In the closing centuries BC (before Christ), much of the Middle East was under Greek rule. Their remarkable civilization was imitated and envied by other nations, and the Greek language was the common language of trade and commerce. Part of their culture was religion, and the Greeks worshiped a whole crowd of gods. Their chief god was Zeus. His father had been one of the Titans, a child of Uranus (sky) and Gaia (the earth). Cronus, the father of Zeus, had rebelled and seized the throne from his father Uranus. The oracles had decreed that his own son would overthrow him (the Greek gods were not truly gods, they were not absolute masters of their own destiny). Cronus secured his throne by resorting to the most horrible violence: swallowing his children alive.
This reflected the ancient practice of abortion – children who were unwanted were not considered to be fully human, and so if their father rejected them they were abandoned to die. After Cronus had swallowed several children, mother of Zeus wrapped a rock in swaddling clothes and gave this to his father to swallow. Zeus was raised secretly until he was strong enough to challenge his father. He killed his father and rescued his siblings by cutting his father’s stomach open. Zeus and his brothers and sisters divided the earth between them and so, although Zeus was the chief god, he was not really supreme.
The legend of Zeus describes the cycle of tyranny and violence that marked all the ancient empires. People were aware that their leaders had taken the throne by violence, or had received it “legitimately” from their fathers who had taken it by violence. The theme of violence was not unique to Greek mythology: in the pagan legends, the ruling gods had generally taken their throne by violently defeating some god or monster.
In the first decade before Christ, the Middle East was dominated by the Roman Empire, which had gradually conquered the kingdom of the Greeks. The head of the Roman empire was Caeser Augustus, and it will come as no surprise that he secured his claim on the throne by conquering his rivals. His rule was remarkable, however, because it was a period of unprecedented peace in the history of this part of the world. When Augustus had taken over the empire in 27 BC, he began convincing the citizens of Rome that more prosperity could gained by peaceful trading than by invading foreign nations. Of course, there was plenty of war as local rebellions had to be crushed, and the Roman legions fought with barbarians at the borders, but the official policy of the empire was to promote Roman law and order. This peace, called the Pax Romana, effectively lasted until 180 AD.
It was Caeser Augustus who decided that a census should be conducted in the whole Roman Empire (Luke 2:1). The Bible, which is the record that God left of His own administration of the world, tells us that God had chosen this precise moment in which to enter the world, to denounce the false tyrants who dominated the weak, to expose them as frauds and to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
The first thing God did was disturb the artificial human divisions between people, ignoring the kings and nobility and choosing a desperately poor peasant girl to be the queen mother of His new kingdom on earth. It is very indicative of God’s way of doing things that He did not assert His claim of Lordship over Mary. He did not tell this girl what to do, but instead He humbly presented His plan to her and invited her to become part of it (Luke 1:26-48). Mary recognized that in choosing her, God had chosen the poor and humble of the earth and had rejected the claims of the powerful: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).
The moment of the Annunciation reveals what a unique gift God has given to human beings: the gift of freedom, which is really a gift of authority. “Nothing” had not been able to say NO when God’s Word declared “Let there be light”. Life had not been able to say NO when God said “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26). In that same passage, God described what would be unique about man: he would have “Dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” Man’s power and authority was a gift from God. This gift makes man into a god, in the sense that his word has absolute authority. Man has the authority to say YES or NO to his Creator, and in the final judgment the word a person has said endures forever; it has absolute power which God Himself respects, although it only has power over the person who has said that word. Hell, in fact, is a proclamation of the absolute power that each person has over himself.
When a human “claims to be god”, by claiming the right to claim power over more people than just himself, he sets himself up as a rival to God. On earth, while he was still in the womb, Jesus had many, many rivals claiming His throne, and very few allies. Yet from the womb, He was destined to rule over the house of Israel, as the angel said to Mary, “And the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). The words of the angel would be read as a declaration of war by those who were currently ruling over the house of Israel: the conflict with those who were sitting on HIS rightful throne was unavoidable. Jesus, however, was not just one more claimant to power in Israel, because He intended to break the cycle of tyranny and violence – Jesus would not put Himself on the throne by His own power, but He would wait to receive the throne as a gift from His Father……
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- Amy Dessart on +415+ Lean on God and you’ll never Fall (Lent 1)
- The Flash on Pope Francis’ invitation to Protestants
- Maria on +409+ Should Christians be Tolerant of other Religions? (2nd Sunday)
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