Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:1–5 & 14–17
Pastor Matt Sturtevant and Pastor Cristina Adams both preach parts of the sermon this week. Pastor Matt’s parts are in roman text, and Pastor Cristina’s are in italics. The scripture reading is also in italics.
The sermon below tackles some difficult issues. There are references to abuse, including sexual abuse. If these issues are triggers for you, we invite you to engage the text in ways that are healthy for you.
In a way, this series of narrative lectionary sermons has been a hard look at the use and abuse of power. We have read about Potiphar’s wife and the way that she abused her power to wrongly accuse and imprison Joseph. We have explored the power of Pharaoh and the Egyptian Empire, when it comes to the oppression and slavery of God’s people. Last week, we talked about Joshua’s decision to lay down his military and political power, instead of pursuing a program of colonial and imperial conquest.
And the next several books in Scripture continue to explore this theme. The book of Judges is filled with stories of those who variously use and abuse their political and military power in increasingly chaotic ways. A bright spot is the book of Ruth, where Boaz uses his power to redeem instead of destroy, but that model doesn’t last long. In I Samuel, the old priest Eli is blind to his sons’ abuse of their power over the people, stealing from and manipulating them and using religious authority to do it. Ironically, the people decide that the way to combat all of this abuse is to give someone total and unchecked power, in the form of a monarchy. They want a king like the other nations have! The prophet Samuel just looks at them and shakes his head, and tells them “be careful what you wish for.” He is quickly proven right when the best option, a king named Saul, turns out to be an unmitigated disaster of power abuse and conquest and disobedience to the ways of God’s covenant.
But then David shows up! David’s story begins with him as a naïve and brave young man, providing an alternative to Saul’s destructive ways. With David, God’s people can start all over again, rejecting Saul and choosing again to follow the ways of covenant! Indeed, David unites the people, and brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to create a unified worship, and reminds the people how important it is to give God ultimate and complete authority in their lives. He re-covenants with God, shows kindness to the descendants of Saul instead of enacting revenge, and by the time we get to II Samuel 11, clearly nothing at all can go wrong in the life of God’s anointed king David!
II Samuel 11.1-5, 14-17:
1In 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.
2It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ 4So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15In 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.’ 16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well.
Day in and day out, Bathsheba was a faithful follower of covenant. She was faithful to her husband, and she waited faithfully for his return. She was faithful to Torah, and carefully followed the purification ritual. Following her period, she took part in the required cleansing baths, following the regulations of purification.
But that is when the messengers of the king showed up at her front door, unannounced. The storytellers use the language that they came to “get her,” like she was a piece of property or a possession to be retrieved. Of course, no one would—or could—refuse a summons from the king. And while she might not have known his intentions right away, they quickly became very clear.
The story does not enlighten us on Bathsheba’s emotions or feelings, but we could make some assumptions, based on those who have been put in a similar position. Fear. Shame. Grief. Anger. And when she discovered she was pregnant, desperation. Clearly this could mean the end of her life and the life of her unborn child. With trembling hands, she sent word to the king, and awaited his response.
Day in and day out, Uriah was a faithful follower of covenant. He was a faithful to his wife Bathsheba. He was faithful to his commanding general Joab. And he was faithful to his king, David. So, Uriah didn’t question his orders or the reasons behind them. So when his commander called him forward and told him that his presence was requested by the king, he was overwhelmed with pride.
Dutifully, he returned from the battlefront at the behest of his king. Dutifully, he gave a report on the war and answered all of the questions he was asked by David. Dutifully, when released for the evening, he refused to return home. Even the next night, when the king in all of his grace offered him his very best wine the palace had to offer, Uriah dutifully slept on the couch in the servants’ chambers. He would not go home to his beautiful wife, after all, while his comrades and even the very Ark of the Lord remained at battle. And the next day, when the king gave him a very important message to deliver to the general, his chest swelled with pride that he would have been given such an honor. He had not been born as an Israelite, but a Hittite, so his honor was even more profound. With pride, he served his king, and his God. To the very end, Uriah followed the covenant, every step of the way.
