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Waiting for Hope

150726_cover2 Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14

Year B, 9th Sunday after Pentecost

If today’s sermon were on television or the radio, it might start with a warning: this is for mature audiences only. Today’s readings involve some very harsh material, and we aren’t going to back down from that in the sermon. If you’re uncomfortable looking at the reality of evil, you may not want to hear this. But evil is real, and some truths need to be spoken.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
          All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
          there is none who does any good.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all,
          to see if there is any who is wise,
          if there is one who seeks after God.

Every one has proved faithless;
All alike have turned bad;
          there is none who does good; no, not one.

In light of today’s reading, I find David’s Psalm horrifically ironic.

What do you do with someone like David? He starts out as the classic underdog—obscure enough that even his own family forgot about him when the prophet Samuel came to town. From that obscurity, God chose him as the future king. But gaining the throne wasn’t a quick or easy prospect. It took years and years of waiting, fighting, and—most of all—running before he gained the kingdom. All along the way, from defeating Goliath to fleeing from Saul’s jealous madness, David relied on God and gave God continual credit for his skills and victories. He’s the ultimate hero, noble and faithful; everybody wants to be like him.

But somewhere along the line, something changed. As David’s fame and authority grew, something else was sneaking along in the shadows. David kept using the same language of honoring God, but the intentions behind his words began to shift.

Two weeks ago we heard Michal, David’s first wife (which is an extremely important position in an Eastern family), confront David about showing off as he consolidated his political and religious power by bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. After she rebuked him, he retorted that he was celebrating for God, not people. Noble words, and David likely meant them. But something must have stung in what she said: he never again tried to give her children, shamefully dishonoring her position as the first wife.

Last week we heard about David’s desire to build a temple for God. Again, the language and intention sound reasonable, even good: “God has done a lot for me. Now I want to do something to honor God.” It looks like genuine gratitude. But again, there’s something in the shadow of the words.  What appears as an act of respect and praise can easily become an attempt to ingratiate or patronize. This time God rebuked David’s plan, reminding him of his lowly beginnings. But after the warning, God still showed him love, promising to ensure David’s dynasty. David seems genuinely humbled and grateful. In the light of this Divine kindness, the monster again sinks out of sight, leaving us with our nearly flawless hero.

Between last week’s promise and this week’s reading, a few years have passed. David continued to conquer his enemies and expand the realm. When a friendly neighboring king, Nahash of the Ammonites, died, David sent ambassadors with condolences to Hanun, the newly crowned son. However, the young Ammonite king thought the ambassadors were spies, physically shaming them before returning them to Israel. David is furious. The Ammonites hire a huge number of mercenaries, and war breaks out. The Israelites devastate the mercenary army. The conflict cools for a little while, but David’s monster is fully awake now. No longer confined to the edges of his character, David’s pride roams freely.

So we come to today’s reading. Spring has arrived, and it’s time to finish the war with the Ammonites. In his pride, David decides he won’t even give Hanun the honor of a personal defeat, so he sends out his army while he stays comfortably in Jerusalem.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
          All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
          there is none who does any good.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all,
          to see if there is any who is wise,
          if there is one who seeks after God.

Every one has proved faithless;
All alike have turned bad;
          there is none who does good; no, not one.

Late one afternoon, David is napping at home while all his men are out fighting or preparing for battle. He gets up to watch the sunset and looks across the city. Nearby he sees a lady, Bathsheba, taking a bath on her rooftop. This wouldn’t have been particularly unusual. A roof in that era was a pretty private place with a flat top and walls along the edge. The only way to see in would be to have a window higher than that house, and the highest house in the city was the king’s palace. David probably saw several women bathing that evening. And despite what Western art would have us believe, Bathsheba wasn’t skinny dipping in a hot tub. She wasn’t flaunting her body. She wasn’t doing everything in her power to allure the innocent king. She was in the midst of a purification ritual, worshipping God by honoring the instructions Moses had given Israel. For us, that would be like witnessing communion or a baptism.

