Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mirror—a sermon on Nathan, David, Bathsheba, and Uriah

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s Gourock.      
2 Samuel 11-12
21 October 2018, NL1-7, To See Ourselves 1

Last week, we heard about Joshua and the people joining in God’s covenant, as they settled down in the promised land. After that, there was a period of history when, as it says in the book of Judges, “there was no king in the land, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The society began to break down, and some righteous judges and prophets began to speak out—people like Deborah, Gideon, Samson, and eventually Samuel. Then the people asked for a king, despite Samuel’s advice. Through Samuel, God warned the people that choosing a human king rather than submitting to God’s kingship would mean being subject to human flaws, and kings were known to take, oppress, and dehumanise. Nonetheless, they asked, and God sent Samuel to anoint Saul as king. That reign didn’t go particularly well, and Samuel was then sent to anoint one of the sons of Jesse—the youngest, shortest, still-dirty-from-the-fields shepherd boy. It took some time but David eventually grew up, took the throne from Saul, and united the northern and southern tribes into one kingdom. He was a faithful man, for the most part. Today we hear about one of the times when he acted more like the type of king God had warned about, rather than the faithful man of God he was meant to be.

It was springtime, the time of the year when kings lead their armies to war. David sent his army out, led by Joab, but he stayed in Jerusalem. One evening, when his army was in the field without him, David couldn’t sleep, and he got up and went for a walk on the roof of the palace. From there he could see the rooftops of most of the city, where many people slept or bathed, as it was the coolest and most private place in the house. He saw a woman and she was beautiful, so he sent someone to find out about her. The messenger told him her name was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah was one of the king’s soldiers, out fighting his war. 

David sent messengers to take Bathsheba, and they brought her to him, and he took her. Afterward he sent her home. Later she sent word to say that she was pregnant. David then called Uriah home, under the pretext of asking him for news of the battle. He sent Uriah to his house, but he refused to go home to his wife while his fellow soldiers were still at war, so he slept in the guardhouse. When David realised that Uriah could not be tricked into sleeping with Bathsheba, he sent him back to the front, carrying a new set of secret orders. Those orders included putting Uriah on the front line of a siege, then pulling back so he would be alone, and therefore would be killed in the heat of battle.

We pick up this story today in the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 11, beginning at verse 26 and reading through to chapter 12, verse 9. 

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.

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he 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 that 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 traveller 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 traveller 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.


For the past week or two, preachers everywhere who follow the Narrative Lectionary have been agonising about this text. Sometimes it just feels as if the scripture hits a little too close to home, when the news is full of violence against women, bullying in the parliament, world leaders unable to behave like mature adults, violence as a first resort, and a constant stream of hashtags telling stories that used to be kept out of sight, in hopes the problem would be out of mind. Basically, it’s hard to tell whether the daily news or the story of David and Bathsheba is the more disturbing reminder of how little progress the past three thousand years have brought us, at least when it comes to women’s rights.

Back in the days before there was a king, the prophet Samuel had warned the people what kings were like—they see what they want, and they take it. They use violence to achieve their personal desires, with no thought to the consequences to others. They are supposed to be shepherds to the people, but the power inevitably goes to their heads. Now here, just two kings in to the experiment, those words echo with each strike of the sword. 

David, who ought to have been out with his army, was instead at home enjoying the luxury of his palace and the peace of a walled city. He saw, he wanted, and he took. And when there turned out to be consequences, he attempted a cover-up. When that failed, he orchestrated an assassination. And he was pretty sure he got away with it. It’s like he knew that whatever happened, he would be recorded as “a man after God’s own heart.” History would be kind to him. 

And so it has been. The only hint of the time he managed to break at least 9 of the 10 commandments in one fell swoop is in the first book of Kings, which says “he walked in the ways of the Lord, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” That’s all it says. Just a few words, none of which mention the woman he violated. Aside from them, his reputation is intact, despite his record of coveting, rape, murder, and false witness.

But in those few words is a world of stories, just like there’s a world of pain behind every MeToo hashtag, or every conversation about the possibility of a border in Ireland, or behind the eyes of every person with different skin colour or a different accent, in these days of a “hostile environment for immigration.” 

