Judges and Kings: A Kingdom Divided

Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1-17

Today is our last week – our final episode – of our summer sermon series Judges and Kings, so let’s take a moment to rewind and remember how we got to where we are in our story today.

We began in the book of Judges, just after the Israelites have settled in the Promised Land.  At this point they are a nation without a state: twelve tribes, joined together by their shared history, but with little centralized leadership after the death of Joshua.  Soon a pattern begins to emerge.  The Israelites forget the God who led them into the land; they turn away and disobey and worship other gods; God allows them to feel the consequences of those choices in the form of other nearby nations who conquer them; the people cry out to God for help, and God raises up a judge, a military hero, to deliver them.

The first judges are pretty good, but as time goes on we realize that this pattern is less of a cycle and more of a downward spiral, with each judge less faithful and less competent than the last, until the curtain closes on the book of Judges with Israel in complete and total chaos.

Into this chaos, a prophet is born.  His name is Samuel and he grows up in the holy sanctuary as an assistant to the priest Eli; and one day Samuel starts to hear from God for himself.  Samuel provides good and faithful leadership to his people for a time, but as he grows old, the people begin to fear for their future.  So the people tell Samuel that they want a king.

Samuel warns them that this is a terrible idea.  A king? he says.  A king will send your sons into the army and make you do forced labor for him and he’ll tax you heavily for his own gain.  But the people want a king, and God tells Samuel to give the people what they want.

Enter Saul, a tall, handsome, unsuspecting young man from the tribe of Benjamin.  Samuel intercepts him one day while he’s out looking for a lost donkey and, at God’s direction, anoints him as king.  Saul gets off to a reasonable start, but soon we see him start to make hasty and selfish decisions instead of trusting or consulting God.  So God says, yeah, never mind, and sends Samuel off to anoint a new king instead.

David, son of Jesse, a Bethlehemite from the tribe of Judah, is anointed king while he’s still a young boy taking care of his father’s sheep, and his rise to power is one for the books.  He enters Saul’s inner circle as a court musician, marries Saul’s daughter, and gains fame as a warrior in Saul’s army.  Saul’s not blind, of course.  He can see David climbing in power and prestige, and he gets jealous.  And then he gets angry.  And then he kind of goes off the chain and tries to bump David off.  David escapes Saul with the help of Saul’s son Jonathan, and begins a new life on the run.  But make no mistake, he’s making alliances and forming his base the whole time.

When Saul is killed in battle with the neighboring Philistines, David takes his divinely appointed place on the throne, and he both centralizes the government and forges a national identity in a way Saul never did.  David is the king, the iconic leader of Israel, to whom God promises an everlasting dynasty.  But even David finally succumbs to his own weakness – first in the matter of Bathsheba, then in resulting implosion of his own family.  Still, David withstands his own son’s armed rebellion and is restored to the throne a humbled man.

When David dies and his son Solomon becomes king, it might seem as though the glory days of Israel have arrived.  Solomon famously prays for wisdom, and God is so pleased with this request that God promises him riches and honor and long life too.  Solomon lives in grandeur and splendor; he builds Israel’s first Temple in Jerusalem; there’s peace on all sides; and, we read, “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.”

But maybe the whole picture is a little too perfect.  Maybe this is the social media depiction of Solomon’s reign.  And as we know, things aren’t always how they look on Instagram.  Because we also learn that Solomon has been using work gangs for his building projects – and not just foreign work gangs, but Israelite work gangs.  And all that grandeur and splendor had to come from somewhere – your Israelite tax dollars at work.  And we learn that Solomon loved foreign women, and took a number of them as his wives, and they “turned his heart after other gods.”

Remember Samuel’s warning?

So maybe it’s not surprising when a leader of one of the work gangs, a man named Jeroboam, begins to plot rebellion.  And maybe it’s not surprising when Jeroboam meets a prophet on the road who tears his shirt into twelve pieces and proclaims that the kingdom itself will one day be torn – not from Solomon himself, but from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.

That is all to say: maybe what happens next isn’t ALL Rehoboam’s fault.

[READ 1 Kings 12:1-17]

When I was planning out this sermon series, I had a hard time choosing where to end it.  Because of course, the story doesn’t end here.

But this is the end of the story of Israel as one kingdom.  From here we enter into two parallel stories, one in the north and one in the south, each with their own colorful cast of royal characters.  Both of those stories lead into exile.  One of them leads back out.

When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam heads to his own coronation, where some people are eagerly awaiting to make him king.  But remember that at the end of Solomon’s life, rebellion was beginning to bubble up.  Jeroboam has been hiding in Egypt since that run-in with the prophet on the road, but as Rehoboam is about to be crowned, he returns and leads the people in making some demands.  “Your father made our yoke heavy,” they say.  “Tell us you’ll lighten our load, and we will serve you as king.”

Rehoboam has to think about it.  He tells them to come back in three days.

