"Jesus 2020," by Zachary Helton
The sermon can be viewed at https://youtu.be/EvrLT24nxDU?t=2380.
Jesus returned, in the power of the Spirit, to Galilee, and his reputation spread throughout the region. He was teaching in the Galilean synagogues, and all were loud in their praise. Then, Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.
Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his habit, Jesus stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
"The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison— to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.”
Rolling up the scroll, Jesus gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said to them, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.”
All who were present spoke favorably of him; they marveled at the eloquence of the words on Jesus’ lips. They said, “Surely this isn’t Mary’s bastard!”
At this, Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly you’ll quote me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your own country the things we heard you did in Capernaum.’ But here’s the truth: prophets never gain acceptance in their hometowns.
“The truth is, there were many Israelite women who were widowed in the days of Elijah, when the heavens remained closed for three and a half years and a great famine spread over the land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but to a foreign woman who had been widowed in Zarephath, near Sidon. Recall, too, that many had leprosy in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one was cured except a foreigner - Naaman the Syrian.”
At these words, the whole audience in the synagogue was filled with indignation. They rose up and dragged Jesus out of town, leading him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built, with the intention of hurling him over the edge. But Jesus moved straight through the crowd and walked away.
This is one of our sacred stories. Thanks be to God.
Well, just as his followers had long expected, Jesus had returned. Unlike what his followers had long expected, however, there seemed to be a conspicuous lack of earthquakes, of blackening suns, of horsemen or riders or any other such apocalyptic whatnot. There was just… Jesus, carrying on in much the same way he had carried on two thousand years prior, teaching and healing across the Middle East, except this time, naturally, with a Twitter account. He had, of course, chosen the handle @therealjesuschristofnaz33, since @therealjesus, @anointed_one, and @theonlybegotten had long since been claimed.
As luck would have it, the year of his return fell on an election year in the United States, and so, predictably, there was a powerful and immediate push to get Jesus to run for president. This was done in spite of the fact that Jesus did not quite meet the 35-year-old age requirement and had not, in fact, been born in the US or been a resident for 14 years. These were, however, unusual circumstances, and these rules were quickly waived. (It should be noted that this did not stop Mormons from enthusiastically pointing out that Jesus had long since fulfilled his residency quota and was due in Missouri any day now.)
“Jesus for President” signs began popping up on lawns and street corners across the United States, hoping to pressure him into the race.
Jesus himself, as one might imagine, was reluctant to answer the call. Political commentators theorized that this was due to a traumatic episode some years prior with another crowd that tried to make him king by force, a crowd Jesus had only just escaped into the mountains.
After some deliberation, though, Jesus agreed to participate in one town-hall debate with the other two candidates. After that, he said, the United States could decide whether they really wanted him to run or not. He had only one stipulation, and this was that all cross-shaped jewelry be confiscated at the door. Given his history with crosses, he found them off putting, which was understandable.
When the big night came, every seat at the Yale Repertory Theater was packed. Some behind the scenes political maneuvering had ensured that the audience consisted primarily of influential Catholic and conservative Protestant groups, though there was a small spattering of liberals to create the illusion of balance.
The stage, decorated in a tacky blend of stars, stripes, and sandstone, had three podiums rather than its traditional two. One bore the Republican elephant insignia, the second bore the Democratic donkey, and the third bore an image of a lamb carrying a white flag. (This was another point of contention with Jesus, who pointed out that this was a direct violation of the second commandment.)
The three podiums were confusing to some, as many had simply assumed that Jesus would be running as a Republican. Truth be told, it was more than a little bit embarrassing when Jesus had refused the Republican nomination, but they managed to chalk it up to divine eccentricities.
The large, digital clocks around the stage would be used to keep track of the candidate’s response time, but right now they were counting down until the beginning of the debate, and the people taking their seats kept a close and eager eye on them as they wound down towards zero. Finally, the moment came. The house lights dimmed, and a boom camera came down to face the moderator at her desk facing the stage.
“Good evening, and welcome to the second debate of a particularly contentious election season. For the first time in the history of our network, there will be an unprecedented third-party candidate on this stage, for whom no introduction is needed. Be that as it may, it is my duty this evening to introduce you to our candidates.”
