Are we ready for Jesus to come again, and will we recognise him when he does?
If Jesus turned up in your town, would you recognise him? What would give him away — and what would your response be? Netflix’s newly launched series Messiah shows that, practically or spiritually, the majority of us are just not ready for the second coming.
Messiah is a strange mixture of Homeland and Jack Ryan as the CIA agents struggle to deal with the return of a figure they never expected to see again.
The series begins in Damascus, where the Syrian capital is bracing itself for an attack by a resurgent ISIS. A wild-eyed young man begins preaching that this is the time that God has marked out to judge the hearts of all humanity. Those who truly follow him need not be afraid. Then, to assure them of this truth, he seemingly calls down a sandstorm that forces the fundamentalist forces to flee. His prophetic words and commanding manner attract not only a growing number of followers but also the attention of the CIA, in particular an agent who has come to believe there is no God.
Officer Eva Geller has lost her husband to cancer and is desperately trying to conceive his child through IVF. However, four miscarriages suggest she won’t have this joy. Instead, she is tasked with investigating this strange individual gaining the world’s attention.
The crowds are beginning to refer to him as ‘Isa’ and ‘Al-Masih’, the Quran’s names for Jesus and Messiah. Yet Geller’s Al Masih, like the Jesus of the Bible, is challenging all who think they know the will of God. His association with miraculous events, intimate knowledge of her life, and appearances in Israel and eventually the US, are making it hard for anyone to write him off as a hardliner or heretic.
As in the 1st century AD, and so now, the key question is: who is this man?
Messiah has done a masterful job of translating the past to the present. The historical documents that chronicle Jesus’ life record a similar confusion gripping ancient Palestine. The Pharisees, the preachers of the day, treated him with suspicion. The evidence for Jesus’ miracles was too clear to deny, but that didn’t stop them doubting his motives: “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons!”
Like the CIA analysts, noted scholars like Gamaliel placed Jesus in the same camp as would-be revolutionaries: “Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.”
And the Israeli and US governments have much in common with the authorities of Jesus’ day, who primarily worried about the political unrest his preaching would cause: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
But Officer Geller is forced to consider whether Al Masih, like Jesus, will fit into any of these categories.
Controversy is one thing the two have in common. Jesus was at least as divisive a figure as Al Masih. The Christian writer C.S. Lewis famously wrote that, based on the all-or-nothing claims Jesus made about himself, an unbiased mind could reach only one of three conclusions: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse … but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
The same might be said for anyone that turns up today claiming divine authority, Messiah’s mysterious figure included. Al Masih names himself ‘the Word’, literally God’s will made flesh. Yet he displays little of God’s power and only a limited number of his characteristics. Particularly, he lacks the mercy and compassion that so characterised Jesus, not to mention his openness. In fact, what keeps the controversy of Messiah going are the truths Al Masih refuses to reveal.
But the Jesus of the Bible was never so vague. He tells those who rejected him then, as well as those who push him away today, it won’t be because he hasn’t been plain about his purpose or identity. It will be because we’d rather not hear what he has to say about us:
“Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word’” (John chapter 8, verses 42-43).