Sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost
If you were here on Good Friday, you might recall my picking up on an insight of the novelist Reynolds Price, who characterizes the imaginative retelling of biblical stories as being “a serious way of wondering.” While certainly not claiming for them the status of scripture, such stories do have the potential to offer fresh insight, and to help us to contend with the biblical accounts in new ways. In this evening’s sermon I will adopt the voice of David, as he tries to come to grips with all that he has done. I begin my “wondering” with words based in the confessional voice of Psalm 51.
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Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy. In your steadfast love, wipe it away. Clean this stain from my soul. Wash it away. I know what I’ve done. It haunts me, hangs before my eyes all the time. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned…
Well, truthfully, that may not be so. My sin has done so much damage, hurt so many people. Evil in the sight of the Lord; I see that now. But didn’t I know that even while I was in the midst of it all? I lied to myself, justifying everything because I am David, I am king. And kings can do what they wish. Or so I made myself believe. So much damage; so many hurt.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was beginning to move toward the western horizon. The heat of the day was passing, and up on the roof there was enough of a breeze to make it all quite pleasant. I stood and surveyed the city I’d established; the city of David, my city. Soldiers at the gate, keeping their watch. Vendors in the streets, selling their produce. Children laughing and playing. Old men sitting and talking—what do they talk about for all those hours?—and women bustling home to prepare the evening meal. The smell of roasting meat. While Joab and my army were out doing battle with the Ammonites, that afternoon Jerusalem felt peaceful.
And then I saw her. She was on the roof of her house bathing, no doubt assuming it was a discreet and private place. Surely she had done that countless times before, without anyone ever noticing. But that afternoon I was there to notice. To see. To want. She was lovely, and I was… I was bored.
I sent for a servant to find out who this woman was, and word came back. “She is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” The wife of Uriah the Hittite, but it didn’t matter. By the time the servant returned to me with that word, I’d decided. I wanted, so I would have. Like a Philistine king, I had her fetched to me, simply because I could. Her head bowed, she tried to protest. She was married. It was her body’s time of purification. Please…
Enflamed with desire, I couldn’t begin to care. I want you. I will have you. What could she say to the great King David? No? Impossible.
The great King David, shepherd to Israel. More like a ram in rut, dumbly mounting any grazing ewe that strayed close by.
I robbed her of her voice. I declared the integrity and wisdom of the cycles of her woman’s body meaningless. I deemed myself the arbiter of right and wrong, of good and evil. I did what I wanted because I could. Or so I thought.
Having had what I desired, I dismissed her, and called for a servant to bring me a bowl of sweet figs and wine to drink. Back up on the roof, I sipped the wine, savoring the rich flavor in my mouth. Alone. Satisfied. Content. I looked down at on the empty roof of Bathsheba’s house, and watched the moonlight shimmer on the surface of the water of her abandoned bathing basin.
My sin against Bathsheba only deepened. When she sent word that she was pregnant, I began to plot to cover it up. Summoning Uriah from the battlefield for “counsel”, twice I sent him home to her so he could sleep with her, and twice my plotting failed. So I arranged for his death on the battlefield. I sent a letter to Joab, delivered by Uriah’s own hand—God save me, delivered by the man himself—instructing that Uriah be placed “in the forefront of the hardest fighting.” “Draw back from him,” I wrote, “so that he may be struck down and die.” Joab didn’t question my orders, he just did it. With the fierce and unquestioning loyalty of a military officer, he was drawn into collusion with my lies and my sin. My words to Joab once the deed was done and Uriah had fallen? “Do not let this matter trouble you.” He should have been troubled. He and so many others, who saw what I had done; soldiers and servants alike. Yet they just did what they were told, and then quietly whispered to one another of their king’s sexual misadventures.
But I didn’t care. With Uriah dead, all I needed to do was to wait out Bathsheba’s prescribed days of mourning, and then take her into my house as another wife. And why is the king in such a hurry to take this young widow into his household? Perhaps it is an act of mercy, a gesture of respect to the fallen Uriah. Perhaps you could even believe that, if you’d neither looked on her beauty nor paid any attention to the gossip regarding the king’s appetites.
Then came that damnable truth-speaker Nathan, with his little story about the rich man with his flocks and herds, and the poor man with his one little lamb. The rich man had more than enough, yet still he took what little the poor man had. “As the Lord lives,” I raged, “the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Then without so much as a trace of emotion on his face, Nathan looked at me and said, “You are that man.” Cornered by his parable, everything I’d done and every lie I’d told was laid open. The prophet isn’t the damnable one… I am.
My already conflicted household will be forever troubled by the sword, he told me; wounded by division. And everyone will see it, David. No secrets, no hidden sins. Caught, indicted, I fell to my knees in confession, “I have sinned against the Lord.” I have. I truly have. He answered, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Get up on your feet, David. You are forgiven.
And then the prophet spoke those terrible, terrible words. “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” Bathsheba, with her belly swelling more and more each day; what could I possibly say to her? I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t bear to say a word. I couldn’t even tell her that Nathan had cornered me with a parable in which she featured as a lamb belonging to another man, for I’ve begun to see that she is no man’s property. Maybe over these days I’ve begun to learn to truly love her.
When the baby was born, at first he seemed well. Yet within hours I could see that he was falling ill. I fasted, pleaded, prayed that it might be different. For seven long nights I lay on the ground, desperately hoping that God would spare the boy’s life. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully understand why the child had to die. How can this possibly be right or just, O Lord? How? Of all of us in this sad story, he was the one true innocent. Holding him to her breast, Bathsheba wept quietly as he gasped for each breath, refusing her sad encouragements to nurse. Seven long days and nights. My two innocents, a newborn baby and his mother, whose only fault had been to be noticed and wanted and taken. By me. Now I can only pray that the Lord will not forget that baby forever.
My sin is ever before me. May the prophet have spoken truly when he said that you’d put away this sin, O Lord. Hide your face from what I’ve done. Tear out what remains of my stony heart, and create in me a new one, a clean one, O God; put a new and right spirit within me. Save me from myself.
And spare your people from my sin.