It’s hard to avoid having a somewhat juvenile idea of God. We very easily think of God as the top person in the universe, someone like us, only more powerful and spiritual and so on. If we think about God like that and ask, “Why does God have authority? Why does Jesus have authority over unclean spirits?” we might answer, “Because he’s more powerful than they are.” That makes the relationship between Jesus and the unclean spirits like a contest. Both possess power, but Jesus has more, so he wins.
But we don’t have to think very hard to see that that view of God is highly problematic. Why should we worship the top person in the universe, just because he’s more powerful than us? Some women theologians have asked why omnipotence, God’s being all-powerful, got to be thought to be a good thing in the first place. Isn’t it a very male thing to worship power? Doesn’t God’s being all-powerful just make him the biggest bully on the block?
All of this, it seems to me, is a deep mistake. If we have this kind of juvenile view of God, and juvenile view of power, the idea of an all-powerful God will come to seem oppressive and unattractive. It makes God into the ultimate despot. But God’s power is not best seen as the kind of power that a despotic ruler has, or the kind that a very wealthy person has.
Perhaps we come closer to the right meaning of the word ‘power’ when we look at the way we use it to talk about things of great beauty. “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a work of great power.” “This statue of David by Michelangelo has great power.” Works of art are said to have power because they move us deeply. They stir something within us and make us reach out to a broader and richer life.
God’s power is most visibly displayed in his bringing us to life. I mean that first of all in the way he brings us to life by Creation, but even more beautifully in his calling us to that specially-rich kind of life that we call the life of grace, our own sharing in God’s own life. God’s giving us life is not like our making something, as when I bake a cake. God calls us forth from nothingness, attracting us into life by the power of his great goodness, calling us ultimately to life with him.
Those things which move us display something, a tiny share, in the infinite attractiveness, the beauty and goodness of God, God’s power to move us, not as the universe’s greatest bully, but as the ultimate desire of every person and the goal, indeed, of every creature.
Do the demons just get Jesus wrong, then, when they ask whether he has come to destroy them? We might end up thinking that they have this false view of power as a sort of contest. They recognise that they have met their match, and so they are afraid.
Or the people of Israel in our first reading: do they simply misunderstand God, when in terror they each say, “Let me not hear the voice of the LORD my God … lest I die”? Surely if the LORD’s voice is a voice which calls them to life, they have nothing to fear?
There is, certainly, something wrong in their reaction. God’s response to their plea is not to say that they will not hear his voice, but to promise them a prophet, a new and greater Moses, to whom they will listen. Their desire for life will be answered by a new call to a new life, the call that God will make in Jesus.
But it’s important to see that Jesus does come to destroy. He does not come to destroy people, or lives. He does not even come to destroy demons per se. He comes to destroy all that holds us back from life. There is a healthy fear of the LORD which comes from a recognition that answering God’s call to life will involve the destruction of some things we hold dear, some things we have put in the place of God, and which hold us back from life.
These things are destroyed, not because God is a despot, smashing his rivals to dust, but because ultimately, nothing can stand in the way of the Love of God, calling us back to life, calling us to life with God himself, if that is what we desire.