The Coming of Jesus – An Answer to Prayer?
I was searching for the perfect birthday card for my dear wife a few years ago. I came across a one that at first glance looked quite promising. On the outside, it read: “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.” But when I turned to the inside, it had a less convincing message: “You’re not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you’re the only answer I’m getting.”
For hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been praying for a Messiah, a deliverer who would free them from the Roman occupation, conquer their enemies and establish a kingdom of righteousness and might. Their deliverer would be a powerful warrior and a king, and through his power the Jews would again reign in peace and prosperity. He would be even greater than the two greatest leaders from the past – Moses and David. Moses had had the spiritual power to face up to the all-powerful Pharaoh and demand the release of his people and to inflict plagues on Egypt until he got his way. David had not only killed Goliath while a small boy – and what wouldn’t they give for someone who could use the small Jewish nation to overthrow the military might of Rome – but he had also been a successful and victorious king. The Messiah the Jews were praying for would have more power than that of Moses and David combined.
That’s what they were praying for. But what did they get? It’s not so much that Jesus was born in a stable and his parents had to flee with him into Egypt to save him from Herod’s soldiers. Moses’ mother had had to pretend that he was an orphan abandoned in the bulrushes to save him from being killed by the Egyptian soldiers. David started life as an insignificant shepherd boy. But whereas they developed into great leaders, Jesus became a carpenter and then a wandering preacher whose followers were a motley group with little to recommend them. And what’s he preaching? Not liberation and destruction to Israel’s enemies; but “Blessed are the meek and the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies”.
This was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who was actually given the titles, “Saviour of the World”, “Divine son of God”, and “Lord of all land and sea”. These words have been found on statues of him, on altars dedicated to his worship, and in writings about him from that time. He had imposed peace and Roman justice on the conquered territories and made them safe for trade. His birthday was celebrated as a holiday by the whole empire. He expected everyone to recognize him as king and lord of all and to obey him or to suffer the consequences. This was the model of saviourhood, of successful power and universal kingship with which those in Jesus’ time had grown up.
Is it any wonder then that even Jesus’ strongest supporters were asking him, “Are you really the one who is to come, the answer to our prayers?” Or that many Jews said that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah because he didn’t bring freedom from occupation nor universal peace and justice, nor undisputed worship of the one true God. It’s no surprise either that the first Christians expected Jesus to come back during their lifetime with an army of angels and to rule the world. How else were they to understand the coming of the kingdom of God, other than as a replacement for the Roman Empire? – Replacing evil physical power with holy physical power. But is that the kind of peace the angels were singing about that first Christmas?
In our day, it seems to be accepted by the most powerful Christian nations that the best way to peace is to demonstrate how powerful you are and to get the retaliation in first. So it’s not surprising that their vision of the kingdom of God is still one of physical power and the expectation still is that Jesus will return with irresistible power, destroy all enemies of Christianity and set up the perfect world.
But what would such a perfect world look like? Some are prepared to give us fine detail of this. Apparently, everyone will have a healthy body, all at the prime of life. There will be no marriage or children; no pain or death or disputes; no one sad or in need. Sin and sinful thoughts will be banished. And if everything is perfect, of course, there’s no scope for change. Perfection can’t be developed.
But would this make a perfect world? Once all danger, effort, and suffering are removed, there’s no scope for the best human qualities. Without danger there’s no courage; without shortages, no generosity; without struggle, no sense of achievement; without hurt, no compassion; without uncertainty, no hope; without sacrifice, no love; and without grief, there’s no room for the joy of birth. Without the freedom to act wrongly, there’s no virtue. Development is an essential part of life.
