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Homily by Rev. Dr. Clive Pearson

Epiphany, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12

Let me be naughty. Let me change the gospel reading for today. Strictly speaking it’s supposed to be about the wise men which we find in Matthew’s gospel. Let me change this to Luke’s story about Simeon and Anna; and let me go one step further, let me take you back to the Sunday just before Christmas, first of all.

Imagine this: there you are minding your business, contemplating your future; this day is just like any other day – then, lo and behold, down pops the angel Gabriel and you are told: you have found favour with God. The Lord is with you. You will be with child and give birth to a son; you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. You’re pledged to Joseph. You’re a little worried. You wonder what kind of greeting this is; what do you do? Sing a song?

This is definitely not the way pregnancies usually happen these days – nor the announcement of such; nor is Mary’s bursting into song, the words of which imagine a world turned upside down – that is not the normal response to the news that a baby is on the way. There are no tweets, no ultrasound scans, no birth classes, no choice of delivery modes; there are no pre-birth images to share around friends and families; and when the baby is eventually delivered there is no way of telling your on-line friends by way of facebook; there is no reference to weight, who does he look like – his father? Or mother? Aren’t his fingers long … whatever… It’s not usual for a child to be born in a manger.

There is a world of difference between today and the world in which Luke places the birth of Jesus. There is no hint of the consumer Christmas in the biblical text at all. There are no smart-phones, i-pads, no need to ask that question, ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ – there are no Christmas catalogues; no shopping frenzies; no countdown of sleeps; there’s not even a hint of any feasting, not a tiger prawn or single barbecue in sight.

Welcome then to the world of Luke. Take leave of our here and now. Make yourself at home in his birth narrative. Every advent season we change gospels; for the next year we travel in the company of Luke. Last year it was Mark; that being so I did everyone a favour: I cancelled Christmas. For the best of reasons, of course. The fact is that Mark has no Christmas.

There are no shepherds, (there is no need for small boys to go around wearing tea towels on their head), no wise men, no manger scenes; there’s none of the scandal about Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph having strange dreams. Mark begins with a declaration of this being the beginning of the good news; Jesus being baptized, then he’s led in the wilderness, and all of a sudden, he is teaching and preaching about the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. There may be no Christmas story in Mark, but this focus on forgiveness is not a bad Christmas present.

Now it is true that Luke has a liking for forgiveness as well. His is the only gospel where the dying Jesus on the cross will say, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. But this year the whole setting for advent and the coming of Christ into our world is rather different.

Now before we rush too quickly into things - let me warn you. You have to exercise some care here. Let me explain by way of an example. On the Friday before Christmas we had a carol and lessons service at the Centre for Ministry. Apart from one reading taken from Isaiah all the others came from Luke. Those who were there were asked: what did you hear? The sermon began with the words:

In the year that Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and Tony Abbott was the leader of the opposition, while Clover Moore was once again mayour of Sydney, during the last years of Marie Bashir as governor, in the reign of Elizabeth II, the people heard: how Zechariah entered the Temple and lost his voice.

In the year that Barry O’Farrell was premier, the state Labor Party was in disarray, and plans were set in place for new modes of public transport and approvals were given for Barangaroo, Darling Harbour and makeovers were proposed for Circular Quay and Central Park was being built, the people heard: how Mary visited her kinswoman Elizabeth and the baby within her leapt for joy.

In the year that Alain de Botton lectured in the Opera House on religion for atheists and A.C. Grayling published his secular Bible, The Good Book: the people heard: how the angel Gabriel visited Mary and declared her to be highly favoured.

In a year when the synod lost money, people lost jobs, and the air was full of talk of being a missional church, the people heard: You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.

In a year when pranks were played, people hurt, tweets and you tube raged, and Gangnam style became a cult, the people heard: how Mary sang of her being blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me …

In a year when so much abuse was made known, when the township of Newtown was devastated by gunfire, and when the cartoonists of the Sydney Morning Herald depicted an infant Jesus suspended on a cross, the people heard: that a baby was born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

In a year when the Olympics were held, silver became the new gold, South Africa won on the last day at Perth, and Warnie thought of a comeback, the people heard: I bring you good news of great joy. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.

And then we got serious and got down to business: we listened to Luke’s story. Those present were asked to see if they could spot a dreaming Joseph who is deeply troubled; could they catch a glimpse of a wise man or two? could they see a star leading them on?, was there any reference to the name Emmanuel or Herod’s desire to kill all the little boys under 2; was there any hint of Joseph having another dream and escorting the family into safety into Egypt, a bit like a modern day asylum seeker.

If they were able to do any one of those things, congratulations: they have done something which I have never been able to do … they have clearly got vivid imaginations; they may need some sort of counselling because. ..they’ve been hearing things: none of those episodes actually happen in Luke’s Christmas narrative. His story line is quite different.