Meanwhile, he consults some elders, men who had advised Solomon.  They tell him to agree to the people’s demands, that it’s a good investment.  These guys know where power and legitimacy come from, even in a monarchy.

But Rehoboam says nah, that doesn’t sound right.  So he finds some other advisors, friends of his, and they tell him he’d better show these people who’s boss right from the get-go.

So when Jeroboam and the people come back three days later, Rehoboam tells them, “You think it was bad under my father? My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins!”  (“Little finger” is a euphemism.)

The people respond, “That’s cool.  Have fun being king over the people of Judah, your own tribe.  The rest of us are going home, and you are no longer our king.”  And the northern tribes of Israel crown Jeroboam.

We’ve now gone from the inception of a kingdom to its dissolution.

I have to ask here – what went wrong??  Anyone want to take a stab at summing that up?

Where do we start, right?  God’s people worshiped other gods when they forgot what God had done for them.  They wanted a king when they forgot who their first, real king was supposed to be.  Those kings themselves forgot that being king didn’t make them invincible, that there was a power still greater than theirs.  They forgot where their power came from; they wanted what was theirs and they forgot whose they ultimately were.

What went wrong is that they forgot: they forgot God’s mercy, they forgot God’s provision, they forgot God’s ultimate sovereignty, and they forgot their own places in God’s story.

And we can hardly blame them because we, too, are so prone to forget: God’s mercy, God’s love, the call of God on our lives.

It is a dangerous thing, to forget.  And we do it all the time.

And yet the author of 1 Kings is adamant that God is somehow still at work in all of it.  When Solomon lets his heart be turned away by his foreign wives and their foreign gods, God tells him that this means the end of a kingdom.  When the prophet Ahijah tears his shirt and predicts that the kingdom will be torn away from Solomon’s son, it is God he speaks for.  When the people make their demands to Rehoboam, we’re told that God hardens his heart, Pharoah-style, so that this prophecy will still come true, and yet when Rehoboam prepares to send his army after the tribes who have seceded, God tells him no, and Rehoboam listens.

In a time when anyone living might have sincerely questioned where God was in everything that was happening, the author wants to assure us: God is there.  God isn’t asleep on the job.  God is still, somehow, moving God’s story forward.

Has there ever been a time, for you, when everything seemed messed up, you couldn’t see God’s hand in any of it, but only later it became clear that God was still somehow at work?

I don’t necessarily mean, or believe, that God was orchestrating all of it so that each little thing was exactly according to God’s plan.  Bad things happen in a broken world and sometimes we really do mess things up.  Solomon didn’t have to be the kind of king Samuel had warned the people about.  Rehoboam could have listened to his advisors.  Just because God may want one thing doesn’t mean we can’t make our own decisions, good or bad, out of our own free will.

And yet God can always work with what we give.

I’m trying to keep this in mind these days as we stand at the precipice of an important moment in history for the United Methodist Church.  Because we’ve gotten to a point in our denominational life where everything really does seem like a mess.  As a denomination, we don’t agree on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed or whether LGBT people should be able to be ordained.  Some people who feel our current rules against both are unjust have broken those rules, and other people have gotten mad about the rules being broken and the fact that the first people aren’t getting punished enough.  You all hear about this from me from time to time – we’ll hear more in a couple weeks – but I know it might seem like just church politics, far away from our mission and ministry here.

Let me tell you from someone whose job it is to be in touch with the institutional side of things that it feels like a mess.  And it’s sometimes hard to see in the midst of the maddening institutional politics how God is at work in any of it at all.

I don’t know what will happen at our General Conference in February which has been called to find a way forward through all of this.  What I do know is this: the church has been in some messes before.  In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split in two, north and south, over the question of whether a bishop could be a slaveholder.  The two churches (two kingdoms?) came back together in 1939, when slavery was safely out of the question, but as part of the deal, they created a separate jurisdiction for all the African-American churches in the denomination, with their own bishops and their own pastors and their own churches.  The Central Jurisdiction was abolished in 1968 when we became the United Methodist Church, at a time when we as a wider culture were doing some reckoning with the idea of segregation.  And, you all, I know we have a long way to go in addressing the sometimes more subtle racism that still persists in our culture and our churches, but we’re here, and we are a church of people of many different colors who come from many different places, with a bishop who is African-American, and through all of the mess we have undeniably made, God has been at work to bring us here.  And God is still at work to bring us forward – maybe as a “united” United Methodist Church and maybe not, but always as God’s people living out God’s story.

It may be that we read the paper and look at our whole national political situation and all we can see is how messed up everything is, how we don’t do anything but fight with each other, and high-up people are being convicted of crimes, and students are going back to school worrying about mass shootings, and I am not saying that any of it is God’s will, that any of it is the way God wants things to be, but I do believe that God still has a hand in our story, and that God does not ever leave us alone.

