We can see the truth of Lord Acton's dictum, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," in the life of King David. The story of David and Bathsheba's liaison starts in an unexpected way, "In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem." David and his people have come to view spring as "war season." Battles have become so common, it seems that every spring David is sending "all of Israel" out to fight someone somewhere. This fulfills the warning God gave to the Israelites back in 1 Samuel when they begged Samuel for a king other than God so they could be just like every other nation. Samuel shared with them the words of the Lord about what a king would do, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots." Now the people are noticing that God and Samuel were right. Having a king isn't all it was cracked up to be. David, it seems, has fully transformed from shepherd and servant to a king like all the others.
To further illustrate the point, we are shown his "relationship" with Bathsheba. This is a story about a man of privilege taking advantage -- because he can. David sees Bathsheba on the roof of her house. Filled with lust and drunk with power, David sends for her so that he can have his way with her. When David sends his servant "to get" her, the Hebrew word is actually better translated "to take" her. Bathsheba, a woman married to a foreigner, certainly did not have the power in that culture to refuse the advances of the king.
When David is done with her, she returns to her home, and that appears to be that. Until, that is, Bathsheba utters the only three words she says in the entire story, "I am pregnant." Now, David has a problem. His solution is a cover-up that spirals out of control. Abusing his power again, David calls Bathsheba's husband home from battle. He hopes they will spend a night together, alleviating suspicion when Bathsheba has a child eight or nine months later. What David doesn't count on, though, is that Uriah the Hittite, a foreigner fighting in David's army, is far more loyal and moral than the warrior king of Israel. Uriah refuses to enjoy the comforts of home while his platoon is out on the battlefield.
David abuses his power once more, giving orders that are certain to have Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, killed in battle. Uriah is killed by the Ammonites just as David planned. David doesn't do this for love; he does it because he's in trouble. This murder is a cover-up. David does all of these machinations so that he may hide his sin and maintain his reputation and power.
David, the former shepherd, is now King David. He sends his people into a battle he doesn't deem important enough to attend himself. He uses Bathsheba for his pleasure and sends her away when he is through. Eventually, he uses his commanders to put Uriah in a vulnerable position that gets Uriah killed. The affair of David and Bathsheba is the story of one who has allowed his status to affect his judgment. David has lost sight of the value of other people, and sees them, instead, as means to his ends. He has come to view people as objects, and disposable ones at that.
While we may never be a king, president or head of state, we, too, must to pay attention to this story. If David, who elsewhere is described as a man after God's own heart, can become so enamored with his power as to use people to serve his own ends, so can we. But if we can learn from David's negative example, we can learn even more from Christ. Contrast King David to the vision of Jesus we read of in Philippians. The apostle Paul, writing to a church bickering over who is right and probably suffering through power struggles, encourages these early Christians to think differently about their power.
"Let each of you look not to your own interests," he writes, "but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." He then goes on to describe how Jesus viewed his power. "Who, though he was in the form of God," imbued with far more power than any of us will ever have, "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself ... he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:4-8).
The story of David and Bathsheba at its heart is a story about the abuse of power, a temptation all of us face. May we not get so enamored with our power that we see only our personal benefit and shirk the great responsibility we have for those whom we lead. May we not abuse our status as King David does at this time in his life. May we instead build up one another as young David the shepherd and Jesus the great shepherd did.
The recent debates about immigration made me think of the ancient Israelites and their own mixed feelings on the topic.
When we think of Old Testament forms of justice -- of all the laws and ordinances outlined in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers -- most of us probably remember best the doctrine of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." With only that in mind we conclude that ancient Israel's judicial system was something grim and oppressive. The truth is that the heart of the Torah is a heroic attempt to reflect the love and justice of God in all human circumstances. The legal mandates in the Old Testament are unique among the other known Near Eastern judicial systems in their consistent and outspoken protection of "the stranger, the widow and the orphan" -- that is, the weakest, least protected members of the society. Again and again the statutes and ordinances of Old Testament law explicitly list those three groups as worthy of special kindness, extra thoughtfulness, and intentional consideration.
Equally revealing is the Old Testament insistence that there be only one law of the land -- with that law applying equally to both Israelites and to the "stranger that sojourns among you" (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 16:29; 18:26). There was no double standard in God's Torah. For strangers and other resident aliens who chose to live among the Israelites, there was both equal responsibility and equal protection. "Strangers" were often listed with "widows and orphans" because these three groups shared a common handicap -- they lacked any kinship-connection that would naturally serve as a buffer between them and the harsh demands of life. They were alone and on their own in a time when one's whole identity came from the tribe or the clan.
