Well, we come this morning to another of the well-known stories of David – it is the story of David and Bathsheba. The story of David and Bathsheba is one of those stories that has all the compelling elements that makes it stick in our mind. There is a beautiful woman bathing, and a king watching her; there is a sexual liaison; there is a pregnancy, and then a murder of the woman’s husband. Finally, there is that remarkable scene of confrontation between the prophet Nathan and David – in which David unwittingly judges and condemns himself.
We made it clear last week that David is far from perfect. The narratives of First and Second Samuel certainly present David as a remarkable figure, in the best sense of the word. In important ways, David has embodied the strength, the grace, and the hospitality of God. In some profound sense, as one filled by the Spirit of God, David is a man after God’s own heart. Yet in the unfolding of the narrative, we find another David emerging – one who will stoop so low – one who falls so far. Here is a David who can engage in activities that are nothing less than morally outrageous.
But how did he get here? How did he end up as the man who could fail in this way? In many ways the text doesn’t tell us how David became this man. Early on, David is crowned as the king; he unites the kingdom and rules from Jerusalem; he welcomes Mephibosheth into his home; he defeats the Philistines. He may not be perfect, but he has a pretty good track record of service to his people, of faithfulness to the purposes of God. But something happens. Something changes. It’s not clear how much time has passed, a number of years, probably – but in those years something has changed.
Now we can imagine this kind of shift happening in a person’s life. We understand that with the passage of time there is every possibility that our identity, our character will change. That’s human nature – we are shaped, over time, by slight adjustments in our thinking, by small changes in our actions – by sometimes-imperceptible adjustments in our attitudes. Over time it is possible for all of these minor changes to accumulate – and through such an accumulation, character and identity are formed – we become this person, rather than that person.
We could put it like this:
If someone is a kind person, it is because that person has a track record of kind actions – it is because they have persisted over time in the attitudes and actions of kindness.
If someone is a courageous person, it is because that person has a track record of courageous action – it is because that person has persisted over time in the attitudes and actions of courage.
If someone is a generous person, it is because that person has a track record of generous action – it is because that person has persisted over time in the attitudes and actions of generosity.
In general, our identity or character is built one small attitude and one small action at a time.
I’ve given positive examples of such change – but negative examples are possible as well. One small adjustment this way or that can over time build one’s character or identity in a very different direction. Instead of kindness, we might be forming a character of harshness. Instead of courage, we might be forming a character of cowardice. Instead of generosity, we might be forming a character of stinginess.
From those earliest years of his life and service as king, to who he is in the present moment, it seems that something has changed for David. David has changed.
Let’s go back in the story a little ways – back to when the people demanded that the prophet Samuel give them a king. When they asked for a king, what did Samuel say to the people? He warned them. You’re asking for a king, but do you really know what you are asking for? Do you really want this? In 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the prophet warns the people. Here’s what you’re going to get:
the king will take your sons to be his soldiers,
the king will take your daughters to be his cooks and bakers and perfumers,
the king will take the best of your fields and olive groves
the king will take your cattle and donkeys
the king will take your slaves.
The king will take. The king will grasp after what does not belong to him.
Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and he walked about on the roof of his house. And from his position on high, from his privileged position, he saw a woman bathing in a home or courtyard nearby. Curiosity strikes him – more than curiosity – sexual desire arises in him, and he asks his advisers to find out whom this woman is. He learns that it is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah. From his position on high, from his privileged position, David sends his servants to get Bathsheba – at least that’s how our translation puts it: “So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him.”
But other translations render Hebrew more appropriately. The American Standard Version puts it like this: “And David sent messengers, and took her.”
The king will take your land.
He will take your sons.
He will take fields.
He will take your flocks.
He will take what he wants.
In the 1951 film version of this story, staring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, the interaction between David and Bathsheba is long and drawn out. In the movie the relationship between David and Bathsheba becomes one of mutual seduction. In the movie, it turns out that Bathsheba has been watching David as much as David has watched Bathsheba. In the movie, each pays an equal role in the moral failure of this moment.
But what we see is in the biblical narrative is that David is the actor. Bathsheba has no voice in this text. The story moves very quickly – there is hardly any time to breathe between verbs.
David saw her.
David sent his advisors.
David took her.
David lay with her.
In the text there is no expression of love mentioned. There is no reciprocity between man and woman. He is the king. He acts from a position of privilege. He acts from a position of power. He sees. He sends. He takes. He lies with her.
David has become the king that Samuel warned about. Over time it has happened.
One day at a time, David became comfortable with his power.
One day at a time David learned he could have what he wanted.
One day at a time David began to slowly take the things he wanted.
