Friday, July 27, 2012

Reflections on “David & Bathsheba” – II Samuel 11:1-15

Sinner and Saint
We began this series back in June with a lesson from I Samuel 8 – Israel Demands a King.  In this passage the prophet Samuel explains to the people of Israel what the consequences of having a King would be: These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you…  he says, and then he goes on to list a series of potential abuses of power that the people should expect from their human king. Included in the list is conscription for the army in order to engage in endless (and pointless) wars, excessive taxation, the appropriation of land, and the taking sons and daughters to use as he sees fit.  The people push all of this aside and demand a king anyway – so they can be like the nations! (See I Sam 8:10-22)  And in our lesson today – in the very well known story of David and Bathsheba – we see that Samuel’s predictions are coming true.  David has become a petty despot and a tyrant who uses his power to fulfill his own needs and wants.
I suppose that when you heard that we would be focusing on the story of David and Bathsheba this week you probably thought that we would be talking about sex.  Certainly this story is often cited as a cautionary tale about the negative consequences of sexual misconduct and having affairs. Well, this story is not about sex – this is a story about power and the abuse of power.  In addition, this is not a story about the consequences of breaking only the 6th commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) but a story that shows that one commandment is linked to another and as we fail in one we can easily find ourselves sinking into a pit that is covered by the broken pieces of many other commandments.  We can start with commandment #1 – “You shall have no other gods.” Power and glory have become gods for David.  In the very first verse we learn that David sends the army to the field, not to meet a threat, but rather to engage in a power show because it is the season when “the kings go out to battle” and there they ravage the Ammonites and besiege Rabbah.  Kings like to acquire territory and they like to subjugate people.
But David doesn’t go this time, maybe he is bored with war; maybe he has administrative details to attend to.  Soon David has noticed a lovely young woman and he easily then breaks commandment #10 - “You shall not covet.” This leads in pretty quick succession to his breaking of commandment #6 – adultery, and then #8 – bearing false witness (that would be lying) (#7 is in there too); and finally #5 – murder.  And please note – David is the actor here.  This is not an “affair” for there is no mutuality. Bathsheba is not in a position to refuse or object to the king’s advances.  She is used and discarded (see verse 4). This is an act of sexual violence and abuse of power. David engaged in this series of actions because he could and no one could stop him.  Not only that, but David used others to carry out his orders in order to not stain his hands with the dirty work of abduction, rape, cover-up and murder.
David’s actions in this story have far-reaching implications for the subsequent history of Israel.  Bathsheba is a smart and clever woman who eventually gives birth to Solomon and then engages in political intrigue in order to secure the throne for him.  But that is many years in the future.  At this point she is a victim, and since the penalty for adultery is death by stoning, she is in mortal danger because of what David did to her.  (I might add at this point that, this kind of abuse of power is still with us.  Most often it is powerful men who prey on women who do not have the standing to object.  Our news is often filled with these kinds of stories, and sometimes, tragically, these modern stories end up being as tragic and destructive as the our story about David and Bathsheba.Some see the 10 commandments as being restrictive on freedom and as being overly religious.  This story shows us that the 10 commandments are, in fact, a gift that provides for us a structure for living in community in ways that honor God, are respectful of others and enable us all to live and flourish. And that ignoring them can have some serious consequences.
So David is a sinner! Big time! Like us! We may not be guilty of the excessive abuse of power to the extent that David is; but we have all had our failings where we have put ourselves and our own needs above respecting others and honoring God. We have used others for our own gain, have we not? We are all guilty! But as Christians we look to Christ for forgiveness, we look to the “Son of David” to cleanse us from our sin and bring us to wholeness.  Jesus is the “Son of David.”  It is interesting to consider that phrase in the context of this story.  Jesus, Son of David, is nothing like David!  Consider these words from the Gospel of St. Mark:
42So Jesus called them (the disciples) and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."  (Mark 10:42-45)
Jesus is nothing like David.  Jesus redeems David, the sinner, in the same way that Jesus redeems us sinners, making us Saints.  So we are both “Saint and Sinner” at the same time, to use a phrase that Luther coined. The Sinner in us pulls us down, it destroys our relationships, it destroys our self-respect, it takes and takes and takes and never gives, it limits and even can destroy our ability to meet our potential as Children of God.  But because of Christ we are made Saints who have been forgiven and washed clean and given a new start daily.  This is God’s doing, through Christ, and comes to us as a free and unconditional gift.  But like any other gift we need to be able to reach out and take it.  This can be very difficult sometimes and we can come up with all kinds of reasons why we cannot possibly accept God’s gift.  But yet God continues to offer the gifts of God’s love and grace and peace to us, through Jesus, the Christ – the son of David.  May we be granted to ability to reach out and take that which God offers.
So, as we consider this text - who in the story do you identify with?  David, who is totally self-focused and uses his power to victimize others; Bathsheba who is victimized and who's life is shattered and filled with fear; Uriah who is deceived by the King and officers he has dedicated his life to serving; or Joab and the servants and lackeys who are "just following orders" but in so doing are complicit in an acts of sexual violence and a murder?  We are, all of us, fallen and we live in a fallen world.  God offers to us forgiveness and healing, but it is important to say that this doesn't mean that I am suggesting that there are no consequences and long term scars and struggles.  Sometimes God works in a process which might take a long time, and forgiveness never means that there are no consequences.  I encourage you to prayerfully consider this text, the events described and the characters; and then remember that Christ offers to us unconditional grace, forgiveness, healing and wholeness.
Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reflections – “David Brings the Ark to Jerusalem” – II Samuel 6:1-23

