Many 1st century Jews awaited a messiah who would flex his celestial biceps, body slam Rome, and beat his chest to the applause of the liberated masses. Just as David iced Goliath and sliced off his head, so the New David would be an ass-kicking, pagan-thrashing, political powerhouse who would make Israel great again by decapitating their Roman overlords.
Then Jesus comes along. Oi vey. He didn’t even bloody the nose of Rome, much less demolish these overlords. They demolished him. The Roman Goliath smirked as he held up the crucified corpse of the New David. This messiah, alas, was an embarrassing disappointment.
Or so it seemed. Of course, we know the rest of the story. We know the ongoing fallout from the cataclysmic shock of Easter as a dead man stood alive again. And here we stand, centuries after Rome’s famous power is nothing but the dirt in which archaeologists dig, while church bells ring worldwide in a cacophony of victory.
But here’s something we forget: even during Jesus’s ministry, well before he bled atop a Roman cross, his supremacy over worldly political power was patently obvious. In fact, it was laugh-worthy. In one incident, Jesus blends together pigs, politics, and power, in a scene that makes one laugh and shout Hallelujah in the same breath. @@Jesus was healer, rabbi, and savior, to be sure, but he could also hold his own as a cosmic comedian.@@
St. Mark, Political Cartoonist
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and his cohorts have just crossed the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee (5:1ff). On the other side, in non-Jewish territory, they encounter a freakishly horrific madman worthy of his own Stephen King novel. His home is the graveyard. When chained, he rips the irons like threads. Bleeding wounds decorate his body where he’s gashed himself with stones. His screams reverberate through the mountains. This demon-inhabited guy is a human nightmare.
And his name? When Jesus asks him, he replies, “Legion, for we are many.” Now just let that sink in. Of all the names this immensely powerful, death-loving, horror-inspiring man could have, his name is a Latin-loan word. A legion was a regiment of up to 5000 or 6000 Roman soldiers. That’s a lot of fighters. That’s a lot of power. And that is part of the joke.
Mr. Legion stands before Jesus as the incarnation of Rome’s power. And what does Christ do? He stages a comedic act, the punchline of which makes a big splash (pun intended!). He sends the legion of demons into a nearby herd of swine, the whole of which runs squealing over a cliff into the heart of the sea. Richard Hays explains, “When Jesus then powerfully dispatches the demons into a herd of unclean pigs who plunge to their death in the sea, Mark hardly needs to explain the joke. It is a kind of political cartoon, in which the Roman army is driven out by Israel’s true king, sent back into the sea from which their invading ships had come” (Echoes of Scriptures, 148).
You see, there’s a pre-resurrection wink in Jesus’s eye when he stages this memorable joke. As if to say, “No, I won’t draw a sword against Rome. No, I won’t conform to your political expectations of me. But here’s what I will do: I’ll deal with Rome the same way I dealt, long ago, with Egypt. I’ll drown them in a sea, while I bring my people safely through to the other side. For my ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts. I came to establish a kingdom, to be sure, but my throne rests atop the water not a political citadel.”
The Church’s Hope Is Not in the White House
There is, it seems to me, a great lesson to be learned in this comedic act of Christ. Every worldly power—be it Egypt, Rome, or America—is destined eventually for the bottom of the sea. “My kingdom is not of this world,” our Lord said, so every kingdom that is of this world will eventually go under. Every government, every leader, is lame-duck. Their time will end. It’s only a question of when.
We do not, therefore, as followers of Jesus, put any hope or place any trust in “princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps. 146:3). In fact, it seems to me, that the more congenial any political party or leader is to the church, the more dangerous the situation becomes, because Christians are then much more likely to be deluded into thinking their ongoing success in the spiritual realm is dependent upon success in the political realm. @@Let it be shouted from the rooftops that there is no hope for the church in the White House.@@ In the end, that place too will rot at the bottom of the sea.
Rather, we stand with Jesus, who rules upon a floating throne above the waters (Psalm 29). He sank the Egyptian chariots in the bottom of the Red Sea. He sank the Legion by reducing them to drowning pigs. He stands, as King of Kings, over all worldly power, malignant or benign, and wields them ultimately for the purpose of his own Gospel kingdom. And, in the end, all worldly powers and kingdoms will be reduced to nothing, will sink, will be no more.
But the kingdom of Jesus will have the last laugh—a laugh of joy and shout of happiness—for the punchline is always the same: Christ is risen! He is risen for us, that in him we might have life and hope that will never pass away.