Family of Choice
August 1, 2021
Ephesians 4:11-15; 2 Samuel 11—12:15 [Psalm 17]
President Calvin Coolidge was known for being a man of few words. If the stories about him are true, that must have been his character even as a young person. Like the one where he came home from church and his mother asked him what the sermon had been about. “Sin,” he said. “Well, what did the preacher say about it?” his mother went on. “He was against it.” Calvin replied. We’ll never know what the preacher really said, but it is likely he went on somewhat longer. When a story like the one you just heard about David being confronted by Nathan comes up in the lectionary it is like candy to the preacher. Sin! A whole Sunday that can be devoted unambiguously to sins of the flesh!
Now, the saga of the sins Nathan had in mind had begun back in the previous chapter. The master storyteller draws us in by the first sentence, In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle… Only this king didn’t go out, he sent others while he stayed back in Jerusalem, taking afternoon naps and enjoying the view from the roof of his house. The day that view happens to include Bathsheba bathing David seems to suffer no moral qualms over taking her for his sexual pleasure. He had, of course first ascertained that her husband was out of town.
Today we would judge this to be predatory. Still, I’ve heard it excused by saying, “Well, then was then.” But the eternal truth is, power is power. In this sad episode David exercises that royal power to send others to do his bidding eight times! He sends to find out who she is, and then he sends messengers to fetch her, and then, as the Bible so delicately puts it, he lay with her. That assignation results in pregnancy.
When David is told of it he compounds his adultery with conniving to cover it up. He sends for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, a foreigner and a soldier in David’s own army, who has been out doing what kings are expected to do in the spring of the year—he’s been in battle. David invites Uriah to go home and spend some time with his wife, which soldiers were prohibited from doing when war was being waged. When Uriah rightly refuses to take advantage of the opportunity for a conjugal visit (which might have explained away the pregnancy), David tries another ploy. He invites Uriah to dine with him and then gets him drunk. David then tries, again without success, to send him home to the comforts of Bathsheba. Finally, David comes up with a far deadlier cover-up. He arranges for Uriah to be sent to the front of the battle where he will be killed. And he is. David, then, sends for Bathsheba and makes her his wife.
The preacher-prophet Nathan who confronted David the King was both subtle and blunt. First, Nathan draws David in with a story—a parable about a little ewe lamb. It’s a parable designed to fit a Shepherd-King. In just four verses Nathan tells a story so cleverly and graphically that its emotional impact remains to this day. It’s a story of unfairness, of power and wealth used wrongly, and even though we know where Nathan’s going with it, we feel the same sort of anger that aroused David.
As the Lord lives, (David says) the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing… and because he had no pity. David has no trouble seeing someone else’s sin!
But Nathan has set a trap for David and he has fallen right into it. David recognizes the injustice and he pronounces judgment—an even heavier judgment than the legal code required. But most damning, he calls out the rich man’s callousness. Then Nathan delivers one of the most stunning rebukes any king, any great leader of any time could receive. Thus says the Lord. You are that man! Speaking in God’s own words, Nathan accuses David of having committed a list of sins that had been specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments: coveting, adultery, murder, all of which have been magnified because it was the God of those laws who had established David as king of Israel. Why have you despised the word of the Lord? Why have you done evil in God’s sight? It’s a sad phenomenon, one with which we are all too familiar, that once installed in positions of power, leaders often forget who it was that put them there.
It has been a matter of theological curiosity that this sad story remained in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The books of Jewish history were subjected to editorial scissors many times. First, one ruling family would have their deeds written showing themselves to great advantage, and then, another dynasty would come along and excise the language that had so glowingly described their predecessors. If it wasn’t changing the written words, it was destroying the carved images of former kings and queens. The Egyptians did it. The Greeks and Romans did it. Our museums of antiquities are full of maimed statuary—a torso without limbs, a face without a nose. So, maybe this episode from David’s later life was a figurative marring of his character, done by a later dynasty.
Or, maybe this was left in as an example for anyone reading it in any time of what NOT to do—an example not only for the rich and powerful but for us, for ordinary people. The telling, prophetic finale to Nathan’s delivery of God’s judgment is two-fold. The good news is that when David realizes the magnitude of what he has done, he admits his guilt and repents immediately and God accepts his repentance. The bad news is, there will still be consequences. David isn’t struck dead on the spot (something even we would sometimes find very satisfying to watch). But he is told that his list of sins will have consequences not only for him, but for the generations that will follow him. You struck down Uriah by the sword and the sword will never depart from your house, Nathan declares.
This is a cautionary tale and the moral of the story is meant for us just as surely as it was pronounced on David. Violence breeds violence. Immorality has social consequences. When I read about the sins of famous, powerful people—and the news has certainly been full of them—my pious response is apt to be “Be sure your sins shall find you out!” If David were with us today he might be brought to trial, convicted, even sentenced to life in prison. But this story and Nathan’s prophecy go beyond even that.
It bothers us a lot to hear Nathan tell David that while he, David, won’t die as an immediate result of what he’s done, his child will. And furthermore his royal house will be plagued by one death after another, each new tragedy the consequence of some form of immoral behavior—rape, incest, more murder, more violence. More death.
If you had grown up in the rural south, you would have seen on any ride through the countryside, signs urging you to repent, asking you if you really were ready to spend eternity in Hell, and this succinct statement: The wages of sin is death. That is really what Nathan pronounces. And then, the text tells us, he went to his house. End of sermon.
Thankfully, for all of us, that’s not where this sermon will end. After a strong dose of Nathan, it’s really pleasant to listen to Paul. Paul is writing to a different sort of family, a family of faith who are related not by dynastic power but are held together by the power of the Holy Spirit. The family he describes is rich with the power of God’s love, is grounded in peace, and blessed with forgiveness. Those are the gifts this new kind of family has been given by Christ and Paul urges those brothers and sisters to be grown-ups who speak the truth to each other in love. It’s worth hearing a little more of his letter.
I beg you (he says) to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
That’s a family I’d like to be part of.
Often when Christians gather around the family table, the one that is set before us today, you will hear these lines being quietly sung, remembering Paul’s words and reminding us of the family we are part of:
One bread, One body, one Lord of all,
one cup of blessing which we bless.
And we, though many, throughout the earth,
we are one body in this one Lord.
We’re one family. Not a family we are born into, not a family united by shared DNA, but one we are invited to be members of, called into being out of God’s love.