Were continuing our Advent series, looking at some of the key themes of the season; last week was the Kingdom, and Judgement and the Second Coming are still to come. Its a season of waiting and hoping: at Advent we expect and wait for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas; and it's a bitter-sweet season. We wait for the birth of a baby, and for the extraordinary good news of God coming to live among us in a completely new way - so we wait with joy and openness. And yet we also know that when the baby grows up, his teaching and his life challenge us to a way of life that is far from comfortable... and we know that the baby grows up to die on the cross, so even in our waiting we are confronted with our part in the humanity that cannot really bear Gods invitation to live fully in the light. Now, our waiting at Advent (and our being aware of its bitter-sweetness) is a way of honing in ourselves all the waiting we do for Jesus. Whenever, for example, we pray for Jesus to draw closer to us, there is this double thing - the joy of his presence and the sense that his presence is not only a comfort but is also a knife which cuts into our complacency and disturbs our comfort. And thats true, too, for our ultimate waiting - waiting for the end of all things when Jesus will come in glory and every thing will be finally fulfilled. Waiting for Jesus is both comforting and awesomely exposing.
So what about the Messiah?
Messiah means the same as Christ - Messiah is Hebrew, Christ is Greek - so Jesus Christ means Jesus Messiah - were on pretty central ground here! And unlike some of the good ideas that theologians invent and read back into the story, we know that Jesus was regarded as the Messiah right from the beginning - even in his own lifetime, and throughout the New Testament writings. But to know what Jesus disciples meant when they called him Messiah - to see in Jesus what they saw in him - we have to look back to the Old Testament to see what notions of the Messiah were around. So Im going to do a very quick whistle-stop tour of the Old Testament (dont blink or youll miss it!) and Ill point out the Messiah landmarks.
Now if youre at all familiar with the Old Testament youll know that the people of Israel have a pretty rocky ride. Things are up and down for them, to say the least!
Thats a fairly hairy political history! But it's underpinned in their understanding by the question of their faithfulness (or otherwise) to God, and their certainty of Gods faithfulness to them.
Now, before David, Messiah simply meant anointed one - thats its literal meaning - someone anointed by God to do a task; so the prophets and priests were anointed, and the king was anointed. So up to the time of becoming a stable kingdom, when they are trying to get established in the land, the emphasis is on getting the job done in a way that keeps people faithful to God.
But when the kingdom collapses and theres chaos again, a new meaning to Messiah begins to emerge, which reflects the peoples sense of the mess theyre in and their need of some serious help. The people in exile (and during their return) begin to hope - even to expect with certainty - that a descendent of David will emerge as a new king, and will bring the people out of their perpetual struggle with sin, back to their faithful God, and will establish a reign of peace and prosperity. Quite how all that will happen is open to various interpretations - sometimes, for example, the Messiah has a priestly role, sometimes hes seen as an obedient servant and victim, like in Isaiah. But the clear threads are:
And by the time Jesus comes, when Israel is under Roman rule, it has become largely a hope of political liberation - and a widespread, popular hope with some pretty revolutionary supporters!
And as I said at the beginning, Jesus is quickly recognised as the Messiah. Peter and Martha the sister of Lazarus both say you are the Christ. But Jesus is quite reluctant to receive the title - he certainly doesnt go about saying I am the Messiah, and actually he tells his disciples not to tell others that they have recognised him as the Messiah. On the other hand, his entire ministry looks like a fulfilment of Old Testament hopes - and Jesus does stress that - he says he has come to fulfil the law, to fulfil the messianic hope of Isaiah. And what he is making clear is that he isnt simply a nationalistic hero, who will fulfil their political hopes (he is not the Messiah they think they are waiting for) but he is the Messiah in the fullest sense - not just bringing in another political reign like Davids, but dealing with sin, bringing the people to God and establishing the way to live justly and mercifully and righteously. Its only after his death, in the accounts of the resurrection, that we find Jesus saying that his ministry is that of the Messiah, the Christ - and even then it is the suffering servant he emphasises, not the Davidic kingly role. Once Jesus ministry is no longer open to political interpretation (the cross really does for those hopes!) the early church takes up the title Messiah with a vengeance, and it becomes the basic fact at the heart of the New Testament, that Jesus is the one in whom God is now working out his long-promised, long-awaited salvation - rescuing his people from their long struggle with sin, and opening the way to holy living.
Well, what about us, what do we mean when we call Jesus the Messiah? What are we saying we have seen in him, what are we saying we hope for in him?
Let me suggest four things, for starters.
So when we say that Jesus is the Messiah, then were saying:- here is our God, here is our salvation. What a comfort - what an invitation - what a risk - what a demand!