Sermon - Ordinary 18 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Power, liberty, sin and grace
[Note: for a sermon on the Gospel for this Sunday, re the bread of heaven, see relevant parts of the sermon for last Sunday]
We tend to think of King David as a cultured pastoral leader, a shepherd king who cared for his people and brought them prosperity, who played the harp, danced, sang and composed songs in praise of God. These things are true. When Jesus came a thousand years later, as a new kind of king in David's line, the Jews still looked back to David's reign as the time of greatness in their national history and they still sang his psalms. He was their beloved, he was beloved of God, and 'beloved' is what his name means. Christian believers too saw Jesus, the Messiah, as the fulfilment of the promise made to David that his kingdom would last forever, as the prophet Nathan had told him:
It was also the promise also made to Mary about Jesus:
It was in this heritage and with great hope that the crowd welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem:
Yet the ancient King David was not, like Jesus, worthy to be a good example. He behaved quite shamefully at times. In last week's Old Testament lesson we read how he desired a woman who he happened to see bathing and sent his servant to bring her to his bed. When she became pregnant, he tried to trick her husband into accepting the child as his and when that ruse failed he had him killed by arranging for him to be betrayed in battle. Today we heard the prophet Nathan's condemnation in a masterful device of story telling: of the rich man who had taken the poor man's pet lamb to feed his guest.
"You are the man!" What an indictment! Convicted by his own moral sense and under threat of punishment from God, he expected to die, but he was spared by a gracious God:
Then follows the drama of the stolen wife and the child who died:
But life goes on and God is gracious, giving his creatures far more than they ask or deserve. The record continues:
So the king named David, whose name meant "beloved", was to be succeeded by one later known for his wisdom who was given the special extra name Jedidiah, meaning "beloved of the Lord"; the message being conveyed by the same prophet who had pronounced condemnation on David the sinner.
What are we to make of this saga of lust, power, intrigue, betrayal, murder, anguish, confession, death, hope, love and loyalty? What a range of human emotions it portrays and calls forth! How we feel about it depends in part upon whose point of view we adopt. Do you see it from the point of view of David, or Bathsheba, or Nathan or Uriah or perhaps as a bystander in the palace?
If you were, say, a servant in the palace, you might have expected a great king in those days to have a woman when he wanted her, after all he had many wives, but you would also have known that even kings are supposed to be subject to the law of God, laws about adultery and killing; though you might have had some doubt about that because you had not had much experience of kings, and this King was supposed to be close to God, even known to go into the presence of God and talk with him as one person to another (2 Samuel 7:18). Perhaps kings were privileged, even in regard to the laws of God: perhaps they could get away with things that ordinary people could not? Was there not something to be said for the idea that might is right! At the same time a servant in the palace would have feared the prophet who brought God's word, for prophets too can be dangerous, such men too had power, and you knew that even the King feared him.
And what of Bathsheba? We know she obeyed the call to come to the King. Nothing is said of whether she came willingly and there was no reflection upon the morality of what she did, though it is clear that she did co-operate with his desires. In the way that the prophet spoke, it appears that the moral question was entirely one for the king although under the law of Moses they were both guilty of adultery and would have been liable for the death sentence (Leviticus 20:10), unless the principle of the woman not being able to refuse was applied, as for slaves (Leviticus 19:20) or when she was not able call anyone to her assistance (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). As it was an exercise of power on the part of the king he alone would bear the guilt, and the story teller saw no need to comment on her attitude except to say that after Uriah was killed she mourned the death of her husband.
We do not know very much of Bathsheba. She had a later part in palace intrigues. Most significantly, after the death of her first son to David she became the mother of Solomon, who was not expected to inherit the throne because there were older brothers born to other wives. Encouraged and supported by Nathan, however she intervened with King David to have Solomon named as his successor. Bathsheba is not portrayed as either a victim or especially virtuous. She was also involved, innocently it appears, in another intrigue which resulted in the death of the older brother of Solomon who was originally expected to become king until displaced by Solomon. These are fairly normal activities, I suppose, for those close to the seat of power and it only serves to emphasise how much the moral responsibility clearly rested with the King -- the thing that David had done displeased the LORD. He was responsible because he was the one who had the power to choose. He might have expected to get away with it, but God would not allow it and sent his messenger to call him to account. His conscience did not stir until he was confronted with the evil of it by the prophet Nathan.
Nathan is not seen to act on his own initiative -- the Lord sent Nathan to David (2 Samuel 12:1). The accusation and threat of punishment was made in the name of the Lord:
King David was brought to recognize the sin and was forgiven:
He escaped the death sentence which was his due for both the murder and the adultery, but he still had to suffer seeing his son die. Yet, God's graciousness was revealed further with the birth of Solomon in whom the people would be blessed with an even greater king, the like of which was never to be seen again in the history of Israel, not at least until the Messiah came -- but we know how different his kingdom was. The purpose of God was being worked out in spite of the sinfulness of his servants, even his most beloved sinful servants.
So, what do we learn? Perhaps we might go back to the bystander in the palace. He or she observing all this would know that God is not mocked, his word will stand and even kings will be called to account. Anyone however strong or humble could learn that how they exercise whatever liberty they have to chose will be subject to judgement. Yet God is merciful and blesses people far more than they ask or deserve.
For people today, we who put such store by liberty, we tend to act if we were kings, oriental potentates accountable to no one, especially in regard to sexual behaviour and whatever might be called our private affairs. It is extraordinary what power we have; and power invites libertarian attitudes, in which it is imagined that it is only right and proper that people should be able to do whatever they choose. It is that basic attitude which underlies much turmoil and suffering in families and in our community at large, and which imposes great costs which have to be born in any society somewhere, somehow. Like King David, even generally good and faithful people are quite capable of doing evil, when they have such attitudes and when they have the power and freedom to choose. People will learn eventually that there are better ways to live than by acting as if in our freedom to choose we have the right to take whatever we desire.
What is called into question by the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah and Nathan is the basic belief that people ought to be able to suit themselves if they have the power to choose. They will find out sooner or later that there is evil in this. It is a lesson that will have to be relearned, as it has been relearned again and again throughout history, especially now when there is so much more emphasis on rights and freedoms than there is on goodness and responsibility. What we have in common with King David is the freedom to choose in much that we do, and with that freedom comes moral responsibility. There will be a time of judgment. Yet God is merciful, and we can pray that he will forgive, and that he will bring good out of evil and fulfil his promise to bless us in spite of our unfaithfulness. We have an advantage too in comparison with a servant in the palace of King David, the greater privilege of knowing God's mercy and his love through the greater Son of the great king, our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory, for ever. Amen.
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