“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”
2 Samuel 11:1-15 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld ~ Northwood United Church ~ July 25, 2021
Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the past, in where we come from, in who our ancestors were. There are several websites which will give you access to all kinds of records so you can trace your background – all for a reasonable fee. The church has always been interested in the ancestry of Jesus but Ancestry.com won’t of much use; instead, we have to rely on oral tradition and wisdom. In old editions of the King James Bible, there are sometimes beautiful woodcuts of the family tree of Jesus, which is explained at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew and in the third chapter of Luke. For fun this week, read these sections, and enjoy the wonderful names. Matthew begins with Abraham, and goes all the way forward to Jesus. Luke starts with Jesus and goes way back to Adam. And someplace in the middle, is David, acting as a pivot point in history. Jesus, we have always been told, was “of the House of David.” And so it is particularly exciting when we can have a summer full of the exploits of this fascinating character.
Except when we get to today’s reading, and into the later life of David. Earlier readings offer such a positive note: he is chosen by God, anointed by Samuel, victorious in battle. He is appointed king of both Israel and Judah. He brings the Ark of the Covenant back to its rightful place in the central city of the nation. He is indeed a man blessed by God. And then we have this story. God isn’t even mentioned here. Did you notice that? And small wonder! What goes on here has nothing to do with God, but a lot to do with the worst aspects of human nature and behaviour. The bubble has burst, and we find David depicted as corrupt, sinful and depraved.
The man whom we like to think of as righteous, a faithful warrior for God, a poet who weeps over the loss of beloved friends, who is called and blessed by God, is in reality human, just like everyone else. The high point of his career is over, and ahead of him are family quarrels, disappointment, old age and death.
This story cannot be taken all by itself, because it has implications for the whole of David’s’ life, and - because he is king - the whole life of God’s chosen people Israel. It is one of the first times that we see David in his private role, not really as a ruler, but as a family man with faults and desires, making mistakes and abusing his power. The stories that make the news in our modern world are often about prominent figures – in politics, entertainment, sports, business, and sometimes even religion. And because bad news sells better than good news, they are often about scandals. And we just can’t resist hearing about them. Public people are open to public scrutiny and derision. We keep expecting leaders to be perfect, and we love it when they are not. We need to reassure ourselves that the rich and famous are also human, just like us. But a word of caution: most of the time, it’s best to separate personalities and issues, and deal with events, rather than character.
The story from Samuel today is a little story, only a few verses, but it is part of a complicated scenario that makes us uncomfortable. There will be a resolution to this part of David’s history, but today, this story gives us plenty to contemplate. So what’s really going on? King David is getting older, and for some reason not made clear in Scripture, he has not joined his troops in the latest spring offensive of the army. He is at home, looking for something to do. He’s wandering around his palace, and happens to see his neighbour’s wife taking a bath on her balcony. Nothing unusual about that, people did it all the time. Maybe Bathsheba didn’t realize he was still at home. David should have done the honourable thing, and turned away. But he didn’t. He was smitten by her beauty, and there was lots of it to see. He sent for her, and they didn’t spend the afternoon having tea and cucumber sandwiches, or playing Scrabble. She became pregnant. Oops! And then comes one of the important parts of the story. David, in an act of self-deception, tries to cover the whole thing up, to sweep it under the carpet. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah has been gone for some time, serving in the army, so there will be suspicions about paternity.
At first, David tries the easy way out: he calls Uriah back from the battle field, and encourages him to go home to his wife for some “rest and recreation”. After all, he’s worked hard with the army, and deserves some time off. Uriah doesn’t do it. He is too honourable. He knows, in his heart, that he cannot take advantage of his privileged rank to enjoy the good life when his troops are sleeping on bare ground in front of a besieged city. The next day, David tries again; he invites Uriah to dinner at the palace, makes a lot of small talk, and gets Uriah drunk, so he can be carried home, and maybe won’t remember the rest of the evening with the beauteous Bathsheba. That doesn’t work either.
