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 Prophetic Justice

Sermon - 8/05/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Samuel 12:1-15

There are times when I preach from the text. There are times I preach with the text. And, there are times I actually preach against the text. And I'm going to do all three this morning.

Our text is one of those great turning moments of history, at least as far as the biblical record is concerned, which will establish one of the most fundamental principles of government upon which the Declaration of Independence is based. So, those who were here last Sunday will recall the context for the text this morning, in the continuation of the story of David and Bathsheba. Again, it fits very well with today's theme of empowerment of women.

You'll recall in that story that David sees Bathsheba and lusts after her, she has really no choice in the matter, they conceive a child and then he tries to cover it up. So we refer to this, of course biblically speaking, as "Bathsheba-gate" :) But the cover-up doesn't work, and and so then he arranges to have Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) killed. And he would have gotten away with it -- would have gotten away with murder -- save for one who knows the real story. And so that's where we pick up the rest of the story then, from second Samuel Chapter 12:

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.’

[Now, you get how the storyteller is just setting us up here, the contrast between the two is just so wonderful. And David doesn't have a clue]

7 Nathan said to David, [These are immortal words] ‘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. 

We assume, typically, that the great sin that David commits here is that of adultery and murder, when in reality those are but symptoms of a much deeper sin. The real sin, as I suggested last week, is revealed here by the prophet of his abuse of power and the misuse of privilege.

But before we get to that, I need to make two preliminary comments that are very important.

The first is that this is one of those classic stories which reveals what a prophet does, contrary to the popular conception. Nathan's prophetic act here is not a prediction of events to come, but the pronouncement of judgment on acts done. The job-description of a prophet is not that of fortune-teller, but forth-teller. Not forecaster, but newscaster -- the one who tells it as it is from the perspective of God.

Abraham Heschel, the great biblical scholar of the 20 century, refers to prophets as the mouthpiece of God, who gives "divine understanding of a human situation". And that's what Nathan is doing.

And so what we see as a prediction -- that ill will fall upon the house of David -- is simply the outcome of judgment. It's the sentence, if you will. Or you might think of it as a natural consequence. So when I say that the Ducks will win the Pac-12 football championship that is not a prediction -- it's natural consequence! When you have the best team on the field, of course, right? :) Now, Nathan is not predicting the future, he's just announcing the sentence for David's sin by describing those natural consequences.

One of those consequences, however, is very troubling to our modern sense of fairness and justice. And so that's the second preliminary comment I need to make, and this is when I preach against the text. There may have been a time when the death of children was attributed to God. But that time has gone. We no longer live in a world where otherwise unexplainable events have to be attributed to God as the only rational explanation. Why else do good people suffer? When there is an eclipse of the sun, we know that is not God's doing -- turning off the light of the sun -- it's natural events of the rotation of the Earth and the Moon and the Sun.

When floods wipe out homes and farms and entire communities, we know that is not an act of God, but it's the randomness of nature or it's the foolishness of building in floodplains, right? Or, it's the natural consequence of destroying watersheds. Conversely, we know that the drought that we are now seeing across much of the country is not some punishment by God for the sins of the nation, but likely is the result of climate change, as James Hansen (the NASA scientist has just recently released a study on). And even one of the most ardent critics of climate change has now confessed that he agrees with with much of it.

When we get pummeled with endless political ads, we know it is not God punishing us for our failure to create a more fair system untainted by dollars, it's. . . . well, on second thought, maybe it is :)

But when an illness strikes a child, simply due to random disease, or exposure to toxins, or failure to provide adequate vaccinations, to attribute such illness to God is blasphemy. The God we worship does not take innocent lives to satisfy God's whims, and certainly not as punishment for the sins of the parents. Or in this case, as I suggested last week, the sin of the father (being more likely that this is rape, not adultery).

How could such a God who punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty be worthy of our praise? How could such a God be called good or loving? So yes, I preach against this text as contrary to what we believe and teach about God, what we know about God from our own experience, even as we recognize that this is what our ancestors of faith believed from their experience of God as the only explanation of why an innocent child would die.

The question is: did God change, or did our understanding of God change?

To borrow the slogan of the United Church of Christ, I believe God is still speaking. And the latest word of God is not what is in the text, it is what is on our hearts. And that's not to say that our heart should overrule scripture, but that the two must be in constant dialogue with one another. Much in the same way that we use a GPS -- to check our location in light of our desired destination. Sometimes, you know, the GPS will lead you astray -- that street is a one-way going the wrong way. Or it's under construction, and you've got to find a different way.

