Jesus is no presidential candidate (thank God!), but if he were, what would he be like??
Transfiguration of Our Lord – February 7, 2016 – Luke 9:28-36
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Candidate Jesus – Pastor Evan Davis
So apparently it’s an election year. Have you heard about that? The campaigns haven’t come to Virginia in full force yet, but just wait a few weeks. All those nasty TV ads will fill your screens before too long. But elsewhere in the country the primary season is in full swing! Candidates are being picked by voters and picked apart by the pundits in the 24-hour news cycle. Handlers are on the backs of their presidential hopefuls, telling them how to walk and stand and smile, who to talk to, which babies to kiss, and definitely, what to say and what not to say.
Thank God, Jesus is no politician! But if Jesus were a candidate for office today, from what we’ve been hearing in the gospel of Luke, you’d have to say Jesus was running a pretty good campaign! Let’s recap what we’ve heard in these weeks of Epiphany. Right off the bat he scores a major endorsement from a big-time local figure, John the Baptist. Hasn’t even rolled out a platform yet. Then, he gets a pep talk from his Father, who happens to be God, reminding him, “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Not bad. After a little hiatus in the wilderness, Jesus heads to his hometown, Nazareth, to formally announce his campaign for Messiah of Israel. He stands up in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and says he’s the one the prophets had been talking about! “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…. (even better than: I’ll protect middle class incomes!) …. He 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. What a campaign promise! Who could match that stump speech?
Pretty soon Jesus hires his top advisers, Simon, James, and John. They can’t wait to get on board. Hopping on the Good News Express, Jesus hits the campaign trail with a blitz of impressive exorcisms and healings. Miracles on the fishing boats. No evil spirit can stand in his way, this Jesus is unstoppable! He’s a media darling! Now Jesus tries very hard to stay in control of the message. He’ll do the talking. Remember, he tells everyone he’s helped not to say anything. But despite this facebook and twitter are lighting up with people telling stories about what Jesus has done: “I’ve been paralyzed for years and he said, “stand up, take your mat and walk,” and I could! My leprosy is gone [hash tag Jesus]! Selfies with Jesus feeding the whole crowd with those five loaves and two fishes!
If you were Peter and you were running point for the Jesus campaign, you’d have to say things were going pretty well. Occasionally, Jesus would do something weird like let this woman bathe his feet with her tears, and that time with all the pigs, and sometimes he’d say an “off-the-cuff” remark, like “love your enemies” (crazy, I know). He was way ahead of his rivals in the polls and he was crushing his Pharisee opponents in the debates! Crowds were following him wherever he went! Peter the campaign manager thought things were more or less on track.
Until one day when Jesus was alone with his disciples, his campaign team, Jesus asked Peter “who do you say that I am?” Peter proudly proclaimed, “The Messiah of God.” He’d gotten it right! Surely he’d be chief-of-staff after the election. But then Jesus lost it. First, he said, you can’t call me “Messiah” out on the campaign trail. What candidate doesn’t want people to know he’s the only one qualified for the job! Then, Jesus went totally off the deep end! He said right out in front of the whole staff that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” What candidate says he’s gonna lose! And Jesus kept going, talking about denying yourself, taking up your cross, losing your life to save it, and all this nonsense. He’d have to reel his candidate back in soon before everything was lost.
So when Jesus summoned him and James and John for an executive summit, just them, up on the mountain as we heard about today, Peter breathed a sigh of relief. The three of them would have the chance to talk some sense into their guy and get this campaign moving again.
But Peter had no idea what was in store for them up on the mountain peak. In the blinding light of the transfigured Jesus, with Elijah and Moses conversing with his candidate, Peter was scared out of his mind, I’m sure, but what a scene – Jesus’ dazzling clothes and shining face, with two giants of Judean politics beside him, lending him their credibility – this could move the polls, for sure! Peter thinks, this is great, it’s good for us to be here, let’s put up some tents, stay a while, and figure out how to translate this transfiguration into votes! Let’s film a few tv spots up here! But then came the voice from above, “This is my Son, my Chosen” “Yes, Father, I know! We’re gonna win!,” Peter thought. “If we can just keep up the shiny stuff and the miracles, and keep Jesus’ non-scripted remarks to a minimum, this is in the bag.” But the Father had more to say, and he concluded “listen to him!”
“Listen to him?!?! The man’s gone off the edge! What do you mean?” The glorious light and the heavenly visitors faded away, and so did Peter’s delusions of grandeur. Only Jesus stood before them. They trudged back down to the same old crowds full of hurting, desperate people. These were not the folks who could write big checks to keep the Good News Express rolling. They could not cast their votes for Jesus. Immediately, another poor soul approaches them with a convulsing son. Peter and the others were so sick of this they gave a half-hearted effort but could not heal the boy. You can believe that drew a tongue-lashing from Jesus, their candidate who was now officially off-message. Jesus healed him, but not without adding again, “the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” You know, Peter probably thought, suffering and death were not part of the plan. It didn’t make sense. They had been on the road to victory! Why was their candidate leading them to defeat, to Jerusalem, to the cross??
Most people wanted Jesus to be about victory. For them, miracles and healings and transfigured glory were what he was supposed to be about. But Jesus is not interested in victory. He’s about pouring himself out in love for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of the world, for your sake and mine. Don’t we want Jesus to stay dignified? We want Jesus to bring us closer to the dazzling white light of a glorious religious high. But Jesus won’t be managed, and he won’t be scripted. He won’t take you up out of this world to some perfect, private little spiritual mountaintop.
But I’ll tell you what Jesus will do. He will come close to you, so close he can wash you of your sins, so close he can give you a taste of his love. He will enter your real life and suffer with you. He will take all the criticism, all the attack ads, the fear and anger and sadness of this world and be crucified with it so that you will be free to walk in newness of life.
Polls change quickly, don’t we know? When the people had their referendum on Jesus, just a few days after they welcomed him with palm branches, they shouted, “crucify him!” When they put the crown on his head, it was a crown of thorns. Lent begins this Wednesday, and in Lent we’re going to honestly face the fact that we would be among that crowd. And we will hear again how Jesus meets us not only in the glory of the mountaintop, but in the crosses of our lives. He wasn’t out to win an election, he was out to win you for himself, and in that struggle we can already confidently declare a winner: Christ has triumphed! Alleluia! Until we sing that again on Easter morning, let us look for Jesus on the trail, on the path of our lives, in the shadowy places and with the forgotten people where no TV cameras are rolling. Amen.