Why the Bethlehem Massacre Matters

Some weeks ago my sister came up with a great idea for our congregation’s December mission project: to collect baby clothes for local mothers who need to go to a local shelter for battered women in abusive relationships. 

The project seemed to me to do two things. Firstly, it would address a tangible need in our community.  And secondly, while celebrating the advent of hope in the birth of Jesus, the project would also acknowledge one of the most horrific and oft evaded scenes of the Christmas narrative. 

King Herod, in his insecure obsession to safeguard his rule, ordered all Bethlehem baby boys killed, in the hopes that one of them might be the Messiah he assumed threatened his throne. 

It’s not a scene you’re likely to see performed in any pageant this Christmas season, and understandably so.  It’s grisly and heart wrenching, and doesn’t maintain that positive holiday vibe.  Regardless, it happened.  And amidst the frenzy of our festive activities, we need to remember it happened. 

It’s good we celebrate the hope that has come into the world to save us from the horror that sin has wrought upon human reality; but if our celebrating ignores the reality of that horror, we omit what necessitates hope in the first place.  There can be no hope of shalom (God’s peace) without the horror of sin.  That Bethlehem was the place of both Jesus’ birth and Herod’s bloodbath shows how nearby hope and horror often are.  

Even now horrors are still close by. 

cogniet-massacre-innocents-rennes-copiebo-2As noted, our congregation’s mission project reminds us there are still women in abusive relationships, along with their children, who are being unleashed upon as scapegoats for an angry man’s insecurity. A Coptic Church in Egypt was recently bombed, killing several mothers and their children.  Civilian men, women, and children in Aleppo are currently suffering, and possibly being executed, in the latest chapter of the conflict in Syria.  

We need to remember these horrors in order that we might repeatedly comprehend that nothing good is ever created by them.  Whether cruelly inflicted upon people or utilized as a perceived solution to ending suffering, horror always gives birth to horror, explaining its constant existence within human reality. 

This is what makes the birth of Jesus so stark of an emergence.   His incarnate presence singularly exists as the substance of hope.  The horrors matter because the hope slowly supplanting them matters. To remember the horror doesn’t glorify it, but acknowledges that it is the background that accentuates the hope that is coming to the forefront of all reality. 

This Christmas season, abide in and embody hope; not only because we must, but for why we must.  All realities around us considered, hope is the only one of its kind.


Advent VI: When Hope Comes Home

IMG_4683When Luke started his Advent story, he began in the temple, which for the Jewish faithful was home. It had been rebuilt centuries earlier by returning exiles to signal God’s hope was alive in the homeland. Hope was in short supply, however, “in the days of Herod”. Amidst expanding empires, Israel’s role in civilization had diminished; and when Rome subjugated the Jews by way of occupying the land and violating the temple’s sanctity, labeling the Jews as atheists and offering a pig on the altar, this place of God’s presence now seemed all but a fading relic of God’s past glory. But hope always defies the way things seem, bubbling beneath the surface, going against the grain.

Luke writes “And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

While the ways of the world trailed off in various diverging directions, Simeon kept himself to the way of the LORD as established in His words. It is a way that transforms how we perceive life and God at work within it. It was a way that brought Simeon into God’s presence and permeated his spirit with hope. “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

The hope God gives is not abstract, like some floating wisp of ideas detached from reality, but always connected to the world in which we live. God had promised Simeon he would one day see his Messiah; not a conceptual figure or representation of idealism, but a person whose life would be all about God’s salvation. The hope that held Simeon’s heart all his days would be a human who was so much more than that.

One day God’s presence moved Simeon to enter the temple, this place he and so many others longed for God to glorify. He was about to discover God’s presence had just returned. Jesus had been born about forty days earlier; now on this day his parents had brought him to the temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the LORD”. Sometime during their visit, their path crossed with Simeon’s. A lifetime lived upon the way of the LORD had led Simeon right to Jesus; “…then he took Him into his arms…” The hope that held his heart for so many years Simeon now held in his arms. A life of waiting, hoping, and anticipating now culminated in this baby as God’s past glory visited Simeon’s present with a glimpse of a glorious future.

Captivated by wonder, Simeon “blessed God, and said, ‘Now Lord, You are releasing Your bondservant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.’”

