Twelve years ago a bunch of Lutherans in Minnesota got together and created a preaching plan called the Narrative Lectionary. It's a four year cycle of preaching through the Bible. And because I chose to follow it when I became your pastor last year, this week we read the story of David and Bathsheba. This week, in the wake of a new Supreme Court Justice and rallies protesting rape culture on college campuses and the body of a homeless woman being set on fire in a public park, we read a story about lust, and coveting and lying and murder. Coincidence or God? You decide.
To get to this story we have to take a big leap through history from when the ancient Hebrews received the 10 commandments in the desert. Now its hundreds of years later and the descendants of those slaves have settled in their land of their ancestors, built some cities, fought some wars, and gotten themselves a nice little monarchy. Although God warned the people that a king would bring them trouble, they wanted one anyway. David is their second king, and will always be remembered as their greatest. He is the boy who killed a giant. He is a man after God's own heart; he is the ancestor of Jesus. But he is far from perfect. This morning we hear the story of what happens when he chooses to ignore who he is and whose he is and what he's called to do.
Scripture Reading 2 Samuel 11 and 12 NIV
In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
Let me give you the Cliff Notes version of what happens next. David does not want to be responsible for this child. Desperate to cover up what he has done, David has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, sent home from the front. If Uriah sleeps with his wife, everyone will assume he is the father of the child. Uriah comes straight to the palace, and after he greets the king, David encourages him to go home, eat, drink, rest and be with his wife. Uriah refuses to do this, twice. When David realizes that Uriah is not going to cooperate and provide for the potential paternity of the child, David sends Uriah back to the front carrying his own death warrant. As requested by David, the general Joab deliberately makes a bad military decision and places Uriah at the most dangerous part of the fighting. Uriah is killed, along with many other soldiers.
"When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.
So the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to David. When Nathan came to David, Nathan said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
In music theory there's a concept called resolving chords. A resolved chord progression calls up resolved feelings in us. Feelings of things being settled, of everything in it's place, of things being finished, of being safe and at home. A resolved chord progression sounds like this:
On the other hand, there are also unresolved chord progressions that call up unresolved feelings in us. Feelings of dissonance, of unfinished business, of being unsettled, of being away from home. The music actually leaves us with a longing for resolution. An unresolved chord progression sounds like this:
The more times I read this week's story, the more I wrestled with it, the more I felt like I was listening to an unresolved chord over and over again. And friends, I will tell you right up front, that this chord will not get resolved this morning. There is no way for me to resolve this story, to wrap it up nicely with a bow. BUT as we all know, sometimes the ugly stories have the most to teach us. The hard times in our lives are the ones that lead us to greater growth and deeper maturity. We can face them with courage because we face them together, knowing that God is always with us. So let's see what in this text can lead us to growth and maturity.
First I want to point out the power of perception. What we get from the story depends on how we tell it. And, like all stories, how we tell it depends on WHO is telling it. For most of our history this story has been told and retold, painted on canvass, scripted for the movie screen, and scored for the opera by people who were more like David than they were like Bathsheba. David treats Bathsheba as an object, something to be possessed. And most often, those who retell the story do so as well. Unfortunately this is usually the case with Biblical stories about women. This morning, I'd like to change our perception.
Bathsheba is portrayed in literature, art and film as a seductive temptress, bathing somewhere the king can see her. But the Bible never says she's bathing in public. Go ahead, you can take a moment to look at it for yourself! Think about it: If David is UP in a palace, he could have had lines of sight into many areas that should have been private. Just because Bathsheba COULD be seen didn't mean that she WANTED to be seen. Every time I walk alone at night, I wish I were invisible, because all too often to be visible is to be vulnerable. Anyone who has ever been bullied or abused knows what I mean.
Bathsheba apparently came to the palace on her own two feet; they didn't drag her. Well why would she not? Her good and noble and God-fearing king, the spiritual and governmental leader of her people, the man whose war her husband was currently fighting had sent messengers to get her. Of course she went! How would she know what was going to happen? Just because Bathsheba willingly entered the room where a man was didn't mean she wanted to be left alone with him. Being present isn't the same as being available.
