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Please the Lord

Sermon - 9/27/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Samuel 12:1-24

Our text for this morning is a familiar story from the 12th chapter of the second book of Samuel.  It is the conclusion to the story of David and Bathsheba.  I think many of you remember that story, maybe not all of the details.  To refresh your memory:

David sees Bathsheba taking a bath and desires her, summons her to his quarters even though he already has a concubine of wives.  Manages to get her pregnant, which of course is a small problem because Bathsheba is already married to a commander in his army who is off fighting for the nation.  So David summons him home, thinking he'll go visit his wife and then no one will ever know.  A nice little royal cover-up.

Only it doesn't work that way, because Uriah is a very devout man and to have those kinds of privileges in the midst of war is contrary to the principles of the time and he wants to be loyal to his troops so he refuses to go home.  Now David has a problem, big problem, that is only going to grow with time J.

So, he sends Uriah back to the battle with words to his commanders to send Uriah out and to withdraw their forces so that Uriah will be surrounded by the enemy and will be killed.  And indeed that is what happens.

David is thinking 'ha!', fixed that problem.  Done and over with, how clever am I. 

And this is the rest of the story:

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ 5Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’

7 Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’ 13David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.’ 15Then Nathan went to his house.

The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, ‘While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.’ 19But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, ‘Is the child dead?’ They said, ‘He is dead.’

20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshipped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. 21Then his servants said to him, ‘What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.’ 22He said, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.” 23But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’

24 Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and went to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and he named him Solomon. The Lord loved him.

 

Well, it's an interesting story, isn't it? 

This is the kick-off Sunday for our Fall stewardship campaign: "New Love, New Mercy".  You may be thinking this isn't exactly a traditional passage that we would use to reflect on stewardship J.  Michael Kennedy said to me when he heard what the text was, and what the Sunday was, and suggested I could use this as my sermon title:  "Give, or die!".

It's clear, simple, packs a punch.  Doesn't exactly give that warm and fuzzy feeling you want to create this time of year.  Kind of like going to football game when your team is on top of their game J.  Not that I would ever celebrate such [the Ducks beat 6th-ranked Cal 42-3 yesterday].

But this text is not exactly a warm and fuzzy text, either.  It raises all kinds of challenging issues for us.  So let me start with those, because I know there are people that when they hear this (or read it) have all kinds of questions.  Is this the way God is?  How could a just God justify taking an innocent child as the punishment for the sin of the King?  If this is God's doing, can we still think of God as love?

Consider the difficulty our military has whenever innocent people are killed in some action, we have to explain that collateral damage is the unfortunate result of war.  Is God so limited that God cannot avoid that kind of collateral damage in order to achieve some divine purpose? 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of 'Why Bad Things Happen to Good People', says that if you get on an airplane and unbeknownst to you there's some really bad people on that airplane, and, you know, God may think this is a convenient time to cause a little mishap on the airplane at 30,000 feet and they'll all plummet to the ground.  I mean, who could live like this?  Those are tough questions.

So we basically have two choices with a text like this.  On the one hand we can simply accept that God knows best.  Though it's hard to explain why this child has to suffer at all, let alone suffer for 7 days.  But we can trust God is doing the right thing.  That's one option.  And if that works for you, great.  For many people, no matter how bad things get, they take great comfort in the assurance that it will all work out somehow in the end.  God is in charge and knows what he or she is doing.

Helen Hendricks, some of you may remember, a life-long member of this church, cared for her husband for 25 years after he had become an invalid from a stroke.  Hardly left his side, devoted to his care.  By the time he died, her health had failed and she was pretty much home-bound.  Whenever I visited Helen, she always always always said to me that her favorite verse of scripture "For all things work for good for those who love the Lord".  She said it with such joy, her faith was so evident it was contagious.  And powerful. 

But I know that doesn't always work for everyone.  And to be honest, it doesn't always work for me.

And so after 3,000 years of reflecting on the nature of God and human suffering, collectively, the people of faith have come to a new understanding.  People once believed that God was behind every birth and every death.  I do not.  To me that idea died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  It died under the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It died in the twin towers of New York.  Don't tell me that God causes innocent people and innocent children to die because there is simply too much evidence to the contrary. 

Maybe the author of this text believed that God worked this way, or maybe such was simply the common understanding.  It was the best explanation that anyone could give at the time for why bad things happen to good people.  And no one thought to question it.

Just as most people in ancient times believed the world was flat -- it made sense, heaven above us, hell below us.  But of course in today's world that doesn't make sense anymore, when we have an entirely different understanding of the universe, and know that there is no such thing as that kind of '3 story' universe.  Does that mean we need to re-write scripture to take that into account?

And so too the same with God.  We may have a different understanding today, that does not mean that we should re-write the text.  Indeed, part of the power of the story is that it doesn't always fit our understanding of God in the world and therefore it challenges us to think hard.  Why do we know God is like 'this' and not like 'that'?

And I know, in church it can be a dangerous thing to do J.  But it's good for us to be challenged, to be honest with the text, not pretend that everything is OK when it's not.  To struggle with it.  As much as Jacob struggled with those divine messengers before he reconciled with his brother Esau that night along the banks of the river.

Sometimes in those struggles, we find the greatest blessing as we come to new understandings of the text, or our faith, or God.

