Sermon, "You Shall Not Die," July 29, 2018

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

This Sunday we had the privilege of hosting a joint worship service with our friends from Comox United Church and Comox Valley Presbyterian Church.

And please accept our apologies--there was an error in recording this week so there is no audio.

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’

So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’

Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’ David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.
— 2 Samuel 11:1-15, 11:26-12:13a (New Revised Standard Version)

When my wife Cheyenne and I met, I had this curious habit. One that drove her crazy. When ever I forgot something or screwed something up, I had this knee-jerk tendency. A tendency to deny that I’d done something wrong. or to argue that what I’d done was actually the right thing to do in the first place. Then of course, we’d have a bigger fight about the justification than we had about the original issue. Eventually just realize I was wrong and admit it. But not before it was stretched over several days. Much to Cheyenne’s (rather understandable) irritation.

Luckily I’ve grown out of this (from my perspective anyway). But it’s only more recently that I’ve started wondering “why?” Why did I act that way? Why did I need to hold on to my own rightness until the bitter end?

Interestingly enough, today’s scripture passage has given me a little insight into my own behavior. Funny enough, listening to the Bible seems to do that.

King David, who—the scriptures say—is a “man after God’s own heart.” Poor shepherd boy and runt of the family who thought and fought his way to kingship. War hero, brilliant poet and musician. Not only that, but a humble guy who sees his life not as his own making, but a gift from God. He’s got the whole package.

But even our most beloved heroes have their shadow side. David’s shadow in our scripture is cast over the whole city of Jerusalem. When he wakes up from an afternoon nap on the roof of the palace. Up here, he can see everything, everyone. This day, he sees Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, and wife of Uriah the Hittite, his old army buddies, and loyal members of his royal guard. While they’re off fighting for David’s kingdom in David’s war, she’s all alone. So David sends his entourage to grab her and bring her back to him. Doesn’t say whether David forces himself or she consents. Her will here, though, is irrelevant. Because you can’t say no to the King. So without missing a beat, Bathsheba joins that long list of #MeToo women. And in a matter of sentences another hero falls from grace.

That’s the initial misdeed. Terrible as it is.

But the worst part of the story isn’t David’s coercion or his adultery. Awful as they are. The worse thing comes next. The worse thing is what he does to cover it up. To evade responsibility.

A while later, Bathsheba sends a message. “I’m pregnant.” Short and simple, like a text message. The baby couldn’t possibly be her husband’s simply based on the timeline. This secret scandal is on its way out.

So David tries to fix it.

First, he has Bathsheba’s husband Uriah sent home from the front. He tells Uriah to spend a little quality time with his wife so people will think the baby’s his: “go down to your house and wash your feet,” he says. “If ya know what I mean.” Uriah departs. But then they find him sleeping in David’s foyer on David’s couch. When David asks him why he didn’t go home, Uriah essentially says “there’s a war on and you want me to go home to my comfortable house and sleep with my wife while all my friends are risking their lives, and using rocks for pillows? Not gonna happen.”

So when that doesn’t work, David gets Uriah drunk in the hope that he’ll wander home. But the same thing happens again: he passes out in David’s foyer. On David’s couch.

So now David’s out of options, running out of time. He turns to his last resort: he has Uriah sent back to the front, but this time at the front of the battle, where casualties are heaviest.

And just as planned, Uriah is killed. Bathsheba mourns. David marries her. Crisis averted.

Look how quickly things got out of hand! David’s need to maintain his innocence, his public persona, his righteousness above all else. This is where I see myself. You know, minus the coercion and adultery—my sins are far less exciting than this unfortunately. But I’d maintain innocence and evade responsibility to the bitter end, and it always ended up just making things worse. For David what started as something wrong became something way worse. Simply to evade responsibility. And avoid guilt. David ends up committing a greater sin to hide a lesser one.

That’s where I see myself in this story of David. And I’ll bet you can probably see yourself here, too.

Now, my guess is that few of us have sent our best friend to die to cover up to avoid having a career ending secret exposed. But I’ll bet that most of us, if not all of us, have experienced this same kind of snowball effect. We do something we shouldn’t have that could cost us: friendships, careers, families, even. And we’ll do all sorts of things great and small to avoid being found out. It could be like David, have something to do with sex. It’s amazing how often it does. Or it could have to do with money, or power or… or… or… or… the list is endless. In every case we’re like gamblers who lose our paycheque at the casino, but then drain the family savings trying to win back what we’d lost so nobody finds out. Maybe like David we’ll lie. Maybe like David we’ll manipulate our friends. We may not kill anyone, but we’ll throw somebody else under the bus. Just to save our own skin.

