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  • Ross Moughtin

When we are eagerly waiting

Christmas Eve! One of the many sadnesses of leaving childhood behind is that this day is no longer one of unbearable excitement.

Such was the tension then that with my friend Brian we devised ways of making the day pass so much more quickly. Seeing how far we could roll a car tyre comes to mind. If only we could jump straight from 23rd to the 25th without this unnecessary intermission. Strangely all those years later I can recall our Christmas Eves so much more than the Christmas Days themselves. As Bob Hope mused: “When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things - not the great occasions - give off the greatest glow of happiness.” And it is Bob who introduces the theme of this blog, at least this part of it, with his surname. Around about 4BC it seems that there was an anticipation in the air, even an intense expectation of God about to do something significant. Of course, had people known at the time that they were living in 4BC that would have been a definite giveaway. William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew observes: “The strange thing is that, just about the time Jesus was born, there was in the world a strange feeling of expectation of the coming of a king. He continues: "Even the Roman historians knew about this. Not so very much later than this Suetonius could write: ‘There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.’’’ Barclay goes on to quote Tacitus: “There was a firm persuasion . . . that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire universal empire.’” This expectation may have been generated by a movement within Judaea itself based on a particular exegesis from the Old Testament book of Daniel of a detailed but cryptic prophecy of "seventy weeks" by the angel Gabriel. A key part reads: Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens. (Daniel 9:26) I haven't the time (nor the inclination) to lay out the reasoning but taking the sixty-two "weeks" as years (not sure why), we come up with 483 years. But where does this time period begin? No one could agree on the precise date but most starting dates give you somewhere around 4BC. Whatever, the point is that a fair number of Jewish teachers followed this exegesis and hence the palpable sense of anticipation for the coming of the Christ, which may have spread beyond the borders of Judaea. You can see this expectancy in the person of Simeon who was waiting, as Luke describes, for “the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.” (Luke 2:25). Moreover, “the Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died.” (v26). In other words, any time soon. It was the radical ministry of John the Baptist which some year later intensified this Messianic fever. Again Luke describes the atmosphere of anticipation. “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.” (Luke 3:15). As David Novak observes: “In historical messianism, the reign of the Messiah is brought about by a Jewish ruler powerful enough to gather the Jewish exiles back to the land of Israel, re-establish a Torah government there, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.” Then Jesus appears. Could he be the one? Even from Nazareth? There were other candidates, of course, each vying for attention. Each was claiming a following, such was the prevalence of expectations. But Jesus advises caution, don’t get carried away. “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 13:21f) So what happened? Essentially Jesus was the wrong kind of Messiah: he didn’t fit the bill. Whoever heard of a crucified Christ? As the apostle Paul realised: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 18) Which just goes to show that we need to watch our preconceptions, to understand that God works in his world often in the opposite way we would expect.

We can so easily be looking in the wrong direction for God to appear without our realising that he is standing alongside us. ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ (Matthew 25:44) Merry Christmas and stay alert!

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