Summary: Everyone was hoping for, even expecting, the Messiah in Jesus’ day. But, he disappointed everyone, thought Messiah would come as a conqueror. Isaiah’s first Servant Song shows their expectations to have been badly misinformed.
The Unexpected Messiah
In the May 29, 2005 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a story ran concerning a courthouse puzzle. The story in that paper begins like this:
“In the Milwaukee County Courthouse, where plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers and ex-spouses line up every day to bicker about money, nobody knows quite what to make of the man who won’t take home his $617,000. By a judge’s order, that sum sits quietly in an interest-bearing account at Tri City National Bank, waiting for Gene A. Sehrt to walk into the clerk of court’s office, show an ID and ask for what’s his. The ownership of the money couldn’t be clearer - the sum came … Milwaukee commercial properties [that] a court-appointed receiver administered at Sehrt’s family’s request, after he wasn’t heard from for several years. … And so it happens that Gene Sehrt - or a man who the clerk of circuit court and his staff believe is Gene Sehrt - shows up frequently in the very office where he could easily claim that $617,000 but leaves every time without even asking for it.‘ [http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/may05/329830.asp]
Most of the story in the Milwaukee paper is devoted to showing that the man who owns the money really exists, that he is very likely the same man who comes frequently into the courthouse, and that he never claims the money, even though it is just sitting there waiting for him to claim it. And, then, the newspaper quotes the speculations of many people as to why this man would behave so very strangely. Most folks think he is just plain crazy.
If there were anything stranger than this, it must be Jesus Christ himself, and the Scripture readings assigned for today show us why. A great many people thought Jesus was crazy too, including his own mother at one point. And, what seems to have confused everyone about Jesus is two things.
First of all, there are a few things in Jesus life which indicate that he is in fact the Messiah promised in the Old Testament Psalms and many prophecies of Old Testament prophets. Alongside the things that indicate that Jesus is the Messiah, however, there is this stunning fact – Jesus does not DO the things that everyone expects the Messiah to do. He does not act in the ways that Israel is expecting Messiah to act when he appears in history. Like this odd fellow in Milwaukee, who is the rightful owner of a huge chunk of money but who will not touch it, Jesus is the promised Son of David, the anointed one, whom all Israel was expecting to throw off the yoke of Imperial Rome and to re-establish the Davidic Kingdom on earth. But, Jesus doesn’t do anything remotely connected with re-establishing a kingdom.
This oddness was, for Jesus’ disciples, and for the crowds and the religious leadership of the Israel, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to their acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity and mission. Were their expectations of the coming Messiah so wrong? Or was Jesus’ behavior at his first advent just too, too bizarre? Or, perhaps, did Israel have a kind of selective hearing of what their prophets had been telling them for centuries?
The readings assigned for this first Sunday after the Epiphany show us that how Jesus acted when he began his ministry was completely in accord with what the Old Testament prophets foretold.
Consider, for example, the Psalm appointed for today, or, at least, the portions of it we sang together. It is a Psalm that rejoices in the covenant God made with David. And, like many Psalms in the Old Testament Psalter, it anticipates a day when a Son of David will conquer God’s enemies, who are, of course, Israel’s enemies as well.
In verses of Psalm 89 which we did not sing, we find statements like these concerning the coming Son of David: Beginning in verse 22: 22The enemy shall not outwit him, Nor the son of wickedness afflict him. 23I will beat down his foes before his face, And plague those who hate him. Or beginning in verse 25: 25Also I will set his hand over the sea, And his right hand over the rivers. … 27Also I will make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth.
This Psalm is only one of many we might sing that contain ideas such as these. The picture of a conquering Messiah, who would break Rahab’s teeth in pieces – we did sing that verse, you remember – these kinds of ideas are quite abundant in the Old Testament Psalms and in the Prophets as well.
So, let’s assume that all these kinds of ideas about a conquering, mighty Son of David are what you think of when you’re a first century Jew, or one of Jesus’ disciples, and you witness the scene described for us in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark – Jesus’ baptism. At the moment it occurs, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, and that God the Father spoke from heaven: “This is my son, in whom I am well-pleased.” If you’re one of Jesus’ disciples who saw this, what are you going to think? And if that’s what you think, what do you expect Jesus will do, sooner or later?