When we ended last week, Jesus was twelve and sitting in the Temple with the rabbis while Mary and Joseph were frantically searching for him. That’s also where the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life before he began his public ministry stop, leaving roughly eighteen years unaccounted for.  The lack of scriptures about those years isn’t really a surprise when you stop and consider that the people writing the gospels didn’t meet Jesus until he was about 30 years old. They could only write what they were told about him and only two of their sources of his early life are known through the Bible we know … his mother, Mary, and his half-brother, James.

We do know, however, what happened historically during those missing 18 years and, in fact, in the few hundred years before that, and that can help us understand some of what Jesus and his family might have gone through, what the cultural climate was like leading up to his public ministry might have been like, possible threats and possibly even what environmental factors were influencing life in the Middle East at that time.

We know from our old testament lessons from this last fall about the Northern and Southern kingdoms and how the Northern Kingdom had fallen, then the SouthernKkingdom, and how God’s people were once again captives. We also know from those lessons that after King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, he released the captives including the Jewish people and allowed them to return to Judah, to worship as they chose and that he had even funded the building of the second Temple in Jerusalem.

We know from history that the Middle Eastern world at that time finally knew a period of relative peace that lasted most of 200 years. Then along came Alexander the Great and war once again erupted between Persia and Greece.  Alexander eventually conquered Persia and all its vassal states, building up an empire even greater than Persia that covered approximately 2 million square miles.  Alexander’s empire, however, didn’t outlive him.  As he lay on his deathbed, his generals began to bicker with one another to the point that civil war broke out and Alexander’s empire was carved into four pieces: Egypt under General Ptolemy, the heart of the empire went to General Seleucus, and General Cassander took Greece and Macedonia.  They continued to tussle with one another, but by 301 BC things were once gain pretty well settled, and the majority of the Jewish people found themselves under the rule of General Ptolemy or King Ptolemy I as he was now known.

We know from history that Judea including its Jewish citizens enjoyed relative prosperity, trade growth, and religious freedom under the Ptolemaic kings. We know that Ptolemy I forcibly relocated some Jewish people to Alexandria, his new Egyptian capital, and we know that other Jews … not just merchants, but also farmer-settlers and craftsmen … took the opportunity to escape the rural plots of Judea and settle in the new cities along the Ionian coast of Asia Minor or what we now know as Turkey. For the first time since the Exodus and after all those centuries of trying to stay together, the Jewish people were dispersed across the Mediterranean and Asia.

Meanwhile, General Seleucus’ holdings which included Syria had grown into what is known as the Seleucid Empire and by 187-175 BC, it was tottering on the edge of bankruptcy because of its numerous wars with Egypt. It had also somehow managed to gain control of Judea.  The Seleucid king, Seleucus IV was desperate to refill his coffers, so he ordered all temples in the empire to be looted of their treasure. His attempt to loot the Second Temple in Jerusalem failed, but he also decreed that the Jewish Law, including worship at the Temple, was to be suppressed. He then had the Temple converted to a temple dedicated to the Greek god, Zeus.  The Book of II Maccabees which is included in Catholic bibles but not ours says the sanctuary proper was “filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes” while the alter in front of the Temple “was covered with abominable offerings”.  (II Maccabees 6:4-5)

In Modein, another village about 20 miles from Jerusalem, another Seleucid officer forced the villagers to observe the pagan rites. It was the actions of Matthias, one of the Jewish priests there in Modein, that would trigger what is called the Maccabean revolt. Three brothers, Judas, Jonathan, and Simon led the revolt.  Judas and Jonathan died in battle, and it was under Simon’s leadership that they were finally able to win their independence from the Seleucid Syrian empire. For the first time since King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem 445 years earlier, the Jews were once again free, the people declared that Simon was their “leader and high priest forever”, and for eighty years, the legendary kingdom of David and Solomon would be restored in what history calls the Hasmonaean dynasty.

In 134 BC, Simon and his family fell victim to an assassination plot near Jericho, but one of his sons … John Hyrcanus … escaped the assassins and rushed to Jerusalem where he was acclaimed as Judea’s new leader and high priest. John ruled for 30 years, during which he added Idumea (in 125 BC) and Samaria to the Hasmonaean territory.  Idumea was a mostly Arab region that had been largely pagan.  John forced the population to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in the process, including a family of minor Idumean nobility led by a man named Antipater. We’ll get back to Antipater in a bit.

