December 22, 2013
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
(2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). So the prophet Isaiah speaks of the time of Jesus. Jesus came in the night, in the darkness. He came in the darkest season of the year. And he came at a time in human history that was equally dark. So the apostle John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). That one birth, in the darkness of night, in the darkest season of the year, in a dark time in human history—that one birth shone so brightly that now, two thousand years later, his light still enlightens those who receive him.
Jesus is called “the Messiah.” “Messiah” is a Hebrew word, the Greek translation for which is “Christ.” So Jesus Christ isn’t just a first and last name. It means that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. We Christians immediately think of Jesus when we hear the name “Messiah.” We may think of Handel’s wonderful composition, “The Messiah,” which contains many of Isaiah’s prophesies about the coming of the Lord.
But to fully understand who the Messiah is, we need to go back into Jewish history. Then we will better understand the hopes of the Israelites for the Messiah to come, and we will understand how dark the world appeared to them at the time of the incarnation.
In Hebrew, the word “Messiah” means “anointed.” Specifically, a messiah is a king in Israel, who is anointed by a prophet when he is chosen by God. Each time a new king was chosen by God, a prophet would anoint the new king with oil. Since all Israelite kings were anointed in this fashion, you could say that all the Israelite kings were messiahs. They were all anointed ones.
But there was one special Messiah, one special king, whom we mean when we talk about the “Messiah” in capital letters. That king is David. A whole mythology developed around King David that no other king of Israel enjoyed. God made a special promise to King David that was not made to any other king; we hear this promise in our Bible reading from 2 Samuel. God promised King David that there would always be one of his descendants on the throne in Judah, forever. Forever. The prophet Nathan tells King David,
The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. . . . My love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul . . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 11, 12, 15, 16).
When God says that David’s house and kingdom will endure forever, and that David’s throne will be established forever, God is saying that a descendant of David will always be ruling on the throne in Judah. This is called the “Messianic promise.” We see the Messianic promise in Psalm 89, which reads:
I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
“I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.” . . .
I will maintain my love to him forever,
and my covenant with him will never fail.
I will establish his line forever,
his throne as long as the heavens endure. (Psalm 89:3-4, 28-29)
But history didn’t cooperate with the Messianic promise.
First, Babylon conquered Judah in the sixth century BCE. Jerusalem was pillaged, and the Israelites were deported to Babylon. There was no longer an Israelite king on the throne in Judah, let alone a descendant of King David.
But this wasn’t all. Alexander the Great conquered Israel in the third century BCE. In his wake, all the territories he conquered adopted Greek ways. At a particularly bad time during the Greek rule, things got so awful for Israel that the ruler of that province actually sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the altar in Jerusalem.
Then came the Romans, who overthrew the Greeks in the second and first centuries BCE. For hundreds of years, no Israelite king sat on the throne in Jerusalem, no descendant of David. It appeared that God had broken his promise. We see this also in Psalm 89:
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have broken through all his walls
and reduced his strongholds to ruins.
You have put an end to his splendor
and cast his throne to the ground.
Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David? (Psalm 89:39-40, 42, 44, 49)
In this darkness, in this time when it appeared that God had broken his promise to the Israelites, hope persisted. Throughout the prophets is expressed the hope that one day, a descendant of King David will return and assume the throne in Jerusalem. The hope persisted that one day the Israelites would be redeemed, and the glory of King David’s kingdom would be restored. The hope persisted that the Messiah would come.
Over the centuries, the mythology of the Messiah grew. In time, the Messiah was conceived of in terms so grand that no human could fulfil these expectations. Consider once again Psalm 89. In it, we see that the Messiah is, in fact, the Son of God:
He will call out to me, “You are my Father,
my God, the Rock my Savior.”
And I will appoint him to be my firstborn,
the most exalted of the kings of the earth. (Psalm 89:26, 27)
Not only is the Messiah the son of God, he will be the most exalted king in the whole world. It is hard to imagine a mere mortal who could fulfill these expectations. In the darkness of God’s broken promise, with the land promised to Abraham now under foreign rule, the Israelites waited for the coming of a divine king who would redeem Israel.
From our Swedenborgian perspective, we too see the time of Jesus as a time of great darkness. Indeed, we see it as the darkest time the world had ever known. It was a time desperately in need of Jesus’ redeeming light. It was a time in need of God’s Incarnation.
Our theology teaches that the forces of darkness threatened to overwhelm heaven and earth before the Incarnation. We believe that without God’s Incarnation, humanity would have been lost, but that with the advent of Jesus, God’s power came to humans—and through the divine humanity of Jesus Christ, God could come to humanity in a new way. Swedenborg writes,
In order that hell might be cleared away, and this impending damnation be thereby removed, the Lord came into the world, and dislodged hell, subjugated it, and thus opened heaven; so that he could henceforth be present with men on earth, and save those who live according to his commandments. (True Christian Religion 579)
Jesus is that divine Messiah of Psalm 89, who calls God his father. This is clear from His very birth, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary,
The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. . . . (Luke 1:35, 32-33)
Both Matthew and Luke are careful to trace Jesus’ genealogy through King David. But Jesus was just as much a human—fully God and fully man.
Let us think back to those days. Let us imagine what it must have been like in that special part of the world, when Jesus walked among us. Let us think about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking next to Jesus, walking next to a God so human that they saw him as an ordinary man. But in retrospect, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
With the incarnation, God became present to humanity in a way that had not been possible before. Throughout his life on earth, Jesus grew progressively closer to God, and God grew progressively closer to Jesus, until ultimately God and man became one. So Jesus says in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” Jesus explains this to Philip:
If you really know me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:7, 9-10)
This intimate union of God and man is expressed in the Nicene Creed, as well. It says that Jesus is “of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” God comes to us through his humanity as Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus’ divine humanity that he can say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And because Jesus is of the essence of the Father, because Jesus is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, of one substance with the Father, he can say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
With wonder, I think back on those days when Jesus walked—O happy day!
With awe, I think back on those who felt their hearts burn within them in Jesus’ presence.
With amazement, I think of those holy feet, dusty with the sand of Palestine.
But Jesus is with us still. Jesus is with us in his divine humanity.
So the question is, “Do you walk with Jesus?”
Does your heart burn with a holy fire? Is the Messiah present in your life?
I think it was with these questions in mind that the poet William Blake wrote of his own country and his own place,
And did those feet, in ancient times,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
It isn’t only a matter of ancient times. If we are but open, we can see those feet in Edmonton’s pleasant river valley or city streets—and everywhere.
Rev. Dr. David Fekete