It’s much longer for a start. That’s true of his gospel as a whole; there are a lot more characters – the birth of Jesus and its announcement is placed alongside the birth of John the Baptist and its announcement. The angel Gabriel is rather busy and needs to make two visits: one to Zechariah and another to Mary; Zechariah loses his voice; Mary visits her kinswoman, Elizabeth. Before there is a shepherd in sight Joseph and Mary must make their way to Bethlehem where the baby will be born because of the requirements of a census which only Luke knows about. And on the 8th day the baby Jesus is presented to the Lord at the Temple; a sacrifice is offered: he is to be circumcised and behold, Simeon and Anna bear witness to him; Simeon takes the infant in his arms, praises God, declares he can now depart in peace and refers to Jesus as a light to the Gentiles. Mary is forewarned that a sword will pierce her heart and that this child will be a sign that will be opposed. The prophetess Anna likewise testifies to what God will do this new born child.

This story is quite different from the one Matthew provides. Can you now catch a glimpse why in the year of Luke I have changed the readings away from the story of the wise men.

We usually hear the extended Christmas story in a rather fragmented and jilted way. We cut and paste this account with how Matthew tells it. And we end up with a bit of a mish mash – on top of which we separate off the manger scene with its focus on mother and child from the rest of the gospel. For the first thousand years of Christian history that would not have happened. Christmas was not celebrated like we do now.

Maybe it’s time to heal the break and allow the writer of this gospel to give us a gift. Let’s imagine that Luke is presenting us with his Christmas present. And that gift is the whole gospel from beginning to end; and he’s wrapped this story line up in his own particular way and given to us, Dear Theophilus, that is us, the lovers of God. It is a narrative which doesn’t need any extras borrowed from Matthew.

Maybe it’s time, then, to put the tinsel to one side; maybe we unwrap Luke’s present and catch a glimpse of what it asks for us, at the end of this year when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, Tony Abbot was leader of the opposition and Barry O’Farrell was premier. Let’s recognize first that there is a point to those references. Of all the gospels Luke is the one who is most mindful of the wider public world beyond the life of Jesus and his disciples; he is placing the Christmas story much more self-consciously inside what we might call a secular history. There is a sense in which Luke is weaving together a public, political narrative with the gospel to do with the life and times, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And his Christmas story takes place against a background of power politics.

And there are themes peculiar to Luke or more strongly represented here than elsewhere. The audience for which he is writing seems to be reasonably well off. Whenever money is mentioned in Mark, it is the smallest coin in possible – in Luke, bring your visa card, your mastercard. We’re at the other end of the spectrum. The community for which he is writing seems to be more sophisticated, the language he uses is more complex, better expressed and he has a much wider vocabulary than any other gospel.

And yet this gospel shows a bias to the poor; there are more references to the spirit and the spirit’s leading; there is more singing in this gospel than there is anywhere else in the bible except the book of psalms; ; there is more equality here between men and women; whenever Luke tells a story featuring a man, almost inevitably it is preceded or followed by one in which a woman takes centre stage; there are more people from a diversity of cultures in this gospel than in the others – the belief that you can organise a church with only a token reference to other cultures is alien to Luke. If there had been no Luke, we would not have some of our favourite parables- the prodigal son, the good Samaritan; your neighbour you should love here is your enemy, the one whom you distrust.

Where Matthew has a sermon on the mount, Luke’s is on the plain; where Matthew speaks about blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke refers to the poor; Matthew has blessed are those who hunger after righteousness, Luke blessed are those who hunger. Where Matthew speaks about perfection, where today’s church might speak about competency, efficiency and economics, Luke talks about mercy, compassion, forgiveness.

That song of Mary’s – the magnificat – fits into the purpose, the themes of this whole gospel. It’s more than a response to the visit of the angel Gabriel and the announcement of her pregnancy. Its setting forth for the first time God’s intention behind the birth: the proud have been scattered; the powerful brought down from their thrones; the lowly have been lifted up; the hungry have been filled with good things.

This song sits alongside Jesus’ later reading from the scroll in the synagogue in his own home town. Jesus begins his public ministry – only in Luke – in this way: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the setting free of oppressed:

There is an agenda here. There is a vision here. There is a prophetic imagination here. The Magnificat is more than a prelude to Christmas. It sits within the whole gospel and its spirit extends into our here and now. Mary believes and is faithful. She sings her song. And as for Simeon and Anna: welcome to the new year. Jesus has just been named. It means ‘he will save his people’. In Luke this good news of peace and joy is for Jew and Gentile: it is for all. His genealogy goes back to Adam, not Abraham like it does in Matthew. Simeon hints at the cost of this calling. This child will grow up and test the inner thoughts of men and women; He will face opposition. Mary’s heart will be pierced. extends this work of salvation to

So here we are. What are your new year’s resolutions> Do they include the pearls of wisdom to be found in Luke.

Maybe, this year, after the pranks were played, shots rung out across Connecticut, when Gangnam style ruled the world, why not this year give yourself and others the gift of Luke’s gospel – the whole gospel. Let it shape how you will live and respond to this coming year; this Christmas why not pay attention to what it might have been like for Zechariah to have lost his voice, for Mary sing a song that turned the world upside down, for angels sang of peace to all whom God’s favours and not just those within our particular huddle. Why not ponder upon Simeon’s song and let Anna have space too. Let Luke be the script for our life together. Let its themes shape who we are rather than allow us other like how much things will cost and who will do what perform that function. Let the baby whose birth took place while Quirinius was governor grow again in our midst. Let Mary’s song resonate through the year – let it be Magnificat now.

Rev. Dr. Clive Pearson, Principal, United Theological College.