Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- All of these readings are full of activity, as the ancient readers prepared in their various ways for God, and we are called to emulate them, albeit in different ways, as we prepare for the Christmas event of the coming of the incarnate Lord. The action they are advised to take is however rather different from our rather frenzied pre-Christmas dash to the shops.
In our gospel from Luke (3:1-6), we see that the writer has located the ministry of John the Baptist in a very specific time frame. The year is most likely 27/28 AD under Tiberius, so a time of Roman occupation of Palestine, when the day to day government was divided between the sons of Herod the Great, whilst the temple in Jerusalem was under the very tight control of the family of Annas, who had been deposed by the Romans but who clearly continued to rule with an iron hand through his children and diplomatic marriages. The picture Luke paints then, and his intention, is not simply about historical memory, interesting at that is, but of oppression writ large! The Herods had a reputation for brutality, with the exception of Philip, whilst the Romans garrisoned the country and would, as Luke was aware writing as he did in the late 70-80’s, bring in the legions and destroy the country if there was insurrection. Luke would have been well aware of the millions either killed or enslaved after the Jewish revolt in 66-70 AD. Luke’s gospel of redemption in Christ therefore resorted to time honoured and well understood means of speaking about God’s salvation of his people in a time of tragedy and terror – he quoted from 2nd Isaiah who sent his message of hope to the exiles living in Babylon in the 6th century BC : a promise of hope for those dragged in shame the 1,000 miles to Babylon, who knew to their cost the heavy price of rebellion and the savage toll it took on national life for the route to Babylon was strewn with those who did not survive the march to their new home on the Euphrates. Luke’s message, like Isaiah’s, was the same – Have hope. God’s actions when they come will be like a massive construction site, levelling the ground, making it a fit place for people to live in comfort.
The prophet Baruch, (5:1-9), similarly borrowed from Isaiah when he wrote to the exiles with his message of hope after the death of the prophet Jeremiah. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians in 587 BC. For him, remember, the dragging of the enslaved would have been a contemporary event so that his hope of the smooth landscape was a heartfelt necessity, not a distant dream. The point for both John the Baptist and Baruch is that this redemption lay in God, and not in man, and the action both called for was about that, not about politics or rebellion. “Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever, wrap the cloak of the integrity of God around you, put the diadem of the glory of the Eternal on your head….Israel can walk in safety under the glory of God. And the forests and every fragrant tree will provide shade for Israel at the command of God.” It is a picture of the entire creation orientated to the salvation of Israel and called on the people to put their trust in God.
When St Paul wrote to the tiny Christian community he had brought into being at Philippi in Thrace around 53 AD, he was writing to former pagans, though some like Lydia of Thyatira, a trader in imperial purple dye, had become sympathisers of Judaism, God-fearers; and many of his supporters seem to have been women from the city. Just imagine for a moment the strain this small group were under, reviled by those following the imperial cult, worshippers of the divinity of the emperors. For Philippi was an imperial city full of the heirs of veterans of the armies which had brought the Republic to an end and brought in the monarchy. Imagine the pressure to conform to the pagan gods, those from the east and Egypt, those of the Greek gods, and those beloved by the veterans – Mithras and Isis. Yet Paul had, through the Spirit, begun something in Philippi which would outlast the lot. His recipe for their strength resided in the love of Christ implanted in their hearts. It is this which binds them and him and all believers together. “God knows how much I miss you all, loving you as Christ Jesus loves you.” This ‘love’ is not a sentiment however, but a powerful and active agent in their lives. “My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognise what is best.” It is then a faith and care for one another which comes from God and is directed to God, one which the believer is inspired to work at, improving their knowledge of the faith and the understanding which flows from it. Their’s then was not a mere Sunday-only devotion, but one which required them to work at their faith on a day-to-day basis, rooted in real life. Whilst pagan religions were based in strange tales of the gods and their all-too rackety lives and carried with them no moral obligations, Christianity demanded much more; the turning round of lives which adherence to Christ required. Clearly, from the tone of the letter, Paul believed the Philippian Christians were following the right path. Our preparation for Christmas, for the coming of God also needs to be of this quality too.