a sermon on bathsheba

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: 2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a | Psalm 51:1-12 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

This sermon is part of a summer worship series we’re calling Holy Scandal:The Outrageous Stories of the People of God.

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“Teacher, when did you come here?” the crowd asks Jesus. They didn’t see him back on the other side, so they’ve gotten in boats to find him across the water. Jesus casually ignores their question, but the ones who know the story remember what happened just before. Jesus is on the other side of the lake because he walked there on water. Now Jesus is talking with the crowds about signs and faith. They ask Jesus when he’s going to give them a sign, evidently forgetting that he has just turned five loaves of bread into 5,000 meals.

And then Jesus reveals something big. “I am the bread of life.” Not I have the bread of life. Not I’m similar to the bread of life. I AM.Jesus is making a huge claim here, a divine claim. I AM the living bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. This is scandalous enough that the people who put together our weekly readings gave us four whole weeks – the entire month of August this year – to unpack what that means.

So since we have a few weeks to dig into the bread of life, I want to spend this morning talking about another scandal, one that doesn’t get talked about so often in church.

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Bathsheba Bathing In The Gardens Of Grenade, Art Painting by Maurice Denis

Last week we heard the story of Bathsheba, when the king saw her bathing and decided that she was beautiful. After a little investigation, Bathsheba was summoned to David’s house with a simple order, because he wanted her. A little while later, she speaks to David – the only time we hear Bathsheba’s voice in this whole story, and she says,

“I am pregnant.”

The story specifically tells us that when David had summoned Bathsheba, she was purifying herself after her period. The point is to leave no doubt in our minds that the child is David’s. So David starts on this elaborate plot to cover up his abuse. He encourages Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to go home and sleep with her. When Uriah is too concerned with his other responsibilities to do so, David gets him drunk and then attempts to send him home again. Finally, realizing that he will not be able to get away with it, David orders Uriah killed in battle.

This is how David kills Uriah:  David writes a letter to the captain of the army, that in the upcoming battle, Uriah should be put in the hardest fighting and then the others should pull back from him so that he dies. David writes the letter and asks Uriah himself to deliver it. So the captain does what David asked, only the trouble is that lots of other people get killed too – some of David’s best friends. But David doesn’t seem to care about the collateral damage. Like so many abusers before and since, David has protected his secret.

But then again, here we are thousands of years later talking about his secret.

This week is the rest of the story. The scene opens on Bathsheba, lamenting for her dead husband. This is the second time we notice Bathsheba keeping religious custom – last time in a ritual purification, this time in the appropriate mourning ritual when a close family member dies. And as soon as it is appropriate, David brings Bathsheba into his house to stay.

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“Elegy for Ethan” by Jas Knight, 2017. Oil on linen, 28 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Grenning Gallery.

But the thing that David had done to Bathsheba and her family was not okay with God. It was not okay, and it was not going to stay covered up.

God sends Nathan to David. Do you remember Nathan? The last time I was up here preaching, David was all in a tizzy trying to build a house for God, and Nathan is the one who gently asks David, “Is it really your job to build a house for God?”

Now God speaks through Nathan again, and this time God has got a story for David:

There was someone who had this little lamb. (You know that David is here for a lamb story, that guy loves his sheep). They tended her and she grew up with the family: she used to share their morsel of bread, drink from their cup, and snuggle up with them; she was like a beloved pet.

 

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Polly the pet lamb with her family. Central Victoria, Australia.

But then another more  powerful person had some friends over, and they were hungry. And even though they had plenty of their own animals that they could have eaten, instead they snatched up the little lamb and served her up for dinner.

This story makes David super angry, and he flies off – That powerful person deserves to die! They must pay the family back fourfold for what they’ve done.

And Nathan says simply, “That powerful person is you.”

God goes on to say even more: David, look at all that I’ve done for you. I took you from tending the sheep and made you king over all my people. I rescued you from danger, I gave you everything you need. Why have you ignored my commandments? You took Uriah’s wife, and then you killed him. From now on, violence will always be a part of your family, and the same pain you caused to others will happen to you. You acted in secret, but I will make this happen out in the open, in broad daylight, where everyone can see it.

And, in the last word’s of today’s reading, David responds simply, “I am guilty.”

.

After a pause, we sang Psalm 51, which is traditionally attributed to David and is a song of repentance. Together with David, any of us who have ever really messed up sing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

And that’s where the story stops for today.

.

Whew. That is a lot to take in. Let’s unpack a little bit.

David has moved in the space of a few verses from powerful abuse of Bathsheba, to compassionate indignation at the mistreatment of a lamb, to repentance for what he has done. Let me be clear: David’s admission of guilt doesn’t erase what he did. And it doesn’t make it better.

