To the one able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. Amen.
Today we come to one of the most infamous and troubling stories in scripture, and certainly in the stories of King David and his dynasty. It is a story of rapacious desire, cowardly murder, and unrepentant shame — and it will take us two weeks to fully tell. This week we will hear what happened, just the facts. Next week we will hear how God, through the prophet Nathan, confronts the evil David has done.
But before we delve into the story, I want you to open your bulletins and find the second reading, the one from Ephesians that Wendy read to us a few minutes ago. I’m going to re-read verses 16-19, and I want you to hold this passage in mind when we return to the story of David and Bathsheba.
Paul writes to the Ephesians,
I pray that, according to the riches of [God’s] glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [the] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is for us as well, that we would be strengthened in our inner beings as we are rooted and grounded in love, and that we would comprehend how fully we are loved by God in Christ Jesus. Without the knowledge and conviction of that love, we might never find the strength to look at our inner being, and would surely never find the strength to confront what dwells there. By that love, however, God is able to accomplish far more in us than we could ever ask or imagine. Now back to the story…
It begins ominously. “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.” Since meeting David as a boy, he has been known to us as one who was unafraid of battle, always confident in his engagements with enemies much larger and stronger than himself. The power of his courage and his victories drew a literal army of supporters to David, and through that army he won the love of the people.
David was exactly the king that the people of Israel had demanded from the prophet Samuel. He took them from being a loose group of confederated tribes to being a nation like those that surrounded them and who had terrorized and defeated them in battle. In fear the people had asked for an earthly king to strengthen and protect them. They got what they’d asked for, but they forgot what the prophet Samuel foretold about the price paid for the protection of kings. Do you remember what he told them?
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves…
It’s a long list, but you don’t have to memorize the items to remember the actions. Samuel said, “he will take, he will take, he will take… and you shall be his slaves.” The God of Israel, who liberated the people from the slavery of one monarch in Egypt, foretold that the love of power, the misplaced faith in war to create peace, would return to people to slavery from which God is always laboring to liberate us.
So, when did the problems start? Almost immediately after David was named king over the united tribes of both Judah and Israel. You remember two weeks ago, when we heard the story of David dancing before the people as the ark of the covenant was moved to the new capital city, the one they began calling the “City of David,” Jerusalem. There was a warning sign then, as people began to treat the presence of God too casually, presuming God could be moved about like a piece on a chess board.
There was another warning last week, as David proposed to build a house for the LORD to match the one he had first built for himself. If you were here last week you’ll still hear Pastor David Weasley, our guest from The Night Ministry, reminding us that David “had it wrong about houses” — as so often we do as well. It is not David who makes a house for God, but God who makes a house for David.
An important shift takes place in the relationship between God and Israel at the end of that story that I want to recall to our minds. After setting David in his place on this matter of houses, God declares,
“I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam. 7:14-16)
Scholars of Hebrew scripture point to this as a pivotal moment not only in the relationship between God and David, but between God and the people. Until this point, God’s covenants have been conditional — if you will do such, then I will be your God and you will be my people. It is the language of contracts and law. Now God declares a new relationship in unconditional language — when you falter and fail, nevertheless I will not take my love away. It is the language of family and love.
But, as anyone who has helped raise a child knows, love still sets limits and sometimes we allow natural consequences help us teach our children what will and will not harm them. This is what is meant when God says, “when he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use with blows inflicted by human beings.” God seems to be saying here, “I will not abandon you, but when you act unjustly there will be human consequences. I won’t have to punish you. The ‘blows inflicted by human beings’ will take care of that for me. Nevertheless, I will always love you.”
Now this new covenant is put to the test. True to the prophet Samuel’s prediction, the king who once led the people in battle now takes the people’s sons and sets them as his foot soldiers and charioteers, staying behind in Jerusalem while he sends them to fight and die in his place. Because he is not with the people, fighting alongside them, but rather remains at home enjoying the privileges of being the king, he enjoys the luxury of a stroll along the rooftop of his castle during which he sees a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. David asks who she is, and he’s told that she is married to one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. Nevertheless, David does what kings do, he takes, and takes, and takes. He takes Bathsheba.
If you survey the art that has been created over the centuries to depict this scene from scripture, you notice something very troubling. Bathsheba always seems to be presented in a seductive pose. You, as the viewer of the painting, are put in King David’s position — seeing her perhaps as he wanted to see her, as inviting his attention. But the scriptures give us no indication that she had any awareness of the king. We’re told that she was following Levitical law, purifying herself after her period.
By contrast, David is breaking the law, on numerous levels. Viewed through the lens of the law at that time, he is not only taking another man’s wife, but he is touching her during a time when she was ritually unclean. David shows utter contempt for the law, setting his own desires above the customs and rituals observed by the people since the time of Moses.
Perhaps most troubling to us, as modern listeners, but most importantly to Bathsheba herself, is her almost absolute silence in this story. The only words given to her come as she sends her report to the king after he has taken her — I think we must assume against her will. She sends word to the palace, “I am pregnant.”
Can you imagine what must have gone through Bathsheba’s mind when she discovered she was pregnant? Would she have feared the king, that he might try and dispose of the evidence of his misconduct? That she might be disappeared? Would she have feared her husband, who would return from the war to find his wife pregnant, and her unable to say how it had happened for fear of her life, or his life? What options did she have, when everyone around her held more power than she by virtue of their gender or station. What must she have felt when the only power she could appeal to was the one who had harmed and imperiled her in the first place?
