The Messiah

We’re 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. It’s 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 God’s 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 that’s 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 - we’re 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 I’m going to do a very quick whistle-stop tour of the Old Testament (don’t blink or you’ll miss it!) and I’ll point out the Messiah landmarks.

Now if you’re at all familiar with the Old Testament you’ll know that the people of Israel have a pretty rocky ride. Things are up and down for them, to say the least!

  • We’ll start with Abraham; God promises Abraham a home, a land, for his descendants.
  • They land up in slavery in Egypt.
  • God rescues them and makes a covenant with them: I will be your God, and you must be holy (the Law).
  • They wander in the desert for 40 years.
  • Finally they get into the promised land, and engage in a fair amount of guerrilla warfare while getting themselves established.
  • Then they have a relatively stable period with David as king.
  • Then the kingdom collapses under civil war.
  • The people go into captivity and exile in Babylon and Assyria.
  • Then they start to return and the last ones return to Israel about 400 years before Christ.

That’s 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 God’s faithfulness to them.

Now, before David, Messiah simply meant ‘anointed one’ - that’s 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 there’s chaos again, a new meaning to Messiah begins to emerge, which reflects the people’s sense of the mess they’re 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 he’s seen as an obedient servant and victim, like in Isaiah. But the clear threads are:

  • God is still faithful to his people, and the Messiah is his anointed one;
  • The Messiah will end the long struggle with sin and establish righteous living;
  • This will happen in history - in real life here and now, in actual lives.

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 doesn’t 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 isn’t 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 David’s, 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.

  1. We’re placing ourselves into God’s people, into a tradition, a history, a way of thinking, that is based, I guess, on one key thing - that God is faithful to us, he is self-consistent. That means that whatever we think the Messiah does for us is not a whim on God’s part, not something we’ve cornered him into doing, and not, therefore, a matter of pride and superiority on our part. What the Messiah does stems from what God is like, from God’s steady, constant love for us.
  2. We are saying, I think, that Israel’s story is our own embarrassing, shambolic saga. We’re saying that we’re like them: God gives himself to us, and we wander in the desert, we rebel, we get stuck in unnecessary captivities, we get lost in exile, we engage in guerrilla warfare; and we do all of it when we know better. So, like Israel, we’re saying we can’t help ourselves and we need someone to sort us.
  3. We are saying, too, that like Israel, we have seen something else, something better - we do actually desire the God who is faithful to us.
  4. Finally, if we say that Jesus is the Messiah, we are saying that he will probably turn out to be a different Messiah to the one we expect, the one we want for ourselves. We’re admitting up front that our vision of the Messiah is probably going to prove too small, and that we are prepared to take the risk of letting Jesus say what it means for him to be the Messiah. We’re saying that the early disciples’ story is our own, as well as that of the Israelites.

So when we say that Jesus is the Messiah, then we’re saying:- here is our God, here is our salvation. What a comfort - what an invitation - what a risk - what a demand!

George Morley, lay reader
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997