The Messiah will come to remove the powerful from their thrones and restore David’s kingdom. He will deliver God’s people from under the oppressor’s heavy arm, cast down the mighty, raise up the lowly, and reestablish the self-governing might of the kingdom that Babylon destroyed and Rome occupied. That’s what Mary expected. That’s what Peter, James, and John expected. That’s what the people lining the streets shouting “Hosanna in the highest!” expected.
The Messiah, Immanuel, God with us to overturn unjust regimes and elevate those who have been trampled.
And that’s what Jesus the Messiah did. But he did it in a way that so far defied expectations that his followers had to thoroughly reorient what they believed about God’s deliverance and the manner of its coming. They thought they were waiting for a Messiah who would restore God’s people to what they once were – a people with a king to govern them according to the divine law.
Instead, they received a Messiah who would transform them into what they had not yet been – a people whose citizenship is in the eternal Kingdom.
Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, disrupted their messianic expectations. The Messiah we receive at Christmas will continue this disruptive work in us, too, if we are open to receiving the Messiah God has sent, instead of the Messiah we invent for ourselves.
Like Jesus’ first followers, we are susceptible to reducing the Messiah’s work to fit within the boundaries of what we deem necessary or desirable in our present circumstances. Even as the preacher boldly proclaims the message that Jesus disrupted messianic expectations, we return to the expectation that the Messiah’s kingdom is of this world. Even as she explains that Jesus came lowly, born in a manger then riding on a donkey, we seek evidence of Jesus’ power in military might and legislative action. Even as she says that Jesus refused the devil’s offer of worldly power and told Peter to put away his sword, we count it victory when we wield weapons and broker influence. Even as she assures the congregation that Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the government, but to overthrow the power of sin and death, we treat sin and death as the cost of gaining government power.
We know the truth about the Messiah. And yet, too often Jesus’ followers betray a deeply held expectation that the Messiah has actually come to restore our political fortunes, to reclaim an imaginary era when we were governed by righteous leaders according to divine law, to make us famous and fabulous. Our messianic expectation wanders away from what the incarnate Son of God actually did, to what our fleshly efforts can bring about in the world. We betray a fear that the persistence of Christ’s Body, the Church, depends on our ability to convince the world that we deserve a seat at the head of the table. We profess faith in the Christ who has come and is coming, even as we behave as though elections and legislation hold eternal promise or existential threat.
We cannot proclaim the meek and lowly Messiah at Christmas only to return to the hunt for our next political or cultural messiah – our next president, or court case, or law, or celebrity conversion – in the new year.
The Messiah has come and is coming to disrupt our messianic expectations. The Kingdom of God breaks in, despite our misplaced allegiances and misguided agendas. Christmas is an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our Messiah and to critically appraise our own distorted notions about how his rule is made manifest in the world. We must ask whether we are so focused on arraying our weapons to wage war against the chariots on the horizon that we miss the Son of God, cooing at his mother’s breast, sleeping in a feeding trough with all the confidence of one whose power is unmatched and whose victory is certain.
This season we are invited to turn our eyes upon Jesus, to allow the incarnate Messiah to disrupt our warped expectations, to call us back to the one who has come and is coming to deliver us, even to deliver us from ourselves.