For the people of Israel and Judah – the northern and southern kingdoms – the story will get worse before it gets better.  Redemption doesn’t always come in a linear fashion.  Both kingdoms will have kings who mess a lot of things up.  And occasionally there will be a good one, and then the next king will go back to messing things up.  And eventually, there will be exile, as those kings succumb to foreign powers who conquer the land and scatter the people.  But there will also be return from exile.  There will be restoration.  And then God’s people will keep messing things up, and the story continues, but still God doesn’t stop being at work.

And when God decides something drastic is called for, when God decides to do something bold, and God takes on human form and joins God’s people here on earth, and offends the powers that be with the life of love and peace and sacrifice he calls us to, and they put him on a cross – even then, in the biggest mess ever made, God is still at work, and God will be victorious.

The good news is this: the Kingdom of God needs us, but it also can’t be stopped by us: by our pride, by our selfishness, by our mistakes, by our forgetting.

God’s story continues, and God will be victorious.

 

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Judges and Kings: God’s Wisdom in Clay Vessels

Preacher: Barb Schweitzer

Scripture: 1 Kings 3:1-15

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

We have met Israel’s first two kings.  Saul, who was from a wealthy and influential family within the tribe of Benjamin was Israel’s first King.  Saul started off as a good king, as he gave the people what they wanted in a king, “someone to fight their military battles.”  David, was Israel’s second king, chosen by God, not because of his wealth or outward appearance, but because he was “a man after God’s own heart.” David became a “symbol of hope for all of Israel” because he was willing to align his vision of the kingdom with God’s vision, which meant looking out for the welfare of all people, including neighboring nations who were willing to be friendly.  Both kings started off wanting to be good kings, but were increasingly influenced by their growing political and military power. This would also be true of Solomon, Israel’s third King.

Solomon was David and Bathsheba’s son.  Like David, Solomon’s reign begins with conflict because Solomon’s older half-brother proclaimed himself king before David was able to crown Solomon as king. After his coronation, Solomon found it necessary to execute three people involved in the near coup, in order to secure his claim to the throne. After securing his throne, one of Solomon’s first decisions was to marry an Egyptian princess, which to him, seemed politically useful, but was unwise, because it violated Mosaic Law.  Please listen as Kelvin reads today’s scripture.

[READ 1 Kings 3:1-15]

What is wisdom?  Is wisdom what we learn from our parents growing up, the sort that says, work hard, get plenty of exercise and rest, and eat healthy?  Or is wisdom, knowledge—the stuff we learn in school?  Or is wisdom what we find in the Bible, knowledge of God and his history with his people, as well as knowledge of how to live a good life?

The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary says that “in the Ancient Near Eastern context, where our story was inspired, wisdom was an umbrella term that encompassed humanity’s quest to understand and organize reality, to find answers to basic existential questions, and to pass the information along from one generation to another.  Wisdom’s roots were located in the family unit, where each generation shared insights about how to live well with the next generation.  As societies became more established and institutionalized, wisdom moved up through families to the administrative and religious systems of city-states and empires.  Thus, the accumulation of transmission of wisdom transferred from the family to the national setting.” Let’s keep this in mind as we think about Solomon’s story. ( adapted from The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary S-Z: Vol. 5. p. 862-863).

So what did  you notice about Solomon in this passage?

I noticed that Solomon was mindful of how God had shown steadfast love to his father David and mindful that it was God’s gift to be named King.

I noticed that Solomon also thought of himself as a child, lacking experience and direction, and acutely aware of his need for wisdom, and the ability to discern between good and evil.

I can imagine Solomon feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job of King, especially if he really was between ages 13 – 23.  I don’t know about you, but I know I wasn’t ready to run a country at age 23.  Heck, I’m not sure that I’m ready to run a church at age 55!

I can imagine that Solomon was sorely aware of the mistakes made by his predecessors and their devastating consequences, despite both kings having desired to be good kings when they started out. Saul’s mistakes cost him his mental health, his throne, and his and his son’s life. And David’s mistakes brought calamity and violence into the royal household, which was, of course, Solomon’s family of origin, with whom he currently lived.

And, when I think of Solomon’s mixed family and their history— where one half-brother raped his sister, yet David did not punish him, so another half-brother took revenge by murdering the brother guilty of rape.  To top this, David, his own father, was also guilty of rape and murder. And then, God forgave his father because David repented, but not without devastating consequences for the family.  (Pause) If I were a kid growing up in Solomon’s family, I would have a serious need for God’s wisdom to help me sift through the family drama to gain some type of perspective.

But there’s more, directly impacting the claim to the throne itself. Adonijah, Solomon’s older half-brother had the nerve and ambition to proclaim himself king, forcing David to crown Solomon as king while still a youth, in order to stop the palace coup which was in progress. This family history and drama gives new meaning to Solomon’s statement, “O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” Yep, I can certainly imagine how Solomon must have been acutely aware of his need for a discerning mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.  Can’t you?

