Wow, I am two weeks behind. How did that happen? Sorry, folks. Here’s the sermon for November 18, 2012.
2 Samuel 11:1-17, 12:1-14 & Psalm 51
The Story, Chapter 12
This is one of those stories that both attracts and repels us. It is full of blatant misuse of power, raw lust, and desperate cover-ups. We are rightly disgusted by it – and yet we cannot look away. It reminds me of a whole host of similar news stories that grab our attention. Change the names to OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Jerry Sandusky or David Petraeus (the list could go on) – and this story might as well be part of our nightly news headlines. Respected leaders who are corrupted by power and lust are nothing new to us.
We generally respond to such stories in one of two ways.
Sometimes, we are secretly sympathetic. We write off personal indiscretions as unfortunate or even unavoidable effects of greatness. We admit some disappointment at the lack of self-control, but after all – under such stresses and with so many opportunities to stray – who can really blame them? And besides, we say, such private and personal choices don’t change one’s public and professional credentials. Think of Bill Clinton, for example; he is generally respected as an elder statesman now that his years in office have ended. History may still remember King David as a great and accomplished leader.
That’s one response. The other is to demonize the person. News stories speak of “heinous crimes” and use names like “predator” and “monster.” We are outraged and disgusted. When certain lines are crossed, there is no redemption imaginable. Swift punishment and public shame are the only right responses. If we think too hard about the details of King David’s exploits – forcing himself on a powerless woman, deliberately killing an innocent and honorable man, and even, in a roundabout way, bringing death on an innocent child – we might rightly respond with moral outrage.
So we can understand how historians would honor David as a great warrior and shrewd politician. And we can also go along with a judgment like the one that David himself pronounces in 2 Samuel 12:5-6: “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay…four times over because he did such a thing!”
The problem for us, though, is that the Bible does both: it honors David’s memory – not only as a political leader but as “a man after God’s own heart” – and also names his actions as thoroughly, completely sinful and shameful. David is not saint or sinner – he is both, through and through.
So what does that mean for us? First, it means we have to think of ourselves differently. We tend to think of ourselves (and others) as either “good enough” – not perfect, but good enough to have no real need of grace – or as so bad that we are beyond the scope of grace.
We might admit certain failings and shortcomings, but when it comes right down to it, most of us would say we are “a good person.” Others of us hold such unreasonably high expectations for ourselves and are so overwhelmed by feelings of shame that we think of ourselves as beyond repair, hopelessly damaged goods, “bad girls” or “bad boys” who will never be anything better.
Christian faith challenges both. It tells us that we cannot be “good enough” – “for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). But it also tells us that we are never beyond God’s grace – “all are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Christian faith tells us that we are sinners in need of grace, and also beloved children of God who are saved by grace and enabled to live as God’s saints. Both. At the same time.
The other thing that David’s story does is challenge how we think about others. If we are both saints and sinners, so are they. Our tendency is to make either heroes and demons out of other people – we do it to political leaders, sports figures, the people who are “not like us”. The truth of David’s story is that other people are – just as much as we are – both sinners and saints.
Finally, this story stretches our understanding of God to acknowledge that God might work even through brutality and brazen human lust to bring about redemption. It asks us to open ourselves to grace that we don’t feel we deserve – simply because God gives it. It challenges us to extend grace to others who do not deserve it – because we know God offers them grace.
David’s story invites us into a much messier storyline for life – in which saint and sinner aren’t easily separated – but in which we can be thoroughly and completely honest with each other and with God about who we are and are becoming.
That kind of stark honesty – the kind that isn’t afraid to admit “I have sinned against the Lord” but also isn’t afraid to claim that we are God’s children, both gifted and loved – is, I think, what made David “a man after God’s own heart”. It was a truthfulness about who he was and who God was that made David a great leader.
We don’t learn that kind of honesty from the world around us. We learn to hide our faults, to be embarrassed by them. We learn to puff up our accomplishments with bravado, to show ourselves greater than we are. Or, we learn to cower behind past failures, certain that our past has permanently removed us from God’s good graces.
We learn that we deserve love or that we are unworthy of love. Both are false.
The fullness of David’s story reminds us – again – of the fullness of God’s love. It cannot be earned; it is not deserved; but it is ours. And because we are loved, we can share God’s love with others – freely, abundantly, and without strings attached.
Friends, that’s our calling as God’s people. First, to care for one another in such a way that we learn that we are loved. Sometimes that means gently confronting one another, as Nathan did to David. (Which requires that we already be in healthy, whole relationships with one another – the kind of relationships fostered through covenant groups, for example.) Sometimes, it means publicly admitting our need, as David did before his court officials. Sometimes it means the difficult task of confession, admitting our sinfulness and experiencing the shame that makes us squirm. And yet – in the midst of it – we know we are also loved.
That’s the kind of community we are called to be. The kind where we are known – and challenged – sometimes confronted – but always loved.
And then, when we are secure in God’s love and the love of a Christian community, we are called to share the love that we have received with others – by welcoming them as they are, by offering what we have without expectation of receiving back, by meeting the needs we see around us without concern about whether they “deserve” it. “Deserve” isn’t our word, it isn’t our category. “Grace” is.
This part of David’s story attracts me, but it isn’t the voyeuristic attraction of TV news headlines. It attracts me because it is deeply honest and direct about who we are in a way that frees us to become who God created us to be. May we grow into that kind of honest and trust as we share life with one another in God’s presence.