Three other rulers would follow:  John’s son Aristobulus who was the first to assume the title of “king”, his other son Alexander Jannaeus who married Aristobulus’s widow, Salome Alexandra, and then Queen Salome Alexandra herself.

While the Jewish people relished their freedom, the pious Jews resented the Hasmonaean rulers for combining the role of the king and high priest, a combination that would be the equivalent of Pope Francis running for and being elected the President of Italy. Remember that service as a priest was a birthright based on which of the lines you descended from. The Hasmonaeans were not descendants of Zadok, therefore unfit to serve as high priest, and many Jews felt that combining the role of king military commander, and high priest into one person was tantamount to blasphemy.  This caused a division among the pious Jews and would eventually create the factionalism that would persist well into the time of Jesus.

When Queen Salome died, a power struggle developed between her son and designated heir, Hyrcanus II who was already serving as high priest, and her younger son, Aristobulus II.  Because Hyrcanus favored the Pharisees, the other party which was the Sadducees threw their support behind Aristobulus, who was ultimately able to capture the throne.

The result was a civil war, and that was a huge concern to Rome.  The Roman Senate was afraid that the turmoil of the war would spill over into Egypt. Egypt was a vital supplier of grain.  The Roman General Pompey was asked to intervene ultimately took control of Judea when Hyrcanus’ followers let his men in the gates to the Temple complex, an event that ended the siege of Jerusalem that had caused the slaughter of over 12,000 Jews, after which Pompey entered the Holy of Holies where only the high priests were allowed, thereby desecrating the Temple.  He didn’t take remove any objects or any of the Temple’s funds. The next day, he ordered that the Temple be cleansed, the Jewish rituals to be resumed, and then he left for Rome.  The siege and conquest of Jerusalem was a disaster for the Hasmonean kingdom. Pompey reinstated Hyrcanus II as the High Priest but stripped him of his royal title, though Rome recognized him as an ethnarch in 47 BC. Judea remained autonomous but was obliged to pay tribute and became dependent on the Roman administration in Syria. The kingdom was dismembered; it was forced to relinquish the coastal plain, depriving it of access to the Mediterranean, as well as parts of Idumea and Samaria.

Enter Antipater. I told you we’d get back to him. Antipater was the head of that Imudean family of minor nobility that had been forced to convert to Judaism back under Hyrcanus I in 125 BC. Antipater was no fool.  He used his new Jewish pedigree to create a path to Jewish politics for himself and his sons, including a man named Herod.

With the help of the Romans, Herod the Great seized the throne of Judea in 37 BC and promptly went to work building cities and temples dedicated to Roman gods and emperors. Over his 33-year reign, his construction projects changed the face of what was now Roman Palestine forever.  His motives were both political and economic. Galilee, however, was not included and did not benefit from Herod’s construction plans. Instead, they were ruthlessly taxed to finance much of the building activity going on everywhere but their district. No wonder so many of Jesus’ contemporaries hated tax collectors.

Herod’s construction projects included building theaters for gladiator contests involving wild animals. The historian, Josephus, tells us these “games” greatly offended the Jews. In 22 BC, possibly in an effort to placate the more observant Jews, Herod started a project to extend the Second Temple in Jerusalem into one of the largest sanctuaries in the Roman world: a vast floating walkway with strong supporting walls one of which, the Western Wall that is today one of the holiest places in Jerusalem, survives today. Herod’s Temple project was so extensive, it was still under construction when Jesus and his disciples visited the Temple on the eve of Passover around 30 AD.

Herod also began to show a preference for priestly families emigrating to Jerusalem from Babylonia and would give them all his key appointments including high priests as their loyalty to their benefactor … namely him … was unquestioned.

Despite the extravagance of Herod’s investment in the Second Temple expansion, his subjects grew more and more resentful. While his public works program created jobs for thousands of Jews, it was the elite that was enriched by the projects, and it was clear that Herod was diligently building a police state where any hint of insurrection was instantly snuffed out.

Herod the great eventually died and, much to the chagrin of his sons, decided before his death to not name any of them as the king. Instead, he had his kingdom divided up along familiar lines, with Judea and Samaria split from Galilee once more, as it had been in the Persian and Greek periods.

Archelaus, the king’s son by his Samaritan wife, would rule Judea, Idumea, and Samaria. Herod Antipas (named for his father, Herod, and his grandfather, Antipater, and also a son of the Samaritan woman) would receive the territory of Galilee as well as Perea, the region east of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist was active as a preacher.  A third region, a territory northeast of the Sea of Galilee that included Gaulanitis or, as we know it, today’s Golan region, was given to Herod’s son Philip, and the coastal region of Azotus called Ashdod today as well as the region around Jabneh and Phaesalis, went to Herod’s sister, Salome.

