God's Grace: More Powerful Than Our Sin
During this summer we have explored the life of David. We studied some of his most significant victories, from the defeat of Goliath to becoming the King of Israel, to establishing Jerusalem as not just the capital of a country but a religious center, ultimately not only for Judaism, but for Christianity and Islam as well. But even the greatest of individuals fall—and sometimes it is the most painful for us when our heroes, not the everyday, average folk like you and me, but the greatest of us, gives in to sin. Over the next three Sundays we will explore David’s downfall. The one who defeated a giant will succumb to his own weakness. To his credit, unlike his predecessor Saul, David does not lose his faith in God. After all, he will always be remembered as the one who lived after God’s own heart.
It would be easy for the historians of the Bible to “accidentally” forget the shortcomings of one of their favorite heroes. To their credit 1 and 2 Samuel, which tells the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David, and 1 and 2 Kings, which tells the stories of every king from Solomon onward, share the stories with brutal honesty. (1 and 2 Chronicles, which recounts many of these same stories, tends to delete the bad stuff about David—like the king himself, no one is perfect.) The Bathsheba story represents the worst of David—and is a reminder for all of us to watch out for the underestimated power of sin and our broken relationship with God.
David suffered from unchecked desire. One day David notices a beautiful woman bathing in the house next to his. David was married to several women, and had many other concubines. He had many sons, so there is no reason to lust after Bathsheba except that she was beautiful and he desired her. He ordered his troops to go to her house and take her to him. Knowing she was married to one of his best soldiers, he slept with her anyway. And then she became pregnant. Now David begins to scheme. He recalls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, from the battle for a weekend furlough. He says to Uriah, “You’ve done well; you deserve a weekend at home with your wife.” But Uriah won’t go home. He says it’s not fair for him to be with his wife when the other soldiers are still at war. So David throws a party. Uriah becomes drunk. And he still refuses to go home. Then David gets desperate. He writes an order to his commander, saying Uriah is to be placed on the front lines, then the other Israelites are to retreat, ensuring Uriah’s death. Uriah literally carries his own death warrant to his commanding officer. Once Uriah is dead, David allows Bathsheba to mourn for a week and then marries her. For one described as having a heart for God, David breaks nearly all of the Ten Commandments in just this one episode: adultery, murder, coveting, stealing, disregarding God and trusting too much in his own power.
Over the years, commentators have tried to take David off the hook, implying that Bathsheba purposefully bathed in plain sight in order to lure David. She was the schemer. But the text in no way says that. David is the responsible party here, using his power and position to acquire whatever he desires. Lust often leads to damaged relationships and severe consequences because of the abuse of power. We see it in schools, we see it in our elected leaders, and we see it in our churches. We abuse the power we’ve received because of our position for our own lustful purposes. This is what David does. The danger of lust lies with how one understands other people. In healthy relationships, each member is treated with an equal amount of respect and honor. One does not sacrifice more than the other; there is balance. Someone put it this way: a river is beautiful to look at when it exists within its banks, but when it floods it ceases to be beautiful, destroying everything in its path. Sexual desire between committed adults is beautiful, but when the boundaries are broken it becomes just as destructive as the flood. Let’s be clear: his interest in her is only lust. Not love. If she had not become pregnant he would never have spoken to her again. This was not a digression of character—it was a brutal, awful attack on her personhood. In fact, one could argue this was not a sexual encounter at all, but rape—the Hebrew word often translated “sent for”—as in “he sent for her”—is rightly translated “he took her.” It’s the same word Samuel used to describe what the king would do to the people’s possessions: “He will take…” your money as taxes. “He will take…” your sons for war. Well, now David “takes” Bathsheba for his own selfish desires. His power, as king, drives the story. David’s manipulation and scheming ultimately pay their toll on his family. The baby conceived in his act of lust with Bathsheba dies. In the future, one of David’s sons, Amnon, will rape his half-sister, Tamar, then send her away in disgrace instead of marrying her. Her full brother, another of David’s sons, Absolom, then murders Amnon. Later Absolom overthrows David and makes himself king. We’ll talk about the destruction of David’s family in further detail in a couple of weeks. For now, remember this: sin, when allowed to overcome us, causes a multiplying effect, where nothing in our lives is safe.
Psalm 14 describes the human condition in this way:
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
For thousands of years, folk tried their best to understand the human condition and our propensity to fail. Genesis begins with the story of Adam and Eve, the first human couple, too overcome with their own desire for god-like abilities that they broke the one rule they were asked to follow. Commentators developed the concept of Original Sin based on this story. Every person, since “The Fall” of Adam and Eve, has a sort of genetic disorder—a brokenness passed down from the first human couple. Only the grace and power of Jesus Christ, through his resurrection from the dead, has the ability to restore this relationship with God.
When we began discerning what Lectio would look like—how it would be a different worship opportunity than our Sanctuary services—we examined elements in the service, like music, liturgy, and everything else. I wanted to try something new in my preaching as well. For thirteen years I was a series preacher, using the Lectionary only from time to time to fill in the holes between series. Lectionary or I was always a preach one text sort of guy. I wanted to try something new here. I would use the Lectionary (hence the name of the service lectio), we would read all four assigned texts every week regardless of length, and I have tried, with varying results, to preach on a common theme between the four texts. For today, the first two texts, the David and Bathsheba story and Psalm 14, go naturally together. The brokenness of humanity and our need for redemption. Here’s the last verse of Psalm 14: “When the Lord changes his people’s circumstances for the better…” (not if, but when) “…Jacob will rejoice; Israel will celebrate!”
But the Gospel text surprised me: Jesus feeding the large crowd by the sea and afterward walking on the water to the disciples. What does that text have to do with the human condition??? And I was frustrated for several days. I was tempted to drop the gospel from the sermon altogether and just focus on the Old Testament stuff, which is vitally important.
But then this came to me, and you can tell me if it works; well, tell me it works. The gospel text does not speak to the brokenness of humanity. It speaks to the power of God to overcome and transform reality. On the seashore the large crowd is hungry and worn out—have yall heard the new term hangry (hungry + angry; I was surprised to type that word and not find a red squiggly line under it—although yall did have one)? This is hangriness (red squiggly on that one) on a massive scale. But Jesus, and Jesus alone, is able to meet the need. In the other accounts of this story Jesus does the blessing and breaking, but it is the disciples who first notice the need and who eventually distribute the food. In John Jesus controls the entire scene. These are people will all kinds of needs, living though all kinds of challenges. They are all broken, all in need of God’s infinite power. So everyone who was hungry was fed with the new life of Jesus Christ. Everyone experiences the fullness of life offered through faith. At the end of the day, the exhausted disciples are on the boat crossing the sea. Jesus is not with them for some reason. The water became rough and the wind strong. Jesus, unseen by the disciples, sees their fear and calms it: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” Invoking God’s name, easing their fear, Jesus embodies God’s power.
The epistle reading, from Ephesians 3, implores us to accept and claim the transforming power of God: “I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all the believers. I ask that you will know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” The knowledge of that love is what can reform the human condition and restore our broken relationship with God. That is good news for us! The feeding of a large crowd was always considered a communion story: Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, distributes it. Communion is a tangible way to see, taste, and hear God’s redemption and power.