Day in and day out, David was a faithful follower of covenant. Until he wasn’t.
Ironically, it was the one who was called to lead the people who failed the covenant, again and again: Do not covet your neighbor’s wife. Do not bear false witness. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. The moral leader of the people, the chosen king, the boy who had been called to bring hope and restoration to the people, failed in this story…every step of the way.
“In the spring of the year, when kings go out to battle…” the story begins pointedly. For David did not go out to battle; he sent the nation’s young men to die on the battlefield, like the old prophet Samuel had predicted all those years ago. And while he slithered around the palace, he noticed from his perch on high a woman. Not a person. Not a child of Yahweh, but a possession to be taken. And so he did.
And when word came that she was pregnant, David’s response was not to check on Bathsheba’s health or assure her that things would be OK. It was not a response of regret or guilt or concern. It was fear of getting caught. So he ignored covenant once again, hoping to make it look like the child was Uriah’s. When that failed, he placed into Uriah’s hands the very order to have him killed. “Make it look like an accident,” the king told his general. “Send Uriah into the most violent corner of the battle, and then abandon him so that he will die in a way that hides the truth. In a way that protects me and keeps me from being accountable.”
The story of a covenant ignored is enacted once again. The one with power abuses that power, and it destroys multiple families. It destroys trust in leadership. It leaves a systemic and multi-generational tear in the fabric of the entire national story. By the end of the story, David will hear the words “the sword will never leave your house.” And before the close of II Samuel, this will indeed be the case. One of David’s sons will rape his sister, another of his son’s will kill him for it, and the feud will create a massive political and military coup, forcing David to order the death of his son, and watching the Empire that he created crumble around him. Today’s story is the hinge between the good and positive work of David…and his ultimate downfall.
It is the story of a covenant…ignored.
I wish I could say that stories of abuse have become things of the past, that the church is protected from abusive situations, and that abuse might happen in other places, but not in our town…but that is unfortunately not the case. Abuse happens in Lawrence, Kansas; Abuse happens in churches. Listen to these statistics: before turning 18…
- 1 out of 7 girls will be sexually abused.
- 1 out of 25 boys will be sexually abused.
- And 1 out of 10 children will be abused in some way before turning 18.
- 60% of abuse happens in schools, churches, and organizations that serve children.
Unfortunately, the church has a history of covering up or ignoring abuse. Story after story, we’ve all read or heard the headlines about another church abuse cover-up scandal, another powerful church leader facing sexual misconduct allegations, another survivor coming forward to speak. Story after story, we learn about church leaders choosing to protect their own, instead caring for the most vulnerable that they were called to serve. We hear the heartbreaking experiences of survivors who were silenced, belittled, or even threatened when they spoke up about their abuse. We read in frustration about churches not reporting abuse allegations to police but instead choosing to deal with the problems “in house,” perhaps administering a small punishment but with no real consequence that prevents that person from continuing their patterns of abuse.
In each story are real people, made in the image of God, that someone in power chose to see as less than the person God created them to be. Behind each headline is a survivor whose life was forever changed when a church leader chose to use their position for their own pleasure and power, instead of humbly serving others with the love of Christ. When this happens, when a person “of God” hurts, abuses, and manipulates someone, it doesn’t just affect their physical and mental health, it also alters their spiritual formation journey. Abuse, especially in a church context, can easily shatter that person’s relationship with God, filling their hearts and minds with lies about who they are, what they deserve, and how God sees them.
How easy it would be to despair in the presence of such tremendous pain and achingly devastating abuse!
Clearly, this was the potential for a man like Nathan. Aligned and associated with the king, he had been faithful to his sovereign from the beginning. He had been a loyal advisor to David. He had been there when the king re-covenanted with God. Tradition tells us that Nathan was an artist: a writer who wrote the histories of God’s people, and helped to create beautiful worship music for them to sing. As a court prophet, Nathan had seen David’s rise to power…
…and watched his fall from grace. We don’t know what exactly Nathan saw, but perhaps he watched Bathsheba being ushered in and out of David’s chambers. Perhaps he was there when David interviewed a proud and beaming Uriah. Maybe he was there when David heard of his death, and gave the order to move Bathsheba into his harem. Perhaps he saw the harm done to her, and remembered the covenant. Remembered that God cares for the oppressed and takes action on their behalf.
