It is common at Christmas to reference the many Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah that point to Jesus. Indeed, these are used to validate the credibility of the Bible. Like this one from the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” (Isaiah 7:14). The prophecies were well known even in biblical times as we see in the nativity story where Bethlehem is foretold to be the birthplace of the Messiah (Matthew 2:6). These prophetic verses are sung every year in Handel’s Messiah oratorio. It is right and fitting to do so.
But in all this there is something equally important about the prophecies of the Messiah that are commonly overlooked. The prophets spoke not only about the One to come and the circumstances. They also gave a vision of what the Messiah would do and the new way of life that would result. This is the “why” he was coming. The vision is described in terms of righteousness and justice where the poor and outcasts are cared for by the people of power and influence, and mankind will no longer need weapons of war. Today we describe this in terms of social justice.
Jesus uses one of Isaiah’s prophetic passages as his mission statement when he explained his actions to his hometown synagogue: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to deliver good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoner, recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…” (in Luke 4:18 Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1,2). In the activities of Jesus we see the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophetic visions of righteousness and justice. Jesus called it the kingdom of God on earth and taught his followers to pray for it and live in it.
Maybe it’s because the old prophets used poetry to describe their vision of the Messiah’s new world order that makes it easy to miss. Lions lying down with lambs was never meant to apply only to the animal kingdom, but refers to powerless people no longer needing to fear the powerful. Maybe this is overlooked because the powerful people who claim the right to interpret the “proper” meaning of the Bible do not like the implications that might impinge against their way of doing business.
To miss this prophetic vision of the new way of life after the Messiah has led to disastrous consequences throughout Christian history where Christians promoted “holy” wars against heretics and other enemies, conducted human trafficking and enslavement of kidnapped people, slaughtered and took advantage of peoples around the world, and other atrocities… all while singing of Jesus. Even today in many Christian circles, Jesus has no connection to social justice. I can speak of this first hand how my little northern church where I grew up was against civil rights for blacks and saw no problem with our racial prejudice against blacks while we praised Jesus every Sunday. We were blind! Even today I hear some Christians criticize the poor for being poor, readily calling undocumented residents “illegals” and demanding to build walls against the poor, trashing other religions, denying rights and persecuting a class of “sinners” they do not like – all the while claiming the high road of righteousness and love for Jesus.
The Christmas story is a powerful story that captures our imaginations with wonder and mystery. Yet parts are a little hard to believe, like a virgin birth. And concerning the mission of the Messiah, it seems beyond belief that the world will ever be like the vision of those old poet prophets. Doesn’t it seem just as hard to believe men will one day learn war no more and needless suffering will be no more? If we can believe a virgin could conceive, then why not believe that some day peace will replace strife and war, and righteousness and justice will flourish among all people. This was the angel’s song to the lowly shepherds on a hillside one starry night long ago. It was about peace on earth and good will among men. This is the mission of the infant Messiah. Can we believe it?
There are many prominent leaders of Americanized Christianity who criticize the notion of a social gospel in derogatory terms and claim salvation of souls as the mission of Jesus. In this view, dealing with messy social issues of injustice gets in the way of the spiritual Jesus who wants to save us from hell in the afterlife. Social justice issues, being complicated, controversial, and not very spiritual, are placed at the bottom of concern compared to eternal life in heaven. And the idea of humanity finding a way to true peace is not seen as achievable anyway. Can it be that those who readily accept a virgin birth cannot believe that the vision of the prophets will ever come to pass in human history? The vision of the a new way of living, the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, is viewed as not possible until Jesus returns in power to make things right by force. Really? by Force!?
What might happen if all who call themselves Christian would seriously lift up the poor and stand up for the outcasts of society against injustice? What if the Christians would actually love their enemies, pray for those who persecute them, and not return evil for evil done against them? What if the Christians were made to suffer for such things, just as Jesus said they would, and still continued in them? If such things had been common practice among Christians on a massive scale throughout history, what would the world be like today? Could it be more like the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed? Could the angel’s song really come to pass? Could a virgin really conceive?
This is what I ponder at Christmas. I dream of righteousness and justice and world peace. I long and ache for the Way of Jesus to be way of the world, starting with me.