2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10: David’s golden age of rule over Israel.
2 Corinthians 12.2-10: Paul talks about his own weaknesses and the strength of God’s power and love.
Mark 6.1-13: Jesus’ authority is questioned when he returns to teach in his hometown; he sends out the disciples to teach and spread the gospel.
A prophet is not welcome in his hometown – they know where he’s1 come from. At least, that’s the experience of Jesus, whose authority is questioned by those who knew him as a little boy: the carpenter’s kid, born with something of a cloud over him if the town’s gossips have their timing right. He tries – he heals some people, changes a few lives – but really, he is powerless to act against prejudice and closed-mindedness. Oh well.
With one story flowing straight into another in Mark’s blockbuster of a gospel, it seems that Jesus’ response to this is to send the disciples out to teach and preach, and there are some rules. They can wear shoes2, but they can’t take an extra shirt3. They can’t even take a snack. He sends them out completely vulnerable, completely reliant on the goodness and hospitality of the people they encounter, on the strength of their message. And their mission is, by all accounts, a success.
Paul is another one who knows what vulnerability and powerlessness feels like: weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties. This is someone who knows and has staked his life on the love of Christ – but, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, he also knows the rough side of life. And yet, he no longer feels the need to ask God to remove his limitations: he sees God’s power made perfect in his own weakness. Given everything Paul goes through for the sake of the gospel and his fledgling churches, he’s certainly not speaking from the ivory tower – he knows what he’s talking about, has lived his own vulnerabilities. This is his truth.
David, apparently, is not so vulnerable –at least, not in this week’s reading4. His kingship is recognised, he conquers Jerusalem, he reigns over a golden age of peace and prosperity, and he goes from strength to strength, all because God is with him. Does that mean that God is not with Paul in his periods of weakness, not with Jesus in the powerlessness of being known and judged – or the ultimate powerlessness of the cross? Does that mean that God is not with us5??
This is a time when we stand in all our powerlessness – at the mercy of this virus and its new variant, in shutdown once again in order to keep each other safe, some of us in lockdown and all of us on a knife-edge. If nothing else in this pandemic, we have learned our own vulnerability. But we have also learned what truly matters, and we have learned in fear and adversity where our strength truly lies.
Jesus, Paul, even the untouchable King David – if we’re feeling powerless in all of this, we’re in good company. In the midst of lockdown and fear and restrictions, we are forced once again to confront our own fragility and mortality. And we are forced once more to face what is truly important, to turn once more from the distractions of daily life to the strength of prayer and trust. What do we learn in this? Where in our fear, our frustration, our worry, do we find our strength?
Things don’t always get better quickly. Not even Jesus can make things better all the time – he has to walk away in this week’s reading from a situation he can’t improve. But Jesus’ vulnerability makes our own experience of this one of safety and healing. Jesus’ powerlessness reminds us that God is present and working in our own powerlessness. We are reminded that we are more than our strength and capacity, more than what we can do and achieve. We are reminded that in everything, we are loved – surrounded by the love of God, just as Jesus was, a love that intimately understands our flaws and fears and weaknesses, which knows what it is to be human, and which loves us through and in that. We are loved – and so, in our weakness, in our vulnerability, we become that love in the world.
1 Or she – but in this case, the relevant prophet is a he.
2 Or sandals, at least.
3 So they are not allowed to spill beetroot or spaghetti sauce.
4 Although David isn’t as impressive as he seems – keep reading over the next few weeks and we’ll see just how weak and flawed Israel’s perfect King David can be.
5 Spoiler alert – no, it certainly does not mean that.