Presidents and Kings

In these weeks leading up to Advent, I’m sharing excerpts from my new book, Incarnation. Last week, I introduced the series with an excerpt from the book’s Introduction. This week, we’re reading an excerpt from Chapter One, “Presidents and Kings.” Each chapter in the book examines the titles and roles the gospel writers assign to Jesus in the stories surrounding Christmas. In Chapter One, we examine the title of Christ or King and consider how Jesus’ messiahship differed from that of today’s rulers. 

Presidential elections are focal points of power and wealth. The elections of 2020 were anticipated to be the costliest presidential elections to date. At one point, three of the candidates running for president were billionaires, though two eventually bowed out. Early estimates were that over $2 billion would be spent trying to win the race. The winner of such an election will be inaugurated on the western steps of the US Capitol with thousands of people looking on. Following the inauguration, the president will enjoy the inaugural balls with great food, wine, and dancing. He will live in the White House with a crack security team to protect him and his family. He will become not only the “leader of the free world” but the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military on the planet.

Contrast that with the King whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. He was born in a stable, with an animal’s feeding trough for his bed. He grew up in the obscure village of Nazareth in the first-century Jewish equivalent of “the other side of the tracks.” Far from billionaire status, he was trained at making tools and farm implements, doors, and furniture, and likely was skilled as a handyman.*

At the age of thirty, Jesus began his campaign for the office of King. He traveled from town to town, giving various stump speeches about the kingdom of God. In these campaign speeches, he called people to love God, their neighbors, and even their enemies. He called his hearers to humility, kindness, integrity, forgiveness, and selflessness. He asked them to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and the immigrant. He decried arrogance and hypocrisy.

His campaign’s finance team was a group of people, mostly women, who traveled with his twelve disciples and provided support for his work. The disciples made up the bulk of his campaign staff, but they had never run a campaign before. They were fishermen, a tax collector, and a group of others who had little education—a group some might describe as misfits and ragamuffins—hardly a team most reasonable people would assemble for such an important task.

His campaign trail took him through “all the cities and villages” where he could be found “teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” As he looked at the people, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35-36).

It may seem a stretch to think of Jesus as on a campaign trail, but I think this is how his disciples must have seen his work. They anticipated that at some point in the future he would be installed as king and they would rule with him. Each stop was building support for his reign. He had dinners with leaders. He spoke at huge gatherings with thousands of people. He was constantly talking about his vision, a vision he referred to as the kingdom of God.

Yet, in so many ways, Jesus went about his campaign all wrong—if we’re judging by the standards we’re used to today. Many of the people wanted a king who would raise an army to push the Romans out of the land—“peace through strength.” Jesus instead called his fellow Jews to love the Romans and any other enemies they had. While presidential candidates often court the endorsements of the rich and powerful, Jesus alienated the powerful and influential, and instead associated with the poor and powerless; in the words of Garth Brooks, Jesus had “friends in low places.”

Jesus made very few campaign promises—nothing about lower taxes or increased jobs or defeating the Romans. He didn’t promise to make Israel a great nation once again. Instead, he spoke about welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick (see the Parables of the Good Samaritan, the Sheep, and the Goats for examples of his campaign platform). His kingdom would entail self-denial and taking up one’s cross. He urged his followers to let their lights shine by their good deeds and in this way, people would be drawn into the kingdom. In his kingdom, he promised that the grieving would be comforted, those who hungered for righteousness would be filled, the merciful would be shown mercy, and the meek would inherit the earth.

The citizens of this kingdom would seek to do God’s will. They would love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and they would love their neighbors as they love themselves. The ethics of this kingdom would involve each citizen treating others as they wish to be treated and demonstrating selfless love. Can such a kingdom really exist on earth? Jesus asked his disciples to pray to God for this: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Everything he taught them was about living as citizens of this kingdom. Yet he recognized while on trial with the Roman governor just before his death, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). It wasn’t, but he seemed to think it could be present as his followers yielded their hearts and lives to God. Which is why he once said to his disciples, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21) or as in the King James Version, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

This post is an excerpt from Chapter One of Incarnation. See all of the resources available for Incarnation here

*The Greek word tekton is usually translated as “carpenter,” but in an era and place where homes were made of stone or mud brick and built by masons, carpenters worked with wood. They focused on farm implements, doors, shutters, furniture, and whatever else might be made of wood. They could also be what today we’d call a “handyman.”

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