In James, chapter 1 verse 5, James, the brother of Jesus writes that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

This truth from James seems to have been true with Solomon, because God grants Solomon wisdom, without rebuking Solomon for his initial missteps as king—like killing his half-brother and contender for his throne and slaughtering a priest and military advisor for their disloyalty to both his father and himself.  Nor did God rebuke Solomon for marrying an Egyptian princess or worshipping at the high places–all of which were forbidden in the Mosaic Torah.  Despite these missteps, God comes to Solomon in a dream, and asks Solomon to decide what gift he wants from God, and then grants Solomon his request for wisdom and much more.

Immediately after God grants Solomon wisdom, we see Solomon, making his most famous and amazingly wise ruling by discerning which one of two women was the real mother of a baby, when both were claiming to be its mother.   We also see Solomon wisely negotiating business deals with his neighboring countries of Tyre and Sidon, by appealing to their loyalty to King David and by offering to continue peaceful and cooperative relationships in exchange for Tyre’s cedar and Sidon’s lumberjacks needed for Solomon’s building projects. Solomon wisely offers to pay fair wages to the lumberjacks. At the same time, Solomon makes the bad decision of forcing his own people to labor on those same building projects without being paid, probably following the council of his new Egyptian father-in-law and his new wife, the Egyptian princess.

So, we see, that even though God’s wisdom is readily available to Solomon, Solomon was inconsistent in applying that wisdom to his life and work as King.  Surely his family of origin and the larger cultures within which he lived had some subconscious influence at times.

This begs the question, both for Solomon in his day, and for us today:

  • How do we know when we’ve truly heard from God?
  • How do we discern when our family of origin and other cultures our clouding our judgment?
  • And how do we avoid making mistakes that will have a negative impact not only on our lives, but on the lives of those around us, and on God’s kingdom?

Have you ever sensed God talking to you?

John Wesley spoke of his first real encounter with God as experiencing his heart being “strangely warmed.” And two disciples talk of how their “hearts burned within them” when Jesus “opened the Scriptures to them” on the road to Emmaus, in Luke chapter 24.  So, we have people who attested to Jesus speaking to their hearts after Jesus was resurrected.

This concept of God talking to us is hard for us modern people to fully wrap our heads around, making people hesitate to say that they have heard from God. John Wesley, however, encouraged the practice of sharing with one another what God was doing in their lives along with studying scripture, praying, and fasting as an important way of learning how to discern God’s voice and mature as Christians. John Wesley called this process, Christian Conferencing.

You might find the story I’m about to tell you a bit strange, I know I certainly do, but it illustrates something of how we discern God’s voice through Christian conferencing and by using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  When I was 24 years old, I woke up after a dream, believing that God told me I would be a missionary in Bangladesh.  Before that dream, I had no idea that Bangladesh existed.  9 years later, Glenn and I ended up being sent to Bangladesh by the State Department, even though we had not personally requested to go there. So, I must testify that God does still occasionally speak to people in dreams, but more often, God speaks by strangely warming our hearts when we read scripture, pray, or listen to others.

I must also testify to how we can misinterpret what God is saying, when we do think he’s spoken.  Hindsight has taught me, that I added to God’s message in the dream, without being conscious that I had; because of my preconceived notion — at that time, that dictated that all missionaries stayed in their assigned fields for life.  So, I automatically assumed God had called me to spend my whole life in Bangladesh—which was never actually stated in the dream. This assumption caused me a whole lot of grief when I turned down the opportunity to stay in Bangladesh, after our 3 month summer assignment was completed. Hindsight has taught me that if I had discussed my sense of call openly, with other discerning Christians, they might have been able to help me sift through what was God, and what was me much earlier in my life.  Something else has also helped me sift through what was from God and what was from me.  It is a tool that United Methodists use as a way of discerning what is God and what isn’t God.  It’s called the Wesley quadrilateral, and involves consulting scripture, Christian tradition, reason, and experience when discerning God’s voice. In my case, scripture agreed with the idea of being a missionary.  Christian tradition also spoke of many people being missionaries throughout the world.  Then we come to reason.  Was it reasonable that God could have called me to Bangladesh?  Sure.  And it helps that I ended up there eventually.  But, was it reasonable to think that God wanted me to be there for my whole life?  Here’s a question I needed to answer.  When I had the dream, I was young and unmarried.  But when I ended up in Bangladesh, I had both a husband and a 1 year old baby.  And as I encountered the environment filled with cholera and dysentery and many skin diseases and worm infestations, I realized that Bangladesh was not the optimum place to bring up my one year old child.  So, that was something God would have to help me think through.  Then, I needed to consider my husband, who at the time was working on his doctoral degree.  Was God calling him to drop that and stay in Bangladesh?  2 catholic priests asked me to consider staying and teaching English at Dhaka University, so I had been offered a job, but I didn’t know if I could support our family on what they might pay me, and I didn’t know if it was right to ask Glenn to forfeit his career to support our family in Bangladesh.  There were so many questions.  Finally, I needed to consult my experience.  My upbringing had told me that the man was to be the head of the family and income earner and the woman was supposed to care for the kids.  These were assumptions and teachings that I really needed to think about and work through—before I could make a commitment to stay.  If I had known about the Wesleyan quadrilateral back in 1996, and practiced Christian Conferencing, I would have been able to discern what God wanted much easier.  As it is, it took me a few more years before I worked through everything by myself—which I don’t recommend.