This may be an imperfect world, but our responses to these very imperfections have given rise to all the creativity, love and self-sacrifice and the glorious diversity that God has developed in humanity. It is our response to pain and suffering and adversity that determines how they affect our lives. I’ve visited house-bound people, confined to one room, in continual pain and with only a short time to live, whose lives have been full of joy and peace, and who made all their visitors feel better. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: ‘Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God; but everything is capable of becoming good.’ St Paul wrote: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:12) That’s how you create the perfect world – within yourself.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
For most people the possibility of the kingdom of God, the bringing of freedom, of salvation from the evil in the world seems no nearer now than it did 2,000 years ago, although in Advent we’re reminded that it could happen any day. Perhaps it seems remote because we look for the wrong kind of salvation, the wrong kind of freedom and the wrong kind of kingdom. Perhaps what we want is an all-powerful parent-king who will make things “all better” and make us feel safe, without much effort on our part. But perhaps what we really need is a vision, a mission and a challenge to which we are expected to respond personally and do something about it. Instead of waiting for God to change the world in the way we want, perhaps we should put more emphasis on allowing God to change us as individuals –enabling us to see his kingdom, and to participate in it here and now.
And do we recognize signs of the kingdom when we see them? Too often we expect God to reveal himself in acts of power or great miracles when we should really be looking for him in small acts of love.
In Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law”, a man from the country sits before a gate waiting for permission to “gain admittance” to the law and to justice. Since he is never granted permission, he never enters, though he waits for years – his entire life. He is about to die when the doorkeeper tells him, “I am now going to shut this gate, because it was made just for you.”
I come across many Christians who are continually waiting. They’re waiting for God to answer their prayers and change the world for them; they’re waiting to get to Heaven; and they’re waiting for Jesus to come back and rule the world. They wait very dutifully – but they are missing out, because they are always waiting for an eternal life – that is available for them now – if they’d only go through the open gate. It’s not about waiting to receive what God is going to give us eventually, because we’ve believed the right things, it’s about living life in all its fullness now. And that’s far more about what you give than what you gain. It’s not about waiting for God to act; it’s about actively seeking to be a channel through which God can work; to be part of the force for change; to be a conduit of God’s love.
John the Baptist had given his life preparing for the coming of the Messiah. He had thought he’d recognized him in Jesus but, like others, he was confused because Jesus wasn’t behaving in the expected way. So he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was indeed the one for whom they had been waiting. Jesus could have given a simple straightforward answer to the question. He responds as he often does when asked a question – by turning back to the questioner. This shows his understanding of human nature. Easy answers don’t cut the mustard when it comes to hopes and doubts. Good counselors understand that. They know that we have to answer the key questions for ourselves. The answer, to be lasting and valid for the questioner, must always come from inside the questioner, even if Jesus himself is the person answering. We have to live with our own responses, not with someone else’s.
In answer to John, Jesus doesn’t perform a great miracle to demonstrate his power, he doesn’t quote prophecies that he has fulfilled, he didn’t point to prophecies fulfilled in his life. He asks them to give John the evidence to draw his own conclusion: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
This answer demonstrates Jesus’ compassion for the least and the lowest. They remind us that Jesus came for the hurting and overlooked people of society. His kingdom is not about power and compulsion; it’s about love and compassion; it’s about liberation and empowerment; and that’s achieved through spiritual transformation.
The way Jesus replied to John is often the way our prayers are answered. We come to Jesus with our agenda about how we want him to change the world, and he gives us the Sermon on the Mount. In that he says that the people who are going to be blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Their rewards are not going to be riches or status or power but spiritual wealth, inner strength and confidence in God’s love.
In all of this is a recognition that you can only truly transform a person, a society or a world from the inside. This can be a long, slow and sometimes painful process. (Too long for those impatient for an instant solution imposed by overwhelming power.)
We can’t do anything other than pray to hasten a return of Jesus but we can work to bring about the vision of a better world, where those in need are ministered to and the good news of a loving God is made known by action and not just words.
As he sat in prison, in a state of deprivation and discomfort, John the Baptist discovered one of the great treasures: hope – the hope that the Messiah had come to set up an eternal kingdom, a kingdom of justice and mercy, compassion and healing. A kingdom that was for all people. A kingdom that people would be inspired to help to build themselves.
No, God’s response at the first Christmas wasn’t what the people were praying for. It was so much more than that. It was much more wonderful than they had dreamt of. During this Christmas season, may we all discover this same great treasure of hope – and experience the kingdom of God within ourselves.
© Philip Sudworth 2011