Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 1, 2021
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a Commentary
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.
Talk about dramatic understatement!
The presence of the Lord had been absent throughout the whole chapter of 2 Samuel 11 until the very end. But that’s only on the surface. Most everything David did here was “while no one else was looking,” but we know that’s never true. And the story’s climax in 2 Samuel 12 delivers what most of us would agree was a fairly predictable outcome based on the Lord’s watchful eye.
It’s no doubt a mark of how thoroughly David had deluded himself and convinced himself that he came out of this incident scot-free that he didn’t catch on sooner to what was going on when Nathan the prophet came knocking on David’s door. I mean, all things being equal, Nathan’s parable was a fairly ham-handed little analogy about a rich man, a poor man, and a little lamb. You’d think the hair on the back of David’s neck would have gone up much sooner. If you’ve just stolen your neighbor’s car and some minister comes and tells you a story about how bad robbery is, your skin starts to crawl fairly early on in the telling of the analogical story. It cuts a little too close to home.
But not for David. Maybe he was distracted when Nathan told him the homely little lamb story, shuffling papers on his desk and tending to the busy work of a king while the prophet’s words dribbled on in the background. Or maybe he had so thoroughly insulated himself from the truth that he just couldn’t be reached. One suspects it’s the latter, and it’s a pretty scary prospect for us to face that we are capable of such self-deception. Yet we are.
If it’s surprising that Nathan is so easily able to sneak past David’s defenses and get him to express righteous indignation over a crime that is galactically less important and serious than what he himself was guilty of, it’s equally stunning to hear Nathan instantly declare forgiveness to David (albeit with the warning that the poor example David had set would come back to bite him within his own household one day soon—and for that stay tuned for next week’s Lectionary text from 2 Samuel 18). The Lectionary actually stops just short of Nathan’s promise of divine forgiveness and also the darker words that Bathsheba’s child would die. But actions can have consequences that not even the stunning grace of God can undo. One can only look to that same grace to sustain through the crises that our own actions sometimes unleash.
The Common Lectionary splits this story into a kind of cliffhanger Part 1 and Part 2, breaking off the narrative for Proper 12B just at the point when David arranges for Uriah’s death, then for Proper 13B picking the action back up after the worst of that part of the narrative is finished and cruising on into the Nathan part of the story. Frankly, it’s difficult to preach a two-parter on a story as seamless as this one. If one did so, however, it might be possible to let the first sermon on 2 Samuel 11:1-15 ponder what all led David to get himself into a situation in which he made such a manifestly bad set of decisions. And what is it in our own lives that can make us lose sight of God, God’s design for life, God’s dearest desires for our lives, so as to plunge into recklessly self-destructive patterns?
A sermon on the pericope assigned by the RCL could be a consideration of how God’s grace saves us despite the very worst things we do. Too often we use God’s ability to see and know all as a way to scare the daylights out of people. Even that little Sunday School song “Oh be careful little hands what you do . . .” carries with it the semi-ominous refrain, “For the Father up above is looking down in love.” The “in love” part softens it a bit but the song’s main message is clear enough: Behave, you little galoots, because God’s watching (and he’s got that rolled-up newspaper in his hands for a reason!!).
But the good news of the Bible is that although God may indeed be looking down from above, his doing so is not a short-circuiting of grace but becomes instead the occasion for grace. That’s no excuse to do whatever you want, of course. But it is a reminder for us in the church that our primary task is to preach grace, not fear; forgiveness, not damning tirades against sinfully weak people. Of course, neither grace nor forgiveness can be presented effectively without a concurrent acknowledgment that such things are needed in the first place—David had to fess up and own up to the reality of sin for the word of grace to have its truest depth of meaning for him. But it’s still grace that needs to set the tone.
This story seems like a knife through the heart of the entire David saga in the Old Testament. Last week’s sermon commentary by Stan Mast said this is the Continental Divide in the David saga: it had been all positive and moving upwards until this point. But now everything in David’s life and family will be decidedly downhill from here.
This story has been used as proof that even the mightiest can fall, that even the godliest people can sin. In the late 1990s when some ministers were using their pulpits to finger-wag at Bill Clinton and call for his impeachment in the wake of the Lewinsky sex scandal, other pastors were pointing to 2 Samuel 11-12 as a reminder that God can forgive and restore fallen leaders and that the church should be much more excited about that forgiving message than about the condemning message in which some seemed to be taking altogether too much relish. Similar recourse to David’s sin with Bathsheba (but also his restoration by grace) was made by some pastors in 2016 as a way to deal with the less savory parts of Donald Trump’s past and justify their support for him. David, it seems, is both byword and excuse, both warning and hope.
In the biblical long run, though, this story—and the appearance of Solomon’s mother Bathsheba—serves a far more curious function. By the time you get to the New Testament and encounter Matthew’s opening genealogy of Jesus, you discover that Matthew goes out of his way to include some of the more scandal-associated figures from the Old Testament. Four women are referenced in Matthew 1:1-17 (and that in and of itself was a bold move for Matthew) but each of the women was a non-Israelite and several of them had whiffs of sexual scandal surrounding them (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba). But Matthew twists the knife a bit more when it came time to reference Bathsheba, not mentioning her by name but only by reminding his readers that Solomon’s mother was “Uriah’s wife.” Ouch.
It turns out Jesus of Nazareth had quite the family tree, and this knife through the David saga was one giant skeleton in the closet. But Matthew flung open the closet door because he knew as keenly as any gospel writer that if ever there were a reminder of why this world needs a Savior who is full of grace, this story provides it.
It is, therefore, simply too bad whenever preachers use this story (or biblical stories like it) only as an excuse to tut-tut over the sins of people in order to make them feel bad or, worse, as a way to make us holy ones in the church better than those sexually silly people out there in the world. It won’t even do to use this story as a fig leaf to cover someone’s sin whether there is true penitence or not. It is in the end a story of both warning and promise. This is no way to behave and the impenitent had best watch out because God is watching. But this story also shows that grace is always looking for a way into people’s hearts. And when grace can get in, things can begin anew, albeit not without some attendant sorrows at times.
From Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians (Harper Collins, 1997): Here is Peterson on Nathan’s devastating “You are the man” verdict on David:
“This is the gospel focus: you are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done. It’s both easy and common to lose this focus, to let the gospel blur into generalized pronouncements, boozy cosmic opinions, religious indignation. That’s what David is doing in this story, listening to his pastor preach a sermon about somebody else and getting all worked up about this someone else’s sin, this someone else’s plight. That kind of religious response is worthless; it’s the religion of the college dormitory bull session, the TV spectacular, the talk-show gossip. It’s the religion of moral judgmentalism, self-righteous finger-pointing, the religion of accusation and blame.” P. 185
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