In fact, things are going to get worse for David and his family. As the story continues, violence and abuse start to hit even closer to home, and more people die. You might understand that as God’s punishment for David’s sins, or you might understand it as the natural consequences for human brokenness – or what today’s researchers call generational trauma. The point is that the hard part isn’t over yet. Repentance isn’t the end of the story.

At the same time, what happened in this part of the story – this process of storytelling and repentance – is important. What has happened is that something that was secret has been made public. The things that were done in shadows are brought out into the full light of the sun.

David’s friend Nathan has a really important role here. What Nathan does is to simply speak the truth. Nathan’s voice is prophetic. His story appeals to the best part of David, the part that cares deeply for other creatures from all that time spent in the fields with the sheep. The part that despises injustice, remembering what it felt like to be the little guy up against a giant Philistine warrior named Goliath.

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Nathan rebukes David.

But now there are lots of other things that are getting in the way of that David. And so Nathan helps uncover something that David couldn’t perceive on his own. David has become something he hates. He is the person who he has just said deserves to die.

Now I have to pause for a moment and just notice something that really sucks about this story. Which is that I’ve been talking a lot about David, just like the Biblical text does. Maybe you noticed that when God is admonishing David, God describes what David has done as “taking Uriah’s wife and then killing Uriah.” And the punishment listed is that David’s wives will also be taken.

This whole story is built around language that describes women first and foremost as the property of men. That is the story we have. So let me tell you just a couple more things about Bathsheba that weren’t part of our reading today.2

After Uriah was killed, Bathsheba probably had no idea what was going to happen to her. She was waiting in suspense. David could have her killed too. Her fate was in the hands of people more powerful than she.

But later on, Bathsheba isn’t powerless anymore. In fact, she becomes David’s favorite and most powerful wife, and Israel’s heroine. Bathsheba takes the future of her people into her own hands when she advises an elderly David on who should be his successor. Bathsheba triumphs when her son Solomon is crowned as king. Bathsheba is in the place of honor at Solomon’s wedding, and she co-governs with Solomon, giving him advice on leadership.

Bathsheba’s wisdom lives on through the work of her son Solomon, who is credited with writing much of the wisdom literature of the Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Proverbs. One of the most famous proverbs, chapter 31, is introduced as “an oracle my mother taught me” and may contain the words of Bathsheba herself.

Proverbs 31, just like the rest of Bathsheba’s story, contains a lot of stuff about gender that might offend our 21st century sensibilities, but it also contains these words, echoes of her story:

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Like so many people from marginalized categories throughout time and still today, Bathsheba is limited by the way the world works, and she is hurt by the way the world works. And, like so many of us, she is resilient and she is powerful, and she is wise, in spite of everything she has suffered.

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“Lady Wisdom” by artymelanie.

The scandal of today’s story is that you get to pick your scandal. There is a whole menu to choose from. There’s the scandal that God’s people abuse their power and hurt each other. There’s the scandal that our friends call us out sometimes, because sometimes we can’t even perceive the truth about ourselves. There’s the scandal where the most important people are often left out of the story. There’s the part where God’s part in the story disappoints some of our own values or understandings of the divine. Maybe you’re still stuck on the bread of life scandal, or the walking on water scandal, which we didn’t even have time to explore this morning.

I wonder which feels most scandalous to you today.

At least one thing is clear, and this is what we have been telling each other all along in this series on scandal: These messy and painful stories are the stories of the people of God. God is present even in the most messed up of human situations.

And what we know from this story is that God isn’t about abusive secrets. God is not here for cooking up the family pet. And God is not here for sexual abuse, and God is not here for any of the systems that continue to oppress the powerless or marginalized ones even today.

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“Sun Warms the Freemen, Movement IV: Color in Freedom” (2008) by Joseph Holston.

No, God’s work is to shine light on the things that cause us pain and death. God is exposing the truth and telling the whole story.

God’s deal is that God is going to speak to us through the courageous and honest voices of our friends. God is always going to remind us of our story – who we have been and how God has been there for us. And God is always making us more and more into the people that God made us to be – honest and whole, compassionate and gentle, powerful and heroic and wise.

God is creating in us clean hearts. God is washing us in the waters of baptism, making us free from all the sin – our sin and others’ sin. Not casting us away, but giving us the Holy Spirit, and restoring us, always, to the joy of God’s salvation.

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“Jubliation, Movement IV: Color in Freedom” (2008) by Joseph Holston.

This is the first of several “I am” statements in John’s gospel. In the Hebrew Bible, the meaning of God’s name (YHWH) is closely related to “I am.” Thus many interpreters believe that Jesus’s “I am” statements are divine claims.

Many thanks to Dalaina May, whose work entitled “What You Need to Know about Bathsheba” was extremely helpful in preparing this sermon. Go read her article and the other references she links!

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