In this tiny infant Simeon saw his entire life story reach a climax that made his every moment worth the wait. Everyone sees death; not everyone sees Life. Having hopefully seen it from a distance all his days, he now beheld it before him, savored it, and was satisfied in the heavenly peace that saturated him. The hope that was somewhere out there had come home. But not just for Simeon.

This salvation he saw had been prepared amidst “all peoples” for “all peoples”. Drawing on Isaiah’s messianic imagery, Simeon likens this little one to light that will both reveal God to the Gentiles and return glory to Israel’s story. Like Simeon, Israel’s story was reaching its climax in this advent of its Messiah. Israel had always thought of the days of Solomon as their golden years, when God’s great glory filled the temple; bygone days that were mournfully missed. But now here in the infant Jesus, the infinite incarnate, the perfect image of the Father, God’s great glory has returned to the temple. This place of God’s past glory has become the place of God’s present glory; a glory that will shine out salvation throughout the world’s future.

Jesus has arrived; our Advent story has concluded. But Simeon offers one final comment to an amazed Mary and Joseph: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed…to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

As Jesus would eventually affect all life in Israel, he would inevitably do the same throughout the world. Being either a step to raise others up or a snag over which others would fall, who Jesus is reveals who we really are. The person of Jesus forces us all to show our true colors. How we respond to him reveals where we stand with him.

Historically, globally, and communally, that puts all Jesus-followers in the place of Simeon—waiting, hoping, anticipating. Waiting for God to work His salvation out upon this world, hoping in God’s Spirit to remain faithful witnesses to His salvation, and anticipating the Second Advent of Jesus our Messiah.

Jesus was brought home to the temple to be presented to the LORD that the LORD may present Jesus to the world. Hope had returned to the home that had been lacking its hearth. But the home is a haven just for momentary respite, a harbor to ready the ship to sail again. Hope went home so that hope would again set out to visit homes, hearts, and lives.

I pray that as your Advent season concludes and you begin a New Year, Christ-centered hope will attend, keep, and cultivate you all your days. Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

Advent V: The Hope of God’s Humiliation

nativity5The culminating story of Advent is the birth of Jesus. In it we are presented with a paradox that actively demonstrates how far God is willing to go to bring us the hope of His salvation. The story begins with the masters of the world still pulling hard at power’s strings so they won’t be puppets dancing on them. King Herod’s fears of being deposed are rising to a murderous level of anxiety, while Caesar Augustus orders a census so he knows who and where to tax. This is our human understanding of power, how far we are able to wield control. God, however, is about to display His power by how far He is willing to care.

The virgin Mary is miraculously with child; along with her husband Joseph, a simple carpenter, this common couple from a common town travel far to register in another common town, now busy with travelers and family reunions. The only available space they could find was likely in a simple stable. “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Within a common town, in a smelly stable, born to a poor couple of commoners, and in a feeding trough, lies incarnate the infinite infant. The LORD of life in the lowliest lair. God had humiliated himself.

In order to show humanity how holiness is substantially lived out and to save them from sin and for His Kingdom, the Most High God reduced himself to the lowliest human. The LORD God gift-wrapped His magnificent majesty and indescribable glory with the common frame of the human form. He was willing to step out of an eternity of joy and peace to set the hope of salvation into a time of distress and despair.

This juxtaposition is about to be witnessed firsthand by a group of shepherds watching their flocks in the fields nearby. Luke here now presents two very different moments that each depict an extreme opposite end of the spectrum of God’s humiliation. And since shepherds were a smelly, dirty annoyance, something of a necessary bother, their humiliated state readied them to receive God’s humiliated form.

The first moment is permeated with glory. An angel appears to them sharing good news: Messiah has been born! Frightened, yet invigorated, their vision is consumed with a choir of celestial creatures revealing and declaring God’s majestic mystery: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

The moment is exhilaratingly magnificent, all their senses heightened as the illustrious sights and sounds summon the salvation of the past to saturate their immediate awareness with the hope that God has come near. It’s a moment where all of life’s doubts and uncertainties are discarded, revealing the glorious backdrop that assures the shepherds they are not alone, that God is still at work. But they soon learn, as do we, that this moment of revealed majesty was just a moment; the angels’ song emphasized that what was “in the highest” is now taking shape “on earth”; that the glorious God is reducing himself to something completely unimpressive.

