The Common Good

On Scripture: Waiting on the Messiah and Presidential Expectations

It is an odd juxtaposition, December 21, 2012 and January 21, 2013. The former date representing the “so-called” Mayan apocalypse where the usual suspects prepared for the end of the world – many of whom were Christians awaiting the second coming of Christ –  and the latter date, which is the day President Barack Obama will be inaugurated for his second term.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Construction work continues for US President Barack Obama's second inauguration. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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In my estimation, this odd 21st-century connection reflects the event known as the baptism of Jesus as described in Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22. Initially we see that there is an expectation elicited by the preaching prowess of John the Baptist. The unnamed “men” wonder in their hearts if “whether perhaps he was the Christ” (Luke 3:15 RSV). John, then goes on to describe what he understands to be Christ-like qualities when he proclaims, “[One] who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie” (Luke 3:16).

Then, interestingly, God speaks. Now I have been studying the Bible as both a graduate student and academic for the last two decades and I can tell you this is a rare occurrence in the New Testament. I know that many are inclined to call the Bible the Word of God but the fact of the matter is, God says very little cover to cover. Therefore, I for one am going to have a good listen when God does utter a phrase or two in Scripture. So as the climatic baptism of Jesus occurs “and the Holy Spirit descend[s] upon him in bodily form,” (Luke 3:22) a voice from heaven tenderly proclaims: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased,” (Luke 3:22) a touching paternal moment that requires no fanfare. This is my son.

How is that for a splash of cold water in your face at the messianic parade? From the lofty messianic expectations of John the Baptist and the throngs we get a flesh and blood son. For an incarnation Christian like myself, I could not think of a better Godly response. What I take from this baptismal encounter is God saying that our exalted, post-resurrection expectations need to first be tempered with the hard, cold reality of God taking on flesh. God became one of us. This is also a wonderful corrective to our creedal proclamations that hastily move Jesus from the “born of a virgin” statement to “crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried.” A creedal response no doubt influenced by the overtly kerygmatic Christianity of Saint Paul.

We may wonder though, what about the earthly Jesus who showed compassion to the sick, taught the Sermon on the Mount, had a tantrum on the Temple Mount, wept, trembled, and cried to his Father on the cross? What about that Jesus, the incarnate one? Furthermore, what does that have to do with the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 21, 2013?

I would suggest that like the baptismal section of Luke, we too expect messianic grandeur from our political leaders but get, as God so tenderly proclaimed, sons. Unfortunately, each president has been viewed (depending on which side of the aisle your loyalties fall) as a messianic corrective to the president that preceded him. Recent history will demonstrate that Carter was perceived as the corrective to Nixon and Ford, Reagan corrected Carter, and so forth. In the 21st century George W. Bush was the elixir for Clinton who was then replaced by our latest political messiah and current president, Barack Obama. The point that I am trying to make is that part of our national consciousness is an embedded sense of presidential evolution that unconsciously infers that the next commander-in-chief must be more worthy, more righteous, more patriotic, and more American. But the fact of the matter is that we get sons, fully incarnate with strengths and weaknesses who need other imperfect elected officials – on both sides – to assist them in the governing the most complex nation in the world. 

We don’t need messiahs; we need sons and daughters with all of their strengths and flaws to collectively and effectively govern our nation. The price of messianic voyeurism and expectation is too great and unrealistic. It also forces us into a narrow determinative box on just who is qualified to hold that messianic mantle. Can a Mormon (Mitt Romney), a Jew (Joseph Lieberman), or a Catholic (John F. Kennedy) fill that messianic role? What about a woman? What about a gay person? And what are we to make of a potential candidate conversant in Black liberation theology as was the case in 2008 with Barack Obama’s ecclesial association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

So as President Obama prepares to take the presidential oath of office again, I foreground and take the label of beloved son, husband, father, elected official, and human being – to heart. Wishing him well is to wish our nation well, and the same holds true when the balance of power shifts in the future. Maybe once we get over our presidential messianic expectations and learn to live the frailty of the human condition, we can begin to embrace that which we hold in common. Wanting something unique and grand, God gave us a son; a son fully divine and fully human, messianic in God's way, not ours.   

David A. Sánchez is an associate professor of Early Christianity and Christian Origins at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. David is also the Book Review Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and the President of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States. He is the author of Hispanic Theological Initiative’s award winning book, From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths (Fortress Press, 2008). He has published extensively on contemporary Guadalupan iconography from a postcolonial perspective. His current area of research is on ancient and contemporary apocalyptic groups. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

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