bath-she-ba

2 Samuel 11:1-15

As many of you know, we’ve been up in Maine on vacation.
We spent several days with my brother and his wife in Kennebunkport.
David’s in the Secret Service (shhh!) and assigned to George H.W. Bush.
In the course of several conversations,
a fact observed on the news was underscored.
My brother was reflecting on how very active a man Bush was.
He played tennis; he golfed; he fished out in the ocean,
but now he’s severely limited by a medical condition effecting his legs
and spends most of his time in a wheelchair.
“Sad,” said my brother.

“How does he handle it?” I asked.
“Frustrating is what he says,” said David,
“Yet it is what it is,” and he remains grateful
for his overall health, his mind, and all the activities of his family.
Mature.

Maturity is, after all, in so many ways
accepting at each stage of the journey who you are—
which can constitute quite the challenge
when you can’t do what you could once do and do so well—
when you can no longer do what you were known for—
when you don’t feel like yourself anymore—
or the self you were, anyway, who did this and that and the other so easily.
this we all know—
whether that’s our present experience,
or a future we imagine or fear.
And this is our challenge … a challenge we each one of us face.

King David’s not himself in our text today—
or he’s not who he used to be.
For in the spring of the year, we read,
when kings go out to battle,
David sent Joab and his servants and all Israel against the Ammonites,
but David remained at Jerusalem.

He used to be at the forefront of the fighting—
so much so, we remember, that he would get all the credit.
Just back in chapter eight, we read
that David defeated the Philistines (2 Samuel 8:1),
and David defeated Moab (2 Samuel 8:2),
and David defeated Hadadezer (2 Samuel 8:3),
and David defeated the Arameans (2 Samuel 8:5),
and David defeated the Edomites (2 Samuel 8:13).
I mean aren’t you just a little bit suspicious
when you read David killed eighteen thousand Edomites?
And the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went (2 Samuel 8:6, 14),
and David administered justice and equity to all his people (2 Samuel 8:15).

So what’s changed?
It may be that David’s changed—
gotten a little older, a little slower, a little weaker—
no longer in his prime.
Maybe a medical condition effecting his legs—an old war injury.
Maybe he had to stay in Jerusalem.
Maybe he was, in fact, encouraged to stay in Jerusalem.
Maybe he was more important in Jerusalem now as king and symbol
than to be risked on the front lines.

And maybe it started back in chapter ten
where we read that Joab led the fighting
against the Ammonites and the Arameans,
and David didn’t appear until the end (2 Samuel 10:17-18)—
until after the enemy was actually said to be defeated (2 Samuel 10:15).
Had to have been hard—relegated to the sidelines—
denied that which made your reputation.
David stayed in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, if you’ve ever been—
if you ever have occasion to go,
is a city of layers—
built on an incline.
Walls look down on roofs
looking down on other roofs,
and life happens on so very many different levels.

And here’s one of the key things about our story today.
We’re not told much beyond what happened.
We’re told the story on one level—the level of actions.
We’re not told why things happened—just what did.
There’s no conversation; there’s no emotional revelation.
And we peer from the action to other levels of meaning—
layers of imagined conversation, imagined emotion,
but they’re levels we bring—that we add.
And that’s not unimportant.
But, in the end, here’s what happened,
and the reasons don’t matter.

So if you have always received external validation—
validation for your good looks—
validation for what you’ve done—
what happens when you lose those looks?
What happens when you can’t do such deeds anymore?
When you’re physically unable—
or not allowed to.
That’s a legitimate question, don’t you think?
You look for other ways to validate your manliness.
That’s a legitimate observation, don’t you think?

But again, not excusing anything. Just observing.
And finding a word for us all.
Growing up—maturity
is, in part, for all of us, the movement away from purely external validation.
We admire—our culture admires, as David’s did,
the external victories, the obviously impressive.
And we need to cultivate a greater appreciation—
we, as the people of God, need to cultivate a greater appreciation
for the more subtle, less obvious, more important internal victories—
the work of maturing of realizing and accepting the importance of every individual—
of administering justice and equity to all people.
And as we work to become more mature,
maybe our so very immature culture can too.

Awakening in the late afternoon, we read
(and what’s that about? Indolence? Lounging around?
Or bed-ridden? Does it matter?
Good questions. Interesting. Ultimately irrelevant.)
Walking on his roof, David saw a woman bathing,
and she was very beautiful.

So a couple of observations that might get me in trouble:
one/ it is the exceptional man
who spying a beautiful woman bathing
won’t look around to make sure he himself isn’t being observed
and go right on observing;
two/ a beautiful woman is more beautiful bathing.
And it is the aesthetics—water glistening on skin,
but it’s also what’s customarily private made public.
She’s all the more beautiful unknowingly observed.
I’m not saying that’s right. I’m saying there’s truth to that.
I excuse nothing—justify nothing. I merely speak as a man!

