Scripture – 2 Samuel 11:26-12:14
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, August 23, 2015
Today we ponder a pivotal episode in the life of King David. A thousand years before the birth of Jesus, David ruled ancient Israel for four decades. He is remembered as the young shepherd who brought down the mighty Goliath, a brilliant military commander who conquered numerous foes, an eloquent poet who composed many of the psalms, a gifted musician whose playing of the lyre could thwart evil spirits, and according to the Book of First Samuel, "a man after God's own heart." However, today's story may leave you scratching your head. How could such an honorific title be bestowed on such a nefarious character?
In a few minutes, our lay reader will read today's passage that reports David's encounter with the prophet Nathan, but to sense the impact of that confrontation, we must review the story leading up to it.
David is relaxing in the comfort of his palace while his army is battling the Ammonites. One afternoon as he strolls along the roof of his royal residence, he spots a stunning woman who is bathing. Immediately he desires her for his own. However, when he sends someone to find out more about her, he discovers that not only is she married, but she is the wife of one of his loyal troops who is off fighting the Ammonites. No matter. David has her brought to him. In what sounds like a script for a contemporary soap opera, David takes Bathsheba and she becomes pregnant.
For some kings this would be a trivial matter. However, David was not only the military and political leader of his people, he was also their spiritual leader. David should repent and throw himself on God's mercy, but he fears the scandal. Instead, he attempts to cover up his sordid affair.
He recalls Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, from the battlefield, for a few days of rest and recreation. David assumes that while Uriah is enjoying his temporary leave, he will sleep with his wife. Then, months after he has returned to battle, he will receive news that Bathsheba is expecting a child and Uriah will have no reason to doubt that the child to be born is his. On that day, David will toast himself for his clever plan.
However, David's scheme has one problem. Uriah does not cooperate. When he returns home, he does not believe it is right for him to enjoy intimacy with his wife while his fellow soldiers are engaged in the rigors of war. David is astonished that Uriah's loyalty to his comrades outweighs the charm of Bathsheba. So he extends Uriah's leave and hatches Plan B. He plies Uriah with several rounds of his finest bubbly. Surely that will numb his conscience, lower his defenses and send him skipping home to the voluptuous Bathsheba. However, Uriah has developed a disciplined character. His fierce bond with his friends will not allow him to engage in such pleasure.
David foresees a disaster. Once Bathsheba's condition becomes apparent, Uriah will know that the child is not his. David believes he has gone too far to turn back. He panics and stoops to more shameful depths. In desperation, he sends Uriah back to battle with a sealed envelope for his commander. The message he faithfully carries to his superior is his death warrant. David instructs the commander to place Uriah on the front lines of the skirmish and then withdraw support to insure that Uriah is overwhelmed by the enemy. The officer carries out David's command and Uriah dies in battle.
One imagines that Uriah is given a heroes funeral with full military honors. His widow mourns his death. Once the prescribed period of mourning is completed, she moves into the palace. A few months later, she gives birth to the son of the happy royal couple.
David breathes a sigh of relief and may have even congratulated himself for his shrewd handling of the dilemma. It all might have ended there and no one would have been the wiser, had it not been for the prophet Nathan. This morning's passage informs us of what happened next.
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 1and 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 meagre 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.'
7Nathan 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.'
The prophet Nathan tells one of the only parables we find in the Old Testament. He uses a story about a wealthy man with vast flocks of sheep and a poor man with only a single lamb to lure King David into declaring himself guilty and even sentencing himself to a harsh punishment. The prophet was wise enough not to confront David head-on. That would have been a non-starter. David would have turned defensive and offered excuses to rationalize his actions. So instead of spelling out the sordid details of David's adulterous act with Bathsheba and his pernicious scheme to dupe her husband and when that failed, to have him slaughtered on the battlefield, Nathan tells a tale of a wealthy man whose cruel act was bound to boil David's blood. Leading David to believe the story was actually about someone else, David could plainly see the appalling injustice that was perpetrated. Once David revealed his righteous indignation, Nathan sprung the trap that snared David by his own words. After David's passionate response about the parable's villain, Nathan said the four words that surely haunted David for the remainder of his life: "YOU ARE THE MAN!"
