Sermon preached at The United Methodist Church in Green Village, NJ on Sunday, January 25, 2009
I felt I had to be there. And I’m glad my family went too. Even though we had to sleep on the floor of a church, get up at 6am and walk 2 miles toward the Capital. Even though we had to stand up all day on the Washington Mall in 27 degree temperature (18 degrees in the wind) and due without food or bathrooms. It was an extraordinary, once-in-a-life time experience to stand shoulder to shoulder, and back to front, with 2 million Americans breathing the same air (the huddled masses yearning to breathe free).
There was a super positive spirit, festive mood and high energy in the crowd. No one pushed too much or became aggressive in their behavior. No one said “get out of my space!” There was lots of laughter and good will. Strangers talked to each other and treated each other as friends. We met visitors from Texas, Florida, Virginia and Iowa. It was fun to feel patriotic again, and so connected to other Americans.
Giant TV screens—jumbotrons—were set up throughout the Mall so everyone could see and hear. We were near the MSNBC broadcast unit at 10th street and the Smithsonian Castle a few blocks from the Capital. There was a mass of humanity as far back as the eyes could see. You saw the spectacle on television: Two million flags waving in the air. People dancing, singing and chanting with delight—O-Ba-Ma… O-Ba-Ma.
A roar of joy and jubilation erupted when Obama finally appeared on the screen, greeted the crowd and delivered his Inaugural Address. It felt like the ‘ground had shifted beneath our feet’ when Obama said in his speech:
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…As for our common defense; we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency.”
My question then and today is this: Is Barack Hussein Obama ‘the One’ in whom to put my hope and trust in for the next 4 years? Can this 46 year old family man, community organizer, law professor, junior senator from Illinois, and now President of the United States deliver on his promises? Is he the One who can fix the economy, restore 2.6 million jobs, end the war in Iraq, prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, wage peace in the middle east, make our government more transparent and responsible to the people, restore America’s honor and leadership in the world, defeat the terrorists, keep America safe, and steer the ship of State with liberty and justice for all? [I have pretty high expectations of the One]
One of my favorite movies is the Matrix—a strange story about Man vs. Machines, in which the terrifying Machines created a technological matrix of virtual, alternative reality that enslaves humanity by keeping them plugged into the Matrix. The computer programs comprising the Matrix provide the satisfying illusion of life on earth as a garden of delights. But there a remnant headquartered in Zion, among those who have been unplugged from the Matrix and can face the harsh realities of life the way it is. As a resistance force, they try to survive the continued assaults from the Machines and their Matrix-generated programs, there is one among them who name is Neo, a super hero who may be the One called to liberate humanity from the great illusion. The story revolves around the question—is he the One destined to defeat the power of the Matrix. The One who can and will unplug those with eyes to see and ears to hear the true Reality of their situation. During the first and second movies of the trilogy, we are made to thing that Neo is the One. In the third movie, we are made to doubt that Neo is the One after all. But who can say that he is not the One chosen for such a time as this?
For the last two years of the Presidential campaign, and especially this week, in roasts and toasts and in popular sentiment and rhetoric, Barack Obama often has been referred to as “the One.”
The reference to “the One” (to Neo in the Matrix, to Frodo as the One in Lord of the Rings, or to Obama as the One to save America) is an allusion to the Messiah in the Bible as the anointed one to redeem Israel from oppression. Two gospel texts about “the one” may serve as a way to frame the question—Is he the one—and provide a perspective for hope at this moment in our nation’s history?
I. “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2-6)
Why were they looking for the One? Because it was a moment in Israel’s history when Jews were under Roman bondage. During this time of oppression many had hoped that John the Baptist was the One to free Israel. He never claimed to be Messiah, but still they had hoped. Finally he was thrown into prison and let to die.
“But when John in prison heard what Jesus was doing, he sent his disciples to ask the question: ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we go on expecting another?’”
Jesus answers the question this way: “Go back and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is brought to the poor.”
In other words, the proof is in the fruit of action, and only time will tell. Better to judge a person by the fruit of their deeds and actions, rather than by their words and claims. “By their fruit you will know them,” said Jesus.
So, is Barack Obama the Messiah for our time?
Who do people say that he is?
• Oprah boldly proclaimed “he’s the One” and many people believed her.
• John McCain got a good laugh by calling him “That One!”
• Some New Agers wonder if he’s the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln (given his near obsession with the other President from Illinois. After all, obama began his journey to Washington from Philadelphia, with stops in Wilmington and Baltimore on a vintage train, just as Lincoln did. He’s read everything honest Abe ever wrote, makes allusions to him in his speeches, and put his hand on Lincoln’s bible as he took the oath of office.)
• Many African Americans think Obama is the new Martin Luther King, whose dream for equality and justice was realized in the election of the first African American President. I’m tempted to believe this myself, though its too early to tell. But what an emotional experience is was for me to be there on the Mall, shoulder to shoulder, in a sea of 2 million multli-cultural Americans, the majority of whom were mostly Africans who identified with Obama’s great achievement. I felt their energy and demonstrative delight in realizing, perhaps for the first time, that a young black kid in the neighborhood could become President of the United States. I saw tears of joy on faces as disbelief turned into reality when Barack took the oath of his high office. I was eye-witness to a historic moment when the earth shifted and the world changed. As Barack Obama stood on the steps of the nation’s capital, built by slaves, and beheld the sea of humanity packed on the Mall which was once a slave market, he must have recognized the kairos of the present moment. He must have felt the gravity of the moment when he referred in his speech to the phenomenon how “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Later today, an all-American Black family would take up residence in the White House, also built by slaves, backed the bricks and laid the foundation.
