Hope was waning and faith was fading. The sun was slowly setting on the Jewish nation. Far too many oppressors had subjugated them to tyranny and oppression. Greeks, Syrians, and Romans had fought for the right to rule over a patch of desert not much bigger than the state of Delaware. All so they could control the trade from Africa and Asia to southern Europe. This made the land valuable, and her occupants disposable.
The prophets promised a Messiah. A king who would rule justly. A general who would mete out justice to their oppressors. But where was this Messiah? Several hopefuls had risen over the last 150 years or so. But each suffered humiliating defeats and had their followers arrested, scattered, or disheartened. The rise and fall of each “messiah” only served to harden the Hebrew people into cynics and skeptics.
They couldn’t even turn to religion for solace. All the rules, regulations, and observances made worship a chore, not a blessing. The religious factions spent their time debating in the Temple courts over who was right and who was wrong. They debated the Roman problem, the resurrection of the dead, miracles, and tax rates. But mostly they debated the law, and how many rules were needed to make sure no Jew broke it. All the while, the starving masses were extorted at the gates of the Temple or barred entry completely. The sick went untouched. The hungry went unfed. The lonely went unvisited.
Messiah? Bah! Just give them a leader who saw them in their sorry state. Unfortunately it seemed the God of Heaven was too distracted to worry about a strip of wilderness off of the Mediterranean. Surely He had bigger problems to solve and more important people to bless. Leave that Messiah talk to the prognosticators and educated fools. The people, real people, needed someone much more practical than some mythical Messiah.
Yet, over the tiny town of Bethlehem a star appears, and with it, hope.
Maybe you can relate. 2020 has been a year of quarantines, cancellations, and disappointments. It has been a year of deaths and mourning; of separations and loss. Among the items lost in the pandemic are proms, graduations, holiday observances, jobs, and for some, the very will to live. In addition we have had a tumultuous political season, unparalleled weather events, and racial tension in levels not seen for over half-a century. People are angry, frustrated, depressed, and they are afraid to hope.
Yet, Christmas music is playing on some radio stations nearly a month ahead of schedule. Trees are being placed in living rooms, crèches in front yards, and lights on rooflines. It seems the harder the times the more desperately we need the message of Advent: a time of hopeful expectation.
The expectation that things will get better drives us forward as a people, and nothing inspires that expectation like the birth of a child. Perhaps that is why Matthew and Luke open with stories of birth. It is to mark a new time of hope, no matter how bleak our situation.
And we, like the Jews of old, hope for a Messiah who sees us, and wishes to rescue us. He is not what we expect, but He is exactly who we need, especially in times like these.