Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent - A Tale of Two Messiahs

How messiahs are supposed to be
As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
     seemingly insignificant among the clans of Judah—
from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, 
    one whose origins are in the distant past. 
So the Lord will hand the people of Israel over to their enemies until the time when 
     the woman in labor gives birth. 
Then the rest of the king’s countrymen will return 
     to be reunited with the people of Israel. 
He will assume his post and shepherd the people by the Lord’s strength, 
     by the sovereign authority of the Lord his God. 
They will live securely, for at that time he will be honored 
     even in the distant regions of the earth.


Micah, 5.2 - 4

Christmas marks the point at which God invaded his wayward world. It won't be long now before the invasion takes place, when the True King makes his move and lands on the beaches of our world, armed to the teeth. The Messiah is coming, but when he does he will confound all but a handful of followers. For his battles and weaponry will not be what we expect at all.

When Mary and Joseph made their trek to Bethlehem there was no single, universally accepted idea of what the Messiah would be like. Some people, mostly the monied interests, didn't believe there would be a Messiah at all. Of those that did believe, there were some that thought he would be a supernatural being like an angel, while others said he would just be a mighty warrior, like King David.  This is probably why Herod called for the experts in such things: To cut through the morass of ideas and get some dependable advice. The experts famously replied with today's scripture.

Despite all the squabbling, there were certain things any real Messiah was expected to do. He must ride into Jerusalem, sword drawn, armor gleaming in the sun David-like, and fight the final, bloody, climactic battle against the forces of evil, understood by one and all to be Rome. Once he utterly defeated the pagans, Messiah would restore the glory of Israel and rule over it in peace and security. The gentiles would be forced to admit that Israel was God's chosen people and they would stream to Jerusalem, hoping to enjoy some of Israel's blessings.

This is wildly different from what Mary's child actually did when he grew up, so much so that no one got it at first. Sure he rode into Jerusalem -- though brandishing no razor-sharp sword. But he didn't defeat the Romans; they defeated him. He didn't usher in peace and security: Israel was still in captivity.  Most of the nation rejected him outright. Even his closest followers were completely at a loss how this man who seemed in so many ways to fulfill the Messiah's role utterly failed (they thought) in his mission. Remember those plaintive words in the Gospel of Luke? "But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel!"

Action Figure

The ultimate victory
The Jewish people so dearly yearned for that powerful, action-figure Messiah that they would or could abide no other.  And today many good Christian people pine -- sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously -- for his Second Advent when it is eagerly expected that something much more exciting and bloody will occur. Something more like what the first century Jews hoped would happen, perhaps.

Because the second coming is when evil will really be defeated, the Messiah will finally rule, and then the world will be forced to admit that we were God's chosen people. Right?  

But no. Jesus' Second Coming, for all it's importance is, in the words of the scholar Leon Morris, a mere "mopping up operation." The cosmic, messianic victory that "destroyed the devil's work" was won in the 1st century with the invasion of a baby and the execution of a criminal and we celebrate the start of that victory now.

Make no mistake: Jesus Christ will return on the clouds of Heaven, establish his eternal Kingdom, right all wrongs, and judge the living and the dead.  But also make no mistake that the prophesied King has already come, "whose origins are in the distant past," the child of "the woman in labor who gives birth," as our scripture says.

He did reunite his countrymen in the Israel of God, he did take his post and has shepherded his people for the past 2000 years. He is honored in the distant regions of the Earth, is he not? Peace and security? He gave those to us as well (see the Gospel of John 14.27 and 10.28 - 29).

Most important of all, Jesus did ride triumphantly into Jerusalem where he fought the climactic last battle with the true Enemy, and from that battle he did emerge victorious. Counterintuitive as it is, the true Messiah was the one who invaded quietly as the baby of Bethlehem, won his greatest victory nailed to a cross, and inaugurated his Kingdom by emerging from a tomb.

*          *          *

Our Lord and our God, thank you for invading our world by stealth as a small infant so that you could rise up from among your people and take down the forces of evil. Until you return, help us to be faithful in carrying out our own mopping up operations. In Jesus Christ's name we pray this. Amen
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