God Rains on David’s Parade!
In the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the action-hero archaeologist Indiana Jones is attempting to locate the lost Ark of the Covenant and to get hold of it before the bad guys get it.  They hope to harness the power and glory of God to advance their evil plans.  Finally at the films climax, the evil Belloq, dressed in High Priestly regalia ceremoniously and victoriously opens the top of the Ark of the Covenant and unleashes the power and glory of the Lord, which promptly melts Belloq and his Nazi collaborators.  God’s glory will not be harnessed or used!
This is also a lesson that David needs to learn in our lesson for today.  David has finally been crowned King of all the united tribes of Israel. He has taken the city of Jerusalem and made it the capitol. Now, in a rather blatant ploy to consolidate his power, he determines to move the Ark of the Covenant to the new capitol.  Up to this point the Ark had been located and cared for in the village of Baale-judah by the priest Abiathar and his sons. But David figures that this move will further distinguish Jerusalem and his Kingship.  David wants everyone to understand that now God resides in Jerusalem, and if you want to experience the presence of God you need to travel to the capitol of the nation, the City of David, Jerusalem.  It is a great plan, except for one problem. God’s glory and presence will not be used in this way and David finds his plans thwarted by none other than God, Himself.
Now the Ark of the Covenant has been with the Israelites since their wandering in the wilderness.  It has served as a reminder of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants and God’s deliverance and presence with the people of Israel.  It also had become a locus for God’s presence and glory.  In other words, if you wanted to experience God’s presence, you need to simply approach the Ark. The Ark itself was even carried into battle with the army during the many skirmishes with the Philistines, and was even captured at one point, but then quickly returned.  The Ark itself was simply a rectangle box, which had been plated with gold.  On the top of the cover were two cherubim or angels that served like guards (see the picture in the insert).  Inside the Ark the stone tablets of Moses upon which the 10 commandants had been inscribed had been placed.  The New Testament book of Hebrews further claims that there was a container of Manna and Aaron’s staff.  The Ark became the focal point of the worship of Yahweh during this early period in the history of Israel.  Later, when King Solomon constructed the Temple, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies.  But it was subsequently destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed the city and Temple.
The use and transport of the Ark was carefully spelled out both by tradition and in the book of Leviticus.  For one thing, the Ark was to be carried whenever it was moved (see the poles in the picture)! But David ignores this and has a cart built to transport it.  And, tragically, in the process of moving, the cart almost tips over and one of Abinadab’s sons, Uzzah, reaches out to steady the Ark and then dies in the effort.  Why did Uzzah die?  He was just trying to help.  It seems rather unfair.  There are a lot of commentaries, which have spelled out all kinds of reasons for Uzzah’s death in a kind of “blame the victim” approach to interpretation. One gets the sense that these scholars and pastors are trying to defend God, and the only way to do that is to find something that Uzzah did wrong, even if unwittingly.  Well, God does not need to be defended!  Uzzah’s death is tragic and unfair.  But it was most likely not a death by lightening bolt that it has often been characterized as; God does not zap poor Uzzah!  Who knows.  It may rather have been a heart attack or the cart might even have crushed him.  It really doesn’t matter, because that is not the point.  The point of the story is to be found in David’s reaction.  David gets angry! God is ruining his plans.  David has ignored the usual protocol for transporting the Ark; David is attempting to manipulate God’s presence and glory by locating it in the “City of David.”  And when things don’t go right and someone is killed in the process of realizing his plans, David gets angry and throws a tantrum. God is raining on his parade!  And then his anger turns to fear.  And he decides to take a break for a little while.  So they park the Ark along the way at the home of an established supporter of David’s and leave it there for a while.