And the immediacy of such situations can short circuit thinking—
bypass perspective and priorities and beliefs and standards—
the powerful instinct of appeal—allure—desire—
peering—admiring—coveting—scheming.
And lust both carries someone away and drives them along.
And it feels right—it feels important—it feels good—
it feels natural and thus justified.

Everyone hear that? Just because if feels right, doesn’t make it so.
Especially perhaps when it comes to lust.
And lust for what? A fantasy of what sex might be?
A fantasy of what more money might be?
A different job?
A different spouse?
A lust for power—for control.
Of forcing people to respond to you.

Lust is ultimately just self-indulgence.
That doesn’t mean it’s always bad.
In the right context, mutual self-indulgence is great,
but that’s in the right context … which this is not.

And in the wrong context, so often, lust masks naked fear—
the fear of not being wanted—not being desirable—
not being important—not being admired—
not being loved.
And if you can’t be loved,
well, you might as well be obeyed or feared or hated.

We think we know her name,
but it could be that David was found by one of his servants
stuttering, “bath … she … bath … she … bath … she ….”
Not really of course, it was Hebrew, after all,
but I speak again as a male—
not so much embarrassed for or by my sex,
but resigned to certain truths!

Sometimes we need to be more explicit than is comfortable.
Because certain truths need to be named in church and within family
as part of growing and maturing—
acknowledging and identifying settings and circumstances
that can and do short circuit thinking—
bypass perspective and priorities
and even circumvent deeply held beliefs, standards and convictions.

And one servant, who perhaps frequented the palace’s roof himself,
said, “Oh, yes, that’s the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah.”
In the midst of potential objectification, the relational reminder:
she’s someone’s daughter; she’s someone’s wife.

But David sent for her nonetheless.
And he lay with her.
And this is wrong on so many levels.
This is sexual abuse.
It is the abuse of power.
It is the betrayal of David’s anointing as king and calling as shepherd.
It is abuse and there is no excuse.
No justification.
And that needs to be the unequivocal voice of the church.
When power (personal, political or ecclesial) is abused,
it is so important for us as followers of God in the way of Jesus
to prophetically condemn.

But that’s easy.
It’s so much harder and so much more important
than prophetically condemning
to engage in prophetically warning—
warning about what constitutes risk
and what constitutes temptation,
and to prophetically prepare our young people and our less young people—
to prepare each other to know what to avoid—
to learn tactics of resistance,
and, in cases of failure,
to prophetically grace along with our prophetic condemnation.

We need to be more about looking ahead to change the future
than looking back to condemn the past,
and in appropriate condemnation, we need to ensure
that grace is heard alongside anger and disappointment.

For if beliefs and standards can be bypassed,
it’s not just a matter of knowing what’s right and what’s wrong.
Because the truth of the matter is
that there will always be times and circumstances
in which if we were to stop and think about it, we would know right and wrong,
but in which we don’t stop and we don’t think.

I have before expressed frustration
at our culture’s rampant prioritization of immediate gratification—
whether with regards to sex or politics or education or budgets or parenting.

Then I’m confounded remembering something I’ve noted before:
when doing two things (or more) at once,
it’s the most immediate activity that gets the attention
not the most important.
You’re driving, for example, and you have a cup of coffee or iced tea,
and have you noticed, if you have to swerve or brake,
it’s the prospect of getting wet
that gets more attention than trying to control the momentum
of 4,000 lbs of vehicle moving at however many mph.

So too, on a rooftop, spying a beautiful woman bathing.
Again, not excuse, not justification.
So what to do?
We started the year, remember way back then?
with a worship series called improvisation—
in which we suggested that it is our responsibility at church
to rehearse circumstances before they matter
so that when they do, we’re ready.

And so, week by week, we explore the stories of Scripture.
Week by week, we gather to pray.
Week by week, we support and encourage each other
in the way of Jesus.
Week by week we remind each other it’s not just about knowing abstractly
what’s right and what’s wrong,
but about taking the stories and prayers seriously enough to specifically rehearse:
what do I do when put in a position to abuse power?
What do I do when put in a position to take advantage of someone?
How do I not?

Our story’s even worse than we supposed
as we remember, she was in the bath purifying herself.
She was cleansing herself in obedience to the laws of God.
David saw her in her expression of faithfulness
and took her as expression of his own faithlessness.

And if she was cleansing herself, in accordance with the law
after her period,
she was at the time most likely to conceive, and she did.

And she who had been sent for—
she who had been the one unknowingly spied upon—
brought before the king and taken—
she who had been passive
before the power of the king—
acted upon,
now takes the initiative and sends word to the king,
“I’m pregnant.”

