So, I was on vacation for a couple weeks and then I spent this past week in Hershey at the Susquehanna Annual Conference, which is the annual gathering of pastors and lay-delegates from all the churches in central Pennsylvania. And oh-my-god — you put over 1000 Methodists in a single room and try to get anything done. It was a nightmare. We had these stupid voting devices that wouldn’t work which prolonged every voting session and then there are people who wouldn't stop talking and asking questions. But the absolute worst thing is that stuff like this was designed for extroverts. If you're like me, and you’re an introvert by nature, this kind of gathering is the worst because there’s no opportunities to get away from the conversation or the constant interaction, let alone constant interaction with other pastors. Ugh. Talking with pastors is the worst. And every now-and-then, you get a double-whammy where you get stuck talking to a pastor who’s both 1) extroverted and outgoing, and 2) an optimist. You know the kind of people I’m talking about — these Mark Haussman, silver-lining types. The absolute worst.
Anyway, this was the first time our conference has gathered since the special general conference a few months ago. And I was struck by how, despite divisions and differing views, we all still were on the same team. There was a profound oneness amongst us and I genuinely felt like we all wanted the best for each other. That we were all of sacred worth and there was a recognition of that. Our story this morning is kind of about the journey toward this realization. The journey of going through the sin and the secular so that we can finally recognize the blessing and the sacred.
Now, this is the first installment of our summer sermon series, “Overlooked.” Now, this story is kind of odd, because most of us have probably at least heard of King David, even if we’re not familiar with this story or all of its background. So, even if David isn’t necessarily “overlooked”, this story and some of its major components and actors often are, and this is what brings us to Nathan. Now, Nathan shows up only one other time prior to this point in the book of 2 Samuel, so he’s a relatively unknown character up to this point. But our first experience with him in this passage is seeing that the Lord is sending him to David. This is pretty common in the Old Testament — YHWH will send prophets to leaders with a certain message.
And when Nathan shows up, he says this: “‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the LORD lives, 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.’
Now, at first glance for David, this is merely one of his subjects coming to him with a judicial case that needs discernment. It’s presented in the way that David, as king, needs to rule on the matter and decide if there should be punishment, if laws were broken, etc. And we see David’s reaction to this story. He becomes angry and decides that the man deserves to die and that he will have to give not one, but four, lambs back to the poor man because he did this thing and did not show any pity. Now, if the story were to stop here, it would just be a simple court case. But it’s at this point, upon hearing David’s condemnation of the man in the story, that Nathan strips away the mask and proclaims, “You are the man!”
Now, if we’re listening to Nathan and hearing this story from David’s perspective, this is a major plot twist. And judging just from the passage we’ve read this morning, you may be a little confused as to what Nathan means here. Well, let’s back up to chapter 11 and see what happens there. In the first verse of chapter 11, we see this: “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.” There’s a lot of little detail in this verse, but what’s important for our purposes is that this is the time that kings go out to battle, but David doesn’t go; instead, he just stays in Jerusalem and sends a proxy in his place. So, in all reality, David shouldn’t even be here. If he was doing his job like he was supposed to be doing, the events about to transpire in the story would never have happened.
Now, one day David was lounging on the roof of his palace when he looked at the next building over and saw this very beautiful woman bathing through the window. David sends his servants to find out who she is, and they come back and tell him that she’s the wife of Uriah, one of his generals who was out at battle at the time. Now, at this point, David has already broken a commandment by coveting another’s spouse. So, upon hearing who it was, David should have called it quits right then and there. But instead, this happens: “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her...Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’”
After David finds this out, he does two things. First, he summons Uriah to his palace and tells him to take a break, go home and see his wife, with the implication being if Uriah has sex with his wife, it would conceal the fact that Bathsheba is pregnant with another man’s child. Uriah refuses to do this, though, because he wanted to be out in battle with the rest of his fellow countrymen. So, the next thing David does is this: "In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, 'Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’” See, David knew that if Uriah dies, he can send for Bathsheba and marry her, thereby, again, masking the fact that they had an affair. And this is exactly what happens. Uriah is killed and David marries his wife.
Now, up to this point, no one knows what David is doing except maybe some servants who don’t have power to expose him anyway. David believes that he’s gotten away with this. But there’s one little detail at the very end of chapter 11 that David didn’t consider: "the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.” And this is when Nathan shows up. So, when we see Nathan accuse David of being the rich man in the story, who pitilessly stole the poor man’s lamb, we now know what he’s talking about.
