Advent 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; he would have continued but 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, an act that would embitter 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. For we who 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.