a sad story

Our David story for Sunday is the infamous incident with Bathsheba. As we talked about it in bible study the week prior, the story felt incredibly relevant to contemporary scandals involving people like John Edwards and Jerry Sandusky. The temptation with this kind of story, though, is to linger on the outrageous details and miss how it might speak to our own every day lives. Audio from Sunday wasn’t great, so I’ve just posted the text of my thoughts after the jump.

This is such a sad story. There’s no excusing or dismissing or rationalizing what David does.

When this story takes place, David is at the pinnacle of his power. Everything that had been promised has come to pass.

And the David we have come to know is a complex, but essentially good man. Like all of us he struggles with the fault lines in his personality, but he loves the Lord, and leans on God’s strength.

And then, he does this.

Let’s be clear about what he does. Pop culture portrayals of this story muddy the waters quite a bit. This is not the story of consensual adultery, and it is definitely not a love story.

Bathsheba does not intend to be provocative or seductive as she bathes. In fact, it’s the opposite—she is purifying herself in accord with strict Torah observance.

It’s also important to notice that Bathsheba is not an independent woman with the power to take control. We’ve seen a portrait of a woman like that, Abigail two weeks ago. But because of class, Abigail’s story is not Bathsheba’s. Abigail’s freedom and agency were a result of her great wealth. Bathsheba has no such wealth. She is the wife of a soldier, and so she is like the vast majority of women of her time, and women of our time in many parts of the world. She is, quite frankly, little more than valuable property.

In this story the key fact about Bathsheba is that she is Uriah’s wife. She’s only referred to by name once in this whole story. Over and over she is called the wife of Uriah. In fact, a thousand years later, in the gospel of Matthew when the gospel writer is listing Jesus’ family tree, even there she is remembered as Uriah’s wife.

David sees her and wants her. He learns that she is married to one of his soldiers. Then he sends his messengers to take her. This is not an invitation to an equal. This is a command from the king. He has seen what he wants, and he takes it.

Did he think it wouldn’t really matter? Did he think it would just be a little bit of fun, a little diversion with no victims, no consequences?

That’s how it always starts isn’t it?

The root of David’s fall here is two-fold: he covets, and the root of coveting is almost always a lack of gratitude. David loses sight of the abundance which fills his own life. His eyes stray to his neighbor. And he wants what his neighbor has.

It’s just a little fun. No one is going to get hurt.

Then come the two words: I’m pregnant.

From here the story unravels relentlessly. David sends for Uriah, tries not once but twice to send Uriah home to his wife, hoping Uriah will provide him with an alibi.

But Uriah, like Bathsheba, is righteous. David no longer even leads his own men into war; he sends them from the comfort of his palace, but Uriah refuses to abandon his comrades even when summoned by the king.

When he is unable to have his way through trickery, David sends Uriah back to war with a death warrant.

And then, at last, the deed is done.

I hope none of us has ever fouled things up this dramatically. But we all know what this is like. We have all watched a small mistake, a little white lie, a bit of fun one afternoon, spin out of control, becoming a web that traps us, a maze we can’t get out of.

This story is heartbreaking because we know it so well. David has it all, and we want him to stay beautiful and flawless. We project onto him, and other heroes in our lives, our own longing to be perfect, our desire to find someone who will not let us down.

Then the prophet Nathan shows up. It is his unenviable task to confront the most powerful man in the realm with a word from God. Nathan’s no fool. He handles the matter delicately.

Like a sailer, he tacks to the side rather than charting a course straight into the wind. He tells David a story about a rich man who took a poor man’s most prized possession.

David is outraged, the way we are when we hear a story about someone else’s injustice or indiscretion.

And then Nathan’s words ring out: you are the man.

This is when religious rhetoric suddenly becomes God’s word in David’s life.

It’s so easy for spirituality to be abstract, something that applies to others.

But then there are those moments of truth when it gets personal, when the voice of God breaks in saying, you are the one.

Nathan finishes telling David the truth: you had it all, and if you had needed more, you only had to ask, but instead of relying on God’s love, you have coveted and taken, killed and deceived.

There will be consequences.

The rest of David’s life is colored by the deeds of this story. The sword never leaves his house. His family and descendants are plagued by violence, hatred, and dysfunction.

These consequences are not a penalty levied by God following some sort of cosmic sentencing guidelines. These consequences are nothing more and nothing less than the reality of David’s actions. Our deeds bear fruit—both our acts of love and our mistakes. Once the bell is rung it can’t be un-rung. David’s choices change things.

But this is not the last word.

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

And if there is a moment of grace in this whole sad story it is here. Faced with the magnitude of his brokenness and sin, David confesses.

He doesn’t run. He doesn’t hide. He doesn’t heap up rationalizations or excuses.

He stands before God as he really is.

And God does not abandon David. God does not abandon him.

There are consequences that flow from these mistakes. But they are not the whole story.

God keeps working in David’s life. The story doesn’t end here. Indeed, generations later tradition tells us that a child named Jesus is born to a poor woman. He is a descendent of David—this David, who has just screwed up so royally.

This confession, this honesty, is not the end. It is the beginning.

This is the power of God. When we have come to the end of our own strength, when our weakness has won, when we have made an irredeemable mess of our lives, God’s love is stronger.

This is why we take time each week for confession. It is not so that we can wallow in guilt, appeasing an angry God.

No. In confession we face ourselves honestly—our brokenness, our hurt, our mistakes we regret deeply—all of it.

And we bring all that we can’t repair, all we can’t make right, to God not in fear, but trusting, sometimes just barely hoping, that the creator of the world, the one who brought life from a tomb, can create new life in the midst of our own messed and mangled lives.

The good news is that our God is the One who does a new thing. God does not shield us from all our mistakes. And God doesn’t treat our lives like an etch-a-sketch, wiped clean. But what does happen is that God gathers us up, weakness, mistakes and all, and redeems us, making room for new possibilities in our lives.

Our story today is a sad story.

But by the grace of God, it is not the end of the story. It is just a chapter, and the story continues to be written.

For centuries when this story was copied into fresh manuscripts, scribes would leave a big gap on the page after David’s words, I have sinned against the Lord.

In that gap, readers would turn to the fifty-first psalm. Tradition remembers this psalm as being David’s full confession that day.

And so now we’ll read selections from that psalm together. As we read this ancient prayer of confession, may it be for us, as it was for David, not the last word, but the beginning of new life in the midst of our broken, beautiful stories. Will you join me?

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; 
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, 
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, 
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, 
and done what is evil in your sight, 
so that you are justified in your sentence 
and blameless when you pass judgment.
You desire truth in the inward being; 
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; 
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; 
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, 
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, 
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, 
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, 
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways, 
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, 
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, 
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice; 
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; 
You won’t despise a heart, O God, that is broken and contrite.

 

by Sarah W. Wiles
July 15, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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2 Responses to a sad story

  1. Phil Bangert says:

    Bathsheba’s name was mentioned at least 2 more times in the Bible, but as you wrote only once in this “story.”

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