“A Balcony View”
A Sermon on 2nd Samuel 11:1-15 for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached July 26, 2015 by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
If you have been with us in worship over these past number of summer Sundays, you’ll hopefully remember that our scripture readings have been taking us on a journey through the story of King David, the great king of Israel and celebrated ancestor of Jesus. A ‘man after God’s own heart’ the scriptures call David, called forth to be the king and God’s anointed one while he was yet still a boy, the youngest of brothers, left out in the fields to tend the sheep. David, we remember, was brought in to replace big bad Saul, the first king of Israel, the pretty boy who turned pretty rotten. That same young David looked pretty charming when he was serving there in King Saul’s royal court, playing music on his harp to soothe Saul’s many moods. And who can forget his shining moment with the slingshot, bringing down the great giant Goliath with nothing more than a stone and a great aim.
David managed to somehow stay clear of Saul’s deadly aims as Saul got older and crazier and more jealous of his replacement-to-be. David was strong in heart and mighty in battle, and his love for God captured him so greatly he was willing to throw all caution to the wind as he danced the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. In last Sunday’s episode of the story, we heard God make an everlasting covenant with this good and strong and faithful King David—the crowning point of the Old Testament story, some would say—God’s promise to make an everlasting kingdom out of David’s line.
But how the mighty have fallen!
The psalter selection we just shared, it’s a fitting response to today’s part of the story, is it not?
The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all,
to see if there is anyone who is wise, who seeks after God.
They have all proved faithless; all alike have turned bad;
there is none who does good; no not one.
This one, the great King David, the ‘man after God’s own heart’… what has become of him? Is there anyone who is wise, anyone who does good, anyone who seeks after God?
David was, of course, fairly effective in seeking after Bathsheba. Honestly, the basic run of this story is as simple as it is appalling: David—the powerful king—sees a beautiful woman, decides he wants her, is not deterred by finding out she is already another man’s wife, sends for her, and sleeps with her. She gets pregnant, and so David attempts to cover up the affair by trying to get Bathsheba’s actual husband to sleep with her—and not just once, but twice: first by a general encouragement, and then by getting the man drunk to see if that’ll make him go home and get intimate. When that fails, David simply arranges to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed on the battlefield, and even has Uriah carry the letter with the deathly instructions.
In other words: affair leads to cover-up attempt, the failure of which leads to arranged murder. It’s a simple plotline, even if a disturbing one.
And for better or worse, we’re disturbed by situations like these every time they come around, it seems—even though the fact is, they come pretty often. Every era, it seems, has its high and powerful leader who runs rough-shod over the rules, or its hallowed golden-boy who falls from grace and goodness, often making quite the spectacle in doing so. Given the news stories of the past few weeks and months, I can’t help but think about the fall-from-grace of Bill Cosby—the revelations that have come to light casting such a shadow across the life and work of one whose television shows were, for my generation, perhaps the definition of good, wholesome, moral family programming.
These situations disturb us in part, I imagine, because our heart-strings are pulled by the plight of the victims, those who get hurt or abused. In David’s story, we just can’t fathom the fate of poor Uriah, on his way out to be killed for nothing more than being Bathsheba’s husband. Even about Bathsheba, we wonder how much of her actions are of her own volition and consent, and how much was coerced or even forced upon her by the all-powerful king. The roles that people like Uriah and Bathsheba and all of the victims of situations like these are forced to play, they are hard to stomach.
But so too, I think, are the revelations about the mighty one falling from grace—the David, the Bill Cosby, the genius turned murderer, the golden-boy turned adulterer, the gentle soul turned crook. The misdeeds themselves are bad enough—how could someone do such a thing? But then on top of that, there’s our shattered image we had of the perpetrator, once revered and now reviled—how could she do such a thing? Just what, at the end of the day, do we make of all we thought we’d known about someone—be it the King David or the Bill Cosby, the neighbor or the family member, even our spouse—when the path turns down such a morally dark alley?