There are a couple other issues I think are worthy of that kind of struggle that I'll just touch upon without going into -- you can chew on them.  One is the whole issue of prayer.  I mean, here is David who prays unceasing for 7 days and nights and apparently to no affect.  That raises some issues for us.  There's also the question of mourning, and David's apparent lack thereof after this child dies.  Foreshadowing, perhaps, the difficult saying of Jesus 'Let the dead bury the dead'.  And lastly, and I think even more interesting, the whole question of family values in a story like this.  On the one hand, David doesn't get away with his adultery and the murder.  That's all well and good.  But he gets Bathsheba anyway, in the end.  What's the lesson there? And then there's the issue of this concubine.  Never does the story ever question the right of the King to have as many wives as he chooses -- so long as he doesn't steal someone else's wife.  Not exactly traditional family values.

And finally the threat that Nathan makes, apparently on behalf of God -- because David stole Uriah's wife, God is going to take all the wives of David, give them to his neighbor (presumably meaning another King), and to do this in plain sight because of what David did in secret.  Now, never-mind that these women are traded here like pawns in a chess game, but what Nathan is proposing makes Hugh Hefner look like a puritan saint J.  Probably not a good story to read to your children before bedtime.  "Mommy, how come David had so many wives?". . . . "Go ask your father". J  "Daddy, did David make babies with all of his wives by himself, or did he have help?".  It's those kinds of questions that led to sex education in schools -- some things are better left to professionals J.

So we have all these questions that this text raises.  But in addition to all of these, there is the hard question of the story, of the parable, the lesson that it suggests to us.  And while the object of the parable told by Nathan may be to expose David's abuse of power and his lack of hospitality to the poor with the single ewe, as is the case in all stories in scripture it's not intended solely for David's sake, otherwise the text would not be here for us. There's a deeper truth for us, about the relationship between wealth and poverty.  The tempting lure of greed, and the ways in which David abuses his power.  The ease by which those with money take from those with little.

It wouldn't be too hard to update this story for modern times.  I mean, you change the sheep to something like securitized mortgages (which we probably don't have a lot of understanding of what those are!), add to that instead of a rich man you have a Wall St. broker, the poor man is a homeowner whose home is being foreclosed upon.  And you see, it's the same story being played out in modern times before our eyes.

Ultimately, this is not just a parable about 1 King long ago, or wealthy bankers far away -- it's a parable about the responsibility that we all share, to use our wealth and power (regardless of how great that may be or how little that may be) in ways that please God.

David, like the rich man of Nathan's parable, displeased God because he had used that power and wealth to satisfy his own desires with little concern for those under him.  And no amount of fasting and prayer could compensate for his failure to fulfill his most basic responsibility to others under his care.

John Dominic Crossan notes that in scripture, God rejects worship for the lack of justice, but God never rejects justice for the lack of worship.

Pleasing God is not about praising the one above us, it's about doing right by those under us.  Sharing the wealth and power we have from God with all of God's people, especially those who have so little of either.

That of course leads us to why we're reflecting on this text, on this Sunday.  For Nathan's parable is a parable about not only how David abused his power and wealth, it's about our stewardship of that which is entrusted to us by God.  And what happens when we abuse those gifts and use them for our own personal gain, rather than for the common good of all God's people.

So David is not only a negative example from which we can learn about how not to take advantage of others, David also learns along with us and thus is a positive model as well.  Confessing his sin and begging forgiveness.  And odd as may seem, this too has implications for stewardship.  In fact, it is the basis for the theme that we are using:  "New love, new mercy".  A theme drawn from the text of Lamentations that April will reflect with us on next week.

The book of Lamentations in particular, and lamentations throughout scripture in general, reveal to us the depth of human pain and suffering.  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  That famous opening line of the lamentation in Psalm 22 that Jesus then quotes from the cross.

One of the themes that comes through this particular story loud and clear is David's grief, David's lamentation.  Realizing his error and his guilt, he pours out his soul to God for 7 days and nights.  I think we can identify with that kind of pain, because it's one that most of us have known at some level.  Grief is simply an unavoidable part of life. 

My son came home with two little kittens earlier this year.  Cute as a bug, they quickly endeared themselves to you, a matching pair.  Well, one of them became sick, had to take him to the vet.  They had to hospitalize it for 3 days before we finally had to put the poor little thing to sleep because of that illness.  And you know, it just breaks you up.  There was more than a few tears shed in our household.  And we have that kind of grief for a pet, think how much more that grief is for a loved one. 

Learning to deal with grief in healthy ways, letting if flow out of us, rather than damning it inside until it bursts out in unhealthy ways is one of those critical lessons of life that's learned early.  But the witness of scripture is not just about the depth of human grief, it is also a witness to the depth of God's love to lift us out of that grief.

And so we note in the story of David's misdeeds resulting in his son's death ends not at the graveside, but at the birth of a second son to Bathsheba -- Solomon, who we are told is the wisest of King's in Israel's tradition, and whom God loved.

And so just as the story attributes death to God's will, so too it attributes new life.

And while that cannot begin to compensate for the death of Bathsheba's first son (as any parent who has lost a child will tell you), it does give us hope.  Like David, we may screw up our lives in all kinds of ways, but God does not cease to offer us new possibilities that bring life out of death.  To bring good out of any situation.

The message of resurrection is right here in this story.  With God, death does not have the last word.  It never has the last word.  Nor does sin remove us from the grace of God.  Though there are consequences for David's actions, there is also forgiveness.  Always forgiveness.

This unending mercy of God is the basis of our gratitude to God.  No matter our pain, our suffering, our hardships, our sin, God is always there offering to us new possibilities of life and hope.

Gratitude is the foundation of stewardship.  It's not about an obligation, not about a responsibility, it's not about a duty, ultimately it's about our thankfulness, our appreciation, our gratitude for all that God gives to us.  For the beauty and the wonder of this world, and life, and the opportunity that gives to us.

Give back, that more may share in the grace, the new love, the new mercy of our Lord.

Amen.

 


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