Now, we just covered a lot of narrative and twists and turns of this story. But there are still some things that have escaped us up to this point that make this story as relevant as ever. The first of these is the uncanny comparison we can make between the David and Bathsheba story and what we’ve seen emerge in the #MeToo movement. There’s been a lot of scholarship produced which tries to answer the question or whether or not David raped Bathsheba. Some commentators, mostly old, white men, claim that no — she wasn’t. She was an equally willing partner in this sexual encounter. But other scholars, usually women and LGBT+ folks, claim that yes — she was raped. Now, I’m not going to dance around this. David raped her. But he wasn’t a guy hiding in a back alley who abducted Bathsheba. No, he was a person of prominence who used his privilege and power to coerce a woman into a situation she otherwise wouldn’t have been in.
And even if she may have “gone along” with what was happening doesn’t mean it was consensual. If someone uses their power and status to coerce someone into doing something they otherwise wouldn’t, that’s still an act of force and violence. And, even though I don’t know what it’s like to have to live in constant fear of something like this happening to me, I get really worked up about it because several years ago, when I was a child, I was on the receiving end of this situation. Up until this point in my life, I’ve not shared this with anyone other than my wife, but I love you all so much and if I’m going to ask you all to be honest and real with me, then I need to be honest and real with you, too. I was sexually abused by an older family member when I was young. And I was intimidated by him. And I was afraid to say no or to cry out or to run away or to tell anyone. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I could bring myself to say #MeToo. Now, take that scenario and replace me with a woman in ancient Palestine (who was basically considered property) and replace my family member with a king and think about how intimidated and coerced Bathsheba felt.
And the fact that the Lord doesn’t stand by David, but stands by Bathsheba, tells us that God doesn’t take the side of the abuser. He doesn’t take the side of the oppressor. God sides with the one who finds themself abused; who finds themself intimidated and humiliated and unable to speak up about their abuse. And through the words of Nathan, God absolutely berates David: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.” “I gave you everything!” the Lord says to David. “I gave you everything you could have ever needed or wanted and if you decided it wasn’t enough, I would have given you more! But instead, you went off and decided to play god yourself, to take something you had no authority to take, to do something you had no authority to do.” And at the center, between David and the Lord is the prophet Nathan — the one who was called upon to speak a word of conviction to an egotistical, hegemonic, power-hungry leader.
If there’s a biblical narrative that we should be paying attention to at this point in American history, it might just be this one, the story of a prophet who wasn’t afraid to tell a corrupt leader that he’s merely a human being who’s not immune to God’s command. Now, you all probably already know this about me, but I don’t buy into this idea that the church should never talk about politics. If we completely divorce politics and theology, then we’re basically sending the message that there’s an arena of reality that God does not have the power and authority to judge and I don’t think that’s true. There are stories all over the Old Testament — like the one we’re dealing with this morning — that speak to God’s judgement of the political realm and political power; Jesus was crucified as a political agitator; the hope of the early church communities were, by-and-large, political hopes against the oppression of the Romans. There’s very little about the Christian tradition that is NOT political, and we’re not immune to that in modernity.
We have to take a stand against something, sometime. God wasn’t silent against David when he did wrong, and we can’t be silent against our leaders when they do wrong. At least six kids have died at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Trump has openly demonized refugees who are fleeing persecution. The United Methodist Church, our own denomination, which claims to be “Christian”, has basically refused to recognize the existence and humans rights of gay and trans folks. Every single one of us is called to be a Nathan; to call out this kind of corruption and hate when we see it. You may not always be able to directly change the circumstances of the situations, but our text shows us that there’s power in calling it what it is and we see the effect of that power at the end of our passage.
“Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” So, the first half of the condemnation comes from Nathan, liked we talked about a little bit ago when he confronts David with his crime. But this part is from the Lord himself, and it’s his punishment against David for what has done. He will plague David’s house and descendants and make it so everyone will know what David did. And when David is confronted with all this, something happens. Something changes in him when he’s forced to confront what he did in the light of day. And he’s moved to repentance: “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
If this sort of thing happened more often in the world, we wouldn’t have as many problems. If ICE agents and Trump and all those people who carry out or endorse acts of evil were to earnestly repent and turn away from their actions, their sin would be put away. And it’s not just them, right? I mean, those are just the low-hanging fruits. Those are the people and things that are easy to criticize. It’s much more difficult to criticize ourselves; to criticize our own privilege; to repent against our acts of evil, no matter how microscopic they may seem. And this is where our community comes in. As brothers and sisters, we’re not just called to be prophets to those powers and leaders that be, but to one another. To let each other know when we’ve fallen into this trap and help each other climb out of it.
So, as we go forward this week, don’t lose sight of this story,. Don’t let it stay “overlooked.” Walk with it; peer into it; see yourself in the characters. Because, at the end of the day, we’ve been both. We’ve been David the oppressor and we’ve been Nathan the prophet. Our task is to continue to walk in the way of love so much so that we play the part of Nathan much more frequently than we do David. And if we do that, the world might just look a little more like Jesus.