After this encounter, Bathsheba returns home. The text doesn't record her emotional reaction. And so we tell the story that silence equals consent. That if she didn't manage to physically fight him off, she must have wanted it. Being unwilling to talk about a sexual encounter doesn't mean it wasn't a big deal to you. Usually it means it was a traumatically big deal to you. We only keep secrets about things that scare us.
This one-night stand between David and Bathsheba is often perceived as adultery. I suggest that a more realistic perception is that it was at least coerced sexual activity between a powerful person and a vulnerable person, perhaps it was even sexual assault. And if that perception bothers us, we should ask ourselves why. What are we afraid of losing when we change our perception of David and Bathsheba? Will we have to change our perception about the Bible? About other situations? About other people? What is at stake when we choose to tell the story from a different perspective?
The second thing I want to point out is the power of privilege. The perception of adultery persists because David is privileged and we hesitate to tarnish his reputation with a charge of nonconsensual sexual activity. David is so privileged that no one says to him, "Why are you lounging at home taking naps and spying on women while your men are fighting and dying to expand your territory?" David is so privileged that none of his messengers say to him, "No I won't bring you a woman who isn't your wife (one of the several wives you already have!)" or "No I won't leave you alone in the room with her." David is so privileged that his general doesn't say to him, "No, I won't sacrifice dozens or hundreds of men to arrange a death that is convenient for you." David is so privileged that no earthly power can call him to account. No court can sentence him to the death penalty called for in cases of rape or adultery. David believes he is too big to fail, and the tragedy is that everyone else believes it too. Think about how different this story would have been if any of these bystanders had been upstanders instead. If they had refused to let privilege get the last word and instead challenged David's actions. Maybe they could have saved Bathsheba. Maybe they could have saved Uriah. And maybe they could have saved David from himself.
There's an old quote that goes "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." When we look the other way, when we cross to the other side of the street, when we politely smile at a racist or homophobic joke, when our first reaction is skepticism instead of compassion, when we willingly abdicate our right to participate in free elections, when we complain on Facebook instead of getting personally involved, when we write sermons and fail to live them, when we do nothing ... evil triumphs. And we are complicit.
Now at this point you might be thinking, "Beth you sound really angry." And you would be correctly reading my mood. I am angry. I am angry about a lot of things I have seen and experienced. And I feel OK about that because Jesus was angry about injustice. But as Christians, we are called to be something more than angry.
Which is why the final thing I want to point out from this story is the power of repentance. David is called a man after God's own heart. Not a man after God's own heart except for that one time. A man after God's own heart. Period. What is beautiful here is that the worst thing David ever did is not the last word said about him. After Nathan calls him out, David confesses, "I have sinned against the Lord." When David finally chooses to see the truth about himself and his actions, his reaction is repentance and remorse.
After this conversation with Nathan David writes a poem that becomes Psalm 51: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love! Because I know my wrongdoings, my sin is always right in front of me. I’ve committed evil in your sight. That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict, completely correct when you issue your judgment. Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways, and sinners will come back to you. You don’t want sacrifices. If I gave an entirely burned offering, you wouldn’t be pleased. A broken spirit is my sacrifice." That's what David says. Only repentance and forgiveness heals the soul of the perpetrator. And in turn their sincere remorse can ignite healing and restoration in their victim.
Now I told you this story doesn't resolve, and I meant it. Here's the thing: God's forgiveness isn't the same as pardon. God forgives David but does not keep David from experiencing the consequences of what he's done. This incident sets off a chain reaction in David's family that results in one of his daughters being raped, four of his sons dying, and at least two attempts at a military coup. God's forgiveness isn't a free pass. But it is a restoration of our souls. It's being freed from the feeling that we don't deserve to try again. It's empowerment to apologize and demonstrate remorse to those we've hurt. It's the radical affirmation that oppressed AND OPPRESSOR are equally loved by God AND ALSO that God does not condone injustice.
So we can be angry. But we must also be humble, because we have all done something that we don't want to be remembered for. And we must also be compassionate, because we all have had something done to us that we want to forget. And we must—we absolutely must—be courageous, because evil will triumph if the people of God do nothing. We have been blessed to be a blessing, to join God in a revolution that will eventually turn the world not upside down, but rightside up. Amen.