Sunday, December 3, 2023

Sermon: "The X(mas) Files: WHO?", Isaiah 40:1-5/Luke 3:2-9, 15-16 (December 3, 2023)

This Advent, we’re going to be investigating “The Xmas Files” together: we’ll be taking on the role of detectives: digging into the scripture that informs our understanding of that first Christmas Day over 2000 years ago, and examining how those events still echo in our lives today. Although undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor for the weeks leading up to Christmas, this task won’t be easy because, if we’re being honest, we’re pretty far from objective as investigators go. These stories have personal meaning to us, and we’ve heard them so many times (usually in the exact same context and manner) that our understanding of them has calcified over the years into something easy and comfortable. While this generally suits us fine in an otherwise festive time of year, if I had to pick any two words that absolutely do NOT describe God’s kindom, I’d probably choose “easy” and “comfortable”. So, as members of a denomination that traditionally places a high value on intellectual curiosity, we’re going to let go of what we think we know, put on our detective hats, and trust God’s Word enough to subject it to questioning – starting this week with the question of WHO?

This week, as we ask, “Who,” we have to look further back in the story to understand who this Christ is that the people are looking for, and why they’re hoping that it might be John. By the time of the gospels’ events, the Jewish people are beaten down, worn out, and anxious to find the deliverer that God had promised to them long ago. They believed that this person would free them from Roman oppression and restore them to their glory days as a sovereign nation, so they were expecting a human military leader or zealot set apart by the Lord for this important work. This long-awaited figure was known as “The Messiah,” a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one”. The people had faith that this Messiah was coming, and they knew, thanks to prophecy and tradition, what this Messiah would do (or at least they thought they knew – we’ll dig deeper into that question next week). But what they didn’t know is WHO, exactly, this Messiah would be.

In those days, there were all sorts of potential messiahs popping up all over the place, hoping to restore the nation of Israel through their own personal charisma and strength. In the end, all of these “Faux-siahs” wound up as victims of the Roman Empire. The Jewish people had had their hopes raised and dashed in this way thousands of times before. When they ask in Luke 3 whether John might be the Messiah, it’s not just idle curiosity; they’re trying to figure out if he might finally, FINALLY be the one they’re waiting for. For them, the question of “who” has a lot riding on it. They want to make sure that they’ve found the REAL Messiah, the one that the prophecies had been telling them about their entire lives, so that they can do everything in their power to help him succeed.

Which naturally makes me think of Harry Potter.

Okay, I know that this leap isn’t the most obvious one to make, so let me back up and explain. Throughout the Harry Potter series, the evil wizard Lord Voldemort keeps trying to kill Harry, starting from the time he was a baby. He has good reason for this: when Voldemort first rose to power, he’d heard about a prophesy that described “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord.” As tends to be the case with prophecies, this one wasn’t explicit about its subject, but it offered several clues to help answer the question of “who”: for example, it said that this person would be “born to those who had thrice defied [Voldemort],” “born as the seventh month dies,” and that “the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal.” Voldemort took the information he’d been given, added it all up, and determined that the prophecy was about none other than our boy Harry. And the rest was (fictional) history.

But there’s another important element to this plotline, one that the books go out of their way to emphasize. The fact is that there were TWO boys to whom the prophecy could have applied accurately: Harry Potter AND his seemingly-timid classmate Neville Longbottom. There are some schools of thought (because you KNOW the Harry Potter fandom has OPINIONS) that say Harry was always meant to be Voldemort’s nemesis, full stop. But there are other theories that suggest that Harry’s prophetic destiny was only determined when Voldemort “mark[ed Harry] as his equal” by attempting to kill him that first time. In other words, the only reason Harry became the Dark Lord’s nemesis was because Voldemort believed he was. If Voldemort had happened to interpret the prophecy differently, NEVILLE would have had the one with a seven-book series written about him, and the story would have gone in a dramatically different direction. Voldemort’s actions were what ultimately determined the “who” of the prophecy.