Finally David, now somewhat chastened, decides to complete the move of the Ark to Jerusalem and this he does with much celebration and music and dancing. One thing that I hope we all learn from this series is that David is not pure – he is a very flawed human being and in this part of the story his motives are mixed. He is trying to manipulate God in this move, but at the same time I also feel that his celebration and ecstatic dancing in praise to the Lord are sincere.  How often do we have mixed motives in any number of circumstances?  How often do we, like David, attempt to manipulate God, at the same time when we are sincerely expressing our praise and love and commitment to God?  How often do we get angry with God when God rains on our parade and things don’t go the way we hope or expect?  In this lesson we learn from David that is all a part of the human condition.  But also that “fear” – that is respect that leads to confession - is the way forward.  And this text calls us to look at ourselves and take stock of the ways in which we might be trying to manipulate God.  And then once we recognize this, to confess and to continue to praise God through word and deed.
  There is much more to be said about this text, and I think I could easily create a sermon series out of this text alone.  So allow me to briefly share a couple of other important lessons that emerge from this text.
1. Not everyone is thrilled by this event.  David’s wife, Michel, is offended, hurt and angry by the display, which she considers undignified and downright sordid!  Sometimes she is unfairly presented as the nagging wife.  But it is important to see that that characterization is completely unfair and unsupported by the text.  Remember, Michel is the only daughter of King Saul, and the only remaining member of that household.  David’s moving the Ark to Jerusalem and his celebration is a celebration that now he is King and her father is not! Not only that but none of her brothers are King; and neither is her young nephew.  They are all dead. All killed violently. This entire sequence is probably extremely painful for her.  And David is just downright cruel to her. Remember, that she had played an important part in David’s very survival, but now is cast aside cruelly.  And that is not all, The Court Historian is very clear to note that she is barren and has no children. This is not necessarily as punishment as much as this note is placed there to make sure the readers understand that the bloodline of King Saul has now ended!  There can be no pretenders to the throne!

2. David was successful in centering the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem.  If one wanted to experience God’s presence and glory then one needed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  In the Gospel of Mark (15:38 – pew bibles NT p. 41) the curtain of the temple is ripped in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. This symbolizes that God ‘s glory is now to be found on the cross and God’s presence can no longer be contained in one place, but rather God is present everywhere with God’s people: in their communities, in their worship, in their sprinkling with water and sharing the bread and wine, and in their reaching out to others.  We still try to domesticate God, put God on our side and put conditions on experiencing God.  But this lesson reminds us that we cannot harness, use or domesticate God; that God’s power and glory is beyond each of us, and it is also available to each of us.  In water, bread and wine; and in acts of caring and mercy and love of others God’s glory is made manifest in profound and glorious ways!

So let us celebrate!  Let us dance with praise before the Lord – for as the great Sufi poet Hafiz counseled – “Cast all of your votes for dancing!”
 Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"David is King!" - II Samuel 5:1-12