This need, this drive, inhabits us all in one way or another. All because we fear the consequences of being found out. Truth be told, those fears are not unfounded. In David’s case, it’s public shame, a loss of respect by his people. Maybe even a loss of loyalty on the part of the military. It wouldn’t be good for the kingdom. It wouldn’t be good for anybody. But it’s our need to maintain our innocence and righteousness that makes us do worse things to hide than we were originally guilty of. Like David, we can commit greater sins to hide lesser ones. That’s where I see myself.

Now, the most obvious piece of advice from this scripture passage is to take responsibility for our actions from square one. Or not do them in the first place. Which is fair enough. True enough.

It’s fair. It’s true. But you know, another truth is that just hearing not to do stuff never does anything (just ask my kids). And yet another truth is that like David, we’re going to do bad stuff. Stuff that hurts other people. And we’re probably going to hide and avoid. At least in some way.

The only way is to get at the root of the problem. Deep within our souls. Cut it off at its source. And that’s what happens to David. In fact, God’s the one who does it.

“What David did displeased the Lord,” it says. Understatement, really. But God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David. Nathan’s tricky. He tells David a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s sheep, just because he didn’t want to waste one of his own. Which made David furious at the injustice. Then Nathan springs it on him: “you’re the rich guy,” he says. Then he goes through a whole catalogue of the blessings David had been given. He’d been given everything, but just had to have a bit more. And he killed to make sure he didn’t get caught. It was all hidden from plain view. But God sees. Because of what he’s done, David’s going to lose everything: his wives, his children. And eventually his kingdom’s going to split apart. That little snowflake of a misdeed became a snowball. Now it’s a boulder made of ice that’s going to crush everything in its path. Because David ducked and hid.

There’s this great book by Cornelius Plantinga called Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be on the brokenness of the human condition. Without calling this story by name he talks about this evasion, this unwillingness to see that David demonstrates. He says it gets at the heart of our own brokenness. “The heart of personal evil…” he writes,

“The heart of personal evil… is not so much the usual run of wayward thoughts, cutting words, and damaging acts. Nor is it the absence of a sense of sin: not all evil people are conscienceless psychopaths. The heart of sin is rather the persistent refusal to tolerate a sense of sin, to take responsibility for one’s sin, to live with the sorrowful knowledge of it and to pursue the painful way of repentance.”[i]

It’s this persistence, this refusal to tolerate it. It’s this inability to come to terms with ourselves that’s the problem. Which means being truthful with ourselves is the only real solution.

And that’s what David does. He replies with the simple words “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan held up the mirror. David could have lashed out, killed him, protected himself yet again. But here he sees himself for who he truly is. And he accepts it.

And Nathan replies to David “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” You shall not die.

David was on the trajectory of death. Doing anything he could to hide himself. But he couldn’t hide himself from God. Nathan shows David’s who he is. And when he does, God doesn’t meet David with destruction or death. Instead, God meets his sin with forgiveness. As the apostle Paul says, “Where ever sin abounds, grace abounds even moreso.”

To see ourselves for who we are, in all our faults, our pettiness, our mistakes and transgressions great and small. To be honest with ourselves by seeing ourselves the way God sees us. It’s challenging, it’s painful.

It’s hard. But it’s ultimately freeing. Eugene Peterson says it like this:

“Only when we recognize and confess our sin are we in a position to recognize and respond to God who forgives our sin… the place of sin is not a place of condemnation, but salvation.”[ii] With God, judgment is always an act of grace, something meant to heal us. God’s goal is always to make us into the people we were created to be. Forgiveness doesn’t mean erasure. But it means there’s the prospect of new life. We can start again.

So friends, hear the good news: The good news is that we no longer have to dodge. We no longer have to run away, we no longer have to hide. Especially not here, especially not together. As Pope Francis says, the church isn’t a museum for saints—it’s a hospital for sinners. It’s good news because we, the body of Christ in the Comox Valley, we’re a people born of the truth, a people destined for the truth. The truth has set us free. It may seem impossible—there’s a cross before resurrection, remember. But as hard as it may be you can tell the truth to yourself, to the people you love. Though your instinct may be to run, you can break the cycle. Set aside your fear. Because the promise isn’t condemnation—the promise is forgiveness. Let go, and start again.

Our path to freedom isn’t avoiding responsibility. Our path to freedom is seeing ourselves as God sees us: People who fall short, yes. But people who are pulled from the dust by grace. People who are broken, yet eternally beloved. Now and forever.

AMEN.

 

[i] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 99.

[ii] Eugene Peterson, The Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel, ed. Patrick D. Miller and David Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 185-186.