Jesus for President (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

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Far be it from me to compare Jesus to the President of the United States, which is not even a commentary on the state of politics of today. Jesus is, after all, the Savior of the Universe; he’s not running a popularity campaign. During the last election cycle, I saw a rebuttal to the onslaught of campaign slogans which said: The Real Commander In-Chief Isn’t Up for Election.

Regardless… Can you imagine? Jesus in the White House.

I know, I know, it is impossible and absurd, but it’s basic speech writing 101 – To catch your audience’s attention: tell a joke, make a startling statement, or evoke curiosity. I guess, Jesus as President could be a joke, a startling statement, and quite curious… so, hopefully the concept at least has piqued your interest.

But, undergirding the absurdity of the concept lies some cutting truth to ponder and some provocation. So, what would Jesus do if elected to the American presidency and assumed the position of leader of the free world?

In answering this question, I believe the best place to begin would be Jesus’s Inaugural Address.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t begin with the typical opening of “Distinguished guests and fellow Americans” and it lacked some of the typical pomp we associate with such events, so his Inaugural Address may have slipped by without you realizing it.

You can easily find it in today’s readings. It starts like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Pretty solid opening. Pretty bold statement.

And then He continues: “because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus declares his interpretation of the Scripture to anyone who would listen, but most importantly, He proclaims that God has anointed Him to bring it all about. Only Rulers, people with real power were understood to be anointed by God. Or, in modern language, Presidents.

He’s already provoked his hearers and he’s hardly even begun. It’s a strong message, but honestly, He’s basically set himself up for failure. Before we get too far into his address, I’d like to point out why I’m claiming these words are his inauguration speech. 

This is the first time Jesus, as an adult, speaks in the book of Luke. He has chosen a scripture with challenging implications for society, politics, and religion. Seriously, someone didn’t teach him how to win friends and influence people?

An inaugural ceremony inducts someone into a new position. This moment, when we see Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, is essentially the inauguration ceremony of his public ministry. A new beginning, if you will. Those gathered didn’t realize they were attending an inauguration, but… keeping people on their toes seems to be one of Jesus’s strengths.

From this moment on, Jesus’s ministry takes on new zeal and passion.
From now on Jesus is no longer that quiet carpenter from Nazareth. Now, He is either loved or hated. Much more of the later though. I’m sure plenty of people would’ve used the hashtag “Notmypresident” had Jesus been elected. But, not for the same reasons as today.

So, back to his Inaugural Address.

As you know, basically everything is available on Google, so I did some research on how to write an effective inauguration speech… you know, just in case I decide to make a run in 2020. Kidding…

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has online resources for teachers to use outlining best practices for writing an inauguration speech – a recipe to follow, if you will. The intent is to get kids thinking: asking critical questions and then developing thoughtful responses.

It wasn’t designed for Jesus. Or for that matter, a pastor writing a sermon. But, I think it is an illustrative exercise to marry up the rubric for success with Jesus’s own inaugural address to see how successful He’d be as President. According to those in the ‘know,’ the formula consists of a few key components.

The first key component is to UNITE. In the modern presidency this would mean focusing on the one, indivisible nation theme and reminding everyone (those who voted for and those who voted against) of the principles which unite them. Core values and such. Unification of purpose is critical from a presidential standpoint. The more support that can be garnered, the more influence the President has.

Jesus seems to have utter disregard for this component. The very fact that Jesus is claiming to be anointed by God is controversial, divisive, and blasphemous.  At the outset people are already picking sides.

The second key component is focusing on a HISTORICAL MOMENT. This is when the newly elected would reflect on where we have come from as a nation. Typically, the President reminds the people of the weight and importance of the office, lifts up the importance of the Constitution, and then often points to a memorable and transformative moment in recent years, either a crisis or a breakthrough. The component is often approached with delicacy, because the President will use it as a springboard for the next component.

But, before we get to that… what does Jesus do? Is He at all concerned about history and precedence?

Actually, Jesus fulfills this component with high marks. Jesus shows high regard for traditional Jewish teaching style and customs; he demonstrates reverence of Scripture; he reminds his listeners of God’s faithfulness to them. He’s doing well.

