“It’s not supposed to be this way.” This thought lingers in the back of our minds, sometimes whispering its question in the middle of an especially hard day, while other times demanding attention as our eyes scan the news. The world in which we live is filled with reasons to despair. Our bodies are stricken with disease, our families face relational strain, and our churches seem to be scrambling to survive in an increasingly post-Christian culture. The global crises seem to compound each day as our minds struggle to comprehend the widespread devastation. Wars rage. Governments become corrupt. Poverty perpetuates epidemics and modern-day slavery. These realities force us to grapple with our faith in a Messiah who has come and will one day come again.
What effect does the birth of an infant Messiah have on our everyday lives? Isn’t our God a God of life, a God who designed with brilliant creativity giving us extravagant gifts in the form of mammoth sunflowers, freshly fallen snow, laughing children, mossy mountains, and newborn babies? How then do we find the goodness of God’s kingdom among the brokenness and monotony of real life?
The invitation of this Advent season is to return to waiting for the Messiah. As the days grow darker and colder, and we find ourselves lighting candles to hold vigil with Mary, we become eager to catch glimpses of the kingdom Jesus is building in and among us. “Be born in us today” becomes our prayer. We earnestly hold on to the hope that Christ Jesus will one day come in fullness and bring wholeness to a new earth. In the meantime, our task is to find the kingdom of God in our midst even as we trudge through the painful realities of our world and press onward through the mundane moments of life — going to work, paying bills, driving kids to extracurriculars, getting dinner on the table.
Perhaps the shepherds felt the same way as they settled in for another night under the stars with their flock of sheep. Sure, they had heard rumblings over the years about the coming Messiah. But they were no experts in prophecies. Their knowledge on the subject could never rival that of the religious authorities. (For starters, their perpetual dirtiness from manual labor would never meet the legalistic cleanliness standards of the priestly types.) Even so they had heard about this Messiah from their mothers, friends or religious leaders and something within them recognized the truth in the stories. Was there any hope for a Savior to bring healing to the broken things they’d seen in their lives, the mistreatment of the vulnerable, the corruption of political leaders? Could there be more to life than eating and sleeping and tending sheep?
As these no-name shepherds took up the night watch, a thick darkness fell upon the fields. Under their watchful gaze, the flock found secure resting places for the night ahead. As the shepherds’ eyes scanned the hills, their buried hopes were suddenly thrust into a divine spotlight:
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:9–11).
Their hearts pounded as their minds thought, “Could it be true?” The long-awaited Messiah had been born, and God had chosen the overlooked shepherds to be the recipients of these angelic tidings. Yes, the kingdom of God was breaking through in most unexpected ways and to the most unexpected people. These shepherds wasted no time. Getting to their feet, they secured their sheep and set off to find this infant Messiah. They found the newborn Christ child in the manger next to His mother and father whose faces likely told the story of childbirth, full of delight and exhaustion. Every word of celebration proclaimed by those heavenly hosts was ringing in the hearts of these shepherds, and they shared the good news with everyone who would listen.
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. … The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:17–18, 20).
But many who heard the news found their hopes falling flat. A Messiah born in the presence of barn animals and heralded by lowly shepherds was not their idea of power and honor. How would this Messiah become the king they had long-desired? “It’s not supposed to be this way,” they thought.
The Anointed One
In a Bible Project podcast episode on the Son of Man (fmchr.ch/bpson), Tim Mackie explains that the titles “Christ” and “Messiah” are two words meaning the same thing in two different languages. “Messiah” is the English translation of the Hebrew, and “Christ” is the English translation of the Greek version of the Hebrew “Messiah.” Both of these terms mean “the anointed one” or most literally “the one who has had oil poured on his head.” This practice of anointing with oil is used to describe the appointment to the office of king or priest.
For as often as “Christ” (Greek for “Messiah”) is used to describe Jesus in the New Testament, it wasn’t the way Jesus described Himself. In fact, Jesus preferred to keep His divine appointment from public knowledge.
“‘But what about you?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.’ … Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah” (Matthew 16:15–17, 20).
Why all the secrecy? Jesus knew the term was loaded both politically and religiously. For someone to declare membership in the royal Davidic lineage would be a bold claim usurping the Jewish religious authorities and all but instigating an overthrow of the powerful Roman government. But fear wasn’t what kept Jesus from publicly declaring His true identity. Jesus’ endgame was never to forcibly remove the Roman emperor from power or to rise to the place of high priest for the Jewish people. Rather, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, knew exactly what He was anointed to do:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffering many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21).
