An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Taking By Force

A sermon on 2 Samuel 11:1-15 & John 6:1-21 by Nathan Nettleton

For much of this year, our gospel readings are working their way through the gospel according to Mark, but tonight we leave Mark for a five week series on the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John. The series begins, as you heard, with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and then for the next four weeks we will be hearing Jesus reflecting on the nature of true food and true drink in his most explicit teaching on the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. I’m preaching only on the first and last of these five weeks, and if you want to hear me preach on the last one, you’ll have to travel because I will be preaching that sermon for our sisters and brothers in the Baptist Church in Matanzas in Cuba.

Tonight I want to focus on the one verse of the reading that you are probably least likely to have noticed or remembered. The reading we heard had two big-ticket memorable miracle stories – the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on water – and in between them is a verse that says, “When Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Or to put it a little more bluntly, “When Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he got the hell out of there.” Now the Church talks quite freely about Jesus as King, but it doesn’t seem to be a title or a role that he sought, or was willing to have put on himself. So what’s going on?

I want to unpack this verse by detouring back to the first reading we heard tonight, the story of King David and his illicit and ultimately murderous sexual relationship with Bathsheba. I have two reasons for wanting to take this detour, in addition to the fact that it happens to be the reading set for the day. Firstly, whenever the Israelite people got it into their heads to make someone their new king, what they were saying was that this person seems to us to be the new David. David was their model king, and David’s reign was the golden age that any new king was supposed to be bringing back. So trying to take Jesus by force and make him king is very much about David. And secondly, this particular story about David tells us a whole lot about what happens to people when they become kings, and probably a whole lot about precisely what Jesus was resolutely trying to avoid.

The social role of the king is a very strange and contradictory one. Nowadays, most of the world’s kings and queens do not have anything much in the way of real political power, but much of their social role is nevertheless unchanged. The British royal family is a prime example. It is hugely popular at the moment, but its popularity has nothing to do with a political belief in the benefits of monarchy as a system of government. Instead, the royal family have become the focus of our culture’s obsession with celebrity. They are not popular as politicians, but as celebrities. We never hear anything about the queen’s executive power and her role in signing legislation or advising prime ministers, but we hang on every detail of royal weddings, births and christenings. Just as we do with other celebrities. And when examined carefully, we can see that celebrities, including the royal ones, have inherited a lot of the social role of the the ancient kings. Their role is to be different from us in intensely fascinating and distracting ways, so that we can obsess over them and find ourselves strangely united in either loving them or hating them, or swinging back and forth between the two. Being a celebrity is a toxic and dangerous assignment. Living in a fish bowl for any length of time is pretty corrosive to normal relationships and emotional health, and the royals have even less chance of escaping the glare of the spotlight than other celebrities. And in a kind of compensation for the poisonous effects of our need to obsess over them, we give them special privileges to do things that ordinary people are not allowed to do. It used to be said that kings were, quite literally, above the law. They were permitted to do things that we make laws to prevent ordinary people from doing.

So, in fact, there was nothing especially unusual about King David seeing a woman he wanted and just taking her, in all probability raping her, and then when he needed to keep the scandal of her pregnancy out of the tabloids, arranging for the death of her husband. It was more or less accepted, or even expected, that kings were allowed to do that sort of thing. It was part of the deal. You will notice if you read the rest of the story that although David is rebuked religiously, there is never the slightest suggestion that he might face the legal penalties that any ordinary man would have faced in that society for adultery, rape and murder. He is, quite literally, above the law. He can gratify his own desires at his people’s expense with impunity, so long as he keeps his end of the bargain by fascinating us and so keeping us united and relatively harmonious. Whenever the economy is falling apart or the fault lines of social division are starting to open up dangerously, a royal wedding or a royal scandal – it doesn’t much matter which – can distract us all and reunite us around our common obsession with their celebrity goings-on.

