Is it really you?

Advent 3 2011

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who constantly surprises and refuses to be contained. Amen.

Most of us have been brought up to believe that the expectation of a “Messiah” was fairly standardized expectation in the Old Testament and therefore of the first century. After all, doesn’t Jesus fulfill the prophecy of the Old Testament. I’m sure that if asked most of us could draw up a list of criteria that the Messiah was to meet and which came together in Jesus. For starters, he was to be a descendant of David, born in Bethlehem of a young woman or a virgin and raised in Nazareth. He would heal the sick and give sight to the blind and he would to suffer and would die.

In fact, Jesus’ life holds few surprises for us because we are sure that everything that happened was predicted by the prophets. We would be surprised then to discover that the Old Testament has a wide variety of expectations for the future, only some of which can be seen to come to fruition in Jesus. The prophets variously expected a king, a warrior, a priest, a suffering servant, a son of man or a son of God to appear as God’s anointed. In some prophecies of the future there is no human saviour for God alone is the redeemer of Israel. The writings of Qumran demonstrate that not one but two messiahs were expected to come – one priestly and one to lead the eschatological battle. At least one of these was expected to have descendants.

The word for Messiah – the Hebrew “meshiach” or anointed is not very useful in this quest for a clear definition of a Messiah. God’s anointed is primarily someone chosen by God. Before 500BCE the expression referred only to historical figures and not to someone expected in the distant future. The word Messiah (anointed) was used for priests and for the kings of Israel. It was also applied to Cyrus, the king of Babylon who was chosen by God to take the Israelites into exile.

The expected role of a future messiah also varied over time. In some instances it was expected that God’s anointed would come to judge the earth and to inaugurate a new and heavenly age. In others, the messiah would bring about an earthly restoration of Israel and of the Davidic line of kings. The messiah would alternately destroy the Gentiles or bring them to faith.

At the beginning of the first century the concept of the “messiah” was still quite fluid. There was no one set of criteria which could be ticked off to prove that Jesus met the description of the “one who is to come.” At this time a number of revolutionary groups called their leaders “messiah” and the Jewish people seem to have had no problem accommodating a variety of different groups under the one umbrella of Judaism. No wonder then that few people recognised Jesus as the messiah and that even John the Baptist needed some sort of reassurance that Jesus was indeed who he, John, thought he was. So John sends his disciples to ask: “Are you the one who is to come?”

John who had declared that Jesus would baptize with fire wants to know whether this gentle miracle worker is indeed the one whom he had announced. Which of the boxes did Jesus tick? How many of the criteria did he meet? Jesus responds to the question by listing the things that people can see that he is doing – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus identifies his ministry with the things that Isaiah claims for the future in the today’s reading. He is not a warrior or a king, but he is clear that his ministry is consistent with at least some of the Old Testament expectations.

It is easy to be critical of those who failed to recognise Jesus during his time on earth, easy to convince ourselves – as the gospels do – that Jesus’ ministry was so obvious that no one could fail to see and to know who he was. We, however, have the benefit of hind-sight AND we know the end of the story. WE know about the Jesus through the gospels which were written nearly thirty years after the resurrection. In that time the early community has been able to gain some perspective on the events of Jesus’ life and to see how that life did indeed fit a pattern that was consistent with at least one strand of the expectations found in the Old Testament prophets. In the light of the resurrection and with the help of texts such as those from Isaiah, the evangelists are able to make sense of Jesus’ humble birth, to come to grips with his failure to raise an army and confront the occupying forces, to absorb his critique of the Judaism of his day, to accept his association with the unsavoury members of society, to understand his submission to the cross and to demonstrate how all this was consistent with the expectations of the prophets.

First century Jews at the time of Jesus had no such advantage. To those who did not recognise or understand him, Jesus must have seemed deliberately obtuse, intentionally confrontational and perversely unconventional. He broke the law and criticised the leaders of the church. He made no attempt to be accepted by or acceptable to institutional Judaism. No wonder that some asked: How could this be someone sent by, approved by God?

We might know the end of the story, but that does not give us an excuse for smugness or complacency. If Jesus was not universally recognised in the first century, there is no guarantee that we will recognise him in the 21st. One of Jesus’ roles was to confront all those who thought they understood, but did not. His task was to open people’s eyes to see things as God saw them, not as humans saw them, to stand with and for the oppressed even when that was an affront to the establishment. He provided comfort and hope for the vulnerable, but caused disquiet for the confident and the self-assured. In this century it is just possible that we will be among those who are affronted and disquieted were Jesus to come among us.

In our journey of faith, it is important to remain open and alert, to refuse to allow ourselves to settle into one way of seeing things, to avoid the sort of confidence that blinds us to new experiences and revelations and to constantly question our prejudices. In Advent we look backwards to Jesus’ coming and forward to Jesus’ coming again, may the experience of that first coming, inform our expectation of the second so that nothing will so surprise us that we turn our backs on what we do not understand, or close our minds to that which we did not expect.

Keep awake, for you do not know the hour at which he is coming. Keep alert, because you cannot be sure that you know what to expect.

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