The Right Time and Place

Matthew 1

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Some of the most interesting questions in the study of history are about what didn’t happen. These are the great “What if?” questions.

Looking at the Twentieth Century, for example, we can ask: what if the first Russian revolution of 1905 had succeeded, and the Tsar had peacefully surrendered power to the people – would the later Marxist revolution have failed and the Soviet Union never existed? What if Hitler had died fighting as a soldier in World War I – would the Nazi Party have ever come to rule Germany? Would there ever have been a World War II?

These questions are, for the most part, purely speculative; how we answer them has little impact on how we understand the past. But asking “What if?” questions in religious history can help us to see the influence of God in the course of human events.

The early Christians believed that when Christ came to earth, it was to fulfill divine prophecies that had been made centuries before. The first Christians knew the words of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard in the Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah wrote “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

St. Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ, which we also just heard, quotes this very prophecy; Matthew notes that the word “Immanuel” means “God with us.”

But what if Jesus had been born at a different time – a thousand years earlier? A thousand years later? What if Jesus had been born in a different place – in China, or in
America? In other words, does it make a difference to us, today, that the predictions of the Messiah’s birth were fulfilled 2000 years ago in the land of Israel, in the little town of Bethlehem?

This is a huge question, the subject of many books by scholars of the Bible and theologians. Even so, I think that it’s pretty easy to get a sense of why Jesus appeared when he did and even believe that in the birth of Christ we can see the hand of God.

Why did God bring the Messiah to earth when and where he did? We might begin by speculating that Jesus came to the Jews because – among all the peoples of the world at that time – they had the strongest concept of a single, transcendent God. Only the Hebrew God would have acted over the whole of history; it was this God who inspired Jesus. We also know that at that time, Jews were beginning to develop a belief in immortality; the idea was present here and there in previous Jewish tradition but only around the first century AD was life after death widely considered. Because that belief was in the air, the followers of Jesus were able to understand Christ’s resurrection. It showed them that they, too, could survive death.

Looking beyond Israel, we might further observe that the Mediterranean world of the first century was ready for a new religious vision. In that world, the old patterns of belief had fallen into disrepute. The political ideal of the Roman Republic had failed, and the first Caesars ruled as tyrants. In addition, the emperors were part of an upper class that exploited the poor and practiced a luxurious, amoral life style. Ancient gods like Zeus and Athena were given only lip-service by the average citizen.

Recognizing this, some emperors had been trying to revive the declining Roman religion by encouraging people to worship former leaders as gods. A cult had been formed around Julius Caesar after he was assassinated. The emperor who ruled when Jesus was born, Augustus Caesar, actually went so far as to order the populace to worship him while he was still alive! Of course the notion that a cruel tyrant could be divine was outrageous to common sense. The people didn’t buy it!

In other words, the culture of the Roman Empire was a spiritual disaster. The time was ripe for a new religious message. That message began to be revealed with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

We also notice that, after Christ appeared, certain characteristics of the world at that time helped the new faith to spread. The Romans were great builders of roads, for example. Christian missionaries like St. Paul used those roads to preach the Gospel in many countries far from Israel.

We may note further that evangelism was made easier by the fact that many of the early Christians came from synagogues. Since the Jews were the most widely-dispersed people of that time, with colonies throughout the Mediterranean, missionaries could find potential converts ready to hear the Gospel in virtually every city that they visited.

Most important of all these historical facts was the expectation shared by the people of Israel that God would send them a Messiah. As the Advent hymn says, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.” Even though Jesus wasn’t the political leader some Jews hoped that God would send to drive the Romans out of Palestine, he spoke to their longing. He offered a way for the Jews and for everyone to find spiritual freedom from the evil within their souls. At the same time, the Messiah offered inspiration to combat the injustice in the world around them.

Christians called their Lord, “Savior” – and there could be little doubt that the world needed saving! But note that only after human beings reached a certain level of development could they possibly have understood this need.

One final “What if?” question: What if Jesus had appeared later? Well, one answer to that question is that he could have come later but God wanted to offer people the comforts of salvation as soon as he possibly could. Why wait a thousand years? Why not act at the first time in human history when men and women could begin to understand what God was doing? A second answer is even more conclusive. We really can’t ask “What if?” Jesus came later – because he did arrive later. And he still does!

Christ makes God present to us today. Just as 2000 years ago, he answered other prayers for a Messiah, so he answers our prayers. Christ makes manifest the divine plan for human beings. Christ gives us purpose; he frees us from bondage. For us, the right place is here; the right time is now.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

Leave a Reply