Solomon, Charlemagne, and Donald Trump: Inauguration Days Across the Millennia

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It was inauguration day about 970BC. The people of God were hungry for a new king. David had been just what they needed to make Israel relevant, but everyone knew he lost strength and competency at the end of his days. How would Israel keep up their newfound might and glory? When he died, they anticipated Solomon would make them great again – and keep them that way. They needed to compete on the world scene and start winning, just like the good old days when Joshua killed every adversary in his path. So Solomon stood in front of all the people on inauguration day. “Listen,” he said. “We’re going to build a temple, a great temple.” The people applauded. “We’ll show the nations how much wealth we have.” The Israelites were eager to be wealthy with the spoils of other nations which they did not earn. “And then we’ll build an army, a great army.” Thunderous applause came from the young men who didn’t realize he was talking about them. “We’ll put Israel’s protection first. Sure, we’ll be friendly with other nations, but Israel comes first. We’ll have so much power no one will mess with us. If they do, we’ll show them God is on our side.” Solomon was crowned the king. He built that temple. It was opulent. Israel became powerful and wealthy. Israel was happy. Israel was great again. Israel didn’t realize their leader’s quest for power would be their downfall and the end of united Israel. They were too happy with their lifestyles and putting themselves first that they didn’t even seem to care when the prophets told them that the other great nations they were trying to emulate were coming to give them a taste of their own medicine. They claimed to be the people of God, nonetheless.

It was inauguration day about 800AD. Charlemagne was a historic king-crowned-emperor by Pope Leo III. In exchange for is new power, he was to become the defender of the faith in Rome from the evil Germanic Lombards. He stood in front of his throne that Christmas day with the pope and his council and gave his inauguration speech. “Listen, we’re going to have such a great military again. God will be on our side once more. God needs us to protect the right religion, and we’re going to make sure it gets protected.” Charlemagne protected Rome. He put Rome, and his own people, the Franks, first. “Building walls around us is part of our story,” he said. Charlemagne put together a great army and protected the faith from the evil pagans, even slaughtering 4,000 Saxons in the name of Jesus, a “holy war” that won the loyalties and praise of his people. He built a cathedral in Aachen, adorning it with gold and jewels to show other nations that God was on their side. He even likened himself to that other temple-builder, Solomon, and gave his architect, who would design the Palatine Chapel, the nickname Bazaleel, the great designer of Moses’ tabernacle. The people were wealthy and powerful once more, but most importantly, Charlemagne kept his promise to make Western Europe safe again. They loved Charlemagne. Charlemagne loved his power and money. Charlemagne’s quest to protect their security distracted him from the Vikings and the bitter rivalries between his own sons. His lust for power-keeping crippled the Roman Empire and left thousands dead. The people didn’t even notice what was happening at first. They were too busy enjoying wealth they didn’t earn, putting their own interests first, and keeping the “outsiders” who didn’t believe like they did outside. They claimed to be the people of God, nonetheless.

It was inauguration day in 2017. The people were hungry for a new president. The last one had been okay, but he had done too much to look out for the interests of other nations rather than putting America first, they said. So the people elected Donald Trump. He got up in front of the crowd and gave his inauguration speech. “We’re going to start winning again,” he said. The people went wild. “America is going to be safe. We’re going to put ourselves first. We’re going to be wealthy again. We’ll have comfortable jobs, and we won’t let the outsiders have any of our stuff. God will bless us, you’ll see.” The people loved Donald Trump. He made them feel safe. He told them the Bible says America will prosper if they do the right thing. He said, “We’ll get money and be happy, and certainly won’t let the refugees drain our resources. We’ll have so much power. God will protect us, even make us an example for the world.” American Christians just couldn’t learn from their own story of temple-builders and power-seekers. They were too distracted thinking about all the money they’ll be privileged with while the rest of the world starves and dies outside the wall Americans will build to protect themselves. They were too distracted by that age-old disease of seeking power, putting our own interests first, and lusting after survival in the name of God rather than trusting in the God who calls the alien amongst God’s people worthy to sit at the table. They claimed to be the people of God, nonetheless.