            David has finally done it! Today our lesson celebrates David’s finally reaching this goal.  But it was not an easy climb.  In fact, it was a dirty and bloody climb. First there was the issue of Saul and his sons.  Last week we learned that they had all been killed in battle.  But that did not completely clear the way for David.  Jonathan had a young and lame son named Ishbosheph.  He had been injured in the haste of evacuation after news of Saul’s death had arrived.  But General Abner and 11 of the tribes had at first rallied to Ishboseth as Saul’s rightful successor and the result was a civil war between these 11 tribes against the tribe of Judah, who had proclaimed David as King.  Eventually after about 7 years of ruling Judah alone from Hebron a truce is negotiated, David’s General, Joab, murders Abner (chapter 3); and then two of Ishbosheth’s bodyguards murder the young man and the 11 tribes see no other way out but to accept David as King. (By the way, the guards who did the deed expected a reward from David, and they got one in one of the most bloody scenes in the entire story – chapter 4).
Now, David was King of all Israel!  And David’s first act as King was to determine that Jerusalem would be the capitol of this new United Kingdom.  Jerusalem was not really centrally located, but it had never been a possession of any of the tribes.  Jerusalem had remained in Canaanite control all of this time.  So the choice of Jerusalem was sort of like the choice of Washington, DC as the capitol of the USA.  The only problem was that it was still controlled by the Canaanites, and it was almost impenetrable.  And as the city’s defenders stood on the ramparts they taunted David and the army of Israel: “… even the blind and the lamb will turn you back,” they cried.  The text goes on to express David’s anger as he tells his fighters to... “…attack the blind and the lame, those whom David hates.”  This is a shocking statement if taken out of context.  The statement that follows is equally shocking and confusing.  “Therefore it is said, the blind and lame shall not come into your house.”  One would think this might refer to the temple, except it wasn’t built until during the reign of David’s son, Solomon.  And not only that, but there is no other reference in the Old Testament law to the exclusion of the blind and the lame from the temple ritual, only that they cannot become priests.
In fact, the blind and the lame were not excluded from the temple in practice.  So whatever meaning this holds is lost to us.  There are, however, a couple things to be said about this phrase.  First, there has been a great effort made by both Rabbinical and Christian commentators to try to explain this passage away, as if this passage somehow besmirches David’s reputation.  To this it is important to be reminded that David was a human being, with many flaws and also some catastrophic failures.  So, if this is the way David really felt about people with disabiities, it would be yet another of his flaws and failures.  But it is not at all clear that this is any more than a response to being taunted (it was never a good idea to taunt David – he held grudges and had the ability to exact terrible revenge).  Also, most importantly as we Christians read this passage we do so through the prism of the Gospel and recall that in Matthew 21 we read: “Jesus said to them, ‘It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.’ The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”  So Jesus turns this passage about David on its head.  God has demonstrated his love and openness towards the blind and the lame through Jesus. The phrase itself "The blind and the lame," are symbolic of all those who are in the greatest need, and those who are the most excluded.
So back to the story: After exploiting a weakness in the water aquaduct system of the city, David takes Jerusalem.  The city is proclaimed as the capital of a united Kingdom of Israel and David is anointed King of all Israel. (if you are counting, this is the third time he is anointed!) And then we read in verse 10, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.”  Dr. Ralph Klein has written: “The short sentence "I am with you" is at the heart of the good news in the Bible. Moses thought up five excuses in Exodus 3-4 about why he should not be the leader in the Exodus. Then God said, "I will be with you" (Exodus 3:12), or "I will be with your mouth" when Moses had tried the lame excuse that he did not know how to talk (Exodus 4:12). Jeremiah had argued that he was only a teenager and therefore could not be a prophet.  God countered, "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you" (Jeremiah 1:8). In Matthew's description of the significance of Jesus, he drew on the old word in Isaiah 7:14, "They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, 'God is with us'" (cf. Matthew 1:23). And the last word of Jesus in that Gospel is: "And remember, I am with you to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
Why is "I am with you" so important? It means that David and all of us later royal and priestly children of God are never alone. However sinful and however lacking in confidence we might be, God is not ashamed to hang around with David, Bathsheba, or us. There is an implicit word of forgiveness in this simple sentence.  Finally, "I am with you" is a word of empowerment. Whether it is the ability to trust, to carry out our day to day vocations, or to face all the challenges of life – including our mortality – God's "I am with you" means that we have the promise of strength and encouragement to do what we have to do.
How do we know that God is with us? It all starts with our naming at our baptism. Ralph or Marilyn or whoever, you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever. It is Christ's real presence in the Supper that says to us in ways that we can taste, touch, and smell, "I am with you."  It is in the assurance of Christian brothers and sisters, in their words of encouragement and forgiveness, and by their witness that we hear God is with us. It is through the frequent use of the Means of Grace, Baptism and Communion, that we know God is indeed with us, and we are God's children. Was God ever more with us than when Jesus was extended for us on the cross?
When a new king arose after Saul, there was the excitement we all feel at the beginning of a new administration, the excitement of our first job, our first love, or each new day. But this excitement is not born just from newness or from refreshment after sleep. It is the excitement that in this new day or new venture that God is with us. Those words alone were enough for David. They are also enough for us.”1.  Amen!
Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.
Quote from commentary by Dr. Ralph W. Klein -