Monday, August 3, 2015

Dancing with David: Judgment

August 2nd, 2015                          “Judgment”                           Rev. Heather Jepsen

Summer Sermon Series: Dancing with David
2 Samuel 12:1-25  

Today we continue our summer sermon series: Dancing with David.  Throughout the summer we have charted the course of David’s rise to prominence in the land of Israel.  Last Sunday we discussed David’s fall and his sinful actions in the story of David and Bathsheba.  David’s acts of evil in the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah were hard for all of us to face.  Today we will discuss the consequences of David’s action.

          At this point in the story, David is probably thinking that the matter with Bathsheba and Uriah is finished.  He has done his best to hide all evidence of his wrong-doing.  But unfortunately for David the Lord is far from finished with the matter.  The reading opens with the statement that what David had done displeased the Lord, or was evil in the eyes of the Lord.  The Lord sends Nathan to speak with David and to inform David of the Lord’s great disappointment with him.

          Nathan begins by telling David a parable.  It is the story of a rich man and a poor man.  The poor man has only one ewe lamb to his name, and it is an animal that he loves.  The poor man has brought the lamb up in his household, feeding it food from his table and cradling it in his arms.  The lamb is like a child to him.  In contrast the rich man has many sheep and lambs to his name.  One day the rich man is visited by a traveler and not wanting to loose any of his bounty, he takes and slaughters the poor man’s lamb to serve the stranger.  The rich man’s act is particularly callus as he is disguising his injustice as hospitality in the service of his guest.

          David reacts as we all do to the story, with great anger.  Being the king and familiar with the role of judge, David declares that this rich man deserves no less than the penalty of death for his heinous act.  David seems particularly incensed that the rich man shows no pity to the poor man in the story.

          In what is one of the most powerful scenes in our scriptures, Nathan now turns the tables saying to David, “You are the man!”  In his condemnation of the rich man, David has condemned his own act of taking what was not his to take.  Nathan goes on to state the Lord’s disappointment with David.  God is clear that God had given everything to David; land, kingship, and wives.  God would have done even more if only David had asked.  But for David to go and take Uriah’s wife and to kill Uriah, such an act is not only a sin against Uriah and Bathsheba; it is a sin against the Lord.  Nathan asks David, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, and done what is evil in God’s sight?”

          And now the punishment is given.  Because of David’s acts of rape and murder, the very acts David has committed will now be committed against him.  While David’s line will be blessed to rule forever in Israel, he has now brought down upon it a curse.  David will reap what he has sown and the sword will never depart from David’s house.  God will now raise up trouble in David’s family, and from this time on his kingship will be marked with violence and calamity from the death of a child, to the incestuous rape of his daughter and wives and concubines.  Murder and violence will mark the remainder of David’s reign until his kingdom is overthrown.  As punishment for the crimes David has committed, he will live out the rest of his days in shame.

          It is here, at the lowest point in his life, where David shows his true colors.  It is now, I believe, when he really shows his heart for the Lord.  Many people at this point would turn away from God.  Many people would be unable to admit their own sin, and would turn away in anger at the things God has spoken against them.  But not David; it is at this moment, when judgment against him has been passed, that David turns toward the Lord.  “I have sinned against the Lord,” he boldly declares and begins his repentance.

          Despite David’s repentant spirit, the Lord strikes the child he has conceived with Bathsheba and it becomes gravely ill.  For days David prays and fasts, pleading with the Lord for the child’s life.  David has declared his own sinfulness, he has shown he is sorry for his evil acts, and he is hopeful the Lord will spare the life of his son.  But it is not to be, and on the seventh day the child dies.

          Again the strength of David’s faith is remarkable.  After the death of his child the first thing David does is worship God.  It is almost an unbelievable act that David could turn toward the God who has executed judgement in such a harsh fashion.  David forgoes the dictated period of mourning, for he has already pleaded with the Lord for grace that was not given.  Now he believes it is the time to move on.  He rises from his fast, washes and eats.  David’s acts of mourning show an advanced theology of suffering and death as he appears to accept the death of his child as a part of life, but not the end.  As he tells his servants, “I shall go to him, he will not return to me” he already shows a budding faith in the afterlife.

David then returns to Bathsheba and lays with her again, conceiving another son.  For traditional readers of the Scriptures it is at this point that grace enters into the picture.  David is given a new son, Solomon, and this child will be loved by the Lord.  In fact Nathan sends word that the child should be called Jedidiah, “the beloved of the Lord.”   