• Unfortunately, there are also those among us who were unable to enter into the joy of the moment because of their fears and suspicions. Some fear that he is a socialist who will destroy free markets, or a Muslim who is a secret terrorist, or ‘the abortion president’ bent on destroying human life. I know some religious Fundamentalists who suspect that Obama is the “Evil One” or Anti-Christ spoken of in biblical prophecy. The one who is to come, who will set up a ‘one world’ government during the Great Tribulation, and require the ‘mark of the beast’ on all our foreheads.
• Rather than compare Obama to Abraham, Martin or Jesus, why not compare him to Queen Esther of Persia–a beautiful Jewish woman who caught the eye of the King and was added to his harem as a favored wife. A woman of deep faith and courage, she was willing to risk her life for her family and fellow Jews. A woman raised up as an instrument in the hand of God to avert the destruction of the Jewish people, and to afford them protection and peace in their captivity. As the ultimate result of her intervention and influence with the King, Jews were able to live in the Persian Empire for 2400 years thereafter. Esther’s husband, the King, showed mercy to the Jews of Persia effectively ending the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Imagine Queen Esther, in bed with a pagan King (in comprising ways some would say) chosen by God for her time and place to protect her own people. In the words of Mordecai to his adopted daughter Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
Throughout sacred history, God sometimes raises up individuals at crucial times and places for a special mission and divine purpose. Such persons make a decisive difference in moments of opportunity and change.
Moses, for example, was such a chosen leader and vehicle of change in the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
King David was anointed by the Prophet Samuel for divine purpose in establishing a new monarchy in Israel.
Queen Esther was the One for her time.
Jesus was the one and only anointed One to save his people and the world from sin.
St Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, and John Wesley were among the chosen ones by God to rebuild and renew the church of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther King is recognized today as a prophet in his time to be the one major instigator in the civil rights movement.
And Barack Obama? Is he the One we need in our time?
Time will tell. In the meantime, we can only hope.
Beyond the popular sentiments and powerful rhetoric, we know the Truth—that Obama is neither the Messiah nor the Anti-Christ. He is not Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King. Or Queen Esther. It is way too early for anyone to see the fruit of his actions or with whom to rightly compare him. Let us wait and see, and hope for the best, before we go back to John in prison to tell him what we have seen and heard about ‘this One’ in whom so many have dared to hope.
II. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:13-21)
But what happens when we put too much faith and hope in a charismatic leader like Barack only to be disappointed?
The story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus may shed some light. Cleopas and an unnamed disciple had followed Jesus for three years, believing him to be Messiah. They had given up everything and put their trust in him, hoping that he would lead the resistance to free the Jews from Roman bondage. The story of Messiah did not end as they had hoped. Their leader was arrested, sentenced, and executed for treason. Clearly, Jesus was not the One they had expected him to be.
They were walking West on the road to Emmaus toward the sunset. The sun was sinking, their eyes were downcast, their grief was heavy, their dreams were shattered, and their hopes buried with Jesus. They had put their hope in the possibility that he was the One who would redeem Israel. But obviously, he was not, since he now was dead and gone.
But then a stranger appeared on the road and walked beside them. In their despair they were kept from recognizing him. The stranger opened the scriptures to them and revealed a new perspective. The stranger broke bread with them in a most familiar way—a way that allowed them to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. No sooner did they recognize him, than he disappeared. Yet, they no longer were depressed and in despair. In retrospect, they saw the truth. It was not an illusion. They had seen the risen Lord in the form of a stranger. “Did not our hearts burn within us when we talked to him on the road and broke bread with us?
Even when hope is gone, God is still at work behind the scenes. Ideas sometimes fail, leaders disappoint, life changes, time tells all. Even if Obama disappoints us, God is still in charge. Even if he turns out not to be the One we expected him to be, that is no reason to lose hope for the future.
As the Psalmist declared: “Some hope in horses, some in chariots, but our hope is in the Lord our God.”
Hope is a habit of the heart. Hope is a human choice whose alternative is cynicism and despair. ‘Hope springs eternal’, they say. You can hope against hope. This is what is sometimes called “the audacity of hope.” Hope can be cultivated, guided, guarded and grown.
There are at least four elements of HOPE:
Healthiness of Heart.
Openness of Mind.
Perseverance of Spirit.
Enthusiasm of Soul.
According to Bob Morris, Founder of the Interweave Center in Summit:
“Hope is not mere wishing; it is an ardent flame in the heart,
the fervent desire that some truly good thing is possible
in spite of difficulties and hindrances.”
Jesus instilled hope in his downcast disciples.
Barack Obama has instilled hope in more than 80% of the country, after he said in his victory speech:
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we will as a people get there.”
I think it’s okay to have a little hope in the man and in our nation’s future. To hope means that deep in our heart we are open to the possibility that our current President was elected and chosen for a special mission at this time in our nation’s history. In the words of Mordecai, “Who knows whether that he has come to power for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
Obama is NOT the Messiah who will usher in the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Neither is he the Anti-Christ who will bring about the End of Days. Rather, he is a good and gifted, wise and strong, but all too human, leader of our country.
Don’t expect signs and wonders. And don’t expect the End of Days. Be open to a new thing that God may be doing in our time.
Live in hope. For God Almighty has in times past, and may do so again, raise up a gifted leader ‘for such a time as this.’