The rest of the story is one long, failed attempt at a cover up. The king has Uriah the Hittite brought back from the war and tries to get him to sleep with his wife so that the child growing within her might be believed to be Uriah’s son instead of David’s. But Uriah shows a solidarity with the people that David has lost. Uriah will not accept the comforts of home and hearth while his comrades remain on the front lines of battle. Even after David gets him drunk, Uriah refuses to return home and sleep with his wife. So David sends him back to war, and realizing that he will someday have a new enemy to deal with once Uriah realizes what has happened, he arranges to have his loyal subject killed on the fields of battle.
As we will hear next week, this marks the beginning of the end for David’s reign. The natural consequences of his behavior set in motion of chain of events that divide David’s own household and lead to the separation of the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah, and eventually the entire people are taken into exile. The nation crumbles, and it begins when David the king loses the personal integrity that once made him great.
That is, perhaps, where this story becomes most instructive for us. None of us here are kings, so this story — so full of pathos and drama — strikes us as juicy and lurid, but perhaps also irrelevant. At least we might like to imagine that to be the case. In all likelihood, we share more in common with Bathsheba, a victim of sexual violence as too many people still are in this day and age; or with Uriah, carrying out our duties as best we know how, not able to see how power is moving around us, conspiring to crush us as it covers up its own complicity in our deaths.
But because this story is told with David as its central character, and because by faith we take the promises made to David as promises made to us as well, the scripture here invites us to at least try and imagine ourselves in David’s place and to wonder alongside him how our ego stories mask the inner divisions that separate us from our integrity and undermine the people we were anointed to be in our baptisms.
In his book “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life,” Parker J. Palmer — a name familiar to many of you from his books on education, leadership and vocation — discusses the tragic consequences for each of us and for the world when we divorce our soul from our role, as David has in this tragic story. He writes,
“As we cross the rising terrain between infancy and adolescence — still close enough to our origins to be in touch with inner truth but aware of the mounting pressure to play someone else ‘out there‘ — the true self starts to feel threatened. We deal with the threat by developing a child’s version of the divided life, commuting daily between the public world of role and the hidden world of soul…
As the outer world becomes more demanding — and today it presses in on children at an obscenely early age — we stop going to our rooms, shutting the door, walking into the wardrobe [a reference to the imaginary moral world created by C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia], and entering the world of the soul. And the closer we get to adulthood, the more we stifle the imagination that journey requires. Why? Because imagining other possibilities for our lives would remind us of the painful gap between who we most truly are and the role we play in the so-called real world.
As we become more obsessed with succeeding, or at least surviving, in that world, we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles. The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult — at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large. Is is a cost that can be itemized in ways known to many of us:
- We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
- We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.
- The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness.
- The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.
- We project our inner darkness on others, making ‘enemies’ of them and making the world a more dangerous place.
- Our inauthenticity and projections make real relationships impossible, leading to loneliness.
- Our contributions to the world — especially through the work we do — are tainted by duplicity and deprived of the life giving energies of true self.
“A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life” by Parker J. Palmer (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 2004) pp. 15-16.
He may not have had King David in mind, but do you see how Parker Palmer’s description of the divided life applies to King David’s story? Somewhere along that journey from childhood to adulthood David, the boy we met out in the fields tending to his sheep, lost sight of who he was. He forgot what is was to be a care-giver, divorcing his shepherd’s soul from his kingly role. The results of his divided life bore tragic consequences for himself and for the life of the community.
You may not see your story in David’s, but have you ever detected the symptoms of the divided life Parker Palmer lists? The sense of inauthenticity or invisibility in certain spheres of life, whether that be at your workplace or in your marriage. The search for an ever-elusive “something” missing from your life. The harsh division of the world into right and wrong, good and bad, us and them. The dimming of your own joyful light. The persistent weight of so much internal darkness. Loneliness that clings to you, even when surrounded by crowds of people, even while resting with those who know you best.
The divided life begins with little cracks in our integrity, and grows into crevasses between our “public lives” and our “private lives.” What the story of King David reminds us this morning is that this imagined division is really an illusion. There is no such thing as the person you “have” to be at the office, and the person you are with your family and friends. You are the person who acts as you do across each of these situations. A lack of integrity in any area of life leads, sooner or later, to a lack of integrity throughout your life for the simple reason that each of us is given only one life. Compartmentalization, a functional myth that serves the interests of our employers, is a euphemism for self-denial.
All of which brings us back to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, which I believe is God’s desire for each of us this morning and throughout all the days of our lives. Paul prays that we would each be “strengthened in our inner being,” which I hear today as the call to live an undivided life, where inner and outer are reflected in each other, where the personal and the public display strong congruence. Paul prays for us to have integrity.
But Paul’s prayer doesn’t stop there, because in his day as in ours, the pressures placed on our inner beings are tremendous, even more than we can begin to imagine resisting. So Paul assures us that we are not expected to dredge up from somewhere within our depths the power to live the undivided life. Rather, we are promised that there is a power already at work within us that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine; and that this is the power from whom every family — David’s family and our families — take their names; and that this power is rooting and grounding us in a power that is almost incomprehensible in its breadth and length and height and depth.
The name of this power is the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” which means that it is true for you whether you know it or not, whether you can feel it or not, whether you believe it or not. We are called to live undivided lives, lives healed by the love that is our birthright, unconditional love of the God who has made each of us members of one family and who feeds us at one table.
Over the coming week, I’d like to invite you to pay attention to the places in your life where you feel yourself pulled to perform your “public” identity. As you’re able, try to slow yourself down enough to check in with yourself and ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?” Notice what thoughts or feelings arise for you in response to that question, maybe even right them down. Those imaginings of the cost or consequence of being yourself are important pieces of information about what stands between this present moment and your one, precious, undivided life. Try not to let this become an exercise in self-judgement, just a moment of reflective examination. Above all, remember that you are held by a love that always present to you, that is already at work in you — healing you, restoring you, and setting you free.
In the name of love,