For that matter, I wonder whether such failings and fallings trouble us because at some deep down level they call into question what we ourselves are capable of. You know, if she who I thought was such a good person ended up doing that, then what about ordinary ol’ me? What am I capable of? Or perhaps it’s less abstract… perhaps we’ve known the times when we’ve been barely a moment away from the same transgression, or we’ve felt the temptation to take that short step across that same line. There’s the old saying, “there, but by the grace of God, go I” and how true it is. You know, that’s one of gifts, the gift of honesty, that’s often lifted up about the Recovery community—you know, Alcoholics Anonymous and other sorts of 12-step communities: They’re simply willing to admit what is true about us all, that we’re just one act—one drink, one pill, one pornographic website, one binge eating episode, one email sent in haste or in lust, one small ethical compromise or little white lie—just one act away from a version of ourselves we wished didn’t exist.
When the famous or the faultless, the powerful or the pious, when the shadows get cast over their lives, it makes us realize—when we’re honest—that the shadow isn’t that far away from any of us, either. Theologians through the ages, and especially in the part of the Christian family tree that our tradition stems from, they’ve used the term ‘total depravity’ to name this truth, this reality, about our human condition. The language of total depravity is often most associated with John Calvin and his theological heirs in the Reformed branch of Protestantism that we here in this church are a part of. But honesty about this aspect of our human identity goes back far before him, back to Augustine and on back to the Bible itself. The apostle Paul himself said it himself when he wrote to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And far before that, the writers of the Psalms captured this realization about our human condition, when they ask if there are any who are wise, and confess that “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
Speaking of total depravity simply names the fact that, even as much as we are created in the image of God, we also are undeniably broken. Sin casts its shadow over all of us, even in the midst of our best intentions and highest ideals. We have, as a prayer of confession used in many traditions puts it, “sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and what we have left undone.” And, in fact, as a traditional prayer in the Lutheran liturgy confesses, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” The broken road is but one turn of a corner for any of us.
If this realization about our human condition is, in fact, true—and I stand with our theological tradition in believing it is—then the question no longer is about how someone like David could have done what he did with Bathsheba and Uriah. Rather, we probably ought to be wondering how it is that David did any of the good he did. How do we account for the righteous moments when love triumphs over hate, and light casts out the shadows, and life breaks the chains of death?
Well, as it turns out, that old saying proves true again: “there, but by the grace of God, go I.” Not only does such a word recognize how close the broken road is for any of us, but it also names the mighty power of God to bring us through and bring us home. We rejoice in God’s grace and righteousness that are so overflowing they is able to create goodness in us even in the midst of our brokenness, our ‘depravity’. We can affirm along with Desmond Tutu that “Goodness is stronger than evil, [and] Love is stronger than hate, [and] Light is stronger than darkness, [and] Life is stronger than death” because goodness and love and light and life are backed by none other than the full faith and credit of Almighty God. As an old catechism confesses, our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, and that because we belong to him, Christ … makes us wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
So, my friends, I have no magic tricks to pull out of my bag today to make this scene with David and Bathsheba somehow “o.k.”, to somehow vindicate David and explain his actions. But I do have faith in our God, and faith in our savior Jesus Christ, that even in my brokenness, my depravity—and in yours—God is still able to make good things happen and that God is able to create goodness and righteousness and holiness in me and you and us all together despite all the times we act otherwise.
“There, but by the grace of God, go any of us”—
… But what an amazing grace it is!
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 1st Samuel 13:14; see also Acts 13:22.
 Psalm 14:2-3; translation from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (©2006 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, admin. Augsburg Fortress, Publishers); emphasis added.
 Romans 3:23.
 Psalm 14:2.
 Psalm 51:5.
 Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book.
 Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Christian Reformed Church in North America, Question #1; accessed 26 July 2015 at http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/heidelberg-catechism.html.