Readings: Psalm 51, 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-18, Galatians 5:7-15, Matthew 5:13-16.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 24th, 2016
Last Sunday we were thinking about the early life of King David, a life defined by trusting and patience and worship. Time moves on. David is hugely successful. So successful that he starts to no longer take his responsibilities seriously.
In 2 Samuel 11:1 (also the first words of chapter 12 of The Story) we read, “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David …. remained in Jerusalem.” There was a saying I often heard when I was growing up; “The Devil makes work for idle hands.”
David lets his guard down. He falls into a trap that many people of power have succumbed to. He thinks that because he is all powerful, then it means he is free to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, however he likes, and with whoever he likes.
Centuries later, Paul, writing to the Galatian church, is aware that the message, that Jesus Christ came to set people free, was a powerful one that could easily be misinterpreted. That some would believe that the freedom they had discovered in Christ meant that they could do whatever they liked and God would be understanding and forgiving.
In Galatians 5:13 he writes to them, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don't use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that's how freedom grows.”
The latter part of David's life is all about grace. Grace has been defined as “The unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved favor of God.” Grace is always amazing, but it can be taken for granted and the privilege grace grants to us can be abused.
That seems to be what happens with David. He's hanging around places he shouldn't be hanging around. He's entertaining thoughts he shouldn't be welcoming. He is thinking of himself far more highly than his station deserved. Pride always comes before a fall.
Over the rooftops he sees beautiful Bathsheba and decides to have her. She becomes pregnant and he tries to cover it up by allowing Uriah to think that the child is Uriah's. When that fails, a cover up becomes impossible and he stoops so low as to have Uriah terminated. It is amazing how quickly one ill-conceived thought spirals out of control and becomes a series of reprehensible actions.
No wonder Jesus in the sermon on the mount would teach that wrong behavior begins with intentions of the heart, with a glance, with an unkind thought, with an unforgiving attitude. If we lose control of our inner life, the results can be far worse than we ever intended.
Until he is confronted about his actions by the prophet Nathan, David believes he has got away with it. He seems to be following a popular philosophy that teaches that breaking the 10 commandments is fine, as long as you don't get caught.
But caught he is. Here the first little ray of grace appears. When David is confronted by his sin, he does not deny it, he does not excuse it, he does not rationalize it, he does not justify it, he confesses it. He admits it. He is prepared to take the consequences, whatever they may be.
The grand theological word for this is 'repentance'. He is ready to turn around and rebuild what has been shattered. He recognizes the gravity of the situation. No more denial. No more pretending. This was going to cost him dearly. Psalm 51 is David's heartfelt confession.
He hasn't just let himself down. He's let his family down. He's let his nation down. Most significantly of all, he had let God down. Only the grace of God could fix that. Only God can forgive him. He's gone beyond any actions he can do to put things right. As we read in Psalm 51 verses 16 and 17, “God, You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise.”
Other people would despise him. Other people would not forgive him. His actions would have dreadful consequences. The one ray of grace is here; “A broken and contrite heart, You, God, will not despise.” David hits rock bottom. Yet by the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, the possibility of redemption is laid before him.
We all mess up. And when we mess up often our first reactions are denial and cover up. The more we persist, the more entangled we become. There is only one way out. Confession and repentance. Confession is admitting that we are wrong. Repentance is turning around, being prepared to face the consequences and allowing God's Holy Spirit to reconstruct what has been broken.
Repentance releases the grace of God to become active in our hopeless situation. God is prepared, in Christ, to absorb our sin through the sacrificial love of the Cross. God offers forgiveness. God offers freedom. God will send the Holy Spirit to comfort and reconstruct what nobody can fix except God. “A broken and contrite heart, You, God, will not despise.” But there will be consequences.
One of the consequences experienced by David is that his ability to act justly is compromised. This creates a sequence of events that lead to further heartbreak. When we are aware that we are living in a way that is not what God wants for us, we often fail to speak out against others who are doing the same. If we condemn them, we are condemning ourselves. We forget that sin is not something that just touches on our personal lives, it reverberates throughout all of our relationships and has a profound effect on everything we do.
