August 5, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab, along with his servants and all the Israelites, and they destroyed the Ammonites, attacking the city of Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.
David sent someone and inquired about the woman. The report came back:
"Isn't this Eliam's daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?"
So David sent messengers to get her.
When she came to him, he had sex with her. (Now she had been purifying herself after her monthly period.) Then she returned home.
The woman conceived and sent word to David. "I'm pregnant," she said.
Then David sent a message to Joab: "Send me Uriah the Hittite."
So Joab sent Uriah to David.
When Uriah came to him, David asked about the welfare of Joab and the army and how the battle was going.
Then David told Uriah, "Go down to your house and wash your feet."
Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him.
However, Uriah slept at the palace entrance with all his master's servants.
He didn't go down to his own house.
David was told, "Uriah didn't go down to his own house," so David asked Uriah, "Haven't you just returned from a journey? Why didn't you go home?"
"The chest and Israel and Judah are all living in tents," Uriah told David. "And my master Joab and my master's troops are camping in the open field.
How could I go home and eat, drink, and have sex with my wife?
I swear on your very life, I will not do that!"
Then David told Uriah, "Stay here one more day. Tomorrow I'll send you back."
So Uriah stayed in Jerusalem that day. The next day David called for him, and he ate and drank, and David got him drunk.
In the evening Uriah went out to sleep in the same place, alongside his master's servants, but he did not go down to his own home.
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah.
He wrote in the letter, "Place Uriah at the front of the fiercest battle,
and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die."
So as Joab was attacking the city, he put Uriah in the place where he knew there were strong warriors. When the city's soldiers came out and attacked Joab, some of the people from David's army fell. Uriah the Hittite was also killed.
When Uriah's wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. After the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son. But what David had done was evil in the LORD's eyes.
So the LORD sent Nathan to David.
When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him."
Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn't willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man's ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor."
David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan,
"As surely as the LORD lives, the one who did this is demonic!
He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this
and because he had no compassion."
"You are that man!" Nathan told David. “This is what the LORD God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul's power. I gave your master's house to you, and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. Why have you despised the LORD's word by doing what is evil in his eyes?
You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.
"This is what the LORD says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight.
You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day."
"I've sinned against the LORD!" David said to Nathan.
"The LORD has removed your sin," Nathan replied to David. "You won't die. However, because you have utterly disrespected the LORD by doing this,
the son born to you will definitely die."
Everything had been going so well.
This boy David, son of Jesse, killed the Philistine giant, married the King’s daughter, became King himself, united the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. It looked like a charmed life. He had a palace, and three wives. He was a man after God’s own heart. Rich, handsome, successful, powerful. What more could he possibly want?
If you updated the details a little bit, this story could have been taken from the headlines.
John Edwards comes to mind. I liked him, at first. I liked that he seemed to be smart, faithful, a good family man. I appreciated that he had been the first person in his family to go to college, and that he had not had an easy life. He had suffered, too, the tragic loss of a son, and seemed to have come through the experience stronger, more compassionate. He was a tough fighter in the courtroom, and he stood by his wife Elizabeth through her battle with cancer. The first time, anyway.
Then, after announcing that he would not run for president unless Elizabeth’s health was stable, he ran anyway. You know the rest of the sad tale – his affair, the cover-up, the repeated denials the grand jury, Elizabeth’s death, the criminal trial. How the mighty have fallen!
So just when you think that this David, this king, the shepherd who was so ruddy and handsome, and fair of face, just when you think he is a hero worthy of our favor, and God’s favor, you come upon this story.
It starts with a subtle dig: “In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab…”
Yes, this David, the one to whom the people had said, “you were the one who led Israel out to war and back,” The army took the Ark of the Covenant with them, but David stayed home, and sent his Secretary of Defense, General Joab.
Instead of being with the army, at the front, David was at home, taking the evening air out on his rooftop patio. That’s how he chanced to see the neighbor lady taking a bath. There is nothing in the story to even suggest that she was doing anything wrong, although generations have sought to re-tell this story in a way that mitigates David’s guilt. They say she was behaving seductively, deliberately, knowing David would see. They call what happened a romance, a love story. But it was nothing of the sort. Nowadays, if a woman is sexually assaulted, we don’t ask, “Why was she there?” or “What was she wearing?” And we can’t really put any blame on David’s neighbor. He saw her, and he sent for her, and he took her, and he lay with her. The verbs are strong, imperatives – he saw her, wanted her, took her. All just like that. He was the King.
The woman is only named once in the story – to identify her – Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. But David didn’t care whose daughter she was, or whose wife she was. The woman only speaks once in the story, too. She says: “I’m pregnant.”
David sets the attempted cover-up in motion. He sends a message to Joab to send Uriah home from the front, then acts as if he is interested in a battle report from Uriah. Three times, David asks, “how is everything? how is Joab? how is the army?” Uriah, whether he is taken in or not, does what a good soldier does. He reports on the army’s progress.