It is important to understand that for these processes of discernment to function, it is expected that we routinely and in an ongoing fashion, seek to know God intimately, seek to walk in God’s ways, and seek God’s guidance in all things through prayer, studying scripture, taking communion, fasting, and conferencing with other Christians.

God had similar instructions to Solomon, in our text, saying, “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Now, we post-modern people don’t like to hear these conditional statements made by God which come off as threats and seem to convey that we should follow God out of fear.   If we are going to understand God’s wisdom, we have to understand what the Bible means when it says, “the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

In Hebrew the word fear means to show a reverence for God and God’s law.  It does not mean that God wants us to live terrorized by fear of what God can do to us if he don’t obey God’s law. But like any relationship, we will be less likely to trust God and less able to discern God’s voice and meaning if we do not routinely spend time reading the Bible and seeking to understand and know God and  God’s wisdom for all aspects of our life.

So, the question God is asking us today, is the same he asked Solomon so long ago: “Ask what I should give you.”

Will you answer with Solomon’s answer, “Give your servant . . . an understanding mind . . .  able to discern between good and evil?”

The choice is yours.  Amen.

Judges and Kings: Speaking the Truth

2 Samuel 12:1-15

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

Saul has been killed in battle with the Philistines, which means David can finally take his divinely approved place on the throne of Israel.  But while David’s kinsfolk and supporters in the tribe of Judah are quick to place that crown on his head, the northern tribes hold back.  Instead, Saul’s last surviving son Ishbosheth reigns over the northern tribes of Israel for seven years until his untimely death, at which point it falls to David to unite the twelve tribes under one government, one system of worship, and one national identity.

All this time, David has been a rising star in Israel.  He’s gone from shepherd boy to giant-slayer to court musician to royal son-in-law to decorated warrior to king.  Once David has secured the throne he brings the covenant chest to Jerusalem, builds a palace, and handily defeats the Philistines and other local enemies.  Not only that, but God makes a covenant with David, telling him that someone from his family line will reign on the throne of Israel forever.

But rising stars can’t rise forever, and the tide of David’s story is about to turn.

“In the spring of the year,” 2 Samuel 11 begins, “the time when kings go out to war,” David sends his top general with all the officers of the armed forces off to fight the Ammonites.  David, however, does not go out to war.  Instead he stays behind in Jerusalem, and one afternoon he happens to see a woman bathing on a nearby rooftop, and he thinks she’s beautiful, so he sends some of his guys to find out who she is.  Her name is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who serves in David’s army.  David then sends his guys to go get her, and he sleeps with her, and she gets pregnant, and David panics.  He tries to stage an elaborate cover-up, which fails miserably, so David arranges instead for Uriah to be accidentally-on-purpose killed in battle, and takes Bathsheba as his own wife.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same David we have grown to know and love, the “man after God’s own heart.”  But it is.  People are complex, and power corrupts, and our rising star has just shown the tragic flaw that will lead to his downfall.

But what I want us to hear now is what happens right after all of this, when David is confronted by the prophet Nathan.

 

[READ 2 Samuel 12:1-15]

 

Before we talk about Nathan, let’s go back to David and Bathsheba.

It’s possible that Bathsheba had a whole plan here.  It’s possible that she positioned herself so that David could see her bathing in order to seduce him.  It’s possible she was angling for whatever benefits she expected for someone who was sleeping with the king.  It’s possible, but the Bible itself doesn’t give us any reason to think that.  In a crowded city, the roof was where you took a bath.  There was nothing seductive about that.  Furthermore, the language the Bible uses in this story is the language of taking.  David saw Bathsheba, and he took her.  Bathsheba, as far as the story goes, has very little say in the whole thing.

We’ve grown accustomed to talking about David’s sin with Bathsheba as the sin of adultery, or maybe the sin of lust, giving into temptation.  But in the past couple years we’ve been having a lot of cultural conversations around power and consent; around sexual harassment and assault and how people (women) don’t always have a meaningful choice to say no.  And I have to tell you that in light of those conversations, I have a hard time hearing this story of a king who saw a woman, took her, and slept with her as just a story of lust or adultery.  Let’s face it: it’s possible Bathsheba said yes, but there was definitely no way she had the choice to say no.