The second moment, therefore, is utterly ordinary. Having searched, the shepherds find the baby “as He lay in the manger.” There are no celestial beings here, no thunderous songs, no powerful presence to hold their hearts in awe. This is the other end of the spectrum of God’s humiliation where his appearance is as simple as the common couple to which he was born and the smelly stable in which he lay. The all-powerful God has humiliated himself to that of an all-helpless baby; surely that occurred to Mary when she had to change God’s diaper! It feels offensive, really. We humans expect the powerful to show off, to flaunt and strut; but again, God displays His power by how far He’s willing to care, by placing himself into humanity’s everyday ordinary conditions. The salvation God is bringing cannot take root on Earth if it is not lived within the ordinary conditions of Earth. Holiness must be lived out in human form if humanity is ever to learn how to live it; Jesus shows us how. The ordinary doesn’t have to be sneered at, despised, or considered “unspiritual”. The unimpressive appearance of Jesus did nothing to diminish the hope set in the shepherds’ hearts. Returning to their fields and flocks praising God, they were fully aware of God’s salvation at work in that simple stable, knowing its appearance was much more than it seemed.

Up until now, Advent’s story of hope has allowed us to simply be spectators, unassuming recipients of the salvation God has been setting into our midst. But having observed the humiliation of God through the birth of Jesus Christ, we are now invited to join in as participants in the salvation story God is authoring. The heavenly hope lying inside the lowly locale invites us to enter his humble abode, behold Him and believe. Belief is what draws the hope of His salvation deep within; it gives Jesus prime placement at the center of our lives. Christ-at-our-center cultivates humility of heart that readies us to respond as witnesses to a world in need of the hope we have. As participants in His salvation story, the humiliation of God moves us to consider how far we are willing to go to convey the hope of Christ. It would be appropriate, as this Advent season draws near its end, to prayerfully consider how we might “humiliate” ourselves in order to display the hope of God’s salvation. The hope of humanity hinged on the humiliation of God, a hope we bear witness to as we choose to humbly step into the salvation story that’s lived in the footsteps of Jesus.

Advent IV: Hope in the Hill Country

country4Advent may be the story of hope, but not everyone shares that hopefulness. There’s something about this season that has a tendency to excavate long-buried hurts, ignored or untended wounds, and unresolved disputes and tensions. Though this season is saturated with hope, hope is still hard to detect. Hope has to be stirred, pondered, recognized, and enjoyed. Hope needs a place that gives it time to be nurtured, serenely and undisturbed.

Mary got herself to such a place after learning her relative Elizabeth was pregnant. Knowing her own unique situation, to which only Elizabeth could relate, Mary “went to the hill country” to visit, support, and rejoice with her relative, as they had both been recipients of God’s salvation hope.

As Mary arrived, something extraordinary happened. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s Spirit-filled greeting, her baby leapt inside her and she was filled with the Holy Spirit, fulfilling Gabriel’s promise. When God’s salvation saturates our awareness, it becomes the lenses through which we see all of life. Elizabeth saw this salvation-saturated reality in Mary and joyfully described it as “blessed”, saying to her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

The word “blessed” is frequently associated with material possessions, opportunities, or positive people in our lives; it is often used as a generalized expression for how good we have it. Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation restores “blessed” to the context which substantiates it—reality, impregnated and alive, with God’s salvation.

Mary’s response is likewise ecstatic with the holy hope growing in her mind and body: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.”

She continues to make much of the mighty God, reflecting upon the mighty deeds He did in days of old, implying how Israel’s salvation past is spilling over to bless Israel’s present. Salvation is not abstract. It doesn’t consist of the concepts we ritualize every Sunday morning, nor of our material possessions or relational bonds; it’s the blessed reality of God’s redemptive work infusing every aspect of who we are and where we are at, bringing us into the salvation story God has been telling all along. His story set in us, it reshapes our reality and opens our hearts, minds, and tongues to rejoice. If we can’t rejoice in God’s salvation reality, perhaps we’re afraid to embrace its hope. Such was Zacharias’ situation.

