If, like me, you take some interest in news and current affairs, then you will be familiar with political power struggles. Perhaps one of the most fascinating ones was the Catalonian bid for independence in the autumn of last year when Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalonia called a referendum calling for independence from Spain. The Spanish government deemed it illegal and eventually imposed direct rule from Madrid on Catalonia with Puigdemont being exiled to Belgium.
The recent election in Zimbabwe has witnessed a struggle between the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai and the successor to Robert Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa with the strong suspicion that the latter has not been entirely open and fair in announcing the results of the election causing much unrest in the process. In our own country, there is more than whiff that Boris Johnson is having another punt at Mrs May’s job …but we will have to wait and see on that one!
It was not all plain sailing in old testament times either. Indeed, the historical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles tell of much political intrigue. Over the summer, we have followed the fortunes of David from the book of Samuel. We have seen how he was God’s choice over Jonathan to succeed Saul as king of Israel. Then he falls for Bathsheba when he catches sight of her taking a bath. He has her husband Uriah killed in battle so that he can have her as his wife. This prompts a devastating prophecy from Nathan one element of which is that he will face trouble within his own house. (2 Samuel 12.11) This comes about through Absalom, David’s son by one of the many foreign women he had. In a plot worthy of EastEnders, Absalom killed one of his half-brothers for seducing his half-sister so David casts him out of his court. Absalom then claims he can give better judgment than David. As people approach the city gate at Jerusalem, the site of the courts of justice in those days, Absalom placed himself on the road with his men to intercept people and claimed to offer better justice than the king. (2 Samuel 15.1-15)
Eventually, David must go to battle with his own son which is the sad state of affairs recorded in this morning’s reading. (2 Samuel 18) He urges his generals to be gentle with Absalom. The battle results in a victory for David’s men and Absalom is spared but is then caught in a tree and left hanging by his head. When Joab, commander in chief of the David’s armies, hears of it, he shows no mercy and dispatches Absalom. David is distraught and weeps over the loss of his son even to the point of wishing he had died instead.
Absalom’s attempt to defeat his father in battle and gain the throne failed, but that was not the end of the power struggles. Adonijah, David’s oldest surviving son contended for the throne over Solomon, the son he eventually had with Bathsheba. Solomon succeeds to David’s throne as we shall hear in next weeks reading. Like his father, he was far from perfect but at least he loved the Lord. (1 Kings 3.3)
I always think these bible stories would make good drama for Sunday viewing, but you may well be questioning their meaning and relevance for today. One strand of thought in them is the question of legitimacy. Who has the real claim to power? In people like Absalom, we see ruthless tactics being employed to further his case and his cause just as we do with many political leaders today. Saul, David and Solomon, the three kings of the united kingdom of Israel are flawed human beings too yet it is clear that they are regarded as God’s choice to be king. Why should God want them in preference to others? We can only guess at that one. Certainly, they all show a developing relationship with the Lord, especially David whose thoughts can be seen in some of the psalms. But the overall message of these power struggles is clear; you cannot frustrate God’s will.
In the gospel reading from John, we have a striking claim on the lips of Jesus: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6.35) It is one of many audacious claims he makes which are recorded in all the gospels; claims to forgive sin, to be one with his father and that in following him is the way to life. They are things which no one should claim unless they want to be regarded as weird or deluded. Indeed, we read that the Jews began to complain about Jesus because he said he was the bread of life. Surely, he was the carpenter’s son from Nazareth? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven? (John 6.42) Their complaining does nothing to shut Jesus up. It makes him even more bold assertions about himself. ‘Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me’ (John 6.45) In other words, those who had carefully read the old testament scriptures would recognise him as the true bread from heaven of which the mana that fed the people during the exodus in the wilderness was only a foretaste. He would give his life so that who ever metaphorically ate and drank of it would have eternal life. (John 6.48-51)
Where is the legitimacy for these claims? How do we know that Jesus is not an imposter? After all, the claims made for him are for the same throne that Absalom was going after; the throne of David. As the people cry out on the first Palm Sunday and are not silenced: Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the names of the Lord-the King of Israel. (John 12.13)
There is much that we could say to argue the case for Jesus’ claims and the legitimacy of his rule in heaven and on earth. We can talk of his goodness, his compassion and love reflecting the nature of God. We can meditate on his humility and the ultimate sacrifice of the cross. Jesus might make claims but does not grasp power. He was in the world as one who serves. (Luke 22.27) We might think also of his power to heal and to make whole, of the remarkable way in which all manner of human persons were drawn to him and left fulfilled; how even the demons trembled in his presence. But like the kings of the old testament, it is the way God’s hand is on Jesus’ life through the nature of his birth, his baptism by John with the Spirit’s anointing and the transfiguring of his person on the mountain top. Ultimately, it is in his resurrection, in the raising of his body and the empty tomb that God most clearly declares the validity and legitimacy of Jesus’ person and ministry along with the mystery of the ascension. Yes, many of these things are supernatural, but then if God is to validate Jesus as king of Israel, as Lord of life and death, as the bread of life, there has to be supernatural activity. It of course remains for each of us accept the claim or otherwise.
Many do not accept for one reason or another the authenticity of the claims about Jesus and God’s stamp of approval on him. I don’t think it would be antisemitic to say many Jews still complain at him saying of himself that he is the bread of life. Jehovah Witnesses question his incarnation from God. Muslims give more credence to Mohamed and Mormons to Joseph Smith and his discovery of American texts. Yet what remains relevant and important for every human being is the question Jesus asks his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8.29)
It is Christian belief that God has marked out Jesus as the ‘anointed one’; that God himself is fully in Jesus with his marks of gentleness and grace. It is this which make our message demand attention. If amongst all the world’s power struggles you hold to the belief that Jesus is Lord, the bread of life, then let us share whole heartedly in proclaiming him in our world.
Trinity 11 12.08.2018