Maybe we’ve missed the most important one, though:

It was inauguration day in  30AD. The people were hungry for a king. They wanted to be freed. Then some imposter-peasant came along and claimed to be that king. He didn’t have a good policy, though. “Blessed are the poor,” he said. The message comforted the weak but angered the powerful. “The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the one lost.” They didn’t know what to do with such inefficient techniques. “The good Samaritan helped the man in need. Oh yeah, and do you see this temple? I’m tearing it down.” But most importantly: “The slaves are free, debts are forgiven, and the year of Jubilee is fulfilled in me. And, not to mention, you should love your enemies, even serve them.” So they inaugurated him to be their “king.” They put him on a wooden crossbeam-throne and lifted him high and exalted him. They even put a crown on him and put a nice sign above his bleeding and trembling head while his mouth leaked saliva: “This is the King of the Jews.” He finally gave his inauguration speech: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” People cried out and the crowd went crazy, but most of them ran away.That Roman centurion tried to mock him like the rest, but he was just too confounded at how such a display could be any model of “kingship.” He was kind, he was gentle, he was bold and audacious; he was righteous and just, he loved his enemies, he forgave every sinner in his path. That’s no way to be an effective king. Even so… “Surely this man was the Son of God,” the centurion claimed, nonetheless.

He certainly didn’t win. He certainly did not make Jerusalem great again. And he did not consider equality with God something to hold on to, but emptied himself. He did not keep power, but gave every bit of it – every bit of it – away. He didn’t try to find salvation by protecting himself from his enemies; he died for those that tried to kill him. “And therefore,” Paul says, “he is exalted above every name,” King of the Jews, crucified on his inauguration tree, Lord of Lords seated at the right hand of the Father.

Hope That We Cannot See

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In The Hunger Games, President Snow said that hope “is the only thing stronger than fear.” I really want to believe that. I’m sure you’d really like to believe that. However, it seems like fear is so much easier to find these days than hope. If hope is a trickling stream, fear often feels like a mighty river. For every kind person you meet in the market, there is another one driving a truck into the market crowd.

This season of my life, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about hope. Hope is a hard “thing” to put your finger on. Is it an emotion? Is it a state of mind? Can you buy it on Amazon, and does it come with free shipping with a Prime subscription? I’m not really sure I have an answer. But I do know that whenever I think I’m getting closer to understanding what it is, it escapes me just a little bit further. How am I supposed to hope in the midst of this messed up world? How are all those children in Aleppo supposed to hope in this world? I know hope is something we all hold on to, but if any of you know exactly what it is, write me letter.

Now Christmas is upon us, and all the familiar songs are playing in the stores and coffee shops. Some of them even say “He rules the world!” or say that this is the season to proclaim “Christ is the hope of the Earth!” I think we all like those songs. We believe in them to an extent. But right now I wonder if anyone else out there bites their tongue just a little bit when those words come out, like I do. I sing about hope in Church. I watch the news. But when I hear myself say the words… Do I really believe it? Do I really believe it?

And then there’s St. Paul. He wrote about hope more than anyone. He had such hope in Christ. He had such hope that God was in control, and that nothing – no market killers nor bombs in Aleppo – could separate us from the love of God. Do you know that is so frustrating to me? Why can’t I have that kind of hope? Why did it come so easy to Paul? What am I doing wrong? What are we doing wrong? For Heaven’s sake, the man was probably repeating words of hope in Christ to himself as he was being crucified upside down, as church tradition holds.

You know, there’s this phrase in Romans 8 that has really been messing with me recently. Paul writes, “In this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what we already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” I suppose that verse has challenged me because it points to something so fundamental about hope that I missed it altogether. Maybe you did, too. You ready for it?