You might say “It was a different time,” which is what we say when someone we love and admire from the past did something we don’t approve of in the present.  And it was.  Certainly we can’t expect that someone from the Ancient Near East three thousand years ago would operate under modern American norms and expectations.   In David’s time, women were largely viewed as the property of either their fathers or their husbands, which is why David’s sin with Bathsheba is primarily seen in the Bible as a sin against her husband Uriah.  Rules around legal consent had to do with whether you were in a place where other people could hear you scream (Deuteronomy 22:23-29).  We can understand these things without excusing them.  We can understand the culture and context the Bible was written in, the ways it does and doesn’t push back against that culture, and still put it in conversation with our own contemporary culture.

And so when I read the story of David and Bathsheba it’s hard for me not to hear the echoes of so many other more contemporary stories: stories of powerful people – primarily but not exclusively men – in government, media, sports, Silicon Valley, you name it, who have used their power to prey on others – primarily but not exclusively women – who don’t have a realistic choice to say no.

Bathsheba doesn’t ever get a chance in Scripture to tell her own story in her own words.  But if she did, we might call that Bathsheba’s #metoo story.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the #metoo movement, which was popularized late last year after the film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment or assault by over 80 women.  The hashtag #metoo emerged on social media encouraging women to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault.  Wikipedia tells me that in the first 24 hours of the hashtag appearing on Facebook, it was used in 12 million posts by 4.7 million people.[1] You have probably heard some of these stories, and if not, they are easy to find.  They range from catcalls on the street to inappropriate comments on one’s appearance at work to persistent unwanted advances to women being pressured by dates to do things they weren’t comfortable with to full-on violent assault.  Clearly some of these things sound more commonplace than others, but the point of the movement is that all of them are commonplace – this is the world women live in, and it’s different but not so different from the world Bathsheba lived in.

And in case you’re thinking that things are different in church, #metoo gave rise to the spinoff hashtag #churchtoo, where women have shared their stories just how different things are not in church.  Just this week, the entire staff of Willow Creek Community Church, which is a huge evangelical megachurch outside Chicago, stepped down in response to allegations against Willow Creek’s founding pastor and church leadership guru Bill Hybels.  He’s not the first, either; and while it’s true that in mainline churches we tend to have more official accountability for those in leadership, neither are we immune to the surrounding culture.

My own #metoo stories are for the most part few and far between.  I could tell you about the older man at a different church who often used to put his hand on the small of my back as we chatted in the narthex before worship.  To this day I don’t think he was actually trying to be creepy; so I didn’t say anything, and instead I learned to avoid or strategically side-step him.  I could tell you about the man – no one you know – who once exposed himself to me in the course of an ostensibly pastoral conversation.  Still, I consider myself lucky.  Some of my friends have much worse stories.

Women who are here today, I bet you have some stories of your own that you could tell.  Some of you might have stories you can’t tell, for fear of what would happen if you did.  But one big thing we can all do to make both the church and our wider world a safer and more holy place is to listen to each other, and to take the stories and experiences we hear seriously.

Which brings me to Nathan.

I have always liked Nathan.  He’s not afraid to speak the truth, even when it’s hard.  We know him as a prophet, who dares to tell David that God is not happy about this whole situation with Bathsheba and Uriah.  But reading the story through a modern lens, I also see Nathan as an ally.

Theologian Wilda Gafney defines an ally as a person with privilege who uses that privilege on behalf of others with less.  If “privilege” is an unfamiliar term, think of it as a cultural advantage, based on something like your race, sex, gender identity, economic position, or else something that places you in a culturally dominant group.  Privilege isn’t absolute: you can have some kinds of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard to get where you are or have never had any problems.  What it means, for example, is that if you are a man, you generally don’t have to worry that your gender itself makes you a target for sexual violence.  But most of us women learn very early on that ours does, even those of us who have plenty of privilege in other areas.

Nathan has privilege.  He’s a man in this very patriarchal world, which means that his words get recorded in the text where Bathsheba’s do not.  He’s an Israelite, unlike Uriah the Hittite, whose life was possibly seen as less valuable for being an outsider.  He also has the ear of the king, which is nothing to be sneezed at, though he is clearly not just allowed to say anything he wants.

Nathan uses his privilege to stand up for two people whose lives and choices David didn’t value, but who God still valued.

He begins with a story.  Nathan knows he has to be smart and couch things in a way that David will respond to.  So he tells the story of a very rich man and a poor man with one little ewe lamb.  A guest comes to dinner at the rich man’s house and, instead of taking a sheep from his numerous flocks to slaughter for dinner, the rich man takes the poor man’s one little ewe lamb.  David thinks what the rich man did is just terrible – not showing a huge amount of self-awareness, there – and that gives Nathan just the opening he needs to point out what David himself has done.

