Last night, as I reflected on this President’s eighth and last State of the Union address, I couldn’t help but think that even humanity’s greatest rooms, greatest orators, greatest military powers, and greatest economies appear so trivial against the backdrop of eternity.
It could be argued that the President of the United States is the most powerful person on earth. Yet, a president’s power is merely given. It is given by election from a populace, it is given by military commanders who maintain government, it is given by tens of thousands of administrative employees, it is given by freedom of press, it is given by taxes… and then it is given to someone else. Four years. Eight years. More only if your initials are FDR.
I would love to observe that humbling moment of “transfer” when an outgoing President hands the keys of power to the incoming President. It must be an awkward exchange because in reality there is no ownership of power transferred. Power is merely entrusted in the hands of a leader for a moment of time.
Ultimately, any power that humans exercise is a gift granted by God. “For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God,” according to Romans 13:1. Paul wrote these words in the days of Caesar, a ruler, it could be said, that harbored remarkable power. While power can be “great”… it is only great in a relative sense. For instance, the ruler of a nation is great in comparison to me, in the same way that my rule over food and shelter is great in comparison to my dog Smudge– an innocent, trusting four-legged creature with bad breath.
Even a President must admit: “God sits above the circle of the earth. The people below seem like grasshoppers to him!… They hardly get started, barely taking root, when he blows on them and they wither. The wind carries them away like chaff.” – Isaiah 40:22-24
Or put this way: “To whom can you compare God?” – Isaiah 40:18
The greatest grandiosity of humanity merely hints at the eternal sovereignty of the Lord… like a shadow hints at the sun… or like “inalienable” hints at a Creator’s overarching purpose for all people.
And it is this “hint” of the Office of the Presidency that I want to keep in perspective. The hint of the Lord’s power is what impressed me last night. All the accomplishments and all the promises any President has made are like chaff in comparison to the handiwork and plans of God. If I were to elevate the President’s power upon an improper pedestal, one where authority is seized rather than received, then I would be guilty of a Fall as great as Lucifer or Adam. But if I were to accept the privileged measurement of authority entrusted to the Office by God, then, just perhaps, God in his sovereignty might bless the Office’s influence.
Early in chapter 40 of Isaiah, before there is a reminder of humanity’s minuscule posture in the presence of God’s greatness, there is a joyful proclamation. The prophet offers words of perspective to an audience of relatively insignificant humanity. “Comfort, comfort my people!… Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm… He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart.”
The Lord’s authority is presented to us as humble fragility– just mild enough for us to be caught in an eternally majestic embrace.
I end this thought with a memory. Last year at this time, I sat in a large room having breakfast in Washington D.C. with about 3,000 other people. The President, the First Lady, and many very powerful and significant people were there. I remember that I was a grasshopper compared to them. The air of authority was palpable. The experience welled within me a deep respect for the founding structure and wisdom of the American framework in which power is both equipped and checked. And yet, it is the checking of that power that enables it to be so well equipped.
May the generations ahead keep perspective on the Presidency. Jesus grants power to certain human leaders for certain moments of time… because he can. So we must respect and honor the power that is given, and the people to whom that power is entrusted. And yet, we must remember from whom that power comes.