Around 6 AD, Herod Antipas had begun to rebuild Sepphoris, the provincial capital of Galilee. Because it was only about six miles from Nazareth, and because the construction project went on for a number of years, it is not unlikely that Joseph and Jesus, known for their skill in woodwork, found employment in building this new city either by seeking out the work or by being conscripted. At any rate, the possibility explains Mark’s calling Jesus a tekton, Greek for “skilled labor”.

In addition to the regional or vassal kings, the area was ultimately under the rule of Rome and, in about 44 BC Rome received its first emperor: Augustus. Augustus’ real name was Octavius, and he was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. He had formed a triumvirate with Mark Antony and General Lepidus to bring Julius Caesar’s assassins to justice. The result was a civil war that would last over a decade, and from which Octavian would emerge as the victor.

It was Augustus who pardoned Herod the Great after the civil war and confirmed Herod’s power. It was Augustus that divided Herod’s kingdom among Herod’s sons and it was Augustus who issued the decree that “all the world should be registered”, prompting the Roman governor, Quirinius, to call for the census that sent Joseph and the very pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And lastly, it was Augustus’ vision for a seamless and peaceful commonwealth with a successful global economy … things Augustus believed would keep the people happy and spare the Roman Empire from the vicious cycle of rebellions … that spurred various public works construction programs undertaken by Rome and the vassal kings. Augustus believed that erasing the native aspects of the near-eastern cities and imposing a uniform look of Greek-style temples, theaters, and marketplaces would fuse the Roman Empire together in a homogeneous world where everyone spoke Greek, everyone bartered using the denarius coin, and everyone could prosper under the benevolent rule of Rome.

Augustus was succeeded by Tiberius, his stepson. Tiberius was a good military leader but was totally unsuited for the power of the imperial throne. By the time Tiberius became emperor, Herod Antipas’ relationship with Augustus had become strained. Tiberius, however, favored Herod Antipas.

    About eight years after he took the throne, Tiberius began to delegate his power to his son Drusus and to his secretary, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Sejanus was a knight and officer in the Praetorian Guard. When his son died, Tiberius withdrew from active government altogether and retired to the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus in control of the empire. For the next four years, Sejanus established an unchecked regime o terror, persecuting his rivals while favoring men of his own station, one of which was an unremarkable officer named Pontius Pilate.

Sejanus appointed Pilate to fill the vacated seat of the procurator of Judea. Pilate was ill-suited for such a high office. He had no known military or diplomatic record, but he soon developed a deep loathing for the population he was expected to rule. He didn’t understand why the Jews were exempt from the duties that other vassal nations were expected to honor. His loathing and lack of understanding were the impetus for his embarking on a number of campaigns such as taking Roman standards with silver eagles and other idolatrous symbols into Jerusalem specifically to provoke the Jews and show them exactly who was in charge.

His efforts caused an uproar which led to a number of protests that Pilate rapidly and bloodily suppressed. In 28 AD, the people found out that Pilate was colluding with High Priest Caiaphas to take funds from the Temple treasury, supposedly to build a new aqueduct to Jerusalem and again, a large crowd formed in front of the Temple to protest. Pilate ordered his soldiers to infiltrate the crowd and, on his signal, fall onto the crowd with their swords. It was this massacre called the Temple Massacre that may have prompted many young men and women to join the activist movement of John the Baptist, who was preaching that a radical cleansing of Judean society must take place.

It was in this social, cultural and political climate that Jesus began his public ministry. Knowing this and how it had developed over the last few centuries before Christ’s birth, how all that led to the appointment of men like Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, helps us to better stand the reactions to his ministry, to understand why some like the Pharisees and Sadducees, like the wealthier merchants who were all, if somewhat covertly, benefiting from their relationship with their Roman overloads would resent men like Jesus and John the Baptist who challenged everything they represented.  It makes it easier, also, to understand why those who were suffering under the oppression and greed of those same rulers were so anxious for the arrival of the Messiah. He was most likely and quite literally, seen as their only hope.

The parallels between that history and what is happening in the world today are as remarkable as they are predictable. The Jews had spent more of the 500 years after the Exodus as captives or unwilling subjects of some non-Jewish government. They’d barely hung on to their cultural and spiritual identity, and those identities were now somewhat compromised by the High Priests and other traditional religious leaders who seemed to be more interested in protecting their positions than protecting their people.

