Sunday, June 17, 2007

June 17, 2007 - God Abolishes Death

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10. 13-15

Psalm 32

Well, as interesting as today's Gospel story is, today I'm going to be focusing on the Old Testament, and the story of David, Bathsheba, and their son. So let's review what's been going on with King David here before our reading for today.

So David is this great king, appointed by God to lead the people, anointed by Nathan, all- round respectable guy. He defeats all of Israel's enemies, and he brings the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of God, to Jerusalem so everyone can worship God there.

But then things start to go wrong. Aside from staying home in Jerusalem and napping while his army is out fighting the enemy - something no king in that day did, David commits his first major sin. He abuses his power as king by taking a woman he knows to be married and having a one night stand with her. Now, David can't plead ignorance here. The text clearly tells us that David saw Bathsheba, inquired about her, was told that she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, but that he went ahead and sent messengers to get her. "He lay with her," the text says, and "then she returned to her house." He didn't ask her if she wanted to come over, he didn't make small talk and find out if the feeling was mutual, he sent messengers to get her and he lay with her. David not only slept with a married woman, but since he was the all-powerful king, one could surmise that it wasn't what we would call consensual.

But let's not stop there! Of course, Bathsheba gets pregnant, and so David, in his righteousness, decides that the best thing to do would be to call home her husband from the front and trick him into sleeping with his wife. Now, this might not seem so bad, but it was customary that when officers were out fighting, they abstained from sex so as to be God's holy vessels while they fought. David himself followed this practice, and yet here he is, encouraging his officer to make himself unholy - to profane himself - so that David could get himself out of his pickle.

Of course, Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, being an honourable soldier, declines to carry out such a deed, despite David getting him drunk, and what choice does David have? Well, it's clear that he has to arrange for Uriah to be killed on the front - David's second major sin in this story. The pregnant Bathsheba's husband is killed on the front, she is taken into David's house after her period of mourning is over, and that's where our reading from today begins.

And through it all, David remains unrepentant. The spiritual leader of the nation, the king appointed by God, doesn't repent when he stays home from the fighting, doesn't repent when he sleeps with a married woman, doesn't repent when he tries to get her husband to dishonour himself, doesn't even repent when he has the man killed.

The punishment for his sins ought to be death. Leviticus chapter 20 says that any man who lives with the wife of another man should be put to death. And of course, any man who is responsible for the death of another man should be put to death. In the culture of ancient Israel, the only way they knew how to deal with wrong-doing, the only way they knew of to prevent adultery and murder from taking over a community was to get rid of the person who was doing it. It was to make the punishment so severe that no one would dare try such a thing. There are no exceptions, and David admits as much when he says that the rich man in Nathan's story ought to die for stealing the poor man's lamb. So when Nathan says, "You are the man," David knows what's coming next. David knows that he is facing death for his sins, doubly so because not only has he sinned, but as God's anointed king, his behaviour dishonours the God who made him king in the first place.

But there's a problem. David can't die. David doesn't know it, but he has to live so that he can father Solomon, who will become David's heir, and more importantly, build the Temple in Jerusalem for God. So David can't die for his sins. But somebody has to. What about Bathsheba? Well, she should die as well, but she can't either because she's the one who has to give birth to Solomon. So who does that leave? God's rule states that somebody must die for the sins that have been committed. And all that's left is the baby. For David's sin of adultery and murder, the firstborn son of Bathsheba will die.

And this is where I get stuck. This story is horrifying. That the punishment for sin is death, and that the death in this case is of an innocent baby is absolutely appalling. Yes, it's true that the baby was probably better off not having to grow up in David's dysfunctional family, where his son Amnon rapes his sister Tamar, and is then killed by his brother Absalom, who stages a revolt against his father David, and is then killed by David's army. And it's true that babies weren't really seen as people, they were only extensions of the father, basically the equivalent of property, but that doesn't make thinking about this firstborn son's death any easier. I have a firstborn son. I know people who have lost their firstborn son. The story is almost too awful to think about, and I have to wonder what God was about here. And I really have to wonder: does this story mean that God punishes our sin with death, or worse, does this story mean that God punishes our sin with the death of someone we love?

Well, by the time of the writing of the book of Deuteronomy and the writing of the book of Ezekiel, God no longer permits what I call proxy deaths. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, "Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death." And Ezekiel 18:20 say, "A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own. The culture of Israel had changed, and God was able to be more merciful in punishing sin, forbidding the death of innocents. But death at this point is still a reality - people still die for their sins.

Until Jesus Christ. With the death of Jesus, as we all know, God's practice of requiring death to atone for sin comes to an end. I guess at this point, God decided not to wait for the culture anymore. Instead, God moved forward with radical grace, and Jesus' death, the death of the Son of Man, became the very last death to result from sin. From this point on, people no longer need to fear that their sins would result in death, or think that someone else's death is punishment for their sin, because in Christ that death has died.

Which, believe me, I'm very grateful for. But I can't help questioning how effective this is at stopping people from sinning - abolishing the death penalty, as it were. I mean, the threat of death is a pretty good way to stop people from doing what you don't want them to do. At least, that's the theory. But it doesn't seem to work so well in practice, and I think that's because while the threat of death may be able to stop a person from actually carrying out the sin, it doesn't stop them from thinking about it. And if they're already thinking about it, it's only a short step to actually doing it - threat of death or not. That certainly seems to be what happened to David. So what's to stop us from sinning or even just thinking about sinning?

There's only one thing. Only one thing can stop us from thinking sinful things, and that's gratitude at God's gift of forgiveness to us. You see, only thoughts of gratitude can take the place of thoughts of sin in our mind. Try it - if you ever find yourself thinking something that you know to be sinful - coveting something, coveting someone, thinking of ways to get rid of someone - think of God's proclamation of forgiveness to you, think of how Jesus Christ died for you when you don't deserve it, think of the Holy Spirit putting aside all your wrongdoings and taking up residence in your heart, and see where those sinful thoughts go. They disappear - something else has taken their place, and that something else is God's grace.

God's grace, not God's punishment, is what changes lives and prevents sin. David, who didn't know what God would do through Jesus Christ, nevertheless received God's gracious forgiveness, and was so thankful that he never went on to repeat these particular sins. He never again slept with married woman, or arranged for one of his soldiers to be killed to cover up his mistakes. Instead, he wrote the psalm that we sang this morning, Psalm 32, and proclaimed God's forgiveness, mercy, and steadfast love.

I'm still troubled that it was an innocent baby who paid the price for David's sin. There are so many questions I have surrounding that story that I know I'll probably never get answers to. But the Good News, the grace that we know to be God's defining characteristic, comes in the proclamation that whatever your sin, whatever terrible thing you have done, whatever evil you have done that dishonours your Creator, God will not take any more lives because of it. Death is no longer the punishment for sin. Instead, as Jesus said to the woman in our Gospel reading today, knowing that his death would be for her, "Your sins are forgiven." That is God's response to sin now, not death. "Your sins are forgiven." So thanks be to God who brings us sinners life. Amen.

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