Rendered mute for doubting God’s promise, Zacharias silently waited at his home in the hill country for Elizabeth to give birth. When that day finally came, her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her, celebrating God’s great mercy upon her. Later at the child’s circumcision, they were going to name the child after his father. When Elizabeth objected, they asked Zacharias his decision; he wrote “His name is John.” Zacharias’ reality was finally in consensus with what God was doing. Finally allowed to speak, his first words in nine months sang the praises of God. Like Elizabeth and Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias saw and declared the blessed reality of God’s salvation hope: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.”

Holding his son, and seeing him through God’s hope-infusing eyes, Zacharias prophesies “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the LORD to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation.”

As he reflects on his son’s role in God’s salvation story, which would return hope to Israel’s midst, rumors of hope begin to publicly circulate: “Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, ‘What then will this child turn out to be?’”

The hill country is isolated, quiet, slow, natural, yet unpredictable and wild.  The hill country casts us into chaos that quickly reminds us we are not in charge. It’s a place that removes our claws from the illusion of control and forces us to acknowledge we are a small part of something bigger.  That’s when the hill country fosters contemplation. Igniting the imagination, it becomes a place where hope can be planted, take root, and grow with anticipation into something wondrously alive with all of God’s worth. Zacharias’ ninth months of silence at home in the hill country gave him both the time and place to nurture his imagination with the wonder of God, as anticipation of His salvation hope refashioned his once hopeless heart—hope that now makes the hill country inhabitants wonder what is going on.

There are many these days wondering what is going on, what the world is coming to, what is worth doing. Advent implores us to pause, and rest our minds and bodies upon God’s peace.  If an actual hill country or getaway is undoable, it would greatly benefit us to turn off the TV and the noise, the tech-toys—slow down—surround ourselves with silence, and ponder the wondrous salvation God has brought into our world.  If we take time to let our imaginations slowly and savoringly stroll through Scripture, we will begin to recognize that life looks different, that reality is alive with something fulfilling. In this season of hope, let us literally, actually take time to receive God’s salvation, perceive it for the blessed reality it is, and find rejuvenation in its joyfulness.

Advent III: The Substance of God’s Salvation Hope

angel3Coming. That is what Advent means. More specifically it means Someone is coming. And He’s bringing Something with Him. The angel Gabriel has already conveyed rumors concerning the nature of this coming when telling Zacharias his son will be “a forerunner” to the Messiah. It is now time to confirm the rumors of hope with reports of good news. To an ordinary girl in an ordinary town, Gabriel now proclaims something extraordinary.

In the town of Nazareth, as a young Mary enters a room, Gabriel appears and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Perplexed, Mary can only ponder what will come next. Then Gabriel announces good news of salvation: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Thus far in these reflections upon the season of Advent and its story of hope, we’ve examined the settings into which God’s salvation will be placed, but now we turn our attention to the substance of God’s salvation and it is defined here both in the sense of Someone who is coming, and Something that is coming with Him. The substance of God’s salvation is a King and His Kingdom.

After God delivered Israel from Egypt, He revealed who and what they were to be: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

By giving Israel laws for righteous living, God’s desire for every Israelite was to cultivate a righteous character so as to create a culture of holiness, a people whose entire lives bear witness to a historical and communal reality being born in the delightful submission to sovereign LORD. This is the holy, royal reality God has always pursued for His people. But generations later, this is not what they resembled. Determined to be “like all the other nations”, Israel ambitiously asked for a king. God gave them one, a tragic trial run. Then David came to the throne. Though quite imperfect, David was a man after God’s heart. Ultimately God made David a promise that “someone will always sit on David’s throne”. Sadly none of the subsequent kings came close to pursuing God’s heart as David had. Israel gradually and fractionally faded into shadows.

But Gabriel’s words to Mary reveal God is still authoring His salvation story. The reality of God’s redemptive reign was still coming and its initial advent would be witnessed in the birth of its king. The good news of God’s kingdom is so much more than just a solution to sin or an eternal destination; it’s a redemptive reality encompassing the whole of humanity, redefining history, people, purposes, values, culture, and mission in the holistic submissiveness to its King. When this frames our understanding of God’s salvation, we begin to see we are not just saved from something, but we are also saved for something. This is the substance of our salvation hope.