Sadly, that evening was different for David. His pride turned to greed, and he became obsessed with this neighbor. It took some time to find out who she was, and she turned out to be fairly important. Not only was Bathsheba the granddaughter of one of David’s closest advisors, she was also the wife of Uriah, one of David’s most loyal friends. But David didn’t care. His pride has run amok. He’s the king, and the king always gets what he wants. Straight from her purification, her worship of God, he summons Bathsheba to the palace, rapes her, and sends her home again.

As disgusting as all that is, the story doesn’t stop. Bathsheba is pregnant, so David recalls his friend from the front lines and tries to make it look like the baby is his. But the plot fails: Uriah, a foreigner, has more respect for his unnamed fellow soldiers than the king did for one of his best friends. David sends Uriah back to the battle with a secret note for the generals, a note containing instructions for Uriah’s death.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
          All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
          there is none who does any good.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all,
          to see if there is any who is wise,
          if there is one who seeks after God.

Every one has proved faithless;
All alike have turned bad;
          there is none who does good; no, not one.

So what do we do with David? This king, known as a “man after God’s own heart,” has committed two major crimes: sexual assault and murder. The story stops, and we’re left with a new and terrible reality. The world has changed. Our hero has fallen. Evil has won. The innocent are dead or voiceless while the guilty feasts and relaxes in comfort and security.

How often do we see this repeated in our own day? How often do we hear of people taking advantage of foreign workers like Uriah? How many times do we hear of celebrities or government officials abusing women without any apparent consequences? Why does it take forty years and dozens of corroborating witnesses to even consider bringing a rapist to judgment?

These are big questions, and just like the passage we read today, too often we’re left without answers or resolution. In the real world, justice isn’t just blind: sometimes she’s asleep. In the real world, sometimes evil wins. In the real world, often there are no answers.

When faced with such evil, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s easy to give up or give in to the continual temptations. After all, what does it matter in the big scheme of things? Most of all, it’s easy to point the finger and say “What have you done?” instead of asking the more important question, and the only one to which we can truly respond: “What have I done that has harmed others?”

David is a reflection of all of us. All of us are capable of his great goodness. And all of us are guilty of great sins. Jesus tells us that looking at someone lustfully is as bad as adultery and hating someone is the same as murder. Yet despite our commitment to Jesus, how often are we jealous of what someone else has? How many times do we wish that someone was dead? How often do we push someone else down in order to lift our own heads a little higher? How often do we take pride in our own selfish acts?

I, for one, can have a very sharp tongue. I can cut you so cleanly with my words that you may not even realize I’ve eviscerated you until several moments later. I remember multiple times where I’ve publicly shamed others and then felt huge pride over such behavior. Sure, we can say that shaming someone isn’t as bad as murder or assault, but how different is the heart behind it? How different is the desire to silence and crush another person’s spirit than the hatred necessary to take a life? Worst of all, I justify my cruelty: I mean, God did give me this incredible skill. And since I was successful, what I did must have been okay.

But I am here to publicly remind myself such behavior is NOT okay. God gives each of us gifts and authority to help build others up, not to tear them down. Our job as God’s adopted children is to guide people to heaven, not push them into hell, whether that’s earthly or eternal. Destruction is quick and easy—all I have to do is play to my strengths, to satisfy my own desires. But God’s way is hard. Creation, repair, and restoration take a lot more work, skill, patience, and self-control. It takes years to restore a damaged reputation. Even one as good as David’s was can never truly recover.

Looking at David’s life, or looking at the damage in our own lives, leads us to the same place: the end of today’s Psalm. When we realize that even though we, like fools, have “said in our heart[s], ‘There is no God,’” even though none of us “does good; no not one,” no matter what evil we’ve done to others or what harm has been done to us, at some point we all end up looking to the same place: we all end up waiting for hope.

Oh, that Israel’s deliverance would come out of Zion!
          when the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
          Jacob will rejoice and Israel be glad.

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