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December 26, 2018, 3:05 PM

A Need for Disillusionment


To be disillusioned usually means to be disappointed. The disappointment comes from having an unrealistic expectation dashed.

But disillusionment is not necessarily a bad thing, even when it is hard.

One can imagine the shepherds and the Magi…maybe even Mary and Joseph, themselves…being seriously disillusioned by the birth of Jesus.

The common expectation with regard to the Messiah was that he would be born to royalty or at least the priesthood.  This would give him power with which to rally the people of Israel and make their occupied and humiliated nation great again.

No one expected God’s Chosen to be born to a couple of hillbillies from a town so tiny, it literally did not even appear on most maps.  No one expected his mother to be a teenaged girl who would become pregnant out-of-wedlock.  No one expected the father to be an obscure woodworker.

Actually, no one expected the father to be God, either.  Decades after Jesus’ coming, Matthew would cite a passage from the Book of Isaiah as a prophecy that the Savior would be born of a virgin.  But there is a complicating factor…

The original language of the prophet Isaiah,  was Hebrew, the Hebrew word he used was almah which simply meant “young woman.”  Might be a virgin, but no specific claim was made to that effect.  Centuries later, the Book of Isaiah was translated into Greek, which was the language most commonly spoken in the Mediterranean world…much as English is the most common second language in the world, today.  This Greek translation, known as the Septuagint,  was what Matthew used.  In that version, almah was translated as parthenos which is the specific Greek word for “virgin.”

Most Jews didn’t use the Septuagint, so they were unaware of any references to a virgin giving birth.  The whole notion would have come as a surprise to Mary…and especially to Joseph.  Also, the people of Nazareth would not have expected such a thing, so it would have been pointless to tell them that Mary had conceived without benefit of a human partner in accordance with prophesy.

If they had  told their families that the child was conceived by God, it’s not likely they would have been believed, and it only would have made an already problematic pregnancy worse.  No mention is made of their reaction in either Matthew or Luke’s accounts.  But, it is significant that in Luke’s version, the couple travels all the way to Bethlehem when Mary is in the last stages of her pregnancy, and there is no indications that they were accompanied by any other family.  Their absence and silence seems to indicate a strong possibility of rejection.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone expected the birth of the Messiah to be accompanied by such scandal and hardship.  Mary and Joseph could be forgiven for wondering why they were being put through such hardship, as she went into contractions in a stable, far from home, and possibly discarded by their families and condemned by their little village.

Luke says that shepherds were the first to hear of the birth, and they came looking for the child.  We rarely consider how preposterous it would have sounded to be told they would find the baby in a livestock feeding trough.  The conditions in which they found him must have seemed shocking and well…disillusioning.  How on earth was this kid supposed to save Israel, much less the world?

Still, they took it on faith that somehow, this birth and this child were part of God’s plan. .  But, God only knew how.  All their prior expectations were shattered.

The Magi (Wise Men) would have been no less baffled.

Despite what pretty much every Nativity set depicts, the Gospel of Matthew does not say they arrived at the stable.  Instead, they found the family in a house some time afterward.

These men were priest/astrologers of the Zoroastrian faith, the only other monotheistic religion in the region.  It was based primarily in Persia (Iran) and though its doctrines were different in a number of ways, the Jews and Zoroastrians felt a certain kinship in their belief that there was only one God.  There is evidence that each faith had an effect on the other, and it’s quite possible the Magi were familiar with the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

But we’re told that, when they got to Judea, their first stop was the palace of King Herod the Great.  They also expected the Chosen One to be born to royalty.

They too, would have been disillusioned to find a peasant child born to a couple of nobodies.  Things weren’t playing out the way they expected.  They even had to skulk out of town because of a warning that they needed to do so.  Not exactly the end to the adventure they had expected.

What follows in Matthew’s account is an act of mass murder and the child and his family being reduced to refugees.  One more thing they didn’t expect.

Yes, the story is full of disillusionment.  Expectations are shattered.  Innocents suffer.  Today, we gloss over these parts.  I know a pastor, who in nearly forty years of ministry had never preached on Herod’s slaughter of the children.  Too much of a downer.  But the story is there.

But, there it is…in black and white.  The story of an unready world into which the Chosen One must silently, silently sneak like a thief in the night.  We have always overlaid our expectations and illusions on him, demanding he live up to our demands for power, piety, propriety, and pomp.  When he refused to do so, he was ultimately tortured to death by believers and unbelievers, alike.

He saw that coming, and yet refused to back down or back away, even from those who would lynch him, out of their disillusionment.  They had expected him to forcibly fix the world according to their terms and conditions.  He called on them to fix it, by fixing themselves, and giving up many of their illusions.

He challenges us to admit that WE are the problem.  He renounced power to show us we will not find peace or happiness in pursuing it for ourselves.  He embraced service over dominance, because that heals us.  He showed compassion and mercy, because trying to crush and dominate our enemies only makes more of them.

Such lessons are hard for a broken world, caught up in the illusion that power rather than love, will fix it.  We need to be dis-illusioned for the sake of pour salvation.  And, it is for this purpose that he embraced both his life and his death.


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