On the Significance of Where and When
December 11, 2022
The reading today is comprised of selected first lines of verses from the first few chapters of
Luke and Matthew:
In the days of King Herod of Judea…
the people were waiting. After those days,
in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. In those days Mary set out and went with haste.
Now the time came.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus. In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields. When the time came
the people were filled with expectation and all were questioning in their hearts for we observed his star at its rising.
Luke (1:5, 21, 24, 26, 39, 57) (2:1, 8, 22) (3: 15) Matthew 2:2
For most of my adult life, before I entered the ministry, I was a teacher for children of various ages, from high school all the way down to first grade. Two questions I have often heard
younger children asking one another are, “When is your birthday?” and “Where were you born?” Until children build a framework of knowledge about how we measure time they can recite the day and year of their birth, but children are usually age 8 or 9 before they can even begin to appreciate how a specific day and month and year stands in relation to any other date. Young children find it difficult to determine who is older based on birth dates. I was called in to referee in a debate between two first-graders about who was older, the boy born on May 3rd or the girl
born on May 27th. The girl, born on May 27 was crestfallen to learn she was younger; looking up at me, she said, “But 27 is so much bigger than 3!” Differences in where we are born are much more easily understood by the young child. Regardless of our age, the specifics of where and when we are born are significant.
In reading and re-reading the accounts of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus, I am impressed with the abundance of language that specifies both time and place, as we heard in the reading today. The use of such language does lend an air of credibility to what is otherwise rather phantasmagorical; it gives us a framework through which to view the appearances of angels, the delivery of prophetic messages and two rather miraculous conceptions. The use of time and place-specific language also serves to remind us that timing and location are influential factors, sometimes more than we may realize.
For example, just thirty-one years before Jesus was born, there was a massive earthquake in the Jordan River valley that caused over 30,000 casualties and widespread damage. Thirty years before the earthquake was when General Pompey, with a Roman Imperial army, wrested control of Jerusalem and the surrounding region. This was just another in a long line of violent takeovers but this time, the occupying forces allowed for a “client king” to be named ruler and that king’s name was King Herod. Herod, who ruled for over 30 years, is described as “an extremely capable tyrant” (Dr. James Tabor).
Jesus was born into a culture still traumatized by a devastating earthquake. Jesus was born into a culture under siege by a mighty empire intent on collecting taxes to fund their insatiable appetite for the acquisition of foreign lands. There was a produce tax, sales tax, occupational tax, custom tax, transit tax, temple tax and many others. Jesus was born into a Jewish community who, on
the surface of things, were free to worship and practice as they always had but they paid a great price for the protection of the empire. Government officials, including the high priests in the temple, grew wealthy and channeled money into extravagant renovations of the temple and grand building projects for upscale housing while the poor grew more and more destitute. Jesus was born into a time of economic stress that was wearing thin the threads of the social fabric.
Shortly after Jesus’s birth, King Herod died and his three sons split up the region into separate kingdoms, each one becoming ruler of one area. This arrangement did not last long and the Roman Empire came in to tighten the reins of their control. The Hebrew people chafed under excessive taxation and corruption (even in the temple). They longed for liberation; they longed for the one prophesied, the one who would deliver them.
Six years before the birth of Jesus, those wise ones who studied the stars noticed a bright star rising in the east. The star was unexpected, and it was passing through the constellation Aries, which was then linked culturally to the region of Judea, Jerusalem and the Hebrew people.
Within moments of its rising, the moon rose to eclipse the star and the wise ones interpreted that as a sign, a portent. They set off at once towards the land of Judea to look for the new king.
All of these things were happening as first John was born, and then Jesus, within just a few months of one another. Where and when they were born had a profound impact on who they would come to be. John and Jesus were distant cousins, they were both fierce defendants of the Jewish culture and practices that were being undermined by divided allegiances to the Roman Empire. John and Jesus were both incensed that temple priests prioritized filling their coffers over caring for those in need and this greatly shaped their ministries to focus on empowering those who had been dis-empowered. John and Jesus both established themselves outside the temple gates, outside Jerusalem, in the countryside, where people could come and go as they pleased without being taxed.
The time and place of their birth shaped how Jesus and John perceived their world and we, too are being shaped by our surroundings in this particular time in history. Jesus and John were born in a time of political upheaval, following an environmental catastrophe, and they were born into
a culture straining to hold onto their beliefs and traditions as the cultural landscape was so swiftly changing all around them. They are not so different from us. To them, there came a light. In the first chapter of John we find these words: “In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
In closing, I invite us to consider that we have come from many places and yet we share life in this era and we are being shaped by our experiences, for better or for worse. I pray that we find strength in the company of one another, strength to reach beyond the safety of familiarity so that the welcoming love that is God is radiantly within us. In this way we, too, share the light of Christ, right here, right now. Amen.
Infinite Love we call God, I pray your guidance within us through the challenges of our lives. We have been told that nothing can separate us from your everlasting love; help us to be open and trusting enough to experience that as truth, and as grace. When we struggle and when we
soar, remind us to look beyond ourselves and expand our awareness that we may begin to fathom the workings of the Divine, even in the most mundane aspects of our lives. Help us to choose
the paths that lead us closer to the place within where your love resides. Grant us the wisdom and the courage it takes to slow down and listen for your still, small voice, Lord. Guide us to know when to act in a way that allows for healing, hope and possibility. All this I ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Philippians, chapter 4:
“May God supply your every need according to his riches in Christ Jesus.”