By definition, we cannot “see” hope. If we could, it wouldn’t be hope anymore.

But wait… Paul had seen the Lord. It was probably easy for him to say that, right? He probably wouldn’t understand the world today. In fact, you may even find it slightly offensive that he said that. “Hope that is seen is no hope at all? But Paul! You saw Jesus! That’s not fair!” And besides, he had to deal with persecutions and killings, but not on the terrifying scale that it’s happening today. Right? How are we supposed to have hope in God  today when we cannot see, nor have we ever seen, God?

These are all questions I’ve been asking recently. But the more I read Paul, the more Paul is convincing me that I’m asking the wrong questions. For, as we search for hope, I believe that Paul is pleading with us not to fixate on the character of our broken world, but rather on the character of God. If we look at the character of our world, no matter what day and age we are in, whether it be Paul’s day or our own, we will always come to the same conclusion: there is no hope for this place. Even if you and I had just seen the Resurrected Lord like Paul did, I am certain that we would still look at our surroundings and say there is no hope here. I get it, I really do. It is hard to hope for what we cannot see.

“But hope that is seen is no hope at all.” Perhaps what Paul is trying to tell us is that hope is not so much something we do; hope is something God is. God is the God of hope. As N.T. Wright says in “After You Believe”,

Because I believe that the God we know in Jesus is the God of utterly generous, outflowing love, I believe that there will be no end to the new creation of this God, and that within the new age itself there will always be more to hope for… Learning to hope in the present time is learning not to just hope for a better place than we currently find ourselves in, but learning to trust the God who is and will remain the God of the future.

God is hope. But, as we saw earlier, hope, by definition, means that we cannot see the object of our hope! Instead, we must wait for it patiently.

Isn’t that what advent means? Advent is the Church’s recognition that it is okay for us acknowledge our deepest feelings of fear. It means that it is okay for us to voice to one another that God feels absent from this place, and that seeing those bombs explode in hospitals and gunmen opening fire on innocent crowds makes us feel like God has hidden from us and will not speak. It is okay to feel that way. But Advent also means that we have hope in the God who we cannot see, for this God is so covenanted with humanity that we never have reason to despair. We voice our feelings of fear. We recognize that our fears seem stronger than our hope sometimes, like a river overtaking a stream. But, most importantly, we wait with patience for the Christ child who was so unexpected and so unseen by the world around him. We wait with patience because, in the manger, Hope became a person.

I was in a cemetery recently. I noticed something I had never seen before: several grave markers were planted at the base of a tree. It was cloudy out, and being in the middle of winter, the whole scene appeared to be full of death. However, I found it to be a potent reminder of the hope we have as people of God. The tree looked dead. The tree wasdead. But in four months, there will be leaves. Yet right now, we cannot see leaves or new life. So we hope for it.

I can’t help but think that the Jewish people were feeling the same thing in the long time between our Old and New Testaments. They were under Roman rule. The Maccabean revolt had failed. There was no hope for freedom, for being the people called them to be in the world. They were being killed at every turn. Nothing about what they saw led them to believe they had anything to hope in. So they waited and waited, voicing their frustration at God. “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:22-24). They hoped in something they could not see, despite their circumstances, until they could do so no longer. Hundreds of years went by. It all looked dead to them. It all was dead to them.

…But look! A child is born. Go and see.

When you look around at the world today, with all the violence, oppression, and banalities, it probably looks so dead to you. You probably sing the Christmas carols about hope, even though you can’t really see it. You probably watch the news, deal with death in your family, and everything else that comes with this season. What is there to hope in? Why must God remain hidden?

You probably feel like those women in the tomb. Their hopes were shattered, and fear had won the day. They wore their grief on their garments as their headpieces soaked in the waters of their weeping. Had they anything to hope in now? If they did, the certainly couldn’t see it. Mary, his mother, was there. All she could do was put spices on her son’s bloody body. He looked so dead. He was so dead. How could this get any better?