It seems like every generation has a “before and after” moment. When I speak with seniors, they often talk about World War II as such a moment. At least their conversation uses phrases like, “That was before the war…” or “Well of course, that was after the war…” World War II was a defining moment for that generation because it changed so much for so many.
For today’s generation, many would say that the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, was such a moment. Maybe you have heard the term, “post-911”. That’s a clue that something major happened, that it’s a defining moment. For North America things have changed…for the many people who lost loved ones of course, but also because the terrorist attacks sparked a war in Iraq and Afghanistan that has been terribly costly. Some would say that the North American mindset shifted on that day; certainly throughout North America there is a great emphasis now on security.
Think about that song “God Bless America”. Think about how it would have been sung on September 10. Think about how it would have been sung on September 12. Suddenly something has shifted. The song doesn’t seem to fit anymore, suddenly the storm clouds gathering aren’t far across the sea at all, but right here in our own backyards.
That’s what before and after moments do, they change the way we sing songs, they change the way we listen to poems, they change the way we think about the world and live in the word. Today I want to try to get into the shoes of the people who were listening to Luke’s gospel for the first time. In order to do that, we need to understand what had happened to their generation. What was the before and after moment that affected the first listeners to Luke’s gospel? I think it’s important for us to understand that context, to see why it was so important that Luke put today’s text, Zechariah’s song, in his gospel.
The occupation of Israel by the Romans is a given in the gospel of Luke, and it’s something we know
right from the familiar words of the Christmas story. “Now it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world would be taxed. This was the first taxation that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:1, 2) Israel had been occupied by various countries over the centuries; Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians. At the time of Jesus, the Romans were in control of Israel because the Roman general Pompey had invaded and conquered Israel in 63 BCE. The people of Israel had to send heavy taxes to Rome, and were ruled by Romans, not their own people. There was a Roman garrison in Jerusalem, and their presence and activities were sometimes sacrilegious. The Romans had even taken it upon themselves to control who would be the high priest. This interference was something Israel resented terribly. By the time Jesus was an adult, Galilee in the north and Judea in the south (both parts of Israel) had been under Roman rule for 60 years, and people were not getting used to it. Imagine if our own country had been occupied by a foreign power since 1950!
Some people were eager to fight and throw off Roman rulers, these people were called Zealots. In fact in Luke 6:15, one of Jesus’ disciples Simon (not Simon Peter), was called a Zealot. Many people were zealots. Josephus, the Jewish historian I talked about last week, who wrote a history of the Jews, talked about this time by saying that there were four main Jewish sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Zealots.
But even if you weren’t a Zealot, you were hoping for the end of Roman rule. Many people hoped that the Messiah, when he came, would be a Jewish king ruling over Israel, who would defeat or banish the Romans. Then they wouldn’t have to pay these heavy taxes, and could govern themselves and worship without interference from the Romans.
This is the context in which Zechariah first spoke his words of prophesy, a context that was one of foreign occupation. Luke 1
68‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
Religious freedom and political freedom were totally linked in the minds of these people. Religion is something that was at the heart of Israel. Today we think about religion and politics as quite separate, in fact the separation of church and state is an important value for us. But that was meaningless in Israel then, for to be Jewish was to be religious, to have political freedom meant to have religious freedom.
Now I am going to skip over Jesus’ death and resurrection in the early 30’s and come back to that. Right now, I`ll tell you the rest of the history of that century. Life in Israel kept getting worse under the Roman occupation. Modern historians think the average person may have reached the breaking point financially. There are only so many years you can take crippling taxation, and it may have been that peasant farmers were at the point where they were mortgaging and losing their land in order to pay the taxes.
The long and the short of it is that in 66 AD revolt erupted. The Jews successfully overthrew the Roman garrison occupying Jerusalem. And when the neighbouring Roman province of Syria sent their Roman garrison to squash the rebellion, this garrison was also defeated. This gave the Jews a wild sense of hope that they could defeat Rome.
