By Hugh Mingard

Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11

Our children’s book today by Philip Bunting asked, “who am I”? Of course, being a children’s book, it has a rather simplistic answer. Life is more complex. We are not our skin colour; but the prejudice we experience because of our skin colour may contribute to who we are. We are not our gender or our sexuality; but the battles we have to fight to express that part of our identity will help to define us. We are not our body, our bones, our muscles; but physical impairment and illness can have a strong influence on how our lives turn out.

Similarly, we are not our parents, although we share much of their genetic material and if we have spent much time with them may, consciously or unconsciously, copy their behaviour and attitudes. Yet we place importance on knowing where we have come from; we desire to connect with our past. Māori culture places particular importance on whakapapa, on origins and association with the land. Family history is big business and, with online databases and computer software, has become much easier. Have any of you caught the bug? My Dad and I egged one another on for a few years, our task both helped and hindered by having an unusual name – fewer records to check through than say Jones or Smith, but frequent mis-spelling or mis-transcription.

My interest was boosted by discovering my maternal grandfather’s diaries from the 1950’s and 60’s when he travelled around the world on business. He had taken many photographs and carefully sorted them but never shared them with us when he was alive. I spent a week at my aunt’s, pulling them out from cardboard boxes in her garage, scanning the slide photographs and photographing the diary pages to preserve them. Later I started reconstructing his journeys, searching for visual clues on the internet when slide labelling was vague. As I worked through, building the story, I reconnected with my grandfather in a way that I hadn’t when he was alive. I had known him as an old man. Now I was building a picture starting from his middle years. With family photos I could add some images of his childhood and youth, but for those earlier years I will never get that deeper connection with him that comes from his diaries.

As you step back in time it becomes harder to follow the story. We have a few photographs from one generation earlier, but when you have no diaries, no photographs, people become just names – the connection is lost. Registers of births, marriages and deaths, census records become the thread that connect me with my earlier family. How far back do I go? Where does my story start?

This desire to connect with the past is nothing new. The gospels of Matthew and Luke both have genealogies linking Jesus to traditional Jewish ancestors. Not surprisingly these are far less reliable than Ancestry.com! They can’t even agree on the name of Jesus’ paternal grandfather. But the lists are put there to show connections, pedigrees. Our readings today are linked across six centuries by the inclusion of a quotation from the book of Isaiah (written around the end of the Jewish exile in Babylon) in the Gospel of Mark (written in the late First Century CE).

It was our gospel reading for today which started me thinking about the way we construct stories and the way we read the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and death. Unsurprisingly, we tend to read the gospels as if they were a simple, time sequential account.  Our own lives have a start, a middle and an end. We cannot alter that; the arrow of time goes only in one direction. But stories do not work in this way; stories can be told forwards, backwards or from the middle out. You might expect the First Chapter of Mark to be the start of Jesus’ life. We are in the season of Advent, a time when we look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. But Mark’s gospel has no nativity, no Christmas story. For Mark, Jesus’ story begins at his baptism by John.

In some ways, this is not surprising given that the gospel stories would have been told originally by Jesus’ disciples and they may have first encountered Jesus in John’s camp by the River Jordan – in the description provided by the Gospel of John, Andrew is one of John’s disciples before he leaves to follow Jesus, bringing with him Simon-Peter. Whether this is true, or whether Jesus found them casting nets by the Sea of Galilee, as told by the other gospels, the baptism marks Jesus’ call to ministry. This may be the beginning of the story as the disciples knew it.

As you probably know, our Christmas story is woven together from two distinct accounts, one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in Luke. I have compiled a brief summary of the two stories in this slide. The element of the story that is common to the two gospels is highlighted by underlining. Yes, that’s about it – the conception – and the authors don’t even agree whether it was discovered after the event by Joseph, or announced in advance to Mary! So why do the gospels start their stories so differently?

I’d like to share with you a short passage from a book I came across recently, “Thistlefoot”, by GennaRose Nethercott (Anchor Books Open Market, 2022)

“A memory, a true memory, is harsh and full of sharp edges. The facts don’t always make sense in ways that we might wish…… And the very worst thing about memory…: a memory can be forgotten.

But a folktale – a folktale can never be forgotten because it wiggles and rearranges until it sits neatly on the heart. It is fluid and changing, able to adapt to whatever setting it finds itself in. It shifts in the mouth of every teller and adapts to the shape of each listener’s ear. The facts can change..… but the core remains the same. So the folktale survives. Assimilates. And with it – so survives the memory.”

Now the gospels are much more than just a folktale, but they did start as oral histories and the principles are the same – core memories are passed on, but the accompanying details can change. The story of John the Baptist is more consistent than the nativity but still there are significant differences. The real core of the story, again highlighted in the slide, is the quote from Isaiah (although some quote more than others) and the Spirit of God descending on Jesus (although there are differences about who sees what). To Mark’s basic account, Matthew and Luke add a hellfire-and-damnation kind of preaching by John the Baptist. And Luke also tells of some practical teaching by John, which is very much aligned with Jesus’ message. John’s gospel is quite frank about using John the Baptist simply as a herald of Jesus – that is his role in the gospel of John, you can see it in the first sentence: “This is the testimony given by John…”.