But knowing the natural order of things, Mary asks how this can be, considering she’s a virgin; Gabriel replies “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

Come upon. Overshadow. In order for Advent to reveal God’s salvation story to the people and places of Earth, the salvation hope being brought must come from beyond. That is the whole supernatural nature of this Coming, that Earth is encountering Someone it has never seen before in a way it does not understand and cannot control. God lets us manage many things, but He will not permit it with salvation. God alone works salvation so God alone is on display and worshipped. We stand powerless before this salvation work in history as the mysterious supernatural God infuses the natural with all of His glory, majesty, and wonder, conceiving and cloaking Himself with a human form that is nevertheless divine. He would appear to all as just another son of man, yet be indeed the Son of God. God implants Himself into the natural order here so we can understand salvation rightly—the infinite incarnate.

To reassure Mary, Gabriel adds that Elizabeth, her elderly and barren relative, is sixth months pregnant with a son, to which he concludes “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Her humble response is exemplary: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

This supernatural salvation puts us in our place; we add nothing to it and can take nothing from it. As Mary, we can only receive it and respond as willing participants in it as God powerfully performs it. In this Advent season, prayerfully ponder the coming of your King; may the hope it sets in your heart shape an awareness of how the redemptive reality of His Kingdom is good news for all the world. Peace of Christ to you.

Advent II: Hopeful Echoes from Ancient Days

bell2The season of Advent does more than just introduce us to the hope of salvation; it gives shape to how we understand salvation. Luke presents God’s salvation, not as a concept that can be abstracted and compartmentalized as we often do with ideas, but as a story with a past, present, and future through which God’s salvation hope is being constantly threaded. Just as life is most often experienced and explained within the framework of story, Luke presents God’s salvation the same way, with the hope of Israel’s past entering its hopeless present.

The first inklings of Advent’s salvation story begin, not in a great royal hall with a king and advisors conceptualizing policies, but in the quiet, sacred space of Israel’s Most Holy Place of the temple with a priest named Zacharias. Zacharias is old, not well known. Though his wife, Elizabeth, is barren, they both have lived a righteous life. Zacharias does not have much to show for his life, or much to look forward to, but he has remained devoted to the ancient ways God ordained for Israel. On this day, Zacharias has been given a lifetime opportunity to enter into the revered, historical sacred space to offer incense to the Lord, to minister as his ancestor Aaron did. This space is also the site where the Roman general Pompey entered, massacred priests, and finding no idol, declared the Jews to have no god. Zacharias is entering a place that has encountered both honor and horror. On this day, both the priest and the place will encounter hope.

As Zacharias carried out his duties, an angel, Gabriel, appeared and said, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Here now into Zacharias’ disheartened awareness and into the dishonored holy place is hope spoken and set; hope promised in the form of a son. A son to fill Zacharias’ heart with joy, and a son to turn Israel’s hearts to God. A son who shall bear witness to the reality that, despite all the horror and hopelessness that has haunted and taunted Israel all these years, God is still with them, still at work, still the bringer of salvation. Still. That which once was is about to be again.

If you look carefully at the characters mentioned in the text (1:5-17), in the priestly role, Zacharias is a reflection of the High Priest Aaron; in the prophetic role, his son John will be a reflection of the great prophet Elijah. If we observe their names and ministries chronologically as on a timeline, each of these men in their time were witnesses of God’s salvation. God is up to something new, but it is also something very old; this salvation story is rooted in ancient days. As one who has lived his life, day in and day out, devoted to the God of this very old salvation story, these words of hope echo in Zacharias’ mind, bouncing off Israel’s past with a reverberating vision of where Israel’s future is headed.

These salvation stories of ancient days echo in our minds as well, hope reverberating in our hearts. What will you do when you hear that hope and encounter its comfort? Zacharias doubted it. He responded to the angel “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Here Zacharias serves in the place of God’s presence while doubting the angel who stands in God’s presence. Sometimes we can go without hope for so long, we refuse to believe it even when it’s right in front of us. After so many years of disappointment, hope can hurt; it feels like a tease. To teach him to hope again, God made Zacharias silent for the next nine months. As Elizabeth’s belly would grow, so would Zacharias’ hopeful anticipation of God’s salvation in the form of his crying baby son, a sign that God is not silent. When Elizabeth later learned she was pregnant, she reflected “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”

Hope is being poured into these days of hopelessness. God was still at work authoring another story of salvation; even in the painful days we deem hopeless, a story of hope remains. It started in the days of Aaron, it echoed in the days of Zacharias, and it still reverberates through this current season. What will you do when you hear the story of hope? I hope you will make your heart ready to embrace God’s salvation work.


