I. South African Anabaptist and Christian studies scholar, John W. de Gruchy, wrote an article of excitement and amazement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa. He followed that article with several others, but none as pivotal, perhaps, as the one he wrote on the occasion of President Mandela’s death. De Gruchy did the unthinkable, as many would certainly view it, when he used the word “messiah” in connection to Mandela. It wasn’t a slip up. He explained, “The term ‘messiah’ is for [the majority of] Christians so exclusively associated with Jesus that it is difficult to think of anyone else in these terms. So we cannot use the world lightly or thoughtlessly when we speak of Mandela in this way.”
De Gruchy reminds his readers that in Judeo-Christian scripture, the word means “the Lord’s anointed.” In the Hebrew Bible, it is used to refer to those chosen by God to fulfill some divinely ordained purpose such as liberation of oppressed people—for example, Moses who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage into what they took to be their new land of promise. De Gruchy says that many other pivotal personalities in the ancient Hebrew world were referred to as divinely anointed ones: the prophet Elijah, King David, and benevolent Cyrus, the pagan King of the Persian Empire, who allowed—yeah, encouraged—Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians before the Persians took control, to go back home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. This being the case, how could it be off base to refer to Nelson Mandela as a messianic figure raised up to lead South Africa out of the bondage of apartheid and into long, long delayed freedom?
De Gruchy insists that those who are self-proclaimed messiahs through their very claims instantly disqualify themselves as what they claim to be. Mandela never did that. In fact, he said point blank, looking back over his hard life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary person who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Therein was his greatness. Quoting De Gruchy directly again: Mandela “would never have claimed the title of messiah for himself, or thought of himself in that way. He lived and acted with the kind of humility, compassion, and self-service that allows us to refer to him as a messianic figure, a true liberator, an agent of God’s justice, peace and reconciliation; someone who, through his life, words and deeds [pointed] towards Jesus and not to himself….”
Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be a or the messiah who’d been dreamed of from ancient times. That identity was thrust upon him like the most ill-fitting of garments. It’s all summed up in several places such as in Ezekiel 37:24-28 where the prophet shares what he believes to have been spoken by God Godself:
My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there for ever; and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.
Jesus didn’t achieve any of these and didn’t set out to. He wasn’t a failure. He achieved what he set out to achieve. Those who thought he was a failed messiah said all the things the messiah was supposed to have brought about will happen at the end of time when Jesus reappears—this time, finally, as messiah-in-full. You may have heard of the group Jews for Jesus; members are Jews who claim that Jesus was the messiah. There’s another group, Jews for Judaism, that refutes what Jews for Jesus say. The Jews for Judaism make the following points in denying the claims of Jews for Jesus. They say that Hebrew scripture teaches that a complete list of criteria must be met by the one who is the long-awaited messiah.
- The messiah must be biologically connected to the Tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he—I think there are no references to the messiah as possibly being female—must have descended from King David. Jesus was not connected to that tribe nor was he biologically descended from David through he may have had a legal connection to the pivotal monarch.
- When the messiah comes to reign as King of Israel, the Jews will be ingathered from the various exiles and all together in their homeland. This has never happened since they initially dispersed. And, by the way, Jesus never ruled over any individual or group.
- The Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt/restored a third time. This is an odd one since the Temple was standing in all its glory during the life of Jesus. It was destroyed by Rome some 43 years after Jesus’ execution, and has never been rebuilt. When the messiah rules, peace will prevail throughout the world. Hmmm. How much we wish that had ever happened! It surely hasn’t happened in modern times. I saw a news clip the other day pointing out that though wars are waning in so far as the United States is concerned, the Pentagon budget remains robust and untouchable.
- When the messiah’s reign is in full swing, all the Jews worldwide will be following the commandments said to have been established by God and recorded in what is now known as holy writ. This has never been going on and isn’t going on right now.
Now, none of this is a negative reflection on who Jesus actually was and what he was about. He was as remarkable a human being as ever lived—maybe the epitome. But we are operating at a double deficit during the Christmas season in this country. First, Santa Claus is not the reason for the season. Second, the Jesus who is supposed to be, needs to be remembered as the baby who grew up to be a remarkable person, was not a deity, was not a monarch. Nonetheless, we cannot fault those who looked to him as a liberator who might have made all things right. We’d all like one of those.
According to Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy, Jesus, up to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple to the Lord since it had been written in the Torah, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” To mark this joyous event in their lives and to demonstrate their gratitude to God, they—doing what they believed they were supposed to do—offered a sacrifice, likely a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.
At the Temple, the little family of three is approached by a man named Simeon, whom Luke tells us had been drawn to the Temple that day by God Godself. Simeon was well known among some Temple-goers as the old guy who insisted that God was going to let him live long enough at least to see the messiah. He believed the well-being of his people, the very future of his people, was dependent on the that person sent from God to for the people what they had not been able to do for themselves.