The people always knew what they were in for. Some weeks back, we heard the prophet Samuel warning them what would eventuate when they demanded that he give them a king (1 Samuel 8:4-20). A king will tax you heavily, take whatever he wants of your lands, take your young men to be his soldiers, and your young women to be his maids and his White House interns, but the people would not be dissuaded. “Give us royalty, give us celebrity, give us scandal, fascinate us. We’re up for it! We crave it!” So David can take Bathsheba by force and he can murder her husband, and the people will continue to laud him as their greatest ever king. And David and his family will pay a terrible price for generations for this toxic licence to indulge without limit. Bizarrely, the king is a kind of scapegoat, whose life we consume for our own ends, and every now and again we literally hound one of them to death as we did a few years back with Diana. That’s part of the bargain too. Our royals and our celebrities live above the law and above the normal moral constraints, but they never know at what moment their licence might suddenly be withdrawn, and the adoring public turn into a bloodthirsty mob who will eat them alive.

So when Jesus realised that the people were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he got the hell out of there as fast as he could. Note that interesting phrase: “take him by force” to make him king. Kings might have licence to take whatever and whoever they desire by force, but they themselves are taken by force to be made into what we need them to be. And Jesus is determined not to be what we think we need him to be. He resolutely resists the call to emulate David either as the warrior-king who leads the people in destroying their enemies, or as the celebrity-king who tickles our fancies with his scandalous indulgences. His determination does not save him from becoming our scapegoat and being lynched by the fickle and fascinated mob, but it does enable him to not just be any old scapegoat, but the one who reveals to us the true face of God and the integrity of God.

You see, much of the time most of us imagine that God is both warrior-king and celebrity-king writ large. Much of the theology we hear preached in our churches seems to be based on the idea that God is above the laws and moral constraints that are expected of the rest of us. Unlike us, God is apparently allowed to command genocide. Unlike us, God is allowed to withhold mercy unless a price is paid in blood. Unlike us, God is allowed to punish an innocent person to deal with his rage at other people’s sin. Unlike us, God is allowed to strut around and demand unthinking obedience to the most trivial and archaic laws. Unlike us, God is allowed to demand that we stroke his ego with unquestioning praise and worship from his adoring fans while we continue to be humiliated and shamed for every trivial offence. But Jesus unmasks the absurdity of all that, and shows us the true face of God, a very different God indeed. A God who is neither a marauding warrior, nor an indulgent celebrity. Not in the least. A God who will never sacrifice others or take them by force to gratify his own desires, but who will sacrifice himself, even his own life, for the love and life of the world.

Over the coming weeks, we will hear Jesus tussling with the people’s expectations as he tries to get them to stop looking at him just as a source of bread and circuses, and strives to open their eyes to the meaning of the bread of life that multiplies itself in their hands. “You’re just pursuing me because you got your fill of bread, not because you understood what it means,” he will say. But over and over the people will try to take him by force and squeeze him back into the categories they understand, the categories that legitimise the structures of life as they know it, and they don’t have a category for a god or king who will not be diverted from the pathways of absolute open-bordered self-giving love, mercy, humility and integrity.

They could have comprehended a celebrity-king who took the boy’s loaves and fishes, and kept them for himself. They could have comprehended a celebrity-king who took the boy’s loaves and fishes, and multiplied them for the crowd and then spent the rest of the day signing autographs, posing for photos, and helping himself to a few of the local girls. And they could have understood a king who used this spectacle as the launching pad to mobilise the masses and seize power from the Romans.

But what they couldn’t comprehend, and what precious few of us are able to comprehend today, was the astonishing sign of a god and king who does not use our loaves and fishes for his own ends at all, but takes them only to express thanks and multiply them and give them back to us in a scandalous abundance that we might taste and see and feed on the overflowing abundance of God’s love and mercy for us and for all the world. What they couldn’t comprehend, and what precious few of us are able to comprehend today, is that Jesus is not looking for a besotted fan club, but for humble and gracious partners in his quest to transform the world into an abundant paradise of generous love and gracious hospitality and borderless welcome and belonging.

This is, indeed, a radical change of culture that we are tasting here. The culture we live in is undoubtedly even more obsessed with spectacles and scandals and celebrity than that of David’s day or Jesus’s day, so perhaps such a radical change of culture is even more difficult for us to imagine and grasp. But the emerging culture of God has drawn near to us, and if we will feed on it and open ourselves to letting it transform us instead of trying to transform it back into the stale and toxic bread by which we have been stupefied and exploited in the past, then starting here at this table, we may find ourselves with more blessings than we can ever consume and basketfuls more to take and share for the life of the world.


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