As it is with story content, so with the order of events. The sequence and the starting point can be adapted to assist the story teller’s purpose. Many biblical scholars believe that in their earliest form, the Gospels originated as a set of sayings attributed to Jesus. One such set was embedded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – part of the material common to these two gospels which is known as Q. So, the first telling of the story was a collection of sayings from Jesus’ ministry which mentioned neither the start nor the end of his life.

And there is also a sense in which the story started at the end, with a crucifixion and an empty tomb. The stories were not written down as they happened, nor researched and reassembled from written records. It was when the disciples sought to make sense of Jesus’ death and their experiences of resurrection, whatever that might have been, that they began to tell the stories of his life. And as the stories were told, they took on the different viewpoints of widely dispersed groups, decades after Jesus’ death.

And so, this is Advent. And what do we do? We re-tell the story, as if it were true. I feel that it is not just the world of shops and commerce who have packaged up Christmas into a beautiful glittering parcel and tied a ribbon round it. Christians can also be prone to see the season as a celebration of an event which happened once, long, long ago. Prophets, John the Baptist, angels, wise men, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, even Herod, all squeezed into a glass globe so that all we need to do is pick it up and shake it gently to see the blessings swirl like snowflakes, and feel a warm glow that once upon a time God came to earth, that Jesus was born and died once and for all, for our sins. Perhaps it’s time we took that little hammer for use in emergencies only and broke the glass.

Advent heralds a story with no beginning and no end, in which God is embedded within humanity. It is a story we should recreate and re-enact each year. By so doing we find God not as distant but among and within us, not as omnipotent but vulnerable, not doing the work for us but encouraging us to do the work together.

As it is with stories, so with his-tories. History can wriggle and rearrange. History is often told by the victor. Even when we think we have contemporary accounts, we must be wary of bias. You may have read of the controversy over the recent film epic about Napoleon Bonaparte. Apparently, he was a big fibber when writing his memoires and exaggerated his successes in his correspondence to the French parliament and others. We have to learn from history, but we should not be so absorbed in a reconstructed past that we mistake fiction for fact or overlook past injustices.

One lesson of history that governments seem to be unable to grasp is that you cannot create peace through violence. In Jesus’ day, the Romans enforced the Pax Romana by a combination of battlefield and bribery, paid for through exploitation and taxation of the conquered resources. A First Century leader of the Britons, Calgacus, said of the Romans, “They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy. Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create desolation and call it peace.”

As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan put it in their book, the First Christmas: “Rome and its emperors saw themselves as having brought “peace on earth.” The song of the angels proclaims a different source and kind of peace….. This is the peace of the kingdom of God, a peace based upon justice. The peace of empire is based on oppression and violence.”

I’ll come full circle by going back to my family history. When I research an individual in my family it does not really matter where I start the story. I work with what I have, whether it is a diary, a few photos or a record of a birth, marriage or death. What matters is that that individual is included, remembered, in the story. I can be selective about how I use and tell my family history – do I want to think of myself as the grandson of a travelling salesman, teacher or quarry manager? As the great grandson of a farrier, or a descendant of a family of painter decorators from a poor part of the East End of London? I am all of these. Do I want to remember my distant relative who was once Chief of Police in New York, or my direct ancestors who appeared in court at the Old Bailey in 1827 charged with receiving stolen goods?! I can chose my history. But none of that will define who I am. Knowing where I come from and who my ancestors were could be an element in understanding myself, but if I want to make peace with myself I will also need to deal with where and who I am now.

Similarly, nations like to define themselves by selective highlights of their glorious past, whether those in Jesus’ time who harked back to the golden days of King David, or Brexiters dreaming of when Britain ruled the waves. Whether attempting to rebuild an empire, or to argue that a neighbouring state has no right to exist, manipulative leaders use history to create national myths which help them pursue power. People want peace, but true peace will only be possible when we are not distracted by false narratives, and seek justice starting from where and who we are now. As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, wrote in his poem, “Mural”, “I’ve had enough yesterdays. I need a tomorrow.”

I have a question I’d like you to mull over with your mince pies after church. How do we get the balance right between past and present so that justice is achieved? – so that past wrongs are acknowledged but present realities accommodated?

To end with, this is a photo I took last weekend while walking along the banks of the Heathcote – in the Ernie Clark Reserve at the bottom of Barrington Street. It shows the remnants of English woodland, planted by the Clarks during the 117 years they owned the land, and the New Zealand native flora planted over the last 20 years or so. Side by side. The old were not clear-felled to make way for the new, but the work is being done. In time a new balance will develop as the oaks age and make way for the sun to reach the new trees growing in their shade.


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