Strangers or foreigners were entitled to certain protections and could claim some specific rights (such as gleaning), and were even in some cases invited to fully participate in the life of Israel, as shown in Deuteronomy 16:14 where the Lord commands "and you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your towns." Yet, there was still a great chasm between acceptance as a stranger and acceptance as a member of the covenant community. This is vividly evident in Numbers 3:10, "And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest's office: and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death."
Paul recalls the depth of this rift when he begins our epistle passage by recalling what it used to mean to be a Gentile. They used to be "aliens," they had "no hope," they were utterly "without God in the world" (v.12). The remarkable, redeeming message for the stranger now is that "in Christ Jesus" there has been a miraculous joining together. A humanity that used to be fragmented has now been made whole by the gift of Christ's blood. When Christ died on the cross his one body became the means to "reconcile both groups to God" (v.16). Christ has "broken down the dividing wall" between all who come together in his name.
In the church there is no wall between rich and poor. In the church there is no wall between those who run the office during the day and those who seek shelter on the floor at night. In the church there is no wall between the youth group and the Survivors. In the church there is no wall between the church school teacher and the chair of finances. In the church there is no wall between the powerful and the powerless. In the church there is no wall between the eloquent and the hesitant. In the church there is no wall between the well-educated and the illiterate. In the church there is only one humanity, one body, one peace.
How can we bring this way of life beyond our circle of believers into the wider world? Ronald M. Paterson, a pastor in Dayton, Ohio, shares this story that could point the way for us: “The way of God is from closed to open. Recently I heard a woman talking about her fears for our nation. One of the things she said was that the loudest and most painful noise she hears in our beloved country is the sound of minds snapping shut all over America. Her point was that too many of us are becoming people whose minds are closed and whose opinions are set in a sort of fatal concrete which threatens to sink the fragile nature of our democracy. She pointed out that this beloved ship floats on the willingness of diverse people to work with one another despite their differences of opinion, to find ways to get along with one another. Do you remember Jesus seeking out strangers and the outcast? Do you remember the unconditional love which he showed and which he commanded of those who followed him? The way of God is the path which leads people to work together for the common good.
Our calling as Christians is to see strangers as brothers and sisters in Christ. Might there be danger in this? Of course! But the danger of not reaching out and engaging others with the message of our oneness in Christ is even greater. Rather than spreading the ethic of the Kingdom of God, we are pretending that the church is a Citadel to be isolated and protected from the world. What happens to a castle under siege? Eventually it runs out of resources and falls. No, we must be bold to believe what Paul told us, “For He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” We need to courageously engage the world with the love of Christ, building a society that treats all people, native or alien, family or foe, as if they were beloved of Christ, because they are. Amen.
On July 5th we will gather in church either at the E3 Service or at the Traditional 11 a.m. Service to hear Bob Clendening sing Patriotic Anthems and be inspired to love and serve God. As the 4th of July approaches, recent events make me recognize how important it is for us as Christians to hold our nation accountable to God's standards seen in the life of Christ. With the racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, we see how far we have to go to be "a city on a hill," lighting the way for the rest of the world. Churches were in the forefront of the abolition movement that led to the end of slavery 150 years ago, and we can continue to be prophets to a world of hate that the love of Christ is the answer to the problem of racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and any other division among us.
The people of Emmanuel AME Church are an inspiration to me. They freely offered forgiveness to the perpetrator of the heinous crime that took the lives of nine of their loved ones, including 3 of their ministers. In listening to their testimony, I understand that the motivation for their forgiveness was not because it would ease their pain by letting go of their anger and hurt. That pain will never go away, though in time it may become more bearable. Their motivation was to be faithful followers of their Lord, who forgave those who took his life.
Standing up to hatred and violence with love and forgiveness is one of the hardest and riskiest things one can do. It takes courage, strength, and a belief in a loving and merciful God for it to make any sense to react to violence in this way. Our natural inclination is to react in kind, demanding revenge. We hear loud voices clamoring for the death penalty for the perpetrator, and we think it only fair. But our Lord said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also....You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you can be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:38-39, 43-45)
Jesus understood that limiting violence to reciprocity was an improvement to escalating violence (that was the purpose of the eye-for-an-eye injunction in Leviticus). But to overcome violence rather than simply to limit it, we need to meet it head on with the only power that is stronger than it is, God's love. To overcome evil we need to meet it head on with the only power that is stronger than it, God's goodness. If we are to be children of God, it is our calling to take up arms - that is, arms that hug and arms that uplift others - in order to confront those with arms that kill.
Being a Christian is not for the faint of heart. It takes the courage of Christ to oppose those with evil intentions with the weapons he has given us, the whole armor of God: "Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:14-17)
As Christ liked to say, "Go and do likewise."
Grace and Peace,