However…He forgets (or doesn’t care) about the delicacy element, because how he uses history as a springboard will ultimately become his demise.

Which brings us to that next key component in Inaugural Address writing.

Pretty clear-cut. The President names the priorities of the administration and focal areas. Informs the public of what new course the President aims to set the country on. Often times this ends up shaping a President’s legacy. Things like, the Affordable Care Act, leading the country through the Civil War, launching the New Deal, or the War on Terror. Presidents want to be remembered fondly and they want to leave an indelible mark.

Now on to Jesus…
Well, it’s fairly undisputed that He left (and continues to leave) an indelible mark on the world, however his legacy, for a variety of reasons, is tainted and confused.

What Jesus attempts to do in His Inaugural Address is usher in a time of Jubilee. And by that, I don’t mean something akin to Maire Antoinette’s famous quip, “Let them eat cake.” It’s not that kind of jubilee.

Rather, He harkens them back to the law of Moses… Every fiftieth year there was to be a “year of the Lord’s favor,” also known as a “time of Jubilee,” during which land was to be returned to its original owners, servants were to be released from their enslavement, and people were to live simply. In short, it’s a legendary time of restoration and liberty for all.

Jesus grounds His goals in this historical premise: restoration and liberty for all. The people have heard this language before. They are moderately comfortable with it… but only because it’s never truly observed. Land returning, people receiving their freedom, caring for your neighbor, working towards economic equality and wealth-sharing…?
I mean, come on. We’re all know human nature. We know this likely never really happened, at least on a broad scale.

It’s way too threatening to the status quo, requires too much sacrifice.  

So, Jesus makes a grave tactical error when reminds the people of the Jubilee time AND that He aims to make it a reality.

His goals don’t really line up with the goals of those in powerful positions: the religious leaders, the political movers and shakers, or the societal structure. He’s about to go down in flames before He even gets started. He’s too radical. His dreams are too lofty, his hope too encompassing, his compassion too far-reaching.
Releasing the captives, sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed…
Fairytale dreams…

The remainder of the components to writing an Inaugural Address can be viewed together: know your audience, pay attention to your word choice, and emotional content.

Elected leaders know that the interplay between words and emotions and how they are perceived are crucial. One need only remember Bill Clinton’s retort, “Depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” to know how much words, emotion, and perception matter. They can save you or slay you.

Jesus likely knew this too.
He chose his words very carefully from the well-known Scriptures.
Knowing full well that His words might slay Him, but they would save the world.
In doing so claimed a more controversial Title:
The WORD Incarnate.  
Emotions flared, ranging from euphoria to outrage. 

Going by the rubric Jesus would’ve gotten a C- at best. He loosely adheres to some of the requirements, but throughout He constantly makes up his own rules… which is no surprise.

Jesus had a penchant for rubbing shoulders with the poor, the unhealthy, the marginalized. He spent his time talking about the real struggles of the world – day laborers and unjust judges, widows and orphans, strangers and immigrants, abused women and exploited workers, and reconciliation with enemies.

He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk.
But, the tragic irony is when he Jesus lays out God’s core values of love, inclusion, liberation, and social justice, He suddenly makes himself less popular. Not only is He not presidential material, but He’s certainly not Savior of the Universe material.

He is chased from his hometown, hated by many, and ultimately put to death because He ushers in the time of Jubilee. He is killed because he cared about the world too much. He is killed because God chose to bless all people, not just some. He is killed because God chose to bless the whole world, not just some. He is killed because the favor of the Lord is upon Him… And the people rose up against God’s dream.  

This is not the President they want.
It is not the President we want.
But this is the Savior we desperately need.

What God has inaugurated into this world cannot be killed; it still lives in and through the word and body of Jesus today. In a world that can seem so random and harsh the good news is: TODAY is again the Day of the Lord. Today the imprisoned can be set free, the weak can be made strong, the poor can be fed, the lost can be found.

And tomorrow is the Day of the Lord too and every day following. I think at this point candidate Jesus would probably close with this:
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it!