David’s abuse of power is played out again and again, every day. Not just in governments that think nothing of ordering the death of journalists, not even just in the legislative chambers awash in harassment, but all the way down to us. 

Listen again to Nathan’s parable: there was a man who had plenty. He had resources, and connections. And there was a man who had very little, just one thing that brought him joy and companionship and hope in the midst of the difficult life he led. A guest arrived at the first man’s house, and rather than use his own resources, he took the one thing the second man had, and used it for his own ends. He offered hospitality without offering of himself. Indeed, his hospitality was actually violence, as he took no thought for the burden his appetite placed on others. He turned aside from the need of his neighbour, and then used him for his own convenience. 

The story is an outrage. We, along with David, shout at the injustice of it all.

Then Nathan delivers the devastating blow: you are the man.

You are. I am. We are.

More than once...probably more than once a day, if we’re being truly honest...we are the ones who take. We are the ones who spare no thought for those who bear the burden of our lifestyle. We are the ones who do violence, maybe not directly, but indirectly as we use the resources of others—or worse, other people themselves—for our own gain, our own pleasure. We are the ones whose choices, actions, words, votes, and spending betray our preference for injustice, rather than for God’s kingdom. 

You are the man, Nathan says.

Then something amazing happens. In the next part of the chapter that we didn’t read this morning, David heard Nathan’s rebuke, and he recognised its truth, and he confessed. He admitted that he was wrong, and he repented. He named, out loud, his sin against God.

Notice the verbs of this story. Think of how we speak now: we talk of violence against women, and of women who are raped or abused. There is no subject of these phrases, only objects. In the text from 2 Samuel, it says David saw, David desired, David took, David gave orders. He is the subject whose verbs are directed against another human being. He is also the one who hears Nathan’s words, and who examines his own conscience, and confesses his own sin—down to the very end, he is the subject who does active verbs. The entire story is written in a way that tells us he is responsible for his actions, both the ones that displease the Lord and the ones that bring him to a moment of forgiveness.

It would be too much to hope that he would confess his sin against Bathsheba, of course. The experiences of women rarely matter to the story, then as now. I confess that even in this very sermon, when I want to convey that Bathsheba is a human being, created in God’s image, loved by God, and victimised by a powerful man, it is easy to make her only a prop in the man’s story. She is more than a prop, and more than a victim. 

And I think that reality, that Bathsheba matters as a person, not a prop— and that Uriah the foreigner matters as a person, not an obstacle— is part of why God sent Nathan to David. Nathan is the one who makes it possible for David’s story to be told the way it is—as a story of action, responsibility, and repentance.

He was David’s friend and confidante, but also an official adviser whose presence at court depended on the king’s pleasure. And he was the one who held up a mirror, so that David could see himself—both what he had become, and what he was meant to be.

Nathan stood up, at some risk to himself, and confronted the king with his own injustice. He stepped in on behalf of those whose voices were silenced. As a man, he spoke to another man, insisting that his treatment of other people was not ok—not with him, and not with God. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t normal, and it couldn’t be brushed off. He spoke truth to power. Yes, in this case it was to the power of a king, but it could just as easily be to the power of a friendship we don’t want to damage, or a family relationship we need to maintain, or a colleague or boss. We need men to speak up to other men, to refuse to laugh at those jokes, to stop looking the other way, to be Nathans in a world of Davids. And really we all need to be doing that. Whether that’s about women, or immigrants and refugees, or climate change, or people living on the streets, or peace in Northern Ireland, or the scandal of Universal Credit, or the importance of fair trade, or the way our words reflect the image of God planted within us—it matters that we speak up and confront injustice. 

David was able to take responsibility for his actions, and therefore able to confess, repent, and be forgiven, because he had someone in his life willing to help him see himself—not just as others saw him, but as God saw him.

We all need a mirror. We can’t be who God made us to be if we can’t see ourselves clearly. And we all need to find the courage to be that mirror for others as well, so that as a community, can see more clearly the body God created us to be.

We are meant to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. God continues to be faithful, continues to forgive, continues to offer us a more excellent way—a way of love that brings healing and hope to all who have the courage to honestly approach the light. It is not an easy calling. But it is the one that God has given us: to speak truth, to see ourselves, to confess our complicity, and to turn toward the way of love, the way of abundant life.

May it be so. Amen. 

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