The concept of “messiah” weaves its way through the biblical narrative and Christian theology in ways that have made it central to the faith pilgrimage.
Throughout the history of covenant faith, God’s liberating and redemptive work is often personified in the agents of that work – Moses, David and his lineage, the “reformer king” Josiah and, of course, Jesus.
In a few months, we will prepare during Advent for the commemoration of the coming of “Messiah,” accompanied by Handel’s magnificent musical work by that name.
Expectation and fulfillment come together in the rousing chorus, “Unto us a child is born … and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
The power of this image has been contagious in toxic ways throughout history, as leaders have embraced it for themselves and used it as a means of getting and keeping control over communities as small as local churches and as large as nations.
The term “messianic complex” is used to describe this tendency, and many seem vulnerable to its appeal.
The other side of the “messianic” coin is the tendency of a people to look for, and to, a leader as a means of deliverance from whatever profile of perils happens to afflict them.
A struggling church can think, “If we can just get the right pastor, then our troubles will be over.”
A school can think, “We need to find a dean/president/principal who can give us the right leadership.”
A faltering team can seek a new coach. A business in need of improving its profit margin can look for a “go-getter” who will “turn things around.”
I hope you can understand my hesitation in tampering with a concept so deeply ingrained in our Christian story as “Messiah.”
However, I have begun to wonder if the tendency of some to claim the image for themselves and, more important, the tendency of people in general to develop a “messianic expectation” as a solution to life’s challenges (personal and collective) is more of a negative than a positive response.
The immediate cause of this question has been the public conversation around the heated efforts in the arena of the current presidential campaign.
To gain support, a number of people are offering themselves as the solution to our multifaceted “problem.”
And, there seems to be no shortage of thinking that if we choose the “right” person, deliverance will be at hand.
The secondary cause of the question is a bit deeper.
In the biblical testimony of the covenant pilgrimage, the element of messianic expectation as a means of hope amid hardship is one way that the promise to Abraham was kept alive.
King David became the fulfillment of that expectation at one point, and the model for later expectation as well.
The experience and affirmation of Jesus as Messiah seems to have a clear line of continuity with the role David and his successors played in Israel’s history.
But, as we see in the Gospel accounts, the messiah who was expected was not the one who came.
And, in a number of ways, that expectation was something of a distraction that kept the “true” agent and nature of God’s redemption from being seen.
This distraction does not seem to be unique to the events of the New Testament period.
The royal theology that developed around the reign of David and his successors encouraged an alliance between wealth and political power that the prophets spent their careers from the ninth century to the sixth calling out for its departure from the principles of justice and mercy inherent in the covenant of Moses.
Looking for a messianic deliverer, especially with our images and expectations of what that deliverance will be, may keep us from seeing the incarnational presence of God in our world.
Expecting someone to “fix” our community, small or large, can keep us from seeing and addressing the needs that are the heart of our problem, and the solution that our covenant faith offers in response.
It has happened before. Might it still?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).