The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 24, 2017
Scripture: Luke 2:8-11
Jesus … Son of Man … Emmanuel … The Word. To name only a few. And we have time for just one more this Advent Season. Since about the fifth century we’ve only been given four Sundays in Advent, and this is the fourth Sunday. It’s good to be gathered on this morning. So many of us have been spending most of our time preparing for tonight. This year, of course, the fourth Sunday in Advent also falls on Christmas Eve. So much is anticipated for later this evening and late tonight that this morning may feel a bit “in the way,” even forgotten about. But it’s not. But not by us. It can’t be. We are here to finish the waiting together. Thank you for gathering.
And to pass the time just a bit more, to help with our wating this morning, we are exploring one more designation, one more title, one more name, given to Jesus and most often heard during Advent and Christmas time.
Pray with me … and listen for the Word of God from the second chapter of Luke … Read Luke 2:8-11 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Messiah … so familiar and yet, I’ll bet, so mysterious.
The Hebrew word mashah means “to anoint” and is used all over the Old Testament of the anointing of Kings, and preists, and even one prophet. The title “mashiah,” anointed one, occurs much less often. In fact, the future “David,” called a “righteous shoot” in the prophecies of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, was not at first associated with the title “mashiah.” That title first appears in the Book of Daniel in the second century BCE, used to designate a future, “anointed” leader.
The idea of Messiah, whether it referred to an earthly King or a future leader, is always related to the idea of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Messiah was to be the agent of God through whom the destiny of the nation was to be fulfilled. At its core, this idea was very simple. Israel’s destiny was nothing more and nothing less than a dream of peace and prosperity to be realized under a king of David’s line. That dream never came to be. Yet the belief in a Messiah that would come never died.
You see, as empires came and went through ancient Israel’s history, leaving them always to pick up the pieces of their cities, their Temples, and their lives, the picture of a deliverer morphed from a simple leader into a mighty warrior that would rescue the people from their distresses and subdue their enemies; a wise ruler and judge that possessed a wisdom which was more than the wisdom of ordinary humans, and; a king whose reign would have an everlasting peace such as the world had never known. All these hopes stirred the imaginations and stoked the desires of the Hebrew people. By the first century BCE, the Jewish belief in the Qumran community spoke of the coming of an individual called “Messiah.” And from other, non-canonical writings, there is evidence that some had begun to believe that God would rescue Israel by means of this wise, royal, warrior deliverer, “the anointed one.”
Historians note that this, or any other, expectation of “the Lord’s anointed” was most likely not too terribly important to all Jews. There just isn’t much historical evidence of its wide-spread appeal. The role and function of this figure, Messiah, were varied when and just vague enough that, when it does show up, groups could develop their own “job description” for him – or her, should they so desire. Nonetheless, the stories of a deliverer, and the hope those stories inspired, was well known and available to any who wished to cherish it. The community that knew and followed Jesus decided to do just that – to define “Messiah,” in Greek “Christ,” both meaning “God’s anointed,” – through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. And they cherished what it meant to them and could mean for others.
So what was that? What did Jesus as “Messiah” mean, and what could it mean?
In the first century CE, the general Jewish “messianic” idea was national. It centered on the Jewish nation, as it always had. Any Messiah that would “come” would do so to benefit the Jewish nation, which was after all the chosen nation of God. Jesus as “Messiah” did not fit easily into this picture. His treatment of the Gentile Roman Centurion; his attitude to the Samaritan woman, the Samaritan leper, and Samaritans in general; and his gentleness to the Syro-Phoenician woman in the Gospels – just to name a few – express a universality of the good news of God.
In addition to being “nationalistic,” the Jewish “messianic” idea was material and otherworldly. The images and dreams were of a recreated world of prosperity and fertility. It envisioned the total destruction of the present age and the inauguration of new creation. Again, Jesus doesn’t fit into this dream. One of the most significant things he ever did was to teach us to pray, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Jesus is not the destruction of the world, but that the Kingdom of God is to come in this world, indeed it’s already here.
One of the great functions of the Messiah in the traditions that Jesus and his first century Jewish friends and followers would surely have known is that this “anointed one” would absolutely and completely destroy “sinners.” Understand “sin” in any way that is most helpful, but the last thing the “expected” Messiah of history could be called would be Savior of sinners.
And finally, the Jewish picture of the Messiah is one of splendor and glory. There is not the faintest idea anywhere that the “coming one” would suffer and die on a cross, a capital punishment set aside for criminals and traitors.
So, again, we ask this morning: How in the “first-century-Jewish-world” could Jesus ever be considered the Messiah?!
Our answer must be that to those who followed him in his life and to those who followed him even after his death, Jesus re-defined the meaning, the function, and the purpose of mashiah, God’s anointed. He lived for a “messiahship” whose reign was in the heart of humanity, not beyond it. He taught a “messiahship” that found “God’s anointed” in anyone who, like him, brought good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and who freed the oppressed. He died for a “messiahship” whose only power was sacrificial love.
Son of Man – One like a human being.
Emmanuel – God with us.
The Word – made flesh.
Messiah – God’s anointed, here and now.
There is contentious scholarly debate on whether or not Jesus ever spoke of himself using any of these terms during his lifetime. But there should be little doubt that while he lived, Jesus accepted these God-given roles: Fully human, made in the flesh and anointed by God to reflect “God-with-us.” Jesus of Nazareth had the courage to be all he was created by God to be. And so … divine.
The question that remains for us, a question that we must engage on the eve of the Holy Day we anticipate tomorrow, is, “What about us?” Maybe … just maybe, we are the one we’re waiting for. Maybe this year, this Christmas, we’ll finally get it and realize that we aren’t waiting for Jesus to arrive – he is with us. We’re waiting … for ourselves.
What do you think? We have only hours left to decide. May it be so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 24, 2017