Writers from ancient times were not interested in history simply as a series of facts. They wrote to make a point in which what actually happened was not all that important provided they got across to us readers the truth they were trying to express. Sadly this has meant that some modern people have dismissed such stories, particularly the stories about Jesus, as pure fiction, as fairy stories, and have missed the history, the facts, lying beneath the stories, as well as the deep truths the writers of the Gospels are trying to tell us.
Sometimes however, as in today’s Gospel, (Luke 3:1-6) glimpses of what we call real history, real historical facts, suddenly appear. So, if you know your History of Rome, you can, with no trouble at all I am sure, date the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar off the top of your head….. ?? 29AD of course!! Luke gives us this, and a few more dates and facts, because he wants to make it clear to us that, unlike the stories of the Roman and Greek gods, this story is about real people who lived real lives in real time.
Equally, if I wanted to, I could give you the facts lying beneath the other two readings. But if I did so, if I bewildered most of you with dates from the time the Jews spent in Babylon (1st reading from Baruch) or the geography of where exactly Philippi was (Our 2nd Reading Phil 1:3-11) I would actually lead you away from the message that all our readings are trying to convey to us in various ways.
But facts of a sort are relevant to every message in the Bible, because the Bible is a history of a people, the Jews, becoming more and more aware that their God was not like the gods of other peoples. The stories about their God were about a real power underlying the whole Universe. Their God was NOT some kind of magic magician who might be persuaded to help them, to take their side against other people, if he felt like it. Their God, who is our God, is rather THE one true God who wants goodness and truth and justice from the human beings he has created. Our God is a God who does not take sides in our human squabbles and wars but is always merciful, standing for what is fair and good, and so always hoping that we will love and care for everyone the way he does
This is what the Advent message in this run up to Christmas is all about isn’t it? We take it for granted as Christians, unlike some people out there, that Christmas, is about more than just presents and food and fun. We know that Jesus comes to us at Christmas, not just to bring us joy and peace but also to challenge us to work in the real world for justice and truth whatever the cost. In fact, we Christians think this is so important that we gather, not just at Christmas, but every Sunday to remember, to reinforce this truth, and to try to live it out every day in our real lives. Sunday Mass is not an added extra for those who feel like it, but a vital weekly injection of God’s truth. The mercy that every human being needs binds us more closely to God and what he wants, instead of following blindly our own feelings and desires.
Of course this longing for truth and justice can weigh us down as we look at the realities of the world, and the realities of our own lives with all our faults and failures. Advent therefore does not just challenge us but also offers us hope. The image of the way of the Lord when mountains and hills are laid low, and valleys filled in, is not meant to make us think of motorway construction, but of the way God can and does lift our hearts and show us a way through when things get too much for us. So John the Baptist today tells us that our failings, our sins, can be forgiven.
St Paul says some marvellous words to the Christians in Phillipi (Phil 1:3-11) which apply to us as well, don’t they? He prays with joy for them and for us, remembering all that they and we have done to spread the good news. He assures them, and us, that although we may feel inadequate in the face of so many problems, in our own lives and in the world at large, he is quite certain, as he says “that the One who began this good work in you will see that it is finished when the Day of Christ Jesus comes.” It’s something I often say at funerals. Our lives are always less than perfect. However much good we have done, there is so much more we could do. There are always things that we regret. But God will take everything we have done, even our smallest acts of love, and, purging away our silly mistakes and failures, will perfect us with his mercy and love.
We repent not to feel guilty, but in order to see more clearly the perfection that God wants for us and for our world, and in which he has given us our small part to play.