Nathan isn’t a perfect ally.  His confrontation with King David is still entirely based on the idea that David has taken something that belongs to someone else, rather than having done any harm to Bathsheba herself.  Again, we can understand that in the context of their culture but not excuse it.  But at the same time, none of us are going to be perfect allies either.  We’re all going to act imperfectly in the context of our own imperfect culture.

But Nathan took a risk to speak the truth on behalf of Uriah, and Bathsheba, because he could, and because he was in a position to, and because he knew God cared.

I hope that you men here will resolve to do the same on behalf of women.  Listen to our stories.  Believe them.  Make sure they are heard.  When you’re in a position to call someone out for acting in a way that treats women as less then, take the risk and do it.  Be an ally.

My fellow white people, let’s resolve to do the same on behalf of our friends and neighbors who are people of color.  Don’t say that racism doesn’t still exist.  There are literally white supremacists with swastika flags and tiki torches gathering in our city right now.  But often it’s a lot more subtle than that, so notice it, listen to people’s stories (or read them), believe them, amplify them, call it out when you’re in a position to do so.  Be an ally.

Use your privilege, whatever kind you have.  Be an ally.

Now let’s talk about grace and consequences.

When Matt Lauer was fired from his position as host of the Today Show late last year after multiple allegations of sexual harassment emerged against him, one of my (male) friends on Facebook raised the question: “When is it OK for Matt Lauer to work again?  Is he supposed to be punished forever?”

I found this to be a thought-provoking question.  I believe that someone like Matt Lauer should have to face some consequences for his actions, but what kind?  And for how long?  Is sexual harassment an unforgivable sin?  What about assault?  How could Matt Lauer, or others like him, meaningfully repent and prove they could work respectfully with women in the future?

I don’t know what Matt Lauer’s future holds, or should, but I do know what happens to David.  And I have to say that when if talk about David as an adulterer, I think, OK, adultery is not an unforgivable sin.  There can be grace and a future for David.  (That’s just putting aside the whole murderer part.)

When we reframe the story in our modern terms of power and consent, or lack thereof, I struggle with that a lot more.  It makes David seem a lot worse, like maybe he should be blacklisted forever for his crime against Bathsheba and, by extension, women in general.

But David isn’t blacklisted forever, and maybe what I have to deal with there is that God’s grace is sometimes scandalous.  God doesn’t reject the people who may deserve to be rejected.  But in the end that’s good news, because I know I’m also not immune to our surrounding culture.  I know I’ve been molded by the racism I’ve absorbed, and I’ve been content to rest in my privilege rather than using it for good.

David regains self-awareness enough to repent when Nathan confronts him, and we can all learn something from him here, too: he doesn’t deflect.  He doesn’t pin it on Bathsheba.  He doesn’t say she was asking for it, or it was all just “locker room talk.”  He doesn’t claim that Uriah was “no angel.”  He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  And Nathan tells him that the Lord has put away his sin.

Grace is scandalous, but it is not cheap.  I said before that this incident is the beginning of the fall of our rising star.  The child Bathsheba bears to David will die.  From there David’s whole family will implode.  One of his sons will rape one of his daughters, the son’s half-sister.  The full brother of that daughter will kill his half-brother in revenge and then flee, and from there plot a full-on rebellion against David.  This son’s name is Absalom.  David will eventually defeat Absalom, but not before David is forced to vacate the throne and leave Jerusalem altogether.  And not before Absalom dies, leaving David to mourn the death of yet another child.  These things may not flow directly from David’s sin with Bathsheba, but the writers of the Bible see them as connected.

But David will come to occupy the throne again.  And when he returns to Jerusalem it will be as a humbled man, asking God for guidance in all he does, just like before, when he was a “man after God’s own heart.”  And David’s son – and Bathsheba’s – will sit on the throne after him.  And God’s promise to David will stand, that someone from David’s line will sit on the throne of Israel forever, and as Christians, we understand that promise to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

So listen to the stories and experiences of others. Take a risk and speak the truth.  Trust in God’s grace, both for yourself and for others who don’t deserve it.  And let’s witness to God’s kingdom here on earth, together.

I still wish Bathsheba had gotten to tell her story.

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_Too_movement

Judges and Kings: A Higher Allegiance

Scripture: 2 Samuel 5:1-5

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

David and Saul are now locked in battle for the throne of Israel.  Admittedly, the battle is somewhat one-sided.  David has fled the jealous Saul’s court for fear of his life, and as we last met up with him, he was running from town to town, with Saul in hot pursuit.  While Saul pursues David, David actually has two opportunities to kill Saul and end the whole thing.  Kelvin preached about one of these times two weeks ago: Saul enters a cave where David happens to be hiding, but instead of killing him, David cuts off a piece of his garment – just to show him later how close he really was.  Later, David comes across Saul while Saul is sleeping – but again, David spares Saul’s life.  Let no one say that King David ascended to the throne illegitimately.