What happens in the narrative is that one of David daughters, and a sister to his son Absalom, is raped by her half-brother, Amnon. David does nothing about it. It as though, after his taking of Bathsheba, he feels too guilty to act. Tamar, his daughter, the innocent victim of this crime, finds no justice in the King's court. She flees to the protection of her brother Absalom.
Absalom is incensed. His anger grows, as over a period of two years, David continues to take no action against Amnon. When he can stand it no more, Absalom strikes and kills Amnon, setting in action a chain of events in which Absalom loses all confidence in David's leadership and seeks to take control of Israel.
So David, because of his inability to act justly when his integrity was compromised, now finds himself at war with his own son. It is a desperate situation. He knows he cannot let Absalom take control but the last thing he wants to do is bring yet more suffering upon his family. As battle commences he pleads with his generals, Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.”
But this is war. The generals strike hard and Absalom is brutally killed. David's army rejoice at their victory. One of them runs to David in delight to tell him his enemies are defeated. David's first question is “But what about Absalom?” As he finds out what has happened to his son, his heart is broken. We read in 2 Samuel 18:33; “O my son Absalom, O my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, O my son Absalom.”
An account like this should make us think before we embark on any action of unfaithfulness. In the heat of the moment, it may seem like what we intend is insignificant. The fall of David reminds us that our actions, be they for good or evil, always have a ripple effect which we have absolutely no control over.
The final part of David's story is also all about grace. Though he loses much, David does not lose his relationship with God. Despite his fall, David's passion remains to worship and serve the God who had kept covenant with him, even when he had not kept covenant with God.
It is in honor of that covenant that David chooses Bathsheba's son, Solomon, as the one to occupy the throne once he has departed. Some suggest the name Solomon is derived from the Hebrew word for peace. David has a particular task in mind for Solomon to achieve... building a temple suitable to honor the God whom had so blessed the nations life.
David is told, in 1 Chronicles 22:8 that he cannot build the temple. Why? “You have shed much blood and fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name.” This temple will become a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. It will be a place of beauty and wonder. As he unfolds his plans before the people, they willingly respond to his vision.
The right response to make to the forgiveness that God offers to us is worship. The right response to grace is to come before God with thanksgiving in our hearts. The right response to the One who has first loved us is to respond with love towards others.
Worship and service are not actions that we perform to win God's favor. We don't need to do that. God loves us unconditionally. Jesus died upon the Cross while we still sinners. He offers us forgiveness and love, not because we are deserving, but because it is only by grace that we are saved. Worship and service are always a response to grace. And as we worship and as we serve that grace just seems to blossom and grow and we are changed people.
It matters not what station in life we may achieve. There are going to be times when we mess up, times when we fail. The challenge is how do we get through the trials that assail our lives. The trials of King David offer us a glimpse into grace filled living.
- We see how when we neglect our duties, we open ourselves up to temptation. David hung around the palace when he should have been out on the field. He presumed upon the grace and blessing of God. Maybe he could have been helped by Paul's words to the Galatian church; “You were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature.”
- We see how when we do fall into unfaithfulness we have an inbuilt tendency to slip into denial and cover-up. Healing only starts to come when we acknowledge our wrongdoing and cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. Only when we are prepared to stop pretending, can we begin to rebuild our broken lives. Repentance is all about turning around.
- We see how our wrong actions always have consequences. For David his unfaithfulness wrecked his family. It caused him to turn a blind eye to injustice. It resulted in him not noticing the resentment that was building up in his son Absalom, till it was all to late.
- Most important in this story is the fact that grace wins. “Lower Story” shenanigans do not prevent God's “Upper Story” from moving on. The temple will be built. David's struggle and devotion shall be rewarded. David will be remembered as Israel's greatest King. From David's line shall come a savior for the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are indeed many lessons we can learn from the trials of a King!
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.