Jesus’ work as Messiah centered around the establishment of a kingdom built on submission and sacrifice rather than domination and wealth. In the days before His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus comes close to revealing the fullness of His anointing upon His return to His boyhood synagogue in Nazareth.
“He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:21).
And having unrolled the scroll to the place containing Isaiah 61, Jesus reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:17–19).
The way of the Messiah was far different than the rule and reign for which most people had hoped. Jesus lived out His messianic anointing by demonstrating the love, generosity and freedom of the kingdom God was establishing. In the midst of humanity’s monotony and the brokenness, the kingdom of God was breaking through as Jesus turned a disappointing wedding reception into a celebratory feast as gallons of water became wine. The winds of the kingdom were felt as He breathed life back into those who had died and freed folks from demonic oppression. The kingdom drew nearer as sounds of laughter resonated around the dinner table where Jesus enjoyed another meal with people who lived on the wrong side of town. The ways of God’s kingdom were demonstrated as Jesus made space for boisterous children to bring joy into the world and empowered women who were gifted to lead. Jesus’ anointing was bringing healing and wholeness to the world in the form of fullness of life.
In his book “Being Disciples,” Rowan Williams describes discipleship as a state of being, a posture of anticipation as we eagerly anticipate signs of the kingdom of God breaking through.
“Disciples are expectant,” Williams writes, “in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher” (fmchr.ch/rwdisciples). Each time we seek the company of the Holy Spirit in prayer, or we search for the revelation of God in Scripture, or we find ourselves in the presence of another disciple, we are asking, “What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?” (fmchr.ch/rwdisciples2).
In these weeks leading up to Christmas, we are invited to wait expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. We will watch as children open flaps on Advent calendars, and we will light candle after candle around the wreath each Sunday until the day of Christ’s nativity. Advent invites us to come alongside Mary in her final weeks of pregnancy, connecting with her eager anticipation and fearful trepidation. We enter as best we can into the story of the Jewish people who spent centuries longing for the Messiah, hopes waning and waxing with the passing of time. But with two millennia between us and the birth of Jesus, our short season of waiting isn’t terribly taxing, especially since we know the Christmas story as well as Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (fmchr.ch/linuscbc).
If we take one look at the day’s news, we know we’re living in the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. We are standing on a threshold, an in-between space where God’s kingdom has come in the form of Jesus — in His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection — but has not yet fully come. Yes, at the moment Mary birthed Jesus in the bleak stable, the kingdom of God broke into our world. But the building of God’s kingdom is an ongoing process, one in which we are invited to participate. Jesus made it clear that God’s kingdom-work would be carried on by all who choose to follow Him:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
As Jesus’ disciples we are called to see the world’s brokenness and to lament, “It’s not supposed to be this way.” At the same time we are to live with expectancy, paying attention to how Jesus is bringing the healing and wholeness of God’s kingdom into the world right now. Each time we gather as God’s people, we are reminding each other of the kingdom-truths as we participate in songs, scriptures and sacrament.
When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), we are declaring the hope Jesus brought into the world and our commitment to join Jesus in bringing this hope to the broken places in our world. As we commune around Jesus’ Holy Table, we receive His healing and partake of the sacramental body and blood of a Messiah whose anointing lifts up the lowly and calls sinners to repentance. We are joining Jesus in His work when we care for widows and orphans, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. Each time we offer dignified conversation to a child or to someone rejected by society, we demonstrate the hospitality of God. We are joining Jesus in His work of building the kingdom when we invite the lowly or despised to join us for a meal, when we courageously call out systemic injustices, when we offer dignified work to those who have been oppressed. This is God’s kingdom coming.
Yes, our world is broken. We know it’s not supposed to be this way. But the hope of the Messiah breaks through our darkness. In waiting with expectancy for Jesus Christ to be born in us today, we find His kingdom coming all around us. Our Messiah has already come to establish a kingdom demonstrating God’s justice and love, and our Messiah has appointed us to continue His work. May we step into our commissioning to go into all the world and make disciples by extending the generous welcome of God to all people (Matthew 28:19).
Melanie Eccles is the lead pastor of the Monroe Free Methodist Church in Monroe, Michigan. She is an alumna of Spring Arbor University from which she earned a Master of Arts degree in spiritual formation and leadership and a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and religion. Visit melanieeccles.com for more of her writing.