Presumably with Jesus’ parents’ permission, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms to bless him and to announce to all who would listen in such a bustling place that the long-awaited messiah was now among them though in the form of an infant. That was a bit of jolt for many who expected a messiah, but expected a messiah who was already seasoned, mature, and ready to get to work. They didn’t think they, the Jewish people living and struggling at the time Jesus was born, could wait any more; they might not make it if they tried.
Simeon holds up the baby boy and blesses God, praises God saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28–32). This is what Simeon had lived for. He was now prepared to die. He wasn’t going to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and end it all; nor was he going to retire from spiritual seeking despite the fact that in this event he’d been able to check off the last item on his bucket list.
Many elderly US Americans, persons of color in particular, had a similar feeling when the news of President Obama’s first election was initially announced. How do you suppose an African American butler felt, a man who had served presidents in the White House from Truman to Reagan? Eugene Allen apparently respected all of them, but by the time Obama was elected he was retired and in service to no one. He was given a VIP pass to the events planned for family and closest friends during the inauguration. He died less than a year about Obama’s first election.
The movie about this gentleman, titled “The Butler,” is still one of the hottest films showing around the country. Simeon thought he could die in peace because his people were now in the hands of the one, whom he believed, God had sent to lead them into the greatest days.
We don’t know how soon after that magic moment he did, in fact, die. Then, an elderly woman, Anna, approaches baby Jesus and his parents. She, like Simeon, takes Jesus to be the messiah, but she has a very different response: “At that moment, she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna is 84ish years old, and she does not want to die. She wants to preach. Like the faithful ones who will follow her, she is driven to share with others what she has experienced. Anna is a “prophet” (Luke 2:36). In fact, she is the only woman in the New Testament explicitly described as a “prophet.” She then stands alongside women like the judge, military leader and prophet Deborah as well as the Jerusalem prophet Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, was asked to verify the reliability of scroll found in some Temple renovation work.
Unlike Simeon, Anna is not just visiting the Temple for the day; she is there all the time. According to Luke, Anna “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows (Luke tells us her husband died after only seven years of marriage) who had specific religious functions in the Temple.
The literary pairing of Simeon and Anna, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, reflects Luke’s penchant for male-female parallelism when he writes about the recipients of divine blessing and salvation. The story of Jesus’ birth is framed by two such stories—that of Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1 and Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Interestingly, in both cases, the woman is portrayed as the more positive example of a person of faith. The women are not only more receptive to the message, they are more willing to act upon it, with Elizabeth realizing that her cousin is carrying the messiah and praising God for this blessing and Anna spreading the good news. The waiting has been worthwhile! A messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna demonstrates, a new era has dawned, and it’s time to act, not relax.
III. We have said, in this Christmas-time sermon series, that you might be—or should own if you haven’t—a self-identity as a spiritual seeker if you find yourself a misfit, spiritually speaking, among those with whom you come into contact; if your orthodoxy is less significant to you than your orthopraxy; and if your traditional theological beliefs have come in your life to fail you completely. Today, I add another trait/experience to the list, and the fifth and final item in the sequence will be the center of our thinking on Christmas Eve. Today, fourth on the list of five: you might be a seeker—or you should be—if you realize that what you seek doesn’t have to drop instantaneously into your lap to be confirmed as spiritually worthwhile or significant. We may well realize that there is something more out there for us, as well as for others who seek, but we’re going to have to wait and/or work to get it or to get there.
Some of us are looking for a pivotal leader—perhaps, a messianic figure. That is exactly what this season is about for many traditional Christians. The world, whether the world realized it or not, was looking for Jesus when his birth delivered him into the service of struggling humanity. In addition, the world is looking for a new appearing of Jesus to close down this chapter of human history since we, it appears to many, have made such a huge mess of things that we are beyond repair.
Looking for a better time and/or a better way is fine—sensible even. But have you noticed that most of the messianic figures who have contributed greatly to the betterment of humankind did not think of themselves as messiahs as we said about Mandela earlier; rather, they are much more inclined to roll up their sleeves and get busy with making the world the kind of place it needs to be and has the capacity to be if only people of good will, selfless at least to some degree, will join in and make it so.
Have you heard, or do you remember, how the adult Jesus identified his mission—what he saw himself doing? He laid it out at the very beginning of his public ministry, and to hear or hear again what he had to say on this subject we turn, again, to the Gospel of Luke: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That didn’t sound like a mission to make him rich and famous.
Just think about the kinds of people he’d have to spend most of his time with in order to accomplish his mission. Also, though, take note of his motivation. It was internalized. He wasn’t looking for anyone else to come along to help him or to mobilized forces that would excite people to join him in trying to accomplish a set of improbable changes. At the end of his life, he had made a huge difference in the lives of countless poor people and prisoners, but the poor we still had with us; same with prisoners. Jesus didn’t have Simeon’s experience of being able to relax because God had raised up some great person to pick up where he, Jesus, had left off. He certainly couldn’t keep preaching as Anna did. Those of us who are seekers influenced by the teachings of Jesus have no precedent other than to keep working and hoping for little pockets of positive difference made. No rest for the weary seeker. Anna and Simeon do, however, give us models for actively looking ahead, despite the odds, to a better day. Amen.