In describing the birth of Jesus the writer of the Gospel of John said, “He came unto his own but his own received him not.” As the Christ – the Anointed One who would redeem the world – Jesus was a “bridge too far” for his contemporaries. This is neither a condemnation of those who lived in Jesus’ immediate day nor an aggrandizement of those who have chosen to celebrate him all these years later.
It is simply what might be called, “perceptional blindness,” a psychological term that describes the phenomena of missing the conspicuous: It is shockingly easy to miss the obvious if we are not looking for it. By looking over “there,” likely for what we so desperately desire or for what we have been told for our entire lives to anticipate, we miss what is clearly going over “here.”
Who or what were those in Jesus’ day looking for exactly? They were looking for the same thing we look for: A powerful political figure who could reverse their financial fortunes, or a reformer who would forcefully purge their land, leadership, and religion of its corruption. They were looking for a military champion who would exterminate all enemies and make their nation great again.
But instead of a politician or a commando, they got a second-career rabbi who was more of a hillbilly than an aristocrat. They got a teacher who resisted all forms of coercive power, who welcomed outsiders, and who said the only basis for true religion is love. It was no surprise, after his short public career, that he was ultimately executed by the unholy alliance of militarism, politics, and religion.
Decades ago Arnold Toynbee wrote about humanity’s quest for redemption and concluded that all societies seek a “preferred messiah.” These would-be saviors are “Geniuses” with bold, disruptive ideas; they are “Time Travelers” who promise to take us back to the good old days or forward to some utopia; or they are “Philosophers,” pointing us to higher ideals and our better angels.
But the most popular “messiah” is the “Warrior.” This is the savior with a sword in his hand, the promise of glorious victory on his lips, and the blood of his enemies on his boots. He is the “first one we follow,” said Toynbee, “and the first one to fail,” as his empire always ends with destruction.
Human nature, regrettably, hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries. Jesus entered the world as a radically different kind of Savior who forgave his enemies, brought nonviolent peace, and welcomed the marginalized. Since then, most people can only muster an annual birthday party for him, but actually believing or following him is, again, a bridge too far.
Yet, what Jesus offers – as profoundly divergent as it is from failed geniuses, time travelers, philosophers, and warriors – is exactly what is required. No, he may not be what we are looking for, and he may not be what we want, but he is exactly what we need.