          Now I have to admit, I had a hard time last week with the story of David and Bathsheba.  In fact, I don’t think I liked preaching that sermon any more than you liked hearing it.  While I believe that what I said was the truth behind the text, facing David’s acts of rape and murder makes me uncomfortable, and speaking about them from the pulpit made it even worse.  And I am fairly confident that I was not the only one to be uncomfortable last week.

          Today, I am afraid we are no better off.  I have been quick to pass judgment on David, for the rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah are surely despicable acts.  And like David, I am also quick to pass judgment regarding the parable that Nathan tells; it is wrong for the rich man to take the poor man’s lamb.  But then I am afraid that leaves me in the same place that David finds himself; with Nathan pointing an accusing finger and declaring “You are the one!”  For although I haven’t raped and murdered, I have certainly committed my own share of wrongdoings and have racked up plenty of tallies in the sin column of my life. 

          From the declaration of guilt comes the declaration of judgment, and the judgment David faces is a cruel one for certain.  It is painful to read, but the text pulls no punches as it clearly states, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child born to you shall die.”  And later, “the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill.”  What sort of punishment is this?  I believe that Bathsheba and the child are innocent in the matter, even victims, and now they too are made to suffer for David’s sin.  This week as I pondered the text in the presence of my own children, I began to think that this punishment is even cruel for David the very committer of the atrocities. 

          As a modern reader I am troubled by this text and wonder what it says about our God.  But, the writer of the text is not concerned with such matters and they don’t ask such questions.  In fact, in their view, grace is present in the text; for though David will suffer all that the Lord declares against him, he still bears another son.  This son is loved by the Lord and he will be richly blessed; that is the moment of grace. 

I don’t think that’s good enough and I am not satisfied with this ending.  Although grace is present here, it is not what I am accustomed to when thinking of grace.  Frankly, the grace that God shows to David just doesn’t seem like enough to me.  A God who punishes us by taking the life of another is not a God I am interested in worshipping.

This is where my opinion as a 21st century pastor and the opinion of the writer of the book of Samuel differ.  I do not believe that the Lord will strike us down in such a way for our sins.  I do not believe that the Lord punishes us like this.  And frankly, when we suffer the tragedies of illness and death, especially the death of a child, I do not believe that the Lord is in any way the cause of such a thing.  The grace that I believe in tells a different story, the story of Jesus Christ, the one who is present with us in our suffering.  The grace that I believe in is one where if you turn to the Lord in true repentance, declare yourself a sinner as David did, then you are given forgiveness.  This is the God that I have come to know and love.

          Even though I can argue away God’s role in the punishment David receives for his sin, I cannot argue away the horrible things that David’s sin brings into his life.  Although David experiences grace in the birth of his new son, the consequences of his sin remain as his family will now suffer because of his example of wrongdoing.  It is from David’s acts that they have learned to excuse their sinful behaviors.  For the remainder of his life David will reap what he has sown, and it is not a pretty picture.

          Perhaps that is why I am so uncomfortable with this story.  None of us can read the story of David and Bathsheba and not think of our own sinful nature.  While I do believe that we receive grace when we turn to God in repentance; our forgiveness does not erase our sinful acts.  Like David, the consequences of our sin will remain in the world and in our lives.  No amount of grace can erase the harm we cause when we sin.  We cannot poison the world around us and then expect to receive only good things.  We cannot sow violence and then expect to harvest blessings. 

          But, there is grace for us nonetheless.  For David, grace came in the form of his son Solomon, and in a small way it comes for us this morning by that same path.  As I mentioned last week Jesus himself will come from this union of David and Bathsheba.  But, rather than bring conceived in violence, Jesus will come from the line of this new son, who was conceived in love; Solomon, who is so favored by God.  While the writer of Samuel does not see God’s whole plan of salvation here, the modern reader certainly does. 

          Such is God’s love for us; a love that transcends all time and space, a love that offers true forgiveness to those who repent, a love that will make good of even David’s sin, a love that will not let us go, even as we struggle with these ancient stories of punishment and retribution.  Thanks be to God for the freedom to honestly explore these stories and their meaning in our lives; and thanks be to God for a grace we can never fully understand.  Amen.

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