It’s possible to see a certain ambivalence (or contradiction) in David as he runs from place to place.  On the one hand, he seriously freaks out when someone mistakes him for the king of Israel.  On the other hand, we also see him garnering support, little by little, first from his family, then from all the dispossessed and marginalized people who seem to flock to him; even brokering his own alliances with foreign leaders from time to time.  What are David’s motives, really?  I’m not sure we entirely know.  But it’s clear that gone are the days of the ruddy-cheeked shepherd boy.  David is becoming, if he’s not already, a true politician.

Eventually, Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, and David is crowned king.  But here’s the thing – he’s only crowned king by the people of his own tribe, the tribe of Judah, in the city of Hebron.

In fact, David must now contend with the first-and-a-halfth king of Israel, Saul’s son Ishbosheth, who succeeds his father on the throne.  For seven years, in a foreshadowing of division to come, Israel effectively has two kings: one of the northern tribes, and one of the large southern tribe of Judah.

Unfortunately one day Ishbosheth is murdered, and the rest of Israel suddenly finds itself in need of a king.

 

[Read 2 Samuel 5:1-5]

 

You might remember from your high school American history classes, or more likely from Hamilton, how our country began its independent life as 13 states loosely joined under the Articles of Confederation in 1781.  When the Articles failed, due to the completely ineffective central government they created, strong leadership and diplomacy were required to forge a new system of government and a new American identity.

Imagine David, now, as an Ancient Near Eastern Alexander Hamilton or George Washington, charged with transforming this loose confederation of Israelite tribes into one people, with one common identity, one common vision, and of course, one common and undisputed king.

When David is finally crowned king over all Israel, he knows his newfound power is fragile.  The people of Judah will back him no matter what, but he needs to show the other tribes that his aim is to be their king, too.  And for that, first of all, he needs a new capital.

His current capital, Hebron, is in Judah, and that’s not going to work.  If he moves his capital north, though, the people of Judah will consider him a traitor or a sellout.

Solution: the city of Jebus, strategically located right on the border between the northern tribes and the southern tribes, which was never captured from the Canaanites and does not belong to any one tribe.  So David commands his army to capture Jebus.  He renames it – any guesses? Jerusalem.  And he moves his capital there.  It is in Jerusalem that David will build his palace, there that David will bring the covenant chest that represents God’s presence with God’s people on earth, there that David will organize his new centralized rule in a way that jump-starts the economy and brings peace and prosperity and a common national identity.  It is in Jerusalem, finally, that God’s Temple will be built, the one place people will come from all over Israel to worship God.

Tribal loyalties run strong.  That’s not just true for David’s time, because our own modern tribal loyalties unite and divide us all the time: our political affiliations, racial and socioeconomic demographics, age groups or generations, even our schools and the teams we root for.  But David’s first job as king is to call people to a higher allegiance than just allegiance to tribe.  His job is to call them to a higher identity that is not first Judah or Benjamin or Naphtali or Asher but Israel, the children of Jacob, God’s chosen people.  And he does.

Again, King David is a masterful politician.

Some people will tell you that church isn’t supposed to be political, that the Gospel isn’t supposed to be political.  I disagree.  God’s story has always been political.  It’s even been inherently partisan: Team David over Team Saul.  That’s not to say it’s partisan in the context of US politics today: instead, to paraphrase the theologian Karl Barth, the Gospel always stands in judgment over all of our earthly values and systems.  In fact, you could say that to be part of the story of God’s people is always to be called beyond our tribal loyalties to a higher allegiance.

In a few minutes we’re going to have a chance to remember our baptism.  I want you to remember back to the promises that were made at that time.  Maybe someone first made them for you; maybe you later had a chance to make them for yourself.

-Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  Do you?  Do you reject the evil powers that tempt us to hate and fear one another?  The powers that say that some of us are better than others and deserve more than others?  The powers that compel us to take as much as we can for ourselves?

-Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  Do you? Do you not only renounce those powers but commit to resist them in their many different manifestations?  Do you accept that power God has given you?

-Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord?  Him, and no one else?  Not Caesar, not the latest politician who says things we want to hear, not the almighty dollar – but do you put your whole trust in Jesus and promise to serve him alone?

And are you ready, as part of this congregation, as part of the Body of Christ, to live as an example for each other so that each one of us can be strengthened in these promises over the course of our lives?

Baptism isn’t just a nice ceremony.  Yes, we affirm that God loves the person before us and has been at work in their life before they even knew it.  Yes, we affirm that in this new life death is left behind.  But don’t let baptism lose its edge.  Baptism is an inherently political act, because it’s our official entrance into God’s story.

It’s in baptism that we receive our calling to a higher allegiance and a new identity: neither male nor female nor Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free, but one in Christ Jesus; members no longer of our tribes but of the Body of Christ – ready to renounce and resist together all other powers that ask us to call them Lord, ready to serve one Lord alone and work to make his Kingdom known on earth.