(Preached by Ruth Cooke at Melville United Church on November 6, 2016)
If we are to understand Jesus and the message that he brings, I think it is important to understand a little of the world into which he was born and in which he lived his earthly life.
Jesus lived and preached in Palestine at a time that was near the beginnings of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC, Caesar Augustus ascended the throne of Rome and became the first Emperor. During his lifetime, Rome saw an unprecedented forty years of peace, where Rome saw a steady increase in prosperity and peace. The frontiers of the empire were slightly extended, borders became stable, and were properly defended. Improved roads provided better communications channels between outlying provinces and Rome, and new cities in strategic places provided centres for administration.
Augustus died in 14 AD, and his stepson Tiberius succeeded him.
At first, Tiberius continued the policies of Augustus. But in 26 AD, just three years before Luke tells us of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, Tiberius for some reason retired to the island of Capri, and ruled from there. Those who opposed this change were put to death, and he came to be known as something of a tyrant.
At that time, the Romans endorsed local rulers from amongst the populace, and these rulers reported to Rome while administering local law. At the time of the birth of Jesus, that ruler was King Herod the Great. Herod was a half-Jew, son of a Greek mother, and distrusted by the people. Not only that, he was a brutal ruler. He imposed very high taxes, and used some of that money to install a golden eagle (which was the symbol of Rome) over the temple in Jerusalem.
Jews considered this to be idolatry, and when Herod fell ill, two popular Jewish teachers and their students removed the eagle. Herod ordered them all to be burned alive.
Herod died in 4 BC, and three of his sons inherited a divided kingdom.
Of the three, Phillip, tetrarch of the Golan heights, proved to be the most able. He was fairly popular with the people, who included mostly Romans, Greeks, Syrians and Arabians and not many Jews. He was the only one to keep his rule until death.
His half-brothers Archalaeus and Herod Antipas were different.
Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, was criticized by John the Baptist for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, who was also his niece, and had him beheaded for it.
Herodias wanted her husband to be a king, and started plotting. As a result, Herod was exiled to Lyon in the province of Gaul.
Archalaeus was ethnrarch of Samaria and Judea, which included both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Archalaeus inherited the mess in Jerusalem. An angry crowd demanded that those responsible for the deaths of the two Jewish leaders and their students be punished. In answer, Archalaeus sent soldiers into the temple during Passover and slaughtered some three thousand worshippers.
Then he went to Rome to be crowned. Fresh riots broke out while he was away. In response, he crucified another two thousand people.
Archalaeus ruled so badly that he too was banished, to Vienne in Gaul.
It was in this conflicted and hostile world that Jesus began his ministry.
In the Jewish community, there were four different groups, each with a different way of dealing with the brutality of Roman rule.
There were the Zealots, who were revolutionaries advocating armed resistance and rebellion.
There were the Sadduccees, wealthy lay persons who took a pragmatic approach and advocated accommodation. As those at the top of the pecking order, they were more concerned with present day comforts than with what would happen after death.
There were the Pharisees, idealists who sought to live a life of spiritual purity by following the laws of Moses in every respect.
And there were the Essenes, who withdrew from society, often to a monastic like setting. John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey, was a type of Essene.
Fast forward to 2016:
Right now, the world is polarized. The US election has all of our attention these days, but the conflicts and problems that are at the centre of the debates are not of Hillary or Donald’s making.
The refugee crisis brought about by the instability of the Arab world and the extreme poverty in Africa.
Unemployment and low wages in North America that are coupled with crippling shelter costs.
And of course, the rapid changes that started in the sixties with desegregation and women’s rights continue with technological breakthroughs that have made global communication instant and personal privacy non-existent.
And we are responding in the same ways as the Jews of Jesus’ time.
The Zealots still advocate armed rebellion. Recently, police officers have been shot while simply sitting in their squad cars. Citizens with guns commit mass murders against groups of people perceived as “the enemy.”
Sadducees still advocate cooperation and accommodation. Life isn’t perfect, but with a little elbow grease, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you’re not wealthy, it’s your fault, because if the son of a Kenyan goat-herder can become president of the United States, than anyone can!
Pharisees still seek spiritual purity by following laws written down thousands of years ago for people who led a long-extinct way of life. Oh, they’ve been adapted, and some have been discarded, most notably those that the Pharisees don’t want to follow. Can’t have your eggs without your bacon, can you?
And of course, the world will always have its Essenes. Turn off the television, don’t read the paper, and hide your head under a pillow. Or read Lord of the Rings for the fiftieth time, or play Minecraft on your computer until your fingers fall off. Buy twenty acres in the country and grow your own organic vegetables and raise your own free-range chickens and home-school your children. Hide in your basement and hope that the world will go away while you’re down there.
And if you haven’t guessed, I have a more than slight tendency to be an Essene. Unless I’m really upset, and my inner Zealot goes on a rampage.
We react in these predictable range because change causes fear. We can’t plan ahead, we can’t predict what will happen.
Terry Pratchett, a writer of humorous fantasy, says in his novel Feet of Clay that what people want, more than prosperity or fortune or health or anything else, is stability. We want to wake up in the morning fairly confident that today will be pretty much like yesterday. Because then we feel in charge. We know what to do and how to act.
And when we are confronted by change, when we don’t know which way is up anymore, we start to feel afraid.
And fear casts out love. It becomes every person for herself.
And things get worse. People respond to the change by rioting, or by building walls between themselves and the world. And those on the other side respond, not by changing the rules or their behaviour to make things better, but with violence of their own, because they now feel fear, and seek to maintain their own position.
And along comes Jesus, who tells us, “Do not fear.”
To the Zealots amongst us he says, “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”
To the Sadducees he says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. Give to everyone who begs from you. Lend, expecting nothing in return.”
To the Pharisees he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
To the Essenes he says, “You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”
Jesus advocates humility, courage, engagement with the world, and radical, self-giving love to counter the fear that comes with change.
It’s not beyond our capacity as human beings to do what Jesus asks.
During the time when slavery was legal in the United States, many loving and courageous people helped slaves to escape. Some gave up their freedom, and some even lost their lives to aid in the cause of freedom.
During World War II, Schindler and many untold others risked everything to help Jews escape the death camps.
In the face of increasing hostility towards refugees, especially Muslim refugees, some people have responded by taking a leadership role in welcoming them to Canada.
Down through the years, many have spoken up to change unjust laws and customs. Women can now vote, gay men and women can now marry, children with disabilities are now given an education and flourish within their families, rather than being hidden away in institutions.
Truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Canada have helped oppressors and oppressed heal.
Many, many people give freely of their abundance to the Mission and Service Fund, food banks, and many other fine organizations that seek to aid the disadvantaged in their struggle to improve their nutrition, health, education and overall quality of life.
Fear can, if we let it, overwhelm our being and cause us to act in ways that are hurtful to ourselves, to fellow human beings, and to the universe itself.
Love can cast out that fear, and help us create new paths that lead to healing and joy for all.