Contemporary religious scholars can identify this 500-year pattern repeating itself throughout the history of the Church. The birth of Jesus and his public ministry as the Messiah ended the 500-year period I’ve been talking about. The next period would end in about 500 AD when Pope Gregory the Great brought the church out of the dark ages. Then, in about 1,000 AD, the Great Schism occurred and the church – at that time the only church was the Catholic church – divided into what is known as Eastern Orthodox and Western Orthodox also known as the Roman Catholic Church.  Move forward another 500 years, and you have the Reformation initiated by men like Martin Luther – y’all remember Martin Luther, right? – that created the Protestant movements.

We are now at the end … or beginning, depending on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty kind of thinker … of another 500-year cycle and, indeed, the Church … the universal church … is facing significant change. For the first time ever, there is a significant portion of the population that has either walked away from the church or never walked into it, to begin with. The leadership of the various denominations are all struggling to find a way to turn the tide back toward the church and, sadly, too many of those same leadership groups are trying to do that while not giving up the political favors they’ve garnered in the last century or so. All of this has created the same kind of division and problems that Paul was talking about in the passage from 1 Corinthians.

If you spend time reading the interviews and studies and talking with this growing population of the unchurched, you’ll learn that the vast majority are not non-believers. Their faith in God and their willingness to follow Jesus are actually quite intense. It’s the politics and bureaucracy of the religious organizations they are giving up on. They don’t want fancy worship with rock bands and fireworks and Sunday morning concerts singing songs that only have seven words repeated eleven times. They want pure worship the way the early church practiced it. They want a deeper understanding and they want to fully follow Jesus … not to just cherry-pick the things he said to fit their personal agendas and ideologies or justify their actions.

And they want that more than one hour a week on Sunday mornings. They want to put it into action on a daily basis in all that they do.

Daniel Dietrich, a musician and songwriter, released a song just the other day called A Hymn for the 81%. Dietrich’s hymn took the frustration of this un-churched group and put it into words when he wrote:

I grew up in your churches

Sunday morning, evening service

Knelt in tears at the foot of the rugged cross

You taught me every life is sacred

feed the hungry, clothe the naked

I learned from you the highest law is Love

I believed you when you said

that I should trust the words in red

To guide my steps through a wicked world

I assumed you’d do the same

so imagine my dismay

When I watched you lead the sheep to the wolves


You said to love the lost

So I’m loving you now

You said to speak the truth

So I’m calling you out

Why don’t you live the words

That you put in my mouth

May love overcome and justice roll down


They started putting kids in cages

Ripping mothers from their babies

And I looked to you to speak on their behalf

But all I heard was silence

Or worse you justify it

Singing glory hallelujah raise the flag


Your fear had turned to hatred

But you baptized it with language

torn from the pages of the good book

You weaponized religion

And you wonder why I’m leaving

To find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls

You said to love the lost

So I’m loving you now

You said to speak the truth

So I’m calling you out

Why don’t you live the words

That you put in my mouth

May love overcome and justice roll down

Come home

Come home

You’re better than this

You taught me better than this

Come home

Come home

You’re better than this

You taught me better than this

Come home

Come home

You said you love the lost

I’m trying to love you now

You said to speak the truth

So I’m calling you out

Why don’t you live the words

That you put in my mouth

May love overcome and justice roll down

Dietrich’s song ends his song by calling the Church to come home and reminding them that they … that we … taught him better than this.

From Daniel Dietrich’s words to God’s ear, it is beyond time for the Church to come home, to return to truly following Christ, even when doing so is uncomfortable or even painful. May this 500-year cycle we’re beginning be called the Great Homecoming, and may we each and all find our way back home, amen?

Let’s pray.

Merciful God, we are the result of thousands of years of human frailty and failure. Time and again, we have failed to trust you, failed to allow you to work your plan for us. Time and again, we have traded our faith for false promises from false prophets. We confess our weakness and our shame, God. We ask you now to help us find our way back home to You through your Son, Jesus, and to give us the strength and courage we will need to make the journey. Help us, Lord, for we are all broken sinners undeserving of your forgiveness and grace. Lead us home, Lord, lead us home.


Scripture readings:

Isaiah 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

Sources used in this message:

Song: Hymn for the 81% (Demo), by Daniel Deitrich on the album Hymn for the 81% (Demo); copyright Daniel Deitrich and CDBaby Pro Publishing

Kings of the Bible, Jean-Pierre Isbouts, produced by National Geographic Partners, LLC, copyright 2019 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.