Everyone is Looking for Messiah.
Everyone, in one fashion or another, is looking for a messiah. A deliverer, someone who will call forth their deepest desires for salvation and draw them into new life.
This longing was deeply felt in the people of Israel at the time of King Herod. The still-fresh Roman occupation only laid another layer of oppression upon those who practically snapped under the weight of royal families who had long forgot the mantle of David and a religious establishment that heaped so many rules on them it was near impossible to find that ancient love of God spoken of in scriptures. The intertestamental period had stretched this longing into desperation and despondency for many; others found themselves resigned to the world-as-it-currently-is, with little hope for deliverance.
Messiahs were common enough spectacles in the first century. The scribes and teachers of the law knew enough to ascertain from the prophecies of Daniel that Yahweh’s chosen one should be revealed any time now, and small bands of zealous Jews would gather around upstart rebels who tried to convince everyone else they were the one spoken of who would throw off the oppressors and establish the kingdom of Israel as strong and independent at last.
Which is what makes the beginning of chapter 2 so fascinating. The first people to recognize the signs and seek out the messiah as he is are not wise Jewish philosophers or rabbinical experts, but a band of astrologers from Persia, in the east. Genesis 3-11 shows us that the farther Man fell from the will of God, the farther he moved East. The final settling place for these early people was the valley of Shinar, where they built the Tower of Babel. Later, God’s people were dragged back out east to the exact same place, now known as Babylon: the final geographic exile of Israel. It is thought that Daniel and his contemporaries carried the scriptures of Judaism with them into the courts of King Nebuchadnezzar, where they trained the astrologers in his advisory to read their prophecies. And here we have the descendants of these wise men coming from the east, moving towards God himself. The first people to respond to the advent of Messiah are not only “outsiders”, but practitioners of a pseudoscience that stood in opposition to everything Israel stood for. Yet God spoke to these Magi in a way that they could understand, using truth he had deposited with them four centuries prior. How frustratingly beautiful these men are to our notions of who God speaks to, to whom he chooses to use!
Now, to those who should have been considered “in”, Herod and the religious elite. Herod knew the prophecies of the coming messiah were a threat to his comfortable grip on Jewish political life, puppet though he was under the Roman authorities. Even worse, the priests and teachers knew exactly where the child was to be born, yet made no effort to find him themselves. Like Herod, they had been lulled to comfortable sleep by their prestige, content to memorize the scriptures without allowing them to sink to the heart.
It is a scenario too often reenacted in this day and age, where the political and religious establishments feel threat when encountering the real Jesus, because of what it means for their retention of power. And, just off to the side perhaps, practically unnoticed, those on the outside of the privileged are walking right up to him and worshipping.
You see, we’re all looking for a messiah, it’s just a question of why and which messiah we seek. I’ve often joked that even within the spectrum of Christian orthodoxy, we can all safely agree on the statement “Jesus is the answer”. The problem is this raises four questions:
What do you mean by “Jesus”?
What do you mean by “is”?
What do you mean by “the”?
What do you mean by “answer”?
Jesus’ name has been invoked in the greatest atrocities of our age, and it has been a rallying cry for some of the most beautiful developments in the human story. Get ten theologians in a room, to turn a phrase, and you’ll get twenty answers. I know for myself the Jesus I follow today is quite different than the one I encountered fifteen years ago, and I hope the Jesus I know in another fifteen is different still.
How do we maneuver all these varied discrepancies? Who’s got it right? Perhaps the answer is found in the Magi themselves. Herod knew that this messiah was a threat to his power, the priests and teachers knew facts about him that didn’t prompt them to action, but the Magi bowed down and worshiped him. They laid three gifts at the baby’s feet that become a prophetic declaration of Jesus’ true identity: gold for a King, incense for a priest, and myrrh. Myrrh is a resin harvested from the eponymous tree, which was stabbed repeatedly in order to bleed the oil from within. In the ancient world it was used as a medicine for open wounds, and to embalm dead bodies. This all-too-painfully recalls to mind the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Let that sink in for a moment.
Jesus came to usher in the new reign of God as king, to act as high priest once-and-for-all between The Lord and his people, and to suffer pain and death so that we might believe. There it is, right in the beginning of the story. How often do we sooner find ourselves in the camps of those who consider themselves comfortably “in” because of our knowledge and understanding, yet miss the mystery of a living God on the move in ways we can’t possibly imagine? That is cause enough to bow and worship this precious child.