Sunday, December 22, 2013

Which Messiah?

Right now I am really looking forward to something that will happen in 3 days: the Doctor Who Christmas special. I know what you thought but bear with me. Like Whovians all over the world, I have been scouring the internet, looking for interviews with the writer and the stars. I have been watching the various trailers and gleaning clues from the snippets of dialogue and video clips. I know some things for sure, such as the fact that the 11th Doctor will regenerate into the 12th. But exactly how, I'm not quite sure. The show's writer, Steven Moffat, promises that he will wrap up certain mysteries that date all the way back to the 11th Doctor's first episode. The internet is abuzz with speculation and a plethora of theories, from the plausible to the outlandish. But we won't really know the answers until we see the episode on Christmas.

And that is analogous to the situation we find the Jewish people in the days before Jesus. They were looking for a Messiah. And they combed the Hebrew scriptures for clues about what he would be like and they tried to tease out the implications of prophesies to see what he would do. But what you see in those passages is largely influenced by your perspective. And your perspective is largely influenced by your experience. Looking backward we Christians see very clearly how the prophesies were fulfilled. But before his coming the picture was fuzzier. There were rival constructions of who the Messiah would be. But from the point of view of the Jews of the 1st century, it was clear that what they wanted was a military Messiah.

One summer in college I went on a study trip to Rome, Greece and Israel. I would love to return some day. But one of the things that made us American students uncomfortable while in the Holy Land was the presence of armed Israeli troops at any large gathering of people. When approaching the Wailing Wall or going to a movie theatre, you had to go through security similar to what we now have at American airports. And on Fridays, which is the Muslim holy day, and from Friday at sunset through Saturday at sunset, the Jewish Sabbath, it seemed like there was a soldier on every street corner, at least in the Old City. It was a constant reminder that violence could break out at any time in any place. Scary.

I think one of the problems we Americans have in understanding the time of Jesus is that we do not have any idea of what it is like to live under occupation. While the Israeli soldiers were there to keep the peace in their own country, their presence let you know you were not free to go everywhere nor to do anything you liked.

So imagine if that was your own country and the troops were foreign conquerors. Imagine them having the right to grab you and make you carry their pack for a mile. Imagine not having a right to trial before punishment unless you were a Roman citizen. Imagine approaching a city and seeing naked men nailed to uprights all along the side of the road. Imagine not feeling free to express your opinions about this occupation for fear of being arrested, imprisoned, flogged or worse. Imagine these invaders routinely doing things that offended your religion. And imagine having to pay heavy taxes to the foreign empire that kept the troops in your country. Is it any wonder that the people fervently hoped for God to raise up a holy warrior to throw these interlopers out and re-establish their country's independence and even ascendance over these violent pagan aggressors?

That was the atmosphere in which Jesus lived. You never felt really free. You always had to walk on eggshells whenever an armed and armored Roman soldier was within sight or earshot. And you had to worry about your fellow countrymen rebelling and the bloody aftermath that would surely follow. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, just 4 miles from Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee. When Herod the Great died, the people of Sepphoris revolted. Rome destroyed the city, enslaved all the surviving women and children and crucified all the men, 2000 of them, along the roads to the ruins. When one of Herod's sons, Herod Antipas, was made Tetrarch, or governor of the region, he decide to rename and rebuild the city and make it, as historian Josephus called it, the “Ornament of the Galilee.” He named it Autocratoris, which is Greek for Emperor. It is quite possible that Joseph got work there during the reconstruction. And Jesus would have functioned as his apprentice. He would have heard tales of the revolt. Some of the uprights for the crosses might have still been in place and would still have been used for executing criminals and slaves. The carpenter and his apprentice would have passed by them every day when going to and leaving work. Jesus would have literally grown up in the shadow of the cross.

This is where the Messiah comes in. The word means literally “smeared” or “anointed” with oil. Kings were anointed by prophets to symbolize their anointing with God's Spirit in order to fulfill the duties of their office. Priests were also anointed as were prophets. But most of the time when people spoke of the Messiah, they were thinking of a king, anointed by God to free his people from their oppression and slavery. The model of the Messiah everyone wanted was someone like David, a holy warrior-king.

And that derives from certain passages in the Old Testament. The Messiah seems to be a fighter as far back as Genesis 3:15, in which God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.” In Numbers 24:17, it says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and the skull of all the Shethites.” In Psalm 2:7-9, it reads, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: he said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.'”

And given the situation in 1st century Judea and Galilee, you can see the appeal of this kind of Messiah, a judge, jury and executioner. When you are living under injustice, you want someone who metes out strict justice with no mercy. Of course, this assumes that this standard will not be applied to you. As we see in the prophets, God will not merely apply his standards of justice to other people; his own people will be judged as well. Indeed, at times God says his people are worse than the Gentiles. In Ezekiel 16:46-48, Judah is said to be worse than Sodom!

This is the dilemma that faced Jesus' fellow citizens, though most did not think it through. If God were to send the kind of Messiah they wanted, a strictly just and militant Messiah, a kind of divinely anointed Dirty Harry, they would have been his target as well. God has never one to look the other way when his own people were unjust. In that vein, consider Jehu. In 2 Kings 9, Elisha has Jehu anointed king of Israel and he is to eliminate all of the male successors of corrupt king Ahab. But he goes on to kill idolatrous King Ahaziah of Judah, a descendant of Ahab, and all of his relatives as well, leaving Judah without a king. Jehu knows no mercy and lets on one get away with anything.

That is the problem with absolute justice, where everyone gets what they deserve. We cannot say, “God, punish the wicked—but not me, or my family or my friends.” That is not justice. In World War 2, the Nazis were exterminating all the Jews. And we now know that our government knew that as early as 1942, less than a year into our involvement. Our allies the British knew by September of 1941, before we declared war on Germany. Some thought the only way to stop it was simply to win the war. But had the death camps been publicized worldwide, Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe might have stopped cooperating with their conquerors, might have stopped docilely getting on the trains to the so-called “work camps,” might have run off and hid in greater numbers. It would have made it much more difficult for the Nazis to carry out their final solution. Who knows how many of the 6 million they did kill might have escaped. Were the Allies complicit in the deaths of the Jews?

By the standards of Ezekiel 33, if you know someone is doing wrong and don't warn them, then, yes, you are responsible. So an intervention by God to punish one kind of evil, the commission of certain sinful acts, would also have to punish the other kind of evil, the omission of certain good acts.

John the Baptist is very much a part of the Old Testament approach to sin. He denounces it in the most fiery of terms. Perhaps this is why, while in prison, he sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if he really is the Messiah. Jesus was not raising an army, nor stirring up the people to revolt against brutal, pagan Rome, nor condemning first and asking questions later. John did tell people to repent; that is also a part of what the prophets of old did. It was always understood that God would stay his judgment if the people repented and changed their ways. John demanded to see the fruits of repentance. Jesus was more likely to forgive based on the sinner's seeking him out. He forgives the man confined to his mat based on the faith of his friends. He invites Zaccheus to dine with him before the rich tax collector decides to reimburse those he cheated. Only after he has stopped the stoning of the woman taken in adultery does he say that he doesn't condemn her and tell her to sin no more. Jesus leads with grace, not judgment. He is obviously not the kind of Messiah everyone was expecting.

So what kind of Messiah was Jesus? And is that to be found in the Messianic prophesies as well? That's what our Christmas Eve message will cover.

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