Now, although Advent heresy is the most interesting heresy, I’m not trying to suggest here that somebody else could have wound up being the Messiah under different circumstances. Jesus’ Lordship was not and is not a fluke of fate. I believe that his power and authority are real and absolute. But it was, and is, entirely within our power to reject God’s anointed one in favor of someone more aligned with our worldly goals – a political leader that promises to restore our nation to its perceived former glory, perhaps, or a religious leader assuring us of our superiority over others, just as the people of Jesus’ time were expecting. One of the things that sets God apart from earthly powers is that God is less interested in RULING over us than being in RELATIONSHIP with us, and while ruling only requires someone willing to wield enough power to subdue their potential subjects, it takes two invested parties to make a relationship. So, our own choices have the power to change our story.

The messianic prophecies in the First Testament were pretty cryptic. What if the people had determined that they referred to John after all, choosing to ignore his clear protestations? Certainly, his fiery rhetoric would have lent itself nicely to a career in politics – I could see “brood of vipers” playing really well on the debate stage – and his charisma is undeniable. It’s easy to understand how the crowds might have concluded that he was the one sent by God to save them. He might not have had the credentials that Jesus had, but a determined crowd still could have chosen him as their leader, THEIR “Messiah”. And if they’d decided that he was “the one” and put all their hope and faith in him, well, God wouldn’t have stopped them. Just as with Voldemort’s prophecy, everything would have been different for them because of a choice they didn’t even realize they were making.

So, it turns out that asking, “WHO is the Messiah?” might be the wrong question here. It isn’t as simple as discerning objective facts because OUR choices, OUR decisions, shape our ultimate reality. Jesus may be the long-awaited Messiah, but if we don’t welcome him as such, then the relationship that God desires for us simply cannot be. (As an aside, notice that I’m saying “we” and not “they”. DO NOT hear this as a judgement against non-Christians. Every person has their own journey of faith, their own unique relationship with God, and no one else has the right to dictate what it looks like for them. But for those of us who DO claim Jesus as Lord, we have a responsibility to challenge our own faith by asking tough questions of ourselves.) So, instead of asking, “Who IS the Messiah,” perhaps we should be asking, “Who do WE follow as the Messiah?”

Because if we call Jesus the Messiah in name, but we place our REAL hope in someone else, we won’t ever know what we’re missing. We’ll go about our lives having changed the outcome of the prophecy for ourselves, never even realizing just how badly we got it wrong. Make no mistake; God’s kindom will still come, but if we’ve invested all our faith in someone else – if we’ve MADE someone else our Messiah by choosing them instead – we won’t be able to recognize this kindom for what it is. Nothing about the bigger picture will change, but everything about how we experience it will be different.

This is why the season of Advent is saturated with the language of preparation. Not because Jesus requires the red-carpet treatment in order to become incarnate, but because if our hearts and minds aren’t properly oriented – if we aren’t asking the right questions, not just about the story, but about ourselves – then we’re likely to follow the wrong Messiah. And if that happens, then we miss out on a glorious future not grounded in power and might, as we might expect, but in hope and transformation. A future where the mighty mountains are brought low, and the humble valleys are exalted. A future where the rough paths are made smooth, and where the things that stand between us and God are destroyed. This future is only possible through the REAL Messiah, the one no one expected, but God gave us anyway. We can only be certain that we’re following the right one by preparing ourselves to recognize him and reject all others – not just in our minds, but in our hearts as well.

Who the Messiah actually is has never been up for debate in the Church. But who the Church and its members WISH their Messiah was, who they LIFT UP as their Messiah, who they PURSUE as their Messiah – well, that’s a whole different “who” question. Are you satisfied to just be able to answer the first? Is being able to affirm the identity of the Christ as deep as your faith goes? Or are you willing to ask the harder version of this question, the one that challenges your loyalties and lays bare your own secret motivations? The one that could turn your whole life upside down and force you to rebuild your faith and the way you live it from the ground up?

It’s not too late, you know. To change course. To repent. To prepare. If it were, then we wouldn’t need to revisit Advent year after year. But we do, because God is determined to be in relationship with us, even when our choices have closed the door in God’s face, and we don’t even realize it. That certainly qualifies as “good tidings of great joy” (to get ahead of ourselves by a few weeks). And it all starts with one simple question: starting now, who is YOUR Messiah? Amen.

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