22nd November 2015 - Hugh Perry
2 Samuel 23: 1-7
This poem is labelled the last words of David and portrays David as the mediator of God. And the relationship between God and David’s household is seen as a covenant which legitimises the Davidic dynasty.
What is important to note is that the poem is followed by a list of David’s warriors which shows that David and his reign owes a lot to other people and not even confidence in God can allow David to forget the strength and loyalty of those who have supported him.
Not only is divine providence most apparent in hindsight but it is often worked out through people we encounter and people we depend on. The challenge is to expect divine providence and to appreciate the contribution others make to our journey.
John 18: 33-37
John omits an account of the interrogation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin under Caiaphas so the Roman judicial process becomes the trial of Jesus. Among the suggested reasons for this Roman emphasis is that John wanted to portray Jesus in direct conflict with Rome with Rome being the secular power that rules by violence and Jesus as symbolic of the religious power of integrity. Another suggestion is that Pilate is the representative of the state being asked to decide between the world (the way humans organise themselves through market ideologies, retribution and domination) and the truth (the divine organisation of creation).
If we accept that the community that produced this gospel also produced the three Johannine epistles and Revelation with its conflict between the way of Christ and the way of Rome then these suggestions are consistent with the community’s point of view and make a lot of sense.
'May you live in interesting times' is widely reported as being of ancient Chinese origin but apparently it is neither Chinese nor ancient but recent and western. It certainly seems to have been intended to sound oriental in the 'Confucius he say' style. The person who did most to bring it to the public's attention was Robert Kennedy. In a speech in Cape Town in June 1966, Kennedy said:
There is a Chinese curse which says 'May he live in interesting times.' Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.
With recent global events that have featured on our television we can certainly identify with Kennedys words. There is the seemingly unstoppable tide of refugees, the detention of New Zealanders on Christmas Island by our friend and neighbour Australia plus the terror attacks in Paris along with all the other acts of terror and violence that are not reported by our news media. Last Tuesday I attended a presentation at Presbyterian Support to promote the booklet Justice in Action, a joint project between Presbyterian Support and the Presbyterian Church. During the presentation a chime sounded every six minutes to remind us that every six minutes day and night there is a call to the police in New Zealand to report an incident of domestic violence. I don’t remember the numbers but many of those result in serious injury and a number result in the death of a woman or a child.
Undoubtedly we live with the curse of interesting times and the challenge is how to make our times less interesting and peaceful rather than ‘interesting’ and violent.
As we are called today to reflect on a divine realm as an alternative to human leadership our readings point out the stress between a divinely appointed king and what we now call the Realm of Christ. A kingdom that is not of this world.
The poem from second Samuel which claims to be the last words of David focusses on what is seen as a divine covenant between God and David. That covenant promises a similar relationship between God and David’s descendants which clearly did not happen.
Although Solomon increased the power and prestige of the nation subsequent kings were continually under threat from larger empires until the Davidic monarchy finally collapses and Israel enters a phase of being part of other nations’ empires. Eventually in putting down a rebellion Rome destroys the temple and disperses the surviving population.
If you read through the book of Kings you will find that the biblical writers keep the hope of the divine covenant alive by noting that various kings ‘did what was evil in the sight of the ‘LORD’. In other words it was the particular king that broke the covenant and God remained faithful. Furthermore the idea of the lasting covenant persevered long after the collapse of the Davidic monarchy and became the messianic expectation that Christians see fulfilled in Jesus.
‘A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.’ (Isaiah11:1) Jesse was of course the father of King David and Isaiah was looking for hope in a future descendant. Not so much because of his royal DNA but because the covenant that Yahweh made with David seemed to guarantee a return of a golden age. In Isaiah’s mind Israel’s hope lies in a king who, like David acts on God’s behalf, a king who rules with divine authority. Of course that is an authority claimed by many hereditary monarchies throughout history. It is also a hope expressed by ISIS. In an atmosphere of tribal disunity and what is, from their perspective, oppression by evil empires they look to absolute power in a leader who is totally faithful to their religion. Religion that is reframed and explained the way their leader wants it and they are told to understand it. Furthermore those who support such a cause become heavenly warriors and a just god must reward their loyalty.. That is the expectation of martyrs both aggressive and passive throughout history. Furthermore it has scriptural backing in the books of Maccabees which many scholars suggest is responsible for the development of the Jewish vision of life after death which was promoted by the Pharisees at the time of Jesus. An understanding which, in spite of the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus in the, migrated into Christian tradition.
