Every fall as we approach the Advent and Christmas seasons, I find myself searching for an entry point to these annual celebrations. What will “ignite” the planning process? Which idea, word, image, or song will come to mind and become the foundation of the eventual Advent chapel service at school or Christmas Eve celebration at church?
Of course, the source is always the same: the biblical text. Recently I have been reflecting on questions God has asked throughout Scripture, as recorded by the Bible writers. I have been interested in direct, clear questions. One such question appears during a very significant exchange between Jesus and his disciples, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.
After hearing the disciples sharing what people think of him, Jesus asks, “But how about you? Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter’s answer is profound: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the One promised by God to be the deliverer of his people, Israel. Like many Christians, I knew Peter’s statement by heart. This time though, I kept thinking about the question. Jesus seemed interested in a personal answer: “How about you?”
In my search for ways to express the message of Advent (the imminent coming of the Messiah) and Christmas (the birth of the Messiah) in the context of our corporate worship, this question became central: who is this Messiah?
Jesus’ question and Peter’s answer became the seed for a year-long school project entitled “The Songs of the Messiah.” The project’s goal was to provide an opportunity for the Baptist University of the Américas (BUA) community to reflect on the hopes, promises, and salvation offered by Jesus as the Christ.
Much more than the theme for an Advent or Christmas program, this question—and our subsequent quest to answer it for ourselves—prompted us to engage in a systematic study of messianic texts from the psalms, the prophets, and the New Testament.
One interesting challenge was to define and identify messianic texts (see sidebar). We started with the obvious passages from the prophets (Isa. 9:6, Micah 5:2, among others) and the New Testament (Phil. 2: 6-11, Col. 1:15-20, for example); in the end, we selected a list of 28 passages to be the focus of our study.
We used several venues for reaching our goal. Students taking the course “Perspectives in Christian Worship” reflected on messianic texts as sources of worship renewal; students in “Music Theory and Composition” wrote songs and instrumental pieces based on those texts. We challenged a group of students to create visual representations of the message of the messianic texts using a variety of media such as drawing, painting, collage, and graffiti.
The team of instructors overseeing the many assignments and tasks connected to the “Songs of the Messiah” project selected Micah 5:4 as the starting point. Micah speaks to us as an ancient prophet and as one of us. He writes from a tumultuous context in which the people of God are surrounded by enemies and where these enemies find themselves under attack and oppression from other enemies. In his own nation, Micah sees religion as self-interest and political convenience in the name of God. People in power treat the poor with contempt and sell them off to the highest bidder. Religious leaders are eager to adjust their message and witness to protect the rich and powerful and guarantee their own prosperity. It is a world of chaos, conflict, oppression, and selfishness.
The Songs of the Messiah: A List of Messianic Texts
- Numbers 24:17-19
- Psalm 2
- Psalm 8:1, 3-5
- Psalm 22:25
- Psalm 89:5-8; 14-18
- Isaiah 9:1-7
- Isaiah 11:1-6
- Isaiah 11:6-9
- Isaiah 42:1-4
- Isaiah 49:1-7
- Isaiah 52:13-15
- Isaiah 53
- Isaiah 61:1-4
- Jeremiah 23:5-6
- Ezekiel 34:11-16
- Daniel 7:13-14
- Micah 2:12-13
- Micah 4:2-5
- Micah 5:2
- Micah 5:4
- Zechariah 9:9-10
- Zechariah 12:10
- Matthew 11:28
- Mark 1:10
- John 1:1-5, 14
- John 4:10
- Philippians 2:6-11
- Colossians 1:15-20
In the middle of all this, God still speaks. God’s voice does not come as an aggressive thunder that evokes destruction and annihilation of those who are not part of “his group.” God’s voice evokes, from the depths of the human heart, the vision of paradise and the realization of dreams. The voice of the Lord will “judge between many people” and he will make them “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” so that “they shall learn war no more.”
That’s Micah’s messianic vision. He points to the Messiah as a Shepherd who tends to “his flock in the strength of the Lord.” Some students translated this message into congregational songs and instrumental pieces based on this specific text. Others worked together on a large mixed media art piece that became the backdrop for one of our chapel services.
One significant aspect of our school is our diversity. We are a small university with an enrollment of about 215 students, but during our project year there were seven languages and 17 countries represented in our community. So as we read, sang, and painted pictures based on messianic texts, we were doing it in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Burmese, or French. And here is another valuable lesson learned from these texts: the contemporary truth of Jesus as the Messiah sent for all. From our very diverse environment we recognized the wide spectrum of roles and hopes that are realized in Jesus Christ, transcending culture and uniting humanity.
Having successfully completed these first assignments, the students gained confidence in exploring a variety of musical and visual art expressions and diving into the vast scriptural territory covered by the messianic texts. As the year progressed, we continued to create room for individual and corporate reflection and study of those texts, including scheduling a lecture series, retreats, in-depth study on the book of Psalms, and special chapel services highlighting some of those passages. We became steeped in messianic texts!
So as I return to Jesus’ question, I am still inspired by Peter’s answer. And as I work on composing my own answer, I have the benefit of many other voices I have found in Scripture. These messianic texts provide a complex picture of the Anointed One. He is described as Shepherd, King, Warrior, Servant, Savior, God himself. Just as important, the messianic texts paint a picture of us and our condition in this fallen world. We need a Savior, and the reasons why we do are mentioned again and again in these passages.
I have no doubt that this wealth of roles and images will continue to guide my understanding of the Messiah and how I can best worship and serve him. What better sources can I find than these texts for ideas on how to prepare for the Advent and Christmas seasons? It is the Messiah’s advent that we anticipate with patient expectation and it is his birth that we celebrate with indescribable joy!