We don’t know exactly what Nathan saw, but we do know that he spoke truth to power. He used his gifts of storytelling, of rhetoric, of speech, to deliver what must have been a terrifying prophetic word. He had watched the king lie, manipulate, steal, commit adultery and eventually murder to protect his interests. It would not be easy to confront such a man of power directly.
So he told David the truth…at a slant. He told a story about a man and his dear, beloved lamb. He watched the former shepherd’s eyes tear up as he told about how tenderly the man cared for his lamb. How it played with his children, and even slept in his arms at night. Nathan watched David’s jaw begin to clinch as he told about a rich neighbor who wanted to impress his friends for dinner. But instead of going out to his vast flocks and taking one of his own, he strolled into the house of this poor man and wrested from his arms his beloved lamb, killed it, and served it on a platter to his friends. Nathan watched David howl with anger as he saw the clear injustice and violence done by the rich man. He listened as the king stormed around, shaking with rage, demanding that justice be done and this man brought to death. Nathan paused, and turned calmly to face his king, and spoke truth to power: “you are the man.”
There are those in our world who have the ability to speak truth to power. Nathan’s voice was not that of a half-crazed Elijah, taking on the priests of Baal with acts of power. It was not that of a dramatic Jeremiah, enacting elaborate oracles on the street corners. It was the simple voice of one who saw the abuse of power, and said something about it. Simple. Direct. Honest. Faithful…to covenant, faithful to God, and faithful to God’s people.
In order to faithfully serve the children and youth in our church, we cannot ignore the facts. We must acknowledge that abuse happens and be aware that churches can be targets for abusers and act accordingly. What we also know is that policies and procedures work.
Since 80% of abuse happens in isolation, if we have policies in place that limit isolation, then the chances of abuse happening greatly decrease. We have a ten-page Child and Youth Protection Policy outlining practices to keep minors safe and how to report if we learn something has happened. We have not created these policies out of fear but out of love and care for our children, youth, and volunteers so that no one is in a situation that might look compromising. I wanted to share with you a few of our most important policies. First, we require everyone who wants to volunteer in children’s and youth ministry to be an active part of this church for six months before volunteering and we background check every volunteer. The hope is that this shows potential abusers right away that we take protecting our children and youth seriously at this church and that they will leave before trying anything more. Second, we have policies that prevent children and youth from being alone…our goal is to have two adults in every group and if that is not possible we follow the rule of three, meaning one adult must be with two kids, so no adult and child is ever alone together. Another part of our policy is that everyone working with children and youth will go through child abuse prevention training.
Pastor Matt and I began this by taking 6 hours of training videos and podcasts our background check company has created for church leaders. Then, all of our children and youth volunteers are completing a 45-minute training covering the basics of child abuse prevention and the rest of the staff is going through this same training. This training has spurred good conversations, as many of our volunteers have talked to me about their takeaways from the training and asked questions about our own policies. It has shown me how a little more information about a topic can go a long way to keep our kids safe and how deeply our volunteers care about keeping our kids safe so they can learn about the love of God in a safe and welcoming environment.
You are invited to also go through this training. Just let me know, and you will receive an email with information to log into the training. We are a church that deeply cares about its children and youth and wants to keep them safe. The more people that go through this training and learn about child abuse prevention, the stronger our church’s culture of prevention will be.
Today’s story helps to usher in a new way that God begins to work in the world. We have entered the age of the prophet, in which those outside the power structure—not judges, not kings, not military commanders—are called upon to speak the truth of God to power. Pastor Cristina’s invitation is for all of us—regardless of where we fit in the leadership of the church—to be empowered by God to create a culture that protects all of God’s children. Just like Nathan, each and every one of us has the ability to speak truth to power. We are all prophets! May we respond to the pain of this world with grace, with courage, and with love.
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