Advent I: A World in Need of Hope

globe1Advent is the season that celebrates the coming of Christ. It is both a season and story of hope and Luke starts the story in the days when there was very little of it. After a brief introduction, he begins “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…”

A story of hope must start in a time of hopelessness, and that’s exactly what “the days of Herod” were like; it had actually been like that for quite some time. Before proceeding, I wish to provide a glimpse of the past 500 years, in order to establish a sense of setting of the world into which Jesus entered; as Charles Dickens wrote, “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Israel was God’s own people, uniquely chosen to be “a kingdom of priests”. Instead they progressively corrupted themselves with idol worship and indifference; thus God progressively brought national consequences upon them, from the raids of small local tribes to the conquests of great empires. In 586 BC, the people of Judah, the last gathered tribe, fell to the Babylonian Empire. With Jerusalem and the temple destroyed, the survivors were uprooted and transplanted to Babylon; deprived of their homeland and bereft of their purpose, they likely wondered “What is our world coming to?” or “What will God do now?”

In those days, God provided the prophet Daniel with a glimpse of the future: Babylon would soon fall to the Persian Empire, who would in turn fall to the Greeks, who in time would be absorbed by the Roman Empire. Then “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.”

After the Persians did conquer Babylon, the exiled people of Judah were eventually permitted to return to their homeland. They rebuilt Jerusalem, the walls, and the temple, but it did not compare to the glorious days of Solomon, nor would it. Under the guidance of governors and a reinstituted priesthood, they managed to survive as human civilization changed around them. Through military might, Alexander the Great was attempting to unite the world with Greek culture, but he died at a young age. His empire was eventually divided amongst his generals, two of whom, Ptolemy and Seleucus, formed their own dynasties that would vie for power throughout Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land for more than a hundred years. When the Seleucids eventually won out, the Jews in the Holy Land were treated cruelly, igniting a twenty-four year Jewish revolt led by the Maccabean family, eventually leading to the independence of Judah in 142 BC and the establishment of the ruling Hasmonean Dynasty. Over time, however, even this dynasty ruled in cruel ways that reflected its former enemy. Finally, in 63 BC, when two brothers were clashing over control of the dynasty, the Roman Empire intervened when the general Pompey took Jerusalem, massacred temple priests and defiled the temple, embittering the Jews for almost a century. Much like the Hebrew’s prolonged period of slavery in Egypt, the historical events of these past centuries weighed dishearteningly heavy on the Jews; any hope kindled in the occasional moments of relief was repeatedly snuffed out.

In 37 BC, control over the Holy Land was given to Herod the Great by the Roman Senate. Like many rulers in those days, he was ruthless, murdering much of his family to secure his rule. He also littered much of the territory with architecture reflecting the culture of his Roman sponsors, like amphitheaters, pagan altars, monuments, official buildings. In another significant political act, he renovated and expanded the Jerusalem temple, with such influence it would unofficially bear his name throughout history. Thus were the days of Herod. Though he was a “king of the Jews”, his rule expressed the same arrogance, political cunning, and brutality characteristic of many men this world produces. These were the days in which a “day of salvation” was greatly needed, though hope for one was quite absent.

And yet Luke has a story to tell: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias.” In the same sentence that Luke writes the name of a king who brought much pain and sorrow to Judea, he follows it up with the name of a priest who has remained devoted to the ancient ways of LORD. The “days of Herod” are only a starting point for Luke, because those days are not what this story is about. Hopelessness has had its day. This new story he intends to tell is a salvation story, one whose hope comes from Heaven into a broken world being made ready for what God’s about to do. While we wonder what the world is coming to, Luke shows us what and who is coming to the world. Advent is the salvation story that fills the absence of hope.

And so it begins with an old priest in the place of God’s presence…