The idea that God caused this innocent child to die is a theological dead-end. So don't go down that road or you will be stuck in an irrational set of beliefs that ultimately blames God for that which is not God's doing.

I had to an example of this just a few weeks ago with the fire behind the church. I'm out there doing my pastoral thing out there, helping put out the fire (no, that wasn't what I was doing :), but in talking to people in the neighborhood, and one woman, very distraught, learning that I was the pastor of this church, who was a resident in that apartment at the top of the building, said to me: "Can I ask you a question? Why is God doing this to us?".

And you could feel her pain, I mean her whole life, all of her belongings were going up in smoke. And I did the best I could (I'm sure it wasn't adequate) just to reassure her that that was not the act of God. God was there in the firefighters. God was there in the people offering help and support, not in consuming all the contents of her life.

In this story, though God is portrayed as taking the child, the blame is solely on David. And once again that's why I'm convinced that this is rape and not adultery. So let's focus now on what David did that was so wrong, as seen through the eyes of the prophet.

When Nathan creates this story of this poor man with a little ewe lamb, you know, your heart breaks for him. It's very interesting that he puts it in these terms, of a rich man vs a poor man. I mean, what does economics have to do with rape and murder? As it turns out, everything.

What Nathan reveals is that it is not just the personal sin of David, of lust and greed, it is about what his predecessor (the prophet Samuel) said was going to happen in appointing Kings, because this is the nature of Kings -- to take what is not theirs. And so the real crime of David, then, is about that abuse of power and misuse of privilege. Using government for his own personal gain and desire, taking what he has no right to take.

And this is the principle enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: that there is a limit of power, of government, and when Kings go too far, assume too much power for themselves, the people have that right to say "no more" and to take it back. And it is a principle around which there is enormous debate today -- how much is too much? Has the government gone too far, particularly in the whole healthcare issue? Frankly, I think it hasn't gone far enough, but that's me, but we understand the philosophy behind the debate.

So let me take you just a little further back in our own history, to a very great illustration of a Nathan vs David moment. Nathan in this case was played by David Frost, a British interviewer in the field of entertainment with very little expertise in politics. David is played by Richard Nixon. Four years after his resignation as a result of Watergate, and he agrees to be interviewed by Frost in an attempt to reshape his public image, to redeem himself in the public eye. The clip I want to show you is from a movie made about this interview (movie made in 2009) -- it takes a bit of dramatic license (as movies do) but the encounter is very much a real one and the dialogue is essentially taken from the actual interview itself. Now, up to this point in the series of interviews, the President has shown his true capability and skill of politics and word-smithing and his understanding of events, and frankly his intellectual brilliance by outdueling the more inexperienced Frosts at every turn. But that is about to change. So watch:



See, the only thing that would have made it more clear in that moment, what the president had just admitted to, would have been if Frost had stood up and said: "You are the man!". For you have indicted yourself, believing that you, like David, were above the law.

And unlike the president, of course, David remains in the throne, though his position as King will be severely challenged from this moment on. But the story of David and Bathsheba ends on an up note -- with the birth of a second son, of course, Solomon. And this pronouncement that the Lord loved him. And so with judgment comes grace. And perhaps the greatest difference between human judgment and God's judgment is this. And it may be the hardest part of the story for many to accept, that a person who wronged me, or that President who did that, or that person who committed that atrocity could find any grace.

Or, that I could be forgiven for that sin. Such is often hard to accept.

And though the consequences for David are severe, and all does not end well for him, his own sons turn against him, commit the atrocities Nathan said would be done by a neighbor, still he will live to see Solomon become the next King and Bathsheba the Queen Mother. So at the end of the day, we are left to ponder the consequences of our actions. Those harmed by misdeeds of power and abuse of privilege, and yet inexplicably how the grace of God can still, in spite of everything, find good in the midst of evil. To turn even death into life.

Now, there's one "P.S." to this sermon. Many of the Psalms have an inscription at the top, if you scan through the Psalms, you'll see some in italics at the very beginning. Usually it's an instruction, how to sing or chant, or an attribute of who wrote this particular Psalm. Psalm 51 (that we heard earlier) begins with this inscription: "To the leader, a song of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone into Bathsheba". And these are the words said to have been composed by the King in that moment:

"Have mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy. Blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin, for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to be the joy of your salvation".

May it so be, for us all.


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