus that he is writing so that Theophilus may know the truth concerning the things about which he has been instructed (Luke 1:4).

This is real. It is not a fairy story. It is not a metaphor or a type of parable. It happened. Jesus was born, as St Luke puts it, ‘in the days of King Herod of Judea’ (Luke 1:5). He began his ministry by being baptized by John, the son of Zechariah, to whom the word of God came in the wilderness:

‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas …’ (Luke 3:1-2)

We don’t have to be against Christmas as the Puritans were or tell people off as my colleague when I was a curate did, but we do need to guard against telling the story in such a way that makes it seem unreal and irrelevant to people’s lives the rest of the year. It is important that we as a Church this Christmas communicate the reality of the Nativity of our Lord.

St Luke will begin his account of Jesus’ ministry with the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus will quote from the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

Today, people may not feel poor materially, although there is still plenty of poverty around, but many do feel poor in spirit. Many feel they don’t have the strength and inner resources to go on. They are captive to habits and impulses they can’t control. They feel trapped by unhappy relationships, jobs they hate, or situations they can’t escape. They are blind and unable to see the way out of their depression and despair.

This Christmas, it is to people in these bad news situations that our Lord came. The good news of Jesus is not a fairy story to cheer us up once a year, but a message that can transform our lives all the year round.

We will know we are telling the Christmas story the way it should be told when what we are saying is important to people, when they react to it and divide over it, because that’s what happens when something matters. The story of Jesus is not a story people can remain neutral about or indifferent to. And if they can, it is because we are not telling it in the right way.

But to tell it in the right way, we first need personally, each one of us, ourselves to get with the story. The Christmas story challenges us to have faith in the One that the story is about. To ‘all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’, St John writes (John 1:12). The Christmas story is a story that still has the power to change lives today.

So, this Christmas, let’s make sure we tell the Christmas story as it is and pray that people will hear it, and that begins with us hearing and responding to it ourselves. The shepherds said to one another after the angels had announced the good news of Christ’s birth to them:

‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ (Luke 2:15)

This Christmas, may we do the same.


[1] Felix Just (

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