2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a. Last week, we focused on the soap-operaish, tawdry scenes that are now, in chapter 12, dealt with by God. Our text continues to underline that it’s “the wife of Uriah” who laments his death. David “sent” for her (the verb so dominant in chapter 11, indicative of David’s sheer, calculating power).
God is not mocked. Joab knows what unfolded – partially. David knows… and God knows. Nathan’s parable reminds us of the way Jesus exposed the truth of life with God, in story form, which is how truth bores its way in to the soul. This story is so patently obvious! Robert Barron cites Robert Polzin’s observation that the 3 verbs used to portray the poor man’s relationship with the lamb, eat, drink, lie, echo precisely what David tried to get Uriah to do with Bathsheba!
For years, I thought David was incensed such a thing could happen, and only with Nathan’s “You’re the man” does the truth dawn on him. But surely, David wasn’t naïve, and recognized himself in this story, hence the excess of rage, hoping his righteous indignation would mask his betrayal, his fingers crossed Nathan didn’t really know. How could he?
Preachers: do not rush blithely into Psalm 51, as the lectionary seems to beckon us to do! David probably was penitent. But uttering the words of Psalm 51, no matter how earnestly and tearfully David felt them, can undo the consequences of his evil sequence of acts. The Lord said “I will raise up trouble within your house.” Unsure how best to nuance this in a sermon, but it’s enormously important. Gary Larson, in a “Far Side” cartoon, depicted God at God’s computer. On screen there are piano movers perilously hoisting a piano out of an upstairs window, with a guy walking directly beneath. God’s finger is hovering above the “smite” button. People think God “smites” with cancer, wrecks, whatever – and they wonder why? Only to conclude “everything happens for a reason,” which is true, but they are thinking “some inscrutable divine reason.”
Better to help people realize God created a natural order that isn’t mocked with immunity. If you get drunk every day for decades, your liver is a catastrophe. If you sunbathe unprotected all summer all your life, the chances of skin cancer soar. If I scream at my wife every night, she leaves me. God doesn’t get annoyed with drinking, sunbathing or yelling and as punishment afflict us with liver damage, a melanoma or a divorce. David sins. The Lord raises up trouble in his house, not in a Gotcha! kind of way. David’s children grow up and are, not surprisingly, as scurrilous as their dad, and the whole kingdom suffers.
A great pastoral question is What do we do with God-forgiven regrets? Nicholas Wolterstorff asked this after the sudden death of his 23 year old son. He realized he was forgiven by God for whatever little missteps he’d made as a parent. But what happens to the lost moments, the pain? “I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life. I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those living. And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensity the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ The God of love will surely grant us such a day. Love needs that.”
Ephesians 4:1-16. What a great text! I preached on this in October, focusing on the caller who issues the calling, and what he bore, pondering the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Being online then, I was able to interview 2 women clergy on the topic, which was fun, as was a story I found about a cancelled wedding where the family invited the homeless – and some wisdom from Julian of Norwich.
The preacher can’t neglect the “therefore” that opens chapter 4, which assumes you’ve soaked up and lived into the contents of chapter 3, the riches of grace, the blessings, the dramatic shift from darkness to life, the mystery of reconciliation. How odd a repetition: “the calling to which you have been called.” Preachers are wise to clarify “call” isn’t just for the ordained, and may be big life calling or what you do at 2:30 this afternoon. Samples welcome. I love to repeat my mantra on this: it’s not what I want to do, and it’s not even what I want to do for God; it’s what God wants me to do.
Paul teases out for us a way of doing what God asks: “with lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing.” I hear echoes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:3) and “Forgive us as we forgive” (Matthew 6:12), and Paul’s portrayal of the “fruit of the Spirit,” “peace, patience, kindness, gentleness” (Galatians 5:22). The culture will never invite you to be lowly, meek, patient or forbearing. It’s a counter-cultural way of being. It’s really about conformity to Christ – or rather, being transformed by a miracle (we need one!) so we will be more like Christ.
A sermon could fix on one of these. Patience? – which we chat about as if it’s a thing you have or don’t, and almost as if bragging, implying I’m a type A go-getter! Patience is cultivated over time; it is the work of God’s Spirit in you. God can do patience in anybody. It’s a surrender of rushing, of my way; it’s an embrace of time, of love, of the image of God in the other person. Or this: forbearing isn’t tolerance. We could use more tolerance in our world, but that’s a low bar. I “tolerate” something or someone I really don’t like. To “forbear” is to bear burdens with another person. You’re in this together. You have to love to forbear.
Another key theme here? Unity! To be sure we don’t skate past this or miss it in a distracted moment, Paul repeats the word “one” seven times! The Church is one. There is one baptism, one table, one Lord, one faith, one church. Of course, humans, thinking they know better than God, have thought they have a better idea. And so churches have split up, and subdivided again, and segmented themselves. Actually, if you ask any church splitter about church unity, they would be adamant in insisting upon it – rather like political ideologues in the U.S. who resolutely wish the country would come together. On our side, not theirs, of course. We are the one true church, not those other lost fools. Our disunity is our shame. We grieve. And simultaneously celebrate God’s extraordinary mercy that gives us space to believe in an embarrassingly divided church. Our hearts should be as grieved by our disunity as our disunity grieves the Spirit of God. Or as Ephraim Radner put it, “In a divided church, the Lord’s Supper should taste bitter in our mouths.”
Here’s the good news, though. Jesus, on his last night with us, prayed for unity (John 17). God won’t refuse to answer his Son’s prayer. In fact, it has already been answered. We might eye one another with suspicion or judgment. We can splinter off into any number of divergent institutions. But in Jesus’ heart, we already are and will forever be one.
That’s liberating – and a challenge. Let’s at least learn from one another – how to be silent, how to sing, to know the Bible, and then we’ll be more one than we were before. Let’s each ask: what gifts do I bring to the table? Not what do I want out of church, but what can I do to build up the good of the church, its mission, its unity?
John 6:24-35 continues the lectionary’s 5-week jog through one story; again I refer you to my blog on the larger story and then each “fifth” of the whole.
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