Evening Sermon – August 2nd – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Reading : 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13
So last weekend I was up in Windermere, reviewing and reflecting on how my first year of ministry has gone alongside all the other URC ministers that have been ordained in the twelve months. Prayers were prayed, words were written, theological questions were pondered as we shared our experiences and insights, highs and lows from our first year in post. But just so to allay your fears that it was all hard work, I can reassure you that we also had time to sail around the lake, taste the delights of the local creameries, and…on the Saturday night, we even got to watch a film. The latter was, of course, a treat for me, particularly as I hadn’t seen the film before. ‘A thousand times goodnight’ is a drama about a woman called Rebecca who tries to balance her responsibilities as a mother and wife with her vocation as a war photographer. Not everything goes well for Rebecca, lives are put under threat and in the end, she chooses one of her roles over the other. It’s an interesting film, a little worthy perhaps, but what was far more engaging than the plot or characters was the discussion that ensued after the credits had rolled. Some who watched the film likened the choices and sacrifices made by Rebecca and her family to those we make in ministry – uncovering guilt from some, anger from others. Some sympathized for Rebecca, some thought her selfish, some thought she should never have had children. Some empathized with her, some with her husband left at home to pick up the pieces, some with her oft forgotten children. And as the discussions continued, emotions were laid bare so that when a couple of us invited the group to share in a nightcap at the nearby pub, some were too angry or upset to join us. The story of Rebecca cut to our own stories, motives, emotions. And this is why I love film but for some of us here it might be the poem, novel or play that does the same. That offer stories that can provoke, unsettle and challenge us, holding up a mirror to ourselves or to our society.
And this is, of course, exactly what we see Nathan doing with his king…
A couple of Sundays ago, we suggested that perhaps David wasn’t acting like a wonderful servant of God in his interactions with his first wife, Michal…well, things have progressed since. David’s star has continued to rise, his position has been strengthened; his power has increased and so when David stood on his tiptoes to sneak a peek at the beautiful woman bathing across the way, he asked who she was and having heard that she was Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite, he called her to his chambers and had sex with her. We are spared the details about how Bathsheba felt about this but in a week in which yet more stories have emerged of powerful men in politics, religion and entertainment having sex with women, some of whom were married, some sex workers, many with little or no choice…we are, perhaps, told all that we need to know. David saw something he wanted and he took it. And David’s misdemeanours do not end there.
Bathsheba was pregnant so what was David to do? God’s anointed King had had sex with a married woman, a crime that was punishable by death! Well first, David tried a cover-up. If he could arrange for Uriah and Bathsheba to spend some time together, everyone, well everyone apart from him and Bathsheba of course, might believe that the baby was Uriah’s and all would be well. So David pulls some strings, calls Uriah back from the frontline where he is fighting, encourages him again and again to spend some alone time with his wife…even getting him drunk to do so…but Uriah stays true to his military code of celibacy during battle, scuppering David’s plans. And so David tries another tactic – one that works this time.
“ Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting,” he writes in a letter sent to the frontline, “and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
These were the king’s orders. His will was done. Uriah, along with other soldiers, was killed. Bathsheba mourned. And when enough time had passed, David sent for her, married her and added her to his harem.
And I wonder what David thought about all this. When alone in the dark, or when playing his harp or praising God, did he try to justify his actions? I mean, Uriah might well have been killed in battle anyway, surely David was just massaging things a bit so not to humiliate Bathsheba and…and to save Israel from embarrassment – I mean, they needed a strong, holy leader, someone to look up to so really he was doing what was best for his country, wasn’t he? No? No. Perhaps he didn’t try to justify his actions at all…perhaps he ignored that niggling sense of guilt, busying himself with affairs of the state so that he wouldn’t have the time to reflect on recent events…or perhaps he was so drunk with power that he couldn’t even see that he’d done anything wrong…for he was the King, God’s chosen one, the leader who’d defeated giants and armies…why couldn’t he have what he wanted? Why shouldn’t he?
And it’s all too easy to distance ourselves from David here – I, for one, have yet to peer into Whiterock Drive to choose a married woman and dispense of her husband. But the root of David’s actions wasn’t merely lust or a light-touch attitude to murder. No, I think that the root of David’s actions was the abuse of power and the sweet seduction of self-importance. David saw something he wanted and he took it because he could. She was married but David was King! Bathsheba got pregnant and David covered things up because he could. Uriah was a good man but David was King! David transgressed commandments, ignored vows, got people killed because he could. They were innocent but David was King! It was power and its corrupting influence that led David to commit such heinous acts and perhaps we haven’t summoned women, covered up affairs with military meddling or arranged for people to be killed…but we do have power, great power, in how we shop and who we vote for; in what we wear and in where we do what. I can spend vast sums of money on holidays for myself, because I can. We can buy food or drink or clothes without really thinking about the conditions in which they were produced, because we can. And we can justify our actions, ignore how they affect other people and distract ourselves with our own busyness…because we can. Perhaps then, we are not so different to the shepherd-King!
And yet God hadn’t finished with David, and hasn’t finished with us, just yet. For God called Nathan – the historian, the prophet, the storyteller – to speak with David. But Nathan did not start by pronouncing judgment on David; he didn’t throw accusations at him or shout curses upon him for he was there not to demolish the king but to bring him back to God. And so he told a story. “There were two men in a city,” he began, “One rich and one poor…” and with that, he allowed the King to look beyond his own perspective; to see through the fog of power; and peer through the eyes of a poor man, robbed of his only, beloved lamb. David’s anger was awakened and just as he condemned the rich man to death, Nathan dealt the killer blow, telling King David: “You are the man!”. David’s sins were laid bare and his repentance followed.
I wonder what story God would have us hear this evening. I wonder what would cause Nathan to say to me, to you – ‘You are the man; you are the woman’. Perhaps it would be a tale of gossip, of judgment or exclusion. Perhaps it would involve uncaring Levites and good Samaritans. Or perhaps Nathan would tell us the same story, declaring that our lifestyles come at a great price that is paid by the poor and broken of the world – that we are the rich man, stealing the poor man’s only lamb.
This evening, as in every service of worship, we are given the chance to pause and listen. To listen to tales of old that speak of who we are today; to share stories of our brokenness and of God’s healing; of our need to repent and God’s desire to forgive; of a king who took all that he wanted and a God who gave all that he could.
After listening to Nathan’s story and realizing his wrong, we hear David say “I have sinned against the Lord.” We might want to add ‘and Bathsheba; and Uriah; and your son, and all those others who suffered at the hands of your self-importance’. But ours is not to judge. Instead, this evening, may we reflect on our living and confess our own failings. May we seek to emulate those bold women and men who tell stories which expose injustice, challenge the powerful and change hearts and minds. And may we be thankful to the God who guides us, forgives us, loves us and who welcomes us back to this table of grace. Amen.