Israel waited patiently and longingly for the promised Messiah while others feared the birth and reign of the Savior destined to come from King David’s line.
The Israelites were no strangers to defeat and to oppression. For most of their history, they had been easy targets for world powers like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and others. They had known the joy of being in God’s favor and the heartbreak and pain of being out of favor with Yahweh, the one true God.
When the angel spokesman Gabriel told Mary that God was ready to act and that she of all people would give birth to the Messiah, the most powerful occupying force the world had ever know — the Romans — held Israel and most of the rest of the known world in an iron grip.
Mary, as well as most of the faithful, believed that God through his Messiah would end Roman domination and replace Rome with his kingdom on earth. Better yet, this king would reign forever. Anyone who dared cross Israel or its God would be doomed to fail. The weight of oppression on the people of God would be lifted. They would finally be free.
However, Messiah did not descend from the clouds as a full-grown warrior. Jesus made his appearance as a helpless infant, born in a messy stable without the benefit of a germ-free birthing room. The Savior of the world had a precarious start. The mere prospect of his birth — as told to the king by the magi — brought not joy but anguish as Herod sought to kill all the newborn Jewish boys in an effort to exterminate God’s chosen.
The parents Mary and Joseph fled for safety instead of welcoming home the newborn right away. Likely, this state of events was not what almost every Jew had anticipated for the Messiah.
In many ways, Jesus did not measure up to anticipations of the Messiah. Oh, his parents faithfully schooled him in his religious development. In fact, he apparently became quite a young Jewish scholar who caught the attention of leaders in the faith. If Jesus had grown up in a congregation today, one of the compliments he likely would have overheard often is, “That boy sure does know his Bible!”
As he began his ministry, Jesus talked about the power of his Heavenly Father. He also performed mighty acts — miracles — that surely whet the peoples’ appetites for larger possibilities.
But the reality was that the people remained under the occupation of Rome, perhaps more firmly than before, even as Jesus’ earthly ministry came to an end and he faced interrogation and a horrific death sentence that resulted in his agonizing physical death. Suddenly, his movement was in disarray. Once again, hopeful followers — even disciples — lost hope, at least temporarily.
Today we celebrate the birth of the Messiah knowing the rest of the story. The dead Jesus soon became the resurrected Messiah but not one who came back to wield a sword against the enemies of Israel.
It would still be many years before Rome lost its grip on the Israelites. What the early followers and witnesses to the resurrection discovered was that Jesus was not simply the deliverer of a people but the salvation of all people. In those early days of Christianity, Romans regularly came under the influence of the saving power of God. Like other believers, Jews and non-Jews alike, they discovered hope to fill life’s emptiness.
Many of these Romans discovered the joy of meeting in secret to worship God and to be guided by his Spirit. They acknowledged Jesus as Savior and Lord of their lives. Like many non-Roman Christians, some of them perished when they were found out as followers of what the New Testament refers to as “the Way.”
Modern Christendom still struggles with the notion and purpose of the Messiah. Sometimes believers today act as if the faith of our fathers is best practiced as exclusive, not inclusive, open only to some but certainly not to all.
What early believers learned from Jesus was that the Messiah was all about relationship and followship. Followers learned that Christ did the redemptive work and gave the example and that God empowered them to help stamp out the world’s evils by enabling him to change hearts and selfish, evil motivations.
Celebrating the Messiah’s birth is important in worship, to be sure. But it also carries the opportunity/responsibility/risk of walking and acting in the Jesus way in the daily moments of life. It means not even withholding Christ from those who might seem unlikely to embrace it.
God took that risk with Jesus. We are eternally grateful that he did.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.