Text: Matthew 4:12-23 (Jesus calls his first disciples)
Has anyone here today watched the Netflix series “Messiah?” The ten episodes that make up Season One were released on January 1, and last week, Kim and I binge-watched them all.
Set in a slightly altered version of today’s world, “Messiah” tells the story of a preacher who appears in Syria’s capital city Damascus as it is about to be conquered by a fundamentalist army. He tells those gathered in a public square that salvation is at hand; and as he speaks, a huge sandstorm envelops the city. Forty days later, the sandstorm finally ends having devastated the city, but also having destroyed the fundamentalist army.
This mysterious leader then walks with 2,000 Palestinian refugees from Damascus to the border with Israel, where he is arrested after he crosses the border.
The rest of the series shows this leader performing miracles; preaching on the steps of Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem and at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC; appearing in a small town in Texas as it is devastated by a tornado; leading a caravan of disciples across the U.S.; meeting in secret with the U.S. President, who, unlike the real-world President, is a God-fearing Mormon who desires peace; and talking in ways that move and transform people.
I thought I was going to dislike this series, but it drew me in. It also raised the question of why ordinary people sometimes end up following a new Messiah.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus begins his ministry by preaching repentance and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He then asks Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him, and they respond immediately. They drop their nets and leave behind their families and their careers as fishers.
Soon, Jesus’ teaching, his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, and his healing of the sick attract large crowds.
But why do the first four people he calls respond? They have not yet seen Jesus heal anyone or heard any of his teachings. And yet, he is so charismatic they immediately leave their families and follow Jesus to the end.
The Messiah-figure from the Netflix series is also charismatic. He speaks clearly and authoritatively, and he knows troubling and intimate details of the lives of the people he encounters. But he doesn’t attract followers until after the supposed miracle of the sandstorm.
The TV Messiah is also strikingly handsome. One comment I read in a review of the series said that while it didn’t shy away from difficult issues like refugees, abortion, and homosexuality, one question it didn’t ask was whether a Messiah figure had to be drop-dead gorgeous.
The Messiah in the Netflix series is played by Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi. Dehbi was born into an Islamic family originally from North Africa, and he speaks Arabic, French, English, and Spanish.
The supposed Messiah figure played by Dehbi is even more interesting. He was born in Iraq to a Jewish mother and Christian father. After he was orphaned in the first Gulf War of 1991, he was raised in Iran by an uncle. In university, he studied in Massachusetts.
This Messiah’s striking good looks help him attract a following. But what about Jesus? In the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus not one word is written about his appearance. Was Jesus tall? Balding? Thin? Bow-legged? We aren’t told.
Because the church considers Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine, most of us assume he was attractive. But who knows? Maybe the opposite is true.
Charisma is undoubtedly aided by good looks. But I don’t think good looks are important either for the good news of God’s realm or for the ability of the stories of Jesus to move us to repentance and discipleship.
Some people who have watched Netflix’s “Messiah” are also unconvinced that the central figure is the Second Coming of Jesus. Some speculate that instead he is supposed to be The Anti-Christ figure as found in the biblical book Revelation.
We won’t know the answer until Netflix releases a second season. I would be happy if there were a second season, although I also worry that when the hidden concept of the project is revealed, I won’t like it.
I enjoyed the show’s exploration of cultural, religious, and political currents as they affect the different characters, all of whom are troubled by loss and illusion.
I was intrigued by the role played by social media in the story of this Messiah’s movement. It reminded me of a line given to Judas in the 1970 musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In the opening song, Judas wonders why Jesus didn’t wait to appear on earth until the 20th Century since “Israel in 4 BC didn’t have no mass communication.”
The show also led me to reflect on how many of us pin our hopes on the appearance of a magical leader who will save us – the next Gretzky to make Edmonton The City of Champions again; the next Tesla who will unveil a technical innovation that will solve the climate crisis; the next political leader who will bind a fractured country together and lead it to victory against its rivals; and so on.
But I believe that our longings for a Messiah-like figure can distract us from the path of spiritual growth revealed in the gospels. It is true that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee gathered large crowds; and his six days in Jerusalem were filled with large public events. But while Jesus’ Crucifixion was a public spectacle, his resurrection was either witnessed by no one (according to Mark) or only by a handful of his closest friends (according to Matthew, Luke, and John).
Jesus may be a charismatic superstar in both the Gospels and in the 1970 Broadway musical. But for me, the importance of Jesus is found much more in his quiet, almost unnoticed resurrection than in the spectacle that precedes it.
As I stated in my Reflection last Sunday, I am especially drawn to Jesus’ words that the realm of God is within us. This reminds us that a flame of sovereignty and divinity flickers within every person’s heart.
This idea also influences how I approach the symbol of “The Second Coming.” Many people, influenced by the biblical book Revelation, anticipate the Second Coming as a terrifying and violent event. But when we accept the Grace to see Christ in everyone we meet, and when in moments of repentance, we join with Paul to exclaim that we have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ that lives in us, we are describing the Second Coming, I believe.
From this perspective, the Second Coming is not a future event. It is an everyday occurrence that has happened innumerable times already. It is a reality that, with Grace, can light up any moment of our life with love.
Christ doesn’t need to return in a violent revolution or a war. Christ rises anew each time we repent and find that our egos — with their illusions, desires, and fears — are dissolving, and that the flame of Love we call God in Christ is flickering to new life within us. Christ rises when we hear a still small voice that calls us by our name and, in response, we ‘drop our nets’ to follow wherever it leads.
Crises like the terror, war, and weather disasters found in the TV show “Messiah” might sometimes lead to conversion, repentance, and rebirth. But so can personal events like the loss of a job, the birth of a child, a conflict with a friend, or an encounter with extraordinary beauty.
To change our hearts and minds, we don’t need to wait for a charismatic miracle-worker with long hair and good looks and who speaks in puzzling aphorisms. We simply have to open our hearts and minds to the Grace of God. Grace is always waiting to convert any moment of joy or pain into an epiphany in which we hear the Risen Christ calling us by name.
Thanks be to God. Amen.