Sermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
July 29, 2018 8:30 AM Proper 12B
ויהי לתשובת השנה לעת צאת המלאכים וישלח דוד את יואב ואת עבדיו עמו ואת כל ישראל וישחתו את בני עמון ויצרו על רבה ודוד יושב בירושלם:
And it came to pass at the New Year when the kings go out [to war] that David sent Joab and his staff with him as well as all of Israel; and they besieged the sons of Ammon and encircled Rabbah. But David dwelt in Jerusalem. (2 Samuel 11:1)
He put Uriah’s death warrant right into Uriah’s hand and sent him back off to Amman to die. Uriah deserved death, you see, because he had married the beautiful Bathsheba, whom David on a lazy afternoon in Jerusalem—having nothing better to do on that languid evening—had raped and impregnated. No love story here. The king had just awoken to the cool afternoon breeze, and strolling around on his spacious rooftop, overlooking all the rooftops of the city of Jebus on the Ophel Ridge, had seen Bathsheba bathing and decided to take her to bed instead of some other kingly amusement that day. Don’t let Darryl Zanuck’s 1951 movie fool you. David wasn’t “in love” with Bathsheba any more than she was “in love” with him; and the Bible describes no seduction of the poor woman let alone of the king. The king didn’t have to seduce anybody. He was the king.
On that afternoon in Jerusalem, there were doubtless several attractive women taking baths on their roofs or in their courtyards in the cool of the evening for King David to ogle from his rooftop plaza. These women were not exhibitionists, hoping for a roll in the royal hay. Provisions for the bathers’ modesty were copious. You had to take a bath out of doors, so you did so either in the courtyard of your home or on the roof, and either place was in full view of all the houses above you on the ridge. The king’s palace, of course, stood above all of them. David didn’t glimpse a unknown beautiful and naked stranger in her bath and have an uncontrollable urge to possess her. David knew this particular bather quite well. Our ancient writer makes sure we know that by having the king ask his slaves, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” (2 Samuel 11:3) You can hear the disdain in his voice. The Hittites had been citizens of Jerusalem centuries before David took control of the city. Those Hittites thought they were the city’s upper crust, the original Jerusalemites, unlike the country bumpkin Israelites, who had somehow managed to take the town recently. What if Uriah were an officer in the king’s army? He was still an uppity Hittite, and on this awful afternoon, Uriah the Hittite’s lovely wife was the king’s prey.
The writer uses the word “send” (שלח) over and over again in this story to show the king’s power over his subjects. He sends slaves to find out information he already knows about Bathsheba. He sends and demands Bathsheba who has no choice but to come to the palace and do the king’s bidding. But the king had already done a lot of sending before this afternoon. He had sent his general Joab and Joab’s staff to Amman to settle a score with the Ammonites. And to make sure the score got settled, he had sent the whole Israelite army to exact vengeance on the Arameans of the Transjordan, sealing the deal, by sending the LORD God of Hosts, seated upon the cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant, to fight against the Ammonites because, after all, the LORD was known to be mighty in battle and surely the LORD would defend the honor of the king.
But for the first time in his life as a soldier and as a prince over Israel, David had not gone out with his officers or with the conscripts or with the LORD to fight the enemy. David was the king now. Kings sent underlings to do their bidding, underlings including, evidently, the LORD of Hosts. King David remained behind in Jerusalem with the women and children and old men and the palace slaves mainly because staying in the capital suited his notion of how a middle eastern potentate should behave. Kings did the sending, and even the God of heaven had to obey.
Too bad that Uriah the Hittite couldn’t abide the notion of his comrades in arms sleeping on the hard ground around Rabat Ammon. Indeed, the LORD God of Hosts had the same sleeping arrangements! And he was going to go down to his warm bed on the Ophel and snuggle with his beautiful wife while Joab and all the conscripts of Israel and even the LORD of Hosts camped out within sight of the enemy? Perhaps King David could do such a thing, but not his loyal officer. Uriah slept with the king’s slaves on the hard pavers of the palace gateway. And on the morrow, David plied his steadfast officer with wine and still Uriah, his inhibitions unrelieved by the king’s booze, slept with the help. On the next morning, the frustrated king, took steps to get rid of Uriah the Hittite in the most cowardly and craven fashion possible.
The story began with David as the beloved chosen son of Israel’s God. It ended with David as a murderer and rapist. What went wrong? There’s no secret about it: David the son had become David the sender, David the manipulator, David the potentate. David had engineered his own downfall by ceasing to be an actor in God’s loving drama of salvation and by deciding to become the author of God’s salvation. David ruled over an almost empty city, devoid of the energy of its youth, bereft of husbands and fathers, and worst of all empty of God. The sweet odor of sacrifice no longer descended from Mt. Zion, the songs of Zion remained silent, and the courts of the LORD were maintained by the few priests and Levites too elderly to accompany the LORD to Rabbat Ammon. David ruled over a city of ghosts with no God to give it life.
I sometimes think that such a city of ghosts without a God describes the cities we live in where the great god of this generation is the almighty dollar, and where we hear now the shouts of race and clan in place of the songs of Zion. Like David, our urgent, material, arrogant cities seem to have little use for the old God sitting in the old tent, enthroned as of old on the cherubim. I’m not even sure we know quite when we lost the desire for that God and that tabernacle. If King David had been able to stand before the LORD on that awful afternoon, perhaps he would have found himself longing once more for that God that was so much greater than any earthly king. Perhaps he would have wanted to take up his harp once more and sing to the King of Kings again instead of falling head over heels into the trap of boredom and autocracy and he would not have needed to send for Bathsheba or to send for Uriah and might have instead recalled the holy God to God’s holy city and in the courts of the LORD to learn to dance once more, to dance with joy instead of shackling himself to the prison sin. But in David’s failing, I see God’s calling to us.
I see Trinity Church as that tent sanctuary on the fields of Rabbah, estranged from those who no longer find pleasure in God’s presence or who think of God as a cudgel for their own estrangement, for their own hatreds, their own fears. But I also see the LORD sitting enthroned upon the cherubim whether in Amman or in Jerusalem or in Mt. Airy, and those who worship at the LORD’s altar still offering hope and joy to a generation that has lost its sense of joy and hope. Who the priest at the alter is doesn’t matter as much as it matters that the people of Trinity open the tabernacle for those who are weary of a world without meaning, a politics of invective, and a creed of profit-at-any-cost. David’s tent sanctuary wasn’t much bigger than 472 North Main Street; and when he ordered the LORD, and the LORD’s ark, and the LORD’s tabernacle to encamp across the Jordan at Rabbah, it was much smaller. Yet the LORD worshipped in that tent, and the LORD worshipped at this altar is the hope not only of Amman and Jerusalem, Mt. Airy and Surry County, but the hope of the whole world.
With every hymn, with every kind expression, with every reading of God’s holy word, you are the light of God’s world, the hope that political bullies cannot offer and the destitute cannot imagine. You are not here to create a successful religious program but to sing and to study and to pray and to do good to your neighbors and reconcile yourself to your worst enemies. Your parents in the faith came here to do just that, and I have been privileged for a short time to join you in your songs and prayers and studies. But the presence never leaves. God’s hope for us never dims. And in faith we have the promise of standing together again in that kingdom we’ve come to know together here.
Thank you for letting me be a small voice in your great chorus. Thank you for the work you have done and will continue to do and for letting me learn from you. My heart both breaks at having to leave and swells with joy with the ministry you have invited me to do with you. God bless you as you continue to bless this place.