I was struck with an incredibly humbling thought this afternoon while reflecting on advent.
When Jesus came to earth in the familiar Christmas scene as a baby in swaddling clothes, almost nobody expected it.
The religious leaders thought they knew what the Messiah would be all about. They interpreted scripture in a way that pointed to a king, a political ruler, a revolutionary who would end the oppression of Rome and – finally! – grant Israel freedom and peace.
Their history colored their interpretation. God’s people had been subject to oppression and slavery for most of their existence. (And for the rest of their existence they had been embroiled in a bloody civil war.) The prophet Daniel foresaw a Kingdom of God which would come about during the reign of the Roman Empire. The prophet Isaiah said “the government would be on his shoulders”. What the people wanted, needed, was a removal of Rome and the advent of God.
Instead, they got a baby.
Only it wasn’t “instead”. Not really. Because that baby was exactly what the people wanted and needed: freedom. Peace. A way out of oppression. A way forward.
They just couldn’t see it because the religious leaders had interpreted things through one particular lens while God was operating in an entirely different way.
The shepherds – furthest removed from educated leaders – did see it. They saw it because they had a personal experience with God and his messengers that led them to a different interpretation of their story. Essentially, the mission the angels gave the shepherds was: go tell everyone the religious leaders are barking up the wrong tree.
It’s a mission that Jesus himself continued throughout his life.
And yet, today when we stack personal experience against educated, conventional theology we err on the side of mistaken religious leaders time and time again.
This advent, may we remember and be humbled: Sometimes religious leaders, with all our educated theological interpretations, can still be so very wrong.