The rest of the moderator’s words were drowned out by thunderous applause as the three candidates took to the stage. First was the Republican candidate, a white man in his mid seventies, dressed in a baggy Armani suit and a red tie. Following him, the Democratic candidate. Unsurprisingly also a white male, wearing a nearly identical suit, except for a blue tie. And finally, walking onto the stage, was Jesus of Nazareth. With his dark, Middle Eastern complexion and unkept black hair and beard, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He wore sandals, what looked like a burlap robe he had made himself, and a wide, genuine smile as he took his time getting to his place. The other two candidates, understandably, looked less at ease.
After a very long time, the roar died down and the moderator began an exasperated explanation of the rules. “There will be eight questions from the audience,” she explained, “each pre-approved by the network. Each of the participants will be called upon to address the candidates, and then each candidate will be given two minutes to respond.” After she went through time limits for rebuttals etc. etc., it was finally time to begin.
“Our first question,” the moderator said, “comes from Jenny Shore from right here in Connecticut. Ms. Shore?”
A woman near the front stood and was handed a microphone. “Um, hi,” she started nervously, fumbling with the card in her hand. “I just wanted to ask, um, well, with the wildfires in the west and increasing draughts in the global south, how do each of you intend to address the rising threat of climate change?” She handed the mic back and the moderator invited the Republican candidate to start.
“The idea that humankind could have such an impact on the earth’s climate is, quite honestly, absurd. The planet goes through cycles of climate change which are quite natural, and things will eventually move back to equilibrium. My opponent,” he gestured to the Democrat, “would use climate crisis as a fearmongering technique to get your vote, but the truth is that this is a theory by corrupt scientists and politicians, and the strength of our future lies in a strong economy, and strong family values.”
The moderator gestured to the Democratic candidate. “Regardless of what my opponent will have you believe, climate change is a very real existential threat,” he came in hot. “It is a challenge we must meet with strategy and resolve. Over the next several years, my administration would be dedicated to working towards incentivized solar development and carbon taxation that should get us moving in the right direction.”
At last, the moderator turned to Jesus. The crowd held their breath. For most of them, this was the first time they’d hear his voice. He took his time. Hearing Jenny Shore’s concern, fear, and courage, he thanked her for her question. Some in the audience strained to understand, wishing there were subtitles. His accent was incredibly thick, though considering that the English language didn’t come about until about five hundred years after his death, the fact he was speaking English at all should’ve been very impressive to anyone paying attention.
“When God gave humankind dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that creeps on the earth,” Jesus said, “it was not for humankind’s unbridled consumption, it was for their responsible stewardship. In your lust for comfort and fear of death, you have forgotten this, and you believe your wealth will insulate you from the consequences, from the wrath to come. It will not. Repent, die to your greed, and enter the Kingdom, where there is abundance. Otherwise, the darkness is coming, and it will be unavoidable.”
Jesus turned to the republican candidate. “When Israel did not heed the voice of her prophets, what befell her? When you do not heed the voice of yours, what will befall you?”
“And you,” he turned his attention from the shocked Republican candidate to the Democrat. “You claim to know the day of judgment is at hand. You claim to see the way your sin takes food from the mouths of children and pulls families from their homes, yet you too are a slave to fear. You speak in terms of decades while the world burns today.” Turning out, he faced the auditorium.
“It is exceedingly difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom, but with God, all things are possible. God is a good father, who will provide everything you need. Do not be slaves to your bellies. Serve God, and become a balm for the healing of the world.”
There was silence. Those who could understand him were too bewildered to know what to think. They expected Jesus to respond to this left-wing question by assuring her not to invest too much in this passing world, by assuring her heaven awaited her when she died if she would accept him as her Lord and Savior… but he didn’t. Who was this man with his talk about facing fear and caring for the poor?
“Well… alright!” the moderator eventually broke the silence. “Our next question comes from Dave Farmer of Georgia. Mr. Farmer?” Eyes scanned the room as the microphone went to a stocky man in his mid-forties. Jesus took the opportunity to take a sip from his cup of water, which, to the chagrin of the Southern Baptists in the audience, now appeared to be a cup of wine.
“Yeah, uh, thanks,” Dave Farmer said, taking the mic. “I just had a question about national security, particularly about threats posed by the Middle East and immigrants coming up from the south.” The two candidates both gave sidelong glances at their new colleague, suddenly aware of just how very brown he was. “I want to know how you intend to protect the United States from terrorists and the influx of criminals and drugs.” He handed the mic back and sat down.
