A Different Kind of Power
I love to bake. I like to bake simple things like dinner rolls and birthday cakes, but I also like to experiment with things like donuts, soft pretzels and ciabatta bread. I’m no master, but as with any craft, the more you practice, the better you get. I spent a large part of my weekend practicing piping flowers with buttercream icing, and by the end, they weren’t looking half bad. But today’s very public admission from the pulpit aside, I usually don’t advertise my love of baking, because as you may guess, once the secret is out, everyone you know has an occasion that needs a cake or cookies or a strawberry rhubarb pie, and could you possibly whip one up for them just this once?
But this predicament is small potatoes compared to what Jesus must have experienced on a daily basis. All I can do is mix some ingredients together for a sweet confection for a party of 8. Jesus could feed 5000 hungry people. Quite literally everyone he knew had a friend or loved one in need of his special power. It sounds exhausting to me. But then, I’ve always been a little wary of having power. As Uncle Ben from Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
This morning, our scriptures show us two very different kinds of power. David’s power as king of Israel is familiar to us, and I’m sure that there are women in the room who, like me, cringe a little at this story, especially in light of the recent explosion of publicity around women abused by men in power. David is the most powerful man in the land. He has or has access to everything you or I could ever want. He has sent his armies out to acquire even more, more land and property and subjects for him. He has the Ark of the Covenant with him in Jerusalem; he has the promise that his line will continue on the throne; he already has six sons and five wives.
But for some reason, David has to have Bathsheba as well. Since she’s already married, David has to get rid of the husband. As is typical in our scriptures, we don’t know what the woman in this story thinks or feels, but we can assume that probably doesn’t matter much to David. Because his is the kind of power that if you have a little, you only want more, and nothing is off limits. His is the kind of power that exploits for its own gain. We have all seen this kind of power. We’ve watched politicians fall under its spell. We’ve fought against supervisors who lord it over us. We’ve been its victim, and we’ve also wielded it.
And then in the Gospel, we see Jesus’ power. This is a totally different kind of power. It’s rooted in abundance, the kind of power that has the capacity to spread itself, to give everyone enough. It’s a power that gives, doesn’t take. The story of Jesus feeding the crowd appears in all four Gospels, but a couple of things stand out in John’s account. John the Evangelist is intentional about pointing out all the ways that the miracle of the loaves and fish is reminiscent of foundational stories in the Old Testament. Jesus feeds the people during Passover, just as Moses once did. Jesus makes bread multiply, even though his companions doubted that he could, just as Elisha did. In short, the power that Jesus displays in this miracle was familiar to the crowd, just like David’s kingly power is familiar to us.
Jesus is less than thrilled about this comparison. John says, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus knows precisely what kind of kingly power the people think he has. Power to fulfill their needs and vanquish their enemies and restore their former glory, just like the kings and prophets of old did. But in their full-bellied bliss, they seem to forget the rest of the story. Their earthly kings developed bad habits of pillaging, stealing, abusing and exploiting.
But Jesus is doing something altogether different. Jesus is introducing a new kind of power, a new kind of kingship, one marked not by brute strength and wealth, but by humility, service, and steadfast love. Jesus’ power and love are not things that we covet and hoard, because he offers them freely to everyone. And Jesus’ power and love are not traits that we idolize, but traits that we can imitate. We can be humble. We can feed people. We can show love. We can help vanquish enemies like poverty, racism and violence. And it’s not like my mediocre baking skills that can be exploited if I’m not careful. Imitating Christ’s power is live-giving, not draining. It’s an alternative lifestyle to the one that David falls prey to, the one that we fall prey to.
Our scripture this morning is Good News. It is a source of strength for all of us, especially women, who have been silenced by greedy, insatiable, earthly powers. Christ shows us that God’s power gives life, never takes it away. It also a source of strength for those of us, all of us, who have wielded that earthly power. Like David, when we return to seeking God’s heart, we too will be forgiven, renewed and fed.