For so much of his life, David was on the receiving end – he was given opportunities; he was given gifts; he was given love. But now he is in a different position – one of remarkable privilege – over time he has gotten used to the fact that he can take. Never mind that she is married. Never mind that God’s forbids such action. David has become a man who takes.
As is so often the case, the first moral failure leads to another. After Bathsheba announces to David that she is pregnant, what you have is the story of David’s elaborate attempt to extricate himself from this situation. You find David trying to preserve his honour, to protect his status, and to hide his wrongdoing. In the end the only way he can do this, or so he thinks, is by a further act of taking. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is a soldier – a commander in David’s army – and David makes arrangements with his closest advisers to “arrange an accident” on the battlefield. Uriah will be intentionally exposed to the enemy on the battle field. The long and the short of it – David has Uriah killed, and then takes Bathsheba as his wife.
He will take your land.
He will take your sons.
He will take fields.
He will take your flocks.
He will take your wife.
He will take your life.
David has become a grasping, taking king.
In a way it’s possible to come away form this story kind of depressed. How so? Our character is built one moment, one action, and one attitude at a time. At times we hardly notice who we are becoming until all of sudden the realization dawns on us – oh, that’s who I am. It’s like a building that is constructed one girder at a time, one rivet at a time, one piece of rebar at a time. All of a sudden, there it is – the building completed and rising in the sky.
It can be kind of depressing to think about it in this way because if the thing we have built isn’t to our satisfaction – if the thing we have built isn’t what we wanted – if the character and identity we have formed has elements we really don’t like – wow, what a daunting task, to think about reversing that whole process. How daunting to think about changing the person I have become. If by habit – through behaviours and attitudes expressed over time – if by habit I have become a taker, or have become bitter, or have become self-focused, or have become angry, or have become envious. If we have become any of these things, how daunting to think about changing the person I have become.
And it’s not only at the individual level that all of this happens. It happens at the collective or cultural level. If by habit – through behaviours and attitudes expressed over time – if by habit our culture becomes consumeristic – if by habit our culture becomes oblivious to the poor – if by habit our culture becomes forgetful of the environment, how daunting to think about changing what our culture has become.
We are today in the middle of Lent. If lent is a time for anything – it is a time for self-examination. If lent is a time for anything – it is a time for considering who we have become as individuals and as a culture. It is a time for recognizing what has resulted from all those minor decisions and actions and attitudes that have accumulated in us over time.
As we think about this in the season of lent, however, we are not invited to become depressed at who we have become – we are not invited to become depressed about the impossibility of becoming someone other than the person we are. In lent, rather, the starting point is repentance. It is acknowledging before God that we have failed, where we have failed.
For many in our culture, the whole logic of repentance is perceived as so negative, as counter-productive, as medieval. The response is often like this: “Stop being down on yourself – negativity won’t get you anywhere. Just get on with building yourself a better, more beautiful life.” Our book stores are full of self-help books that tell us how to be build that better life – the web is littered with websites that show us how to get hold of our lives to make the most of them. Some of the advice is helpful – most of it isn’t.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self-help gospel that offers us the possibility of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps – which is what most self-help books offer, and which is why they mostly fail to help us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a gospel that offers us the possibility of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel that reminds us that there is a God with whom we must deal. A God who calls us to holiness. A God who calls us to acknowledge our failure to keep his law. A God who invites us to examine the life and character we have built, and to mourn over those areas in which we have fallen short (both individually and as a culture).
Mark 1:14 Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
We can’t look this morning at the whole narrative of David’s response to his failure in relation to Bathsheba and in relation to Uriah. But repentance is central to his response. In a moment this morning, we will have an opportunity to reflect on Psalm 51 – a Psalm presumed to have been written by David in the wake of his failure with Bathsheba and Uriah. At the heart of that Psalm is repentance – it is an expression of mourning, of deep regret over the person he has become. David sees whom he has become, he see what has happened to him and his life – and before God he can only express regret and sadness.
Our culture make so little room – has almost no room – for such regret over our failures and wrongdoing. Certainly our culture is forgetful of God’s call to holiness. But at the heart of the gospel is this invitation to turn
to turn away from the wrongheadedness of so much of our lives
to turn away from those parts of our character and identity that are an affront to God and to those with whom we live.
to turn away from the edifice of self-centeredness we are building.
Let me end on this note – there is nothing negative about repentance. There’s nothing negative about it, because it is only as we turn away, that we can turn toward. Turning away from certain modes of existence, and from certain attitudes, and from certain ways of being, is the only way we can turn toward the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ. As we turn away, then we are set free, by the Spirit of God dwelling among us and within us;
set free to walk with the risen Jesus Christ,
set free to life the life he has given us to life,
set free to embrace the ways of his kingdom,
set free to live fully as the beloved children of God.
There’s nothing negative about it. Thank God for the gift of repentance. Amen.