Now, there is only one thing left, and David does it. He sends Uriah back to the army encampment with a sealed letter to his commander, Joab, telling him to put Uriah in the front lines of battle, so that he will be killed. Uriah carries with him his own death warrant. Doug Bratt offers an analogy, describing the strings of firecrackers that, when one is lit, explode, one after the other, and you can’t stop them. In fifteen little verses, David may have broken three of the Ten Commandments: he has coveted his neighbour’s wife, he may have committed adultery, and he has arranged for a murder. My, Oh My! Soap Opera City. That David sinned is clear. He lost control of himself, and the situation got out of hand. He compounded his sinfulness by trying to get out of his responsibilities. Yes, leaders sometimes do that. We all do. The world is full of incidents that could have been avoided if everyone did the right thing all the time. We cannot make excuses for misuse of power, sexual exploitation, racial prejudice and violence, elder abuse or other destructive behavior.
But we have to remember that according to the socially accepted customs of the day, David may not have committed adultery. He had several wives, and that was OK then. Some commentators suggest that since Uriah was a foreigner, the marriage may not have been valid according to Jewish law. But David did covet, and he did arrange for murder.
This week, be aware of the news, the real news, not the stuff at the supermarket checkout stand, not the conspiracy theories, not the juicy gossip on the internet. Sometimes, it’s not easy to do the right thing. It is easier to blame others, to wiggle out of uncomfortable predicaments, to gossip, to believe sensational headlines. This is also human sinfulness. And we all share in it. It’s difficult to work with this story and write a sermon that keeps out of the specifics of contemporary politics. It is hard not to look at the rich and famous, the people in power, and point fingers and say “Aha! See, that’s just what so and so has done.” But I am not going to name names, so I leave you to fill in the blanks. I encourage you to consider the issues before the personalities in today’s news. And, because Scripture always has a way of making us face our own lives and our own world, we need to look in the mirror and be honest and truthful about ourselves and our behaviour, both personal, and public. And so we come to the Good News. Yes, that’s what I said. Good News, folks. I was taught always to end a sermon with Good News. Even “bad news” is good, if it helps us to change.
The Good News is that leaders are human, and they make mistakes. If nothing else, it should bring a sense of reality to the world. It should challenge us to think about how we forgive one another, and ourselves, for our shortcomings. It might even make us less afraid of taking on roles of responsibility and power if we could be assured that we didn’t have to be perfect all the time. Do you want to be in public office? How critical are we of our leaders, in this time of crisis? How do we support their efforts? What are the real issues? We can certainly take on the task of asking: What do we do when we know power is being misused? Do we get involved, do we turn away, do we try to be a reconciling force for healing? How do we become part of the Good News?
Without going into the next part of the story, I can assure you that God is just and merciful, even if we aren’t. Because sinfulness does not take us out of God’s care and God’s call. David suffered a punishment, but he still remained King. The child that Bathsheba bore died, and David was stricken with remorse. But he still had to carry out his job, his call, his part in God’s plan. He was still part of the promise. Their next son would be Solomon, who was a great and just leader. And that’s important, too.
Look in the mirror: at your family life, your workday, your church, your country’s interests. The Good News is staring right back at you. God does not give up on us, or on our world, no matter how corrupt or violent it gets. God puts a new heart in us, daily. Then look at the story again, and realize that maybe one of the most important things about it is Uriah. He gets brushed off as a minor character, a walk on part, a foreigner who’s just going to die at the end, so why bother about him. Ten years ago, the Rev. Dr. Ronald Peters, a Presbyterian minister wrote an article called “The Uriah Factor” “If we only focus on Uriah’s death, we miss all that his life teaches about living. An immigrant in his adopted country, Uriah took seriously his faith in God and his allegiance to the king and his fellow citizens. We know that this outstanding soldier’s life reflected an integrity and transparency of faith that made him a change-agent for God in society. If scripture teaches nothing else, it is clear that the manner in which one lives THIS LIFE has great significance beyond our earthly existence for all ETERNITY.”
Just by participating in this service today, by listening to Scripture, read, interpreted, and prayed, you and I are making a commitment to be faithful. We are demonstrating that we believe that the Good News exists; that the Kingdom is not just a possibility but a reality. I invite you to help God in the great plan of redemption. I ask you to see this story of human weakness as a mirror of your own life, and to see beyond - to the promise of God’s ultimate power to restore to us the joy of salvation. Use your power, your privilege, your gifts, to be a counterbalance to the evil in the world. Let’s join together, to forgive, to celebrate, to be agents of change, and to touch the reality of God’s love. Let’s join together to see beyond our frailties, to the hope and promise of a world made whole.