But it was only a matter of months before emperor Nero sent his general Vespasian who landed in Israel with 60,000 troops. Israel is not a really big country, imagine a force of 60,000 troops landing in Southern Ontario, say in Niagara-on-the-Lake! They attacked the north, Galilee, first, and utterly destroyed the rebellion there, killing and enslaving tens of thousands of Jews. News about this defeat reached Jerusalem, and suddenly some people there started to say, “I don’t think this rebellion was such a good idea.” And some wanted to talk peace with the Roman forces. But the radical leaders from Galilee who escaped came to Jerusalem, killed any leader who suggested surrender. Also, Jerusalem had stockpiled food, enough for a two-year siege, and these radical leaders burned this supply, with the hopes that this would encourage the citizens to go out and fight the Romans.
Vespasian’s son Titus continued the campaign. Titus came and surrounded Jerusalem, while the Jews were still fighting in the city about what should be done. Titus set up siege works around the city and built a huge palisade (cutting down all the trees for 50 kilometers around Jerusalem to do this), which surrounded the city, and prevented people from escaping. The city was filled with the many who had fled to the city to escape the Romans. But as they started starving some desperate people tried to escape, and they were all captured and crucified. Up to 500 people a day were crucified on the hills surrounding Jerusalem.
The siege ended with a terrible battle that is described by Josephus, the Jewish historian. I’ve made copies of his account of the battle, so if you are interested, pick on up in the foyer.
(http://www.bible.ca/pre-flavius-josephus-70AD-Mt24-fulfilled.htm, scroll down to Book VI, Chapter III) The doors of the city were battered in, and there was a terrible battle. Josephus describes the hatred that the Romans had for the Jews, and the blood that ran in the temple as tens of thousands of starving people were slaughtered. The Temple itself was looted and burned, the walls of the city were torn down. Israel was destroyed.
Romans viewed the campaign as a success, and leaving only a garrison, the generals returned to Rome, enslaved up to 100,000 people. These slaves were brought to Rome, where many of them ended up working on the Coliseum.
When the generals got home, there was a victory parade in their honour, where all the slaves were paraded through the streets, and the holy items brought from the Temple, from the Holy of Holies, were displayed for all to see. When Titus eventually died, his son erected a victory arch in his honour that is still in the city of Rome.
There is a sculpture of that victory parade on the arch, that shows the holy articles from the Temple. These are in fact the first pictures made of those articles, since they were in the Holy of Holies and no one saw them except the High Priest once a year.
The Romans also minted a coin with the spoils they looted… JUDAEA CAPTA.
People were reading this song in the “after” time, after the Great War. Looking at the words today, you might think, “Well these words are certainly ironic, because obviously Israel has been defeated, and they can’t even worship in the Temple now because it’s been destroyed.” The readers of the gospel, whether they were Jewish or Gentile, would have been affected so deeply by this war, as so many loved ones and friends were murdered and disappeared into lifelong slavery. Perhaps you might think that given the events of that war, it would have made sense for Luke to just drop these words, and not include them in his gospel.
Truly the readers of Luke were sitting in the shadow of death. And yet, Luke chooses to feature Zechariah’s words and to include them in a prominent way in the beginning of his gospel. The reason he does that has to do with the event that we skipped over earlier. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus, through his life, his death and resurrection, changed things. He was the before and after moment for that generation of Christians, and for all time. There was the pre-Jesus world and the post-resurrection world.
Luke who was writing and people who were listening lived in this post-resurrection world. This allowed them to have joy and peace even in the midst of the hardest times. Luke was a part of the early Christian church, a community that was worshipping with joy in spite of all that had happened, a community that would continue to worship with joy in spite of any persecution the Romans could throw at them. They were people who had found a path to peace.
It all had to do with a baby being born in Bethlehem at the time of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. A baby who was Immanuel, God with us, a baby who would conquer the world in a mysterious way. We still today proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Jesus through death conquered death. Through going away, he became present in us through his Spirit. In this post-resurrection time, Jesus is working in the world through us as salt, as seeds, as light. By the tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high breaks upon us. Maybe not in the full force of noon, but a dawn that’s bright enough for us to see our own feet, to see the path to peace. It’s a dawn that is bright enough for our own difficult times, whether that be family breakdown, financial difficulties, health crises, a dawn that is bright enough for Christians in Columbia, Christians in Iraq, Christians in Palestine. It is a dawn for all time. It is my prayer that in this advent time:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Sermon preached at
The First Mennonite Church, Vineland, ON
by Carol Penner
December 13, 2009