|Bronze bas-relief on the doors of La Madeleine|
Last Sunday you heard the story of how King David -- who was supposed to be a righteous king and the writer of great spiritual hymns -- took a woman from her husband, raped her, and then had her husband killed to cover up the fact. Bathsheba’s husband was an honorable man who refused to share the comforts of home when his comrades were at the front fighting for the king who had stolen his wife. As I understand it, last Sunday Rick talked about power and how it can corrupt.
We human beings have this tendency, when we accumulate great power, to believe that we’re above the law. We can do whatever we want when we want, and no one can stop us. Sometimes we’re brazen about it. We don’t mind if people see us squishing the little guy. At other times we decide to project an image of uprightness to cover the dark side of our lives. After all, reputations do matter.
David may have had a reputation of being a righteous and holy king, but just like Saul he had his own dark side. We have a tendency to tell the story of David and Bathsheba as if it’s a romance, but it’s not really all that romantic. No, it’s the story of power and its abuse. It’s also the story of an attempted cover up and its discovery, as well as the consequences that came with these actions. God sends a messenger named Nathan. Nathan is essentially David’s pastor and spiritual advisor. God sends Nathan to speak to David and express God’s dismay at David’s actions. Nathan tells David that there will be consequences. I need to point out that the writer of 2 Samuel believes that God is in control of things and nothing happens by chance. Therefore, these consequences are God’s doing. Now my own view of God differs from this author. I see a lot more randomness at play in the world. I don’t necessarily think that God is in the business of killing little children to get the father’s attention. But even if God isn’t pulling the strings here, can we learn something from Nathan’s challenge to David?
The story begins after David brought Bathsheba into his household. Nathan seeks an audience with the king and tells a story that gets David rather upset. He tells a story about an act of injustice and unfairness, and David is outraged. How dare this rich man steal the poor man’s beloved lamb? After all, he already has more than enough to feed his friend. David declares that the rich man should be punished and he should restore the poor man’s loss fourfold. As David’s righteous indignation rises to its peak Nathan delivers the punch line: “Thou art the man.” You are the one who decided that you were above the law and that you could do as you pleased when you took Bathsheba from Uriah and then had him killed. There will be consequences. God will get vengeance for Uriah. Justice will be served.
During my growing up years, the nation faced a great scandal. We watched as a President was impeached and faced eviction from office. He had authorized members of his staff to engage in dirty tricks in pursuit of reelection. When things began to unravel, he authorized a cover up. When that failed, he was forced to resign, This President thought he was above the law and discovered that he wasn’t. His fall was dramatic. Whatever good he did, and he did some good things, would always be tainted by his sins. As with David, he discovered that he would reap what he had sown.
We all like to think of ourselves as good people. We want to keep up appearances. As a pastor I have an image to uphold. I hope I live up to that image, though I know that I have my faults. In recent years scandals have plagued the clergy, and so our collective reputations have fallen. We’re no longer counted among the most trustworthy of professions. It’s easy to fall from grace.
David had fallen from grace, but he didn’t realize it until Nathan arrived. Nathan was what you might call a court preacher. His job was to hold David accountable to the ideals that God had envisioned for the monarchy. Sometimes leaders appoint people to such positions because they know that they will toe the company line. These preachers know that their longevity in their position depends on telling the ruler what the ruler wants to hear. That wasn’t Nathan’s sense of call. He didn’t care about his position, so he told David what God wanted David to hear not what David wanted to hear.
I can’t find the reference, but I read somewhere that back in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was President, he would attend worship at National City Christian Church. As I understand it, he would sit up front. Now it was during the Vietnam War and the Pastor of that church was known to be a critic of the nation’s war effort. When his famous parishioner showed up for worship, he could have kept quiet, but as I understand it he was known to speak “truth to power” when the President was sitting there in the front pew. I’m sure the President didn’t like what he was hearing, but that didn’t stop the preacher from sharing what he believed was truth.
Now there are troubling parts to Nathan’s message to David. I find it difficult to believe that God stirs up trouble and kills little babies to prove a point, but I think we can agree that actions do have consequences. David had turned to violence to get his way, and in the end this violence caught up with him.
David may have repented, hoping to forestall the judgment Nathan pronounced. And it is true that David didn’t die as a result of this action and his of succession continued, but there would be trouble in the household. David may have confessed to being a sinner, but the consequences would still unfold. If you continue reading in 2 Samuel, you will learn how discord and violence shook David’s household. A favored son, Absalom, turned against his father in rebellion and died in the process. Another son raped his sister, leading to his own murder in revenge.
Power can corrupt. Those who rise to the highest levels of power are always tempted to abuse their power. Some refrain but others do not. But we don’t have to be rulers to abuse power. What is true of David, is often true of us. So even as Nathan calls David to accountability, he calls us to accountability as well.
Nathan’s message is a strong one, but it carries with it good news. There is in the midst of this message a word of grace. One of the most poignant Psalms is inspired by this encounter. Whether or not he wrote it, Psalm 51 is attributed to David, and it reflects his contrition after Nathan’s visit. David cries out to God:
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.
Then a few verses later come the words that we sang this morning:
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 me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Ps. 51:10-12).
David seems to have heard Nathan’s message loud and clear: “You’re the man.” So he repents and receives forgiveness, even if he had to live with the consequences of his actions. His greatest concern was that God might turn away from him, and the message he received was one of grace. He could take comfort in the joy of the salvation God offered to him.
Grace is one of those concepts that is difficult to deal with. Back in the fifth century Augustine got into a debate with Pelagius. Pelagius was a righteous man who believed that it is in our power to do what is right. Augustine wasn’t so sure about our ability to do what is right. Pelagius didn’t have much room for grace, while Augustine clung to the promise of grace. The question for us is this – how powerful is God’s grace?
Last spring Brett came home from his theology class and told me about the conversation that day, which centered around the story of the conversion of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most notorious serial killers in history. Apparently a Church of Christ preacher baptized him while in prison. So the question is this: Did that baptism wipe away Jeffrey Dahmer’s sins? Is baptism sufficient for a case like that? Or do we need something else? Catholics embraced purgatory as a solution! Disciples don’t usually embrace the idea of purgatory, but we do affirm grace. So, is God’s grace sufficiently strong to overcome even the most heinous of crimes? Can we come to God, just as we are, without one plea, trusting in God’s loving embrace?
Picture attribution: Triqueti, Henri Joseph François, baron de, 1804-1874. Thou shalt not commit adultery (Nathan confronts David), from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55139 [retrieved August 1, 2015]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nathan_and_David.jpg.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
August 2, 2015