David knew the 10 Commandments as well as he knew his own name. It was his duty to be an example of someone who follows God's law. He understood – as did everyone – that coveting, adultery and murder were flagrant violations of God's commandments. It was impossible to claim ignorance as his defense. So, why did he do what he knew was wrong? Could he not hold the reigns on his hyperactive libido? Was he so intoxicated on the libation of power that he believed he was entitled to whatever he desired? Was he so accustomed to acquiring possessions that he failed to recognize Bathsheba as a human being with a husband rather than simply a glittering jewel to add to his collection?
Thomas Merton says that we have a false self that is fed by egocentric desires. Our false self believes that the universe exists to feed our impulses for pleasure, power, privilege and possessions. Sin is rooted in the assumption that my false self is my true self and that I will find happiness when I satisfy selfish cravings with no concern of how it will impact others.
In his new book, The Road to Character, David Brooks writes in a similar vein when he talks about the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues trumpet your external successes. Eulogy virtues are how people will describe you at your funeral. They depict the core of your character.
Brooks credits his way of thinking about these two sets of virtues to a book written by a Rabbi 50 years ago. The Rabbi claimed that the two creation stories we find in the beginning of Genesis represent the two opposing sides of our nature which he names Adam I and Adam II.
"Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature...Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover. He wants to have high status and win victories."
"Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities...(and to have a) solid sense of right and wrong...While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. While Adam I savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose."
The two Adams can never be fully comfortable with each other, but we are called to live "within the tension between these two natures." The chief obstacle between these two is that "Adams I and II live by different logics. Adam I lives by...the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Pursue self-interest...Impress the world."
Adam II lives not by an economic logic, but by a moral logic. "You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave."1
Brooks reminds us of what we know: our culture encourages us to become a success and defines success in terms of wealth and power and notoriety. It encourages us to satisfy our yearning for what feels good in the moment with no concern for the ways our decisions may injure others. Brooks says, "If you are only Adam I, you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game...but you don't have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life."2
King David was a behemoth among men; Adam I to the max. No one could rival his résumé. His sterling bio glistened with Commander, King, and Conqueror. He was bright and handsome, courageous and competitive. He stacked success upon success. But his life turned tragic when he allowed his Adam I to dominate his Adam II. His out of control appetite for conquest led to his life unraveling. First lust, then adultery, then scheming, then murder.
The story of David and Bathsheba is not merely a portrait of a tragic figure with all too human flaws. It is a story about you and me, and how we can self-destruct if we allow our cravings to dominate our better self.
We are created to connect with one another. When we build healthy, respectful and supportive bonds with others life is rich. When we violate loving ties to others, life turns cruel.
How can you focus more attention and energy on your Adam II? How can you unleash the image of God within you? What will they say about you at your funeral?
Prayers of the People
Everlasting God, you peer into our depths and see the restlessness within us. You know the severity of the hunger in our hearts and the intensity of the thirst in our souls. Fill our emptiness, satisfy our longing and lead us to a life that is rich and virtuous and whole.
God, we confess that we often fail to listen to your wisdom or to follow your guidance. You show us the way to lives that are honorable and full, but we veer from your path and listen to the voices of our culture or the insecure pleading of our ego. There are even times when we walk straight into trouble knowing full well that disaster awaits.
There are other times when we fall for the lies that wealth can buy happiness, that selfish pleasure can satisfy our longing for love, and that accumulating possessions can satisfy our souls. Help us to conquer our cravings. Help us to tame our temptations. Prod us to seek the treasures that cannot be purchased with money, and cannot be seized by force so that we may live the abundant lives you intend for us to live.
God of grace, you have shown us what is right and just and loving. Give us the courage to embark on your adventure so that we may know the joy of a life that is kind, generous, forgiving; and the satisfaction of a life that is in harmony with your desire for compassion, justice and peace.
Now, hear us as we pray the prayer your son taught us to pray together, saying, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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