That could be the story.
It’s the perfect ending to a story of imperfection,
except of course, it’s not the end.
And things go from bad to worse.

David, in his fear, and in his arrogance—his desperation
his attempt to continue to be in control
sends for Uriah, one of his elite fighters.
He sends for Uriah, just as he had sent for Uriah’s wife.
And David asks for an update from the battlelines.
We actually lose it in translation,
David asks about the peace of Joab,
the peace of the army and the peace of the war.
Three repetitions in Hebrew of the word “shalom”—
David asking about what he is in the very process of undoing.

Do we respect and trust the story enough to ask,
what do I do when I’m trying to control consequences
and hide what I don’t want known?
Do I care about shalom when my reputation is at stake?

David tells Uriah to go home and to wash his feet.
Um hm.
Every soldier home from war
wants to go home and wash his feet!
But Uriah thinks not just of himself.
He thinks of the plight of his country,
the suffering of so many of his fellow citizens,
the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers,
and proclaims it isn’t right for me to take advantage
and to enjoy what they can’t.
And David’s first attempt to cover up
fails in face of Uriah’s admirable conviction,
it isn’t right for me to indulge myself
when so many don’t have that opportunity.

And that was once David, wasn’t it?
We think back to David on the run
with his men in the wilderness (1 Samuel 23:13-14, 24; 26:3)—
hiding out in the caves (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:3)—
hiding in the very camp of the enemy (1 Samuel 27:3),
and David was right there with his men
sharing in their circumstance, even as they shared in his.
That was once David.
Not anymore though—no more administering justice and equity.

And David commands Uriah to stick around another day,
and gets him drunk and tries to send him home again.
But he just wouldn’t go home and wash his feet!
And David’s second attempt to cover up fails.

And things continue to get worse.
David asserts his authority—his power, again abusively,
and has Uriah take the message to Joab back on the battlefield—
the message to have Uriah sent into the worst of the fighting
and then to withdraw the other troops around Uriah
so Uriah would be killed.
“Would you mind taking this message to Joab, Uriah?”
“Yes sir!”

David inserted himself in Uriah’s place with Bathsheba,
and then placed Uriah in what had been David’s place—
at the forefront of the fighting.
Uriah doesn’t survive.
He’s no David,
but neither is David!
That’s obvious in all we see him doing that he doesn’t want anyone to see.
But we also see it in the more subtle reminder
that even as we reflect back now on chapter eight
when David’s getting all the credit—
when his campaign staff is putting out all the images
of David defeating all the countries enemies and allowing people to feel safe,
we now think, even if we didn’t before, it wasn’t David all alone.
It was all his soldiers with him—even though he got all the credit.
So when David tells Joab not only to put Uriah at the fore
but also to withdraw the troops around him,
it’s not Uriah not being able to be as David was,
but David revealed as he was all along—
less than he was made out to be.
And David only thinks his third attempt at a cover up succeeds.

It’s hard. Don’t know if I got it this morning.
Because it’s not about offering any kind of excuse for what is wrong.
Wrong behavior is wrong behavior—no excuses—no justification.
But maybe there can be some understanding?
Some awareness of there but by the grace of God go I.
Not the too easily glib hate the sin and love the sinner,
but hate the sin and see the possibility of it in you—remember your own.
And name grace—for the other even as you claim it for yourself.

And make a commitment to be a helper—an encourager—
transforming the future
by so prayerfully so intentionally choosing who and how we will be
as we move into that future,
instead of neglecting our on-growing
and getting angry and acting surprised
when the past repeats itself over and over and over
and over and over and over and over again.
Oh, and also instead of ascribing blame
which is always, it seems to me,
just a loud deflection of complicity in our culture.

There are times we’re swept away
looking at what we don’t want to be seen looking at—
acting in ways that repudiate our best selves.
I say this in warning—
not just that any one of us might so easily do something bad,
but also how easy to go from bad to worse.
And so we prepare ourselves
to be our best selves—to help each other head off the bad
or to confront it in such a way that it doesn’t get worse.
I say this not in judgment for what we have all done,
but with the full awareness that growing up
is not just a matter of what we do in our moments,
but how we deal with what we’ve done in our moments—
particularly when we did the wrong thing.
And I say this remembering grace even in judgment and disappointment.
for though we read that David disappointed God,
the story goes on,
and we will see—
we will see yet what possibility there is for someone who cheats,
someone who abuses, someone who manipulates,
someone who lies,
even for someone who murders the innocent—
someone we admired who is revealed
to have done unspeakable, despicable things.
Because as it turns out God’s story is always bigger—
so much bigger—
than any stories easy for us to tell.
Thanks be to God.

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