“I’m not ashamed to say it,” the Republican candidate spoke first, reclaiming his voice. “There are some very dangerous people out there, but by God, we have the best damned military…” He glanced at Jesus, who was watching politely. “Er… sorry… uh… the best military in the entire world. Over half of our national budget is allocated towards military spending. We have the ability to bomb our enemies back to the stone age and secure our borders against any and all unsavory characters from the south.”
“Well, hold on there,” the Democratic candidate broke in. “I am proud of the strength of our military too – I had two sons that served – but these are delicate diplomatic situations. They must be approached with skill and a willingness to negotiate. I’m confident my administration could engage in productive peace talks abroad, and create effective, rigorous vetting processes for immigrants wishing to come into our country.”
The moderator stepped in. “And now we’ll hear from Jesus Christ.”
“It’s Joshua,” Jesus corrected.
“Pardon?” asked the moderator.
“Joshua. My name is Joshua. Well, Yeshua, really, but you may call me Josh if you wish.” He smiled patiently.
“Um… then… to Joshua…” she said uncertainly, before adding, for good measure, “…of Nazareth.”
Jesus looked around the auditorium. “I grew up in a nation struggling to breathe,” he said, “a nation struggling under the boot of a military empire much like the United States.” There was some defensive whispering, which was quieted by the moderator. “Rome relied on a military the likes of which the world had never seen, as you do. They conquered by force and ruled by fear of violence, as you do.” (More muttering.) “Your shared mistake is that you fail to see God’s image in those you call ‘enemies.’ These are God’s children, usually more in need of food than guns. If you overcome evil by evil, then what makes you any better than those against whom you fight? If you live by these weapons, you will die by these weapons. If, however, you can learn the path of loving your enemy rather than dominating them, of justice that restores rather than intimidates, then you are already conquerors of all in the Kingdom of God.
“And those ‘unsavory characters,’ you mention” he calmly turned to face the Republican candidate. “That was my family. I know what it is to flee violence and have to make your home in a foreign land, and if Egypt’s government had treated us anything like you treat those who come to you for shelter, then those books you call the gospels would be very short indeed.”
The Democratic candidate tried to break the tension. “Good grief Jesu… er, Josh. Sounds like you’d be more comfortable over here on my platform! You sure you’re not a Democrat?” He’d meant it as a joke, but Jesus responded sincerely.
“No, thank you,” Jesus said, shaking his head. “Republicans may use fear to amass power, but you… you use shame, which is no better.” The Democrat’s smile flickered. “So many of you want to claim a moral high ground by pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s eye without looking at the planks in your own. It seems as though you believe that if you can weed out everyone who is racist or sexist or homophobic, then you will bring about God’s Kingdom by force, but the Kingdom does not come by force. It comes through love. It is not found in shame. It is found in prayer for your persecutors, in compassion for your enemies.”
The Democrat scoffed and rebutted. “Rich words coming from someone whose enemies nailed him to a cross.” Jesus smiled again.
“The Kingdom I serve did not die with me; in fact, it becomes stronger in death. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed. It must be buried before growing into a mighty tree. Often your party seems to be planning a tree house without actually having gotten your hands dirty planting the seed.”
“Okay, thank you gentlemen” the moderator said, cutting off the Democrat and trying to calm the increasingly wound up crowd. It took her longer this time. “Let’s have the next question.”
Things continued in this way for several more questions – the candidates spouting their soundbites, Jesus exposing the truth behind them. Everyone was surprised and uncomfortable: the conservatives thinking Jesus was sounding more and more like a communist, the liberals disliking that Jesus actually seemed tooprogressive for their taste. Eventually, they came to the penultimate question.
“Can you please describe your stance towards abortion,” asked Rita O’Connor of Virginia, “and how you intend to protect the next generation of unborn.” The Republican candidate sighed in relief at this freebie.
“Now this is an area where I’m sure Jesus and I are on the same page,” he said confidently.
“Joshua,” Jesus corrected.
“Yes… um… where Joshua and I are on the same page,” he said, a little less confidently. If anyone had been paying close enough attention in that second, they would’ve seen the Republican and Democrat exchange an exceedingly rare look of desperate solidarity.