But David’s real intent is to cover up his crime. He wants Uriah to go home, take a bath, spend a little time with the wife, you know, R and R, a little second honeymoon. Uriah, though, is a better soldier than his commander in chief. He doesn’t go home, but sacks out at the entrance to the palace, with the other soldiers. David can’t understand it – he had even sent a gift to Uriah’s home – who knows what – maybe champagne, or strawberries dipped in chocolate. He quizzes Uriah in the morning –
“Why didn’t you go home to your wife?”
“The Ark and Israel and Judah are all living in tents," Uriah told David. “And my master Joab and my master's troops are camping in the open field. How could I go home and eat, drink, and have sex with my wife? I swear on your very life, I will not do that!”
So David invites Uriah over for dinner, and gets him drunk. But still, Uriah does not go home and sleep with his wife, but returns to the same place and sleeps with his master’s servants. And then, in the strange logic of treachery, David takes the obvious next step. He sends a message with Uriah to Joab: Place Uriah in the front lines, in the most dangerous position. And Joab does so.
It does not matter to David whether other men in his army have died, nor does it matter to him whether this order endangers the entire effort. He has one aim – to escape detection and somehow evade responsibility. He is the most powerful man in all of Israel, God’s anointed, King of the realm, and he has taken another man’s wife, fathered a child with her, attempted to deceive Uriah into believing that he is the father, and failing that, he has had Uriah killed.
In a part of the story that we did not read today, David writes to Joab and tells him not to worry about Uriah’s death, or the death of the other men, because this is just the way things happen in wartime. Joab, of course, knows better,but he participates in the deception.
Uriah’s wife mourns for her lost husband, a man of courage and honor, but when she is finished, David brings her into his house and marries her. Up to now, the reader of this story might think that the main characters are David, Bathsheba, Uriah and Joab.
But what David had done was evil in the LORD's eyes.
And now, the other main characters appear.
Nathan, the prophet, comes to the king. He speaks boldly, but not too boldly. When speaking truth to power, it is wise to take care with one’s words. So Nathan tells a story, a little parable about a rich man who has many sheep and cattle, and his neighbor, a poor man with one beloved little lamb. This little lamb is like a child to the poor man. He feeds it from his plate, and lets it drink from his cup, he cradles the lamb in his arms like a child, and it sleeps in his bed. But when the rich man throws a party, the poor man’s lamb is what’s for dinner. David is outraged. This rich man is evil! He must pay!
“You are that man,” Nathan says.
You had everything. Everything. But everything wasn’t enough. And now, there will be consequences. David is truly and deeply penitent.
Psalm 51, a Psalm attributed to David, which we used as our prayer of confession,
expresses his contrition: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. …Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
God will forgive David, but all of David’s heartfelt penitence cannot undo what he has done.
Let me hasten to add here that in NO way should we employ a literal interpretation with this story, and in no way should we ever, under any circumstances, conclude that the loss of a child is punishment from God. The writer of this portion of Second Samuel has concluded that that is the case, after the fact, but no generalizations should be drawn from such a conclusion, any more than anyone should conclude that God has blessed David’s behavior when Bathsheba later gives birth to Solomon. The suffering that David and his family will experience as a direct result of David’s dishonesty and abuse will reach deep into the next generation, and the sorrow and grief that David will experience will be devastating. But these are inescapable consequences. The events he has set in motion by his actions will bring great grief upon his house, as we will see next Sunday.
It remains to be seen what will happen to John Edwards. Clearly, his political career is over.
But that was what people said about Newt Gingrich, too. Among others. What is clear is that the love of power is dangerous, and the thoughtless wielding of authority or influence for the gratification of one’s selfish desires is destructive, then and now. Power in itself is not evil; but coercive power without responsibility is immoral and manipulative.
The love of power and the thirst for power, the heady feeling of an absolute lack of accountability, have led many an otherwise upright person down a path of destruction, not only of their own lives, but of the lives of innocent people around them. This story is almost a melodrama, but for the sadness of it:
David becomes an object lesson, a story of what not to do.
Bathsheba is simply an object – of David’s desire.
Uriah represents the upright and faithful man, taken advantage of by his leader;
Joab is the complicit lieutenant, expediting David’s evil plan.
Nathan is the prophet, speaking truth to power, clever and wise in his actions.
But God, in this story, is demonstrated to be a God of forgiveness and mercy, a God of extravagant love and grace,
even more than we had previously imagined,
even more than we can possibly justify,
even more than we could ever use up.
In David, the nature of human sin is exposed, His love of power is destructive, even deadly, and nearly destroys his realm. But in God, the power of love is revealed, and that powerful love restores and redeems David.
That powerful love continues to restore and redeem people, and at this table, we find it once again, waiting for us. At this table, the One who overcame the love of power with the power of love, the only one who could show us what that looked like, that One welcomes us here. Here, at the communion table, Christ gives himself to us, and bids us come.
This is not an altar, for God does not desire a sacrifice or a burnt offering.
This is a table, where people gather to break open their hearts, to break bread, to share in the cup of the new covenant. This is not an exclusive table, not a reserved place for only certain people. It is an open table, where everyone, young and old, is a member of the family, and there is room for all.
You are welcome here, for the King of Love has invited you, and every person who knows him and follows him is welcome at his table.