However what must be remembered about David that is relevant to all totalitarian rulers, and to a certain extent democratic leaders, is the massive team that helps them gain power and remain in power. As noted in the introduction the text that follows our reading from second Samuel contains a list of David’s warriors. That highlights the fact that both David and his reign owe a lot to other people. Not even his confidence in God can allow David to forget the strength and loyalty of those who have supported him. We should also remember his human vulnerability. The murder by proxy of Uriah the Hittite and the violence involved in his coming to power plus the murder within his family that lead to Solomon’s succession. The curse of interesting times applies just as much to the world of second Samuel as it does to us.
Although democracy prides itself in less violent transitions of power leaders still need a whole lot of people supporting them. Furthermore wealth and the power brings many bring new leaders into office but it also corrupts them. As mentioned last week contemporary male leaders are also just as susceptible to ambitious Bathshebas as David was.
Isaiah’s vision was of a descendant of Jesse echoing what hindsight saw as the glory days of the Davidic monarchy. However our Gospel reading tells us that Jesus’ vision of a messiah was very different.
Jesus certainly lived in interesting times with mounting unrest among the increasingly marginalised and dispossessed peasants under Roman rule. Ignorance, poverty, a feeling of hopelessness along with deep distrust and grievance towards a foreign power are the seeds of terrorism and rebellion in our world. The same applied to Jesus’ world where unrest and fanaticism was building towards an ill fated rebellion. Episodes of violence occurred with regularity and vigorous debate among religious factions is portrayed in the gospels. Rome’s response to unrest was brutal and Jesus confrontation with the merchants and the moneychangers in the Temple could easily have been enough for a sentence of crucifixion. But it is also feasible that religious factions among his own people could equally have manipulated the Romans to take action against Jesus, as our Gospel reading suggests. Jesus’ times were interesting, volatile and dangerous.
Today’s Gospel episode however has much more to do with how the Johannine Community in Ephesus understood the meaning of Jesus and is not a trial transcript from Roman records.
Understanding that, we can see that this passage contains a clear statement of Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ project. From the experience of the Johannine Community in Ephesus the divine realm stands in opposition to the Jewish theocracy which handed Jesus over to Rome. The divine realm also stands in opposition to the Roman power that rules by violence and gives wealth to a few by impoverishing the many. Jesus’ realm is ‘not of this world.’ Not of the world of theocracy and peace through victory and domination. We read Jesus clearly stating. ‘If my kingdom were from this would, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’(18:36). Jews in that context mean Jewish authorities and is not a proof text for anti-Semitism. Persecuting Jews or any other minority is simply another expression of ‘the kingdoms of the world’. Opposing ‘the other’ is a form of scapegoating that ignites dispossessed masses into mindless violence or encourages them to vote for rabblerousing candidates who will exploit them once in power.
In verse thirty seven Jesus says he came ‘to testify to the truth’ (John 18:37) which challenges us as followers of Jesus to wrestle with Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ (John 18 38)
The truth for us at this time is that we do indeed live in interesting times. Just as Robert Kennedy suggested they are times of danger and uncertainty. History tells us that Kennedy may well have been over optimistic is suggesting that his time was more open to the creative energy of people than any other time in history. Kennedy, a victim of the danger of his time, just as Jesus was a victim of the dangers of his times.
However Kennedy was seeking to rule through the democratic system and thereby to supress what he saw as evil by the same form of domination the Romans used in Jesus’ time. Peace through victory and dominance along with trade that exploited the marginalised and gave wealth, and therefore more power, to the powerful few. That is how the realms of this world rule but Jesus’ power was not of this world. Jesus’ quest was to promote the vision of what he called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Jesus calls us to recognise that such a realm is within each of us. As that idea filtered through the emerging church, it began to formulate into an understanding that the Risen Christ is both in and around us. The Risen Christ calls each of us to live as Christ to others and as we do the realm of Christ comes near. Pilate, as the representative of principalities and powers of the world, asked ‘What is truth?’
The truth is that much as we may be cursed with interesting times of terror and violence the answer is not to respond with more violence.
The truth is that as we live as Christ to others the realm of Christ draws near and a world of terror is transformed into a world of peace.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.231-232
 Raymond Brown The Gospel According to John xiii-xxi (London-Dublin : Geoffrey Chapman 1971), pp.862, 863.