“I believe we can both confidently say that abortion is an inherently evil and despicable act that we both hope will one day be a footnote in America’s history books. The right to life is fundamental to my platform, and I will do my best to work towards the abolition of this heinous practice.” Much of the audience applauded these comments. In what had felt an unpredictable debate, they were grateful to have some familiar ground to stand on… that was, of course, until Jesus opened his mouth.
“Who among you knows the story of Adam in the garden?” Jesus asked the crowd. Hesitant hands crept up. “Is it not written, ’And Elohim formed the human from the red earth, and breathed into their nostrils, and the human became a living being?’” Jesus asked. “The scriptures are clear that what we call ‘life’ begins at this first breath, but why is it you have long since abandoned this tradition? I will tell you why.” With this, Jesus launched into a parable, as this wouldn’t be a story about Jesus without at least one parable.
“Once,” he began, “there was a man who had very little power. One day, he overheard someone mention that they had lost a sheep in the mountains, and the man pounced on the opportunity. He warned the people of rival tribes lurking in the mountains, stealing sheep and murdering shepherds. He created just enough alarm that people began gathering under his banner of fear. He even began preaching that God was on their side, and the hunting of rival tribesmen was righteous. The man became very powerful. In truth, he had little regard for sheep or shepherds, but much regard for power.” There was a pause as the crowd tried to figure out if they were being insulted.
“Likewise,” Jesus continued, “You call yourselves ‘pro-life,’ but in truth, you have little regard for life, and much regard for power. You use issues like abortion to rally under a banner of fear and moral outrage, and you put God’s name on the banner, but you have little regard for the justice God really wants. If you were truly pro-life, then you would not have executed twenty-two of God’s children last year. If you were truly pro-life, then you would not deny sexual education that lowers abortion rates, and you would help pregnant mothers trapped in a cycle of poverty. If you were truly pro-life, then you would not lock children in detention centers. If you were truly pro-life, then you would do something about the unarmed Black men and women being shot in the streets, or in their own homes. If you were truly pro-life, then it would not cost a small fortune to gain access to healthcare.
“You must each ask yourselves, do you truly serve life, or do you serve the demons of control and power? You cannot serve both masters.”
The crowd’s murmuring had risen to a barrage of defensive yelling. Before the debate, no one would’ve bet that cradle conservatives and pastor’s wives would actually be BOO-ing Jesus Christ off the stage.
“I believe we have one more question!” the moderator shouted above the crowd. “We have time for one, final question, please!” The audience, however, didn’t quiet down until John Jeffries of Houston, TX took the mic and started his question.
“Look, I don’t get it. I don’t get you,” Jeffries said to Jesus, his pre-approved question crumpled in his fist. “This is a Christian nation, and your followers here are oppressed more and more every day! I’m not hearing anything from you about the family values you call your followers to defend, or prayer in schools, or the takeover of liberal political correctness… I just… who are you?” Several people murmured angrily in agreement.
Jesus took a breath. He’d dealt with crowds like this more than once, and he knew this was it. His time here was up. He stepped up to his mic. “I am Yeshua of Nazareth, son of Mary,” he said deliberately. “I taught the Kingdom of God until the Kingdom of the world became so scared, they had me killed. Even as they killed me, I loved them with my dying breath, that breath which brings me back me to the land of the living in everyone who dares to follow my Way.”
“I am Yeshua of Nazareth, son of God, and I have been buried so deeply beneath your theological fear and lust for power that my legacy bears no likeness to my image. I am no Republican. I am no Democrat. I run on the platform that brings good news to the poor, that proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind… and what does it tell you that you would never, not in a million years, elect me to lead this so called ‘Christian nation?’”
The final two words were delivered with air quotes. The final two words were also the last words anyone at home heard before security lost control of the crowds and the feed was cut. Candidates were rushed off as angry Christians surged towards the stage.
Hours later, when the situation was back under control and several red-faced Americans sat on the stage with zip-tied wrists, Jesus was nowhere to be found. Later, reviewing security camera tapes, police witnessed bizarre footage of Jesus passing through the midst of the crowd, shaking the dust from his feet, and going on his way.
Many months passed before Jesus was discovered again by a reporter in the Republic of South Sudan. When asked if he planned to return to the United States, he could only laugh. “I can be found wherever I am wanted,” he commented, “but something tells me they don’t really want much to do with me.”
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
What stands out to you from the story?
What does the story make you wonder about?
Where do you see yourself in the story? Who do you identify with?
What are the implications for your own story in the coming days?