The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Visions of the Messiah
Today is the second Sunday of the Advent season. And we have yet to catch a glimpse of the pregnant Virgin Mother or of the dazed and confused Joseph. We have yet to see angels. It seems, surely by now,, we should have arrived at the gates of Bethlehem. And yet, our readings have yet to speak of any of those most familiar Advent nouns.
Instead we get guesses, the predictions of prophets and poets – prophets and poets peering into a hazy future their eyes would never see. The visions of Isaiah and the Psalmist – visions as ominous as they are thrilling as they are hopeful – speak of the world as it might be. But not only that, they speak also of the Messiah – long promised, long expected – who will finally make the dream the reality.
The prophet Isaiah dreams of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which the wolf snuggles the lamb and leopards nap with baby goats. He dreams of a world in which children no longer need to fear the serpent's bite. He dreams of the world as Eden, a return to Creation before things started to crumble – when the creatures lived in harmony, when peace reigned, before the forbidden fruit, before Cain killed Abel, before violence was born and blood soaked the ground. That is the dream – the world as it might be, as it might be again.
But that world, in Isaiah's prophetic vision, can only come with a Messiah. And so he dreams of a Messiah. The visionary image of the Messiah starts beautifully strong. He will decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he will love and support the poor. That sounds good. But then, things get confusing because that same Messiah starts breathing fire and that beautiful, peaceful vision goes up in smoke: with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Mostly hopeful. Thrilling. Maybe not exactly peaceful. And ominous.
The Psalmist takes the same path. The Messiah shall usher in a time of abundant peace – that sounds good – but also shall be the crusher of oppressors. Probably all of that crushing will disturb the peace.
And then we come to John the Baptist. He doesn't say much about peace. Never accused of being subtle, not know for his sunny disposition, John lays out his own vision of the future – and it is chock full of wrath. He also describes his vision for the coming Messiah. The Messiah will baptize folks with the Holy Spirit – that sounds good. And also that Messiah is carrying a winnowing fork in his hand, which if you are curious, looks like a giant Freddy Krueger hand, and with those devastating blades he will clear the threshing floor before he sets it ablaze with the unquenchable fire. So again: something of a mixed bag.
We have yet to see the Virgin Mary; we have yet to see gentle Joseph; the angels have not yet made an appearance. But what we do see is an unsettling vision of the coming Messiah. Are we expected to be excited or afraid?
For centuries the prophets of old waited for the Messiah to come. They waited and the expectations grew. They waited for a King. They waited for a warrior. They waited for a Messiah who breathed fire, who crushed oppressors, who carried the winnowing fork. And then he came, the Messiah. But he did not meet the expectations.
The prophet Isaiah imagines that when the Messiah arrives the people will no longer hurt or destroy; he imagines peace on the hills of Jerusalem. But the Messiah came and the people hurt him. The people destroyed him. And instead of peace on the hills, there stood, on the hill, an old, rugged cross – a cross that held the long-awaited Messiah.
The psalmist imagines that when the Messiah arrives he will rule the people and crush the oppressors. But the people were not interested in his rule. Once upon a time, they thought he might make a suitable king. He was good at bread production; they saw some potential. But then the bread dried and he offered them his body instead. And they realized he was not at all what they were looking for, not at all what they wanted. They wanted someone who would either make them rich or make them safe. He would do neither. The people walked away and the oppressors crushed him.
John the Baptist imagines that when the Messiah arrives he will finally usher in the coming judgment. He will separate the good from the bad and punish those in the bad pile. But Jesus did not make separate piles; instead he prayed that they might all be one. And the only fire that came was the fire of Pentecost. It was unquenchable, but no one was burnt. And instead of punishing the bad folks, Jesus ate with them, invited some of them to be his disciples, forgave them from the cross. John was so confused that he sent his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the Messiah or should we be waiting for someone else?”
For centuries faithful people have been waiting for the Messiah to come as a conqueror. The first time he came though he did not meet the expectations; and so, perhaps the second time, maybe the second time he comes he will meet our expectations and be the powerful Ruler we need, or at least want. Faithful people are still searching the skies for this divine conqueror; we are still waiting for the Messiah with blade in hand, fire in mouth, smoke in nostrils, and violence in his eyes. We are waiting for the Messiah who will destroy our enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The first time the Messiah came, he came wrapped in baby soft skin. No sword. No fire. No violence. Not what we expected. And now we await his second coming. God willing, he'll fail to meet our expectations once again.