Weekly Preaching: July 25, 2021

July 21st, 2021

This Year B summer lectionary weirdly hacks tightly plotted stories in half (in the case of this week’s 2 Samuel 11, which flows unbroken into 2 Samuel 12) or into fifths (with John 6, spread over 5 weeks starting this Sunday!). The preacher might do a 2- or 5-part series, or you can finish the story right away, or dwell on one episode as part of the larger whole. Such fun… At my place, not many people are in attendance 5 consecutive weeks (or for others, even 2!).

2 Samuel 11:1-15. This classic, sorry tale of human brokenness, how power goes awry, yet is not left unaddressed by God, is a masterpiece, and for the preacher a fantastic opportunity to put on display how Bible stories work. It’s in the details. It’s in “the Spring,” the time for new life, hint hint, the unwanted baby coming, and yet what God can bring out of the pathetic darkness. “The time when kings go out to battle” – as they do! But not David. David “sent” the others in his stead.

Simply notice how often this word “sent” occurs! David sent his army, he sent someone to inquire about Bathsheba, he sent henchmen to get her, word of her pregnancy was sent, he sent word to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah who’s toting his own death sentence, who’s sent into the brunt of the combat and they isolated. Such power in the ability to “send,” only superficially anonymous and impersonal.

Notice in verse 2, we read “and it came to pass.” Sarah Ruden (in her brilliant The Face of Water) has wisely and hilariously pointed out how flatfooted Hebrew students translate this vay-hee, the vav-consecutive. It came to pass? Vay-hee marks a moment the actors in the story may not realize is the tipping point, but the reader is tipped off. Ruden: “In this story, this shift is where the most trouble starts, when David could have held back the wrecking ball.” It came to pass indeed.

Unless you live in a huge city or someplace extremely hilly, looking from your balcony onto another home’s roof seems odd. In Jerusalem, they’ve excavated the top of the hill where David’s palace once stood. Today from this vantage point, you can see people on the roofs of houses in the neighborhood of Silwan. This artist's vision, based on archaeology, captures the place and mood so well.

Robert Barron wisely notices that David’s superior balcony view is “a parody of God’s providential presidency over creation.” Like Adam, David seizes the prerogatives of divinity. “David does not need a program of ethical renewal; he needs to be re-created,” echoing Psalm 51, net week’s Psalm. This week’s might be even more fitting for this tawdry story: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” and David behaves either as if there’s no God, or if he himself is god.

Not accidentally is Bathsheba identified, not only by her own name. She’s “the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah,” somebody’s daughter, somebody’s spouse. David’s skullduggery is atrocious. When he summons Uriah home, the cover-up doesn’t seem panicked, but chillingly calculating, cynically banal: David “asked how the people fared, how the war was going,” a big deal, but David could care less. The BS is rampant. “Go home to your wife” (wink, wink…) – but to the orders of the wicked unholy ruler, Uriah is noble, holy. David plies him with alcohol. Sending Uriah to deliver the sealed letter whose contents are unspeakably vicious is the height of depravity.

Notice how wickedness is appealing, and plunges everybody else into depravity. Joab and others are entirely loyal to such a man. And it’s not an Oops, sin committed by this one guy. The whole nation takes a decades-long turn for the worse, as do the lives of David’s own children. Sin has its consequences, far beyond the one person, or two, or three or four thousand. David would justify himself. He instead shoves his family and country off a cliff. God isn’t amused. God knows. God sends Nathan to expose. We dare not make David’s repentance too flimsy, quick or facile. He repents, yes, but the horrors in the wake of his forgiven sin ripple for years. So it is.

Ephesians 3:14-21. When preaching Paul, I like to invite my people to imagine Paul, in prison, dictating these inspired words to be mailed to friends far away: “I bow my knees before the Father… that according to the riches of his glory he may strengthen you with might through his Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.” Ever prayed for anyone like that? Ever been prayed for like that?

Paul kneels. Kneeling intrigues me. You are relatively defenseless down there, and if your eyes are closed and your hands also folded, you are physically vulnerable. That’s the ideal in prayer: making myself defenseless before God, and entirely exposed to whatever God brings.

Paul carries on at length about the unimaginable riches of God’s grace because we are so conditioned to envision zero sum games, reciprocity, scarcity, indebtedness, deserving, insufficiency. With God, none of that applies. Free. Abundant. Overflowing. More than enough. I’ll invite them to hear verse 18 again, slowly, Paul’s prayer that they (we!) might comprehend the “breadth, length, height and depth” of Christ’s love. There are only three dimensions – right? Paul spills over into a fourth. When I was a child, my mind was blown when a teacher teased us with the possibility of a 4th dimension. Just as two dimensional people, “flatlanders” who live on a page of a book or a map or a computer screen could never imagine a third dimension, so we 3 dimensional people struggle to understand a fourth, something beyond. Paul prays for us to perceive just that.

Were you as stunned as I was during the 2020 Super Bowl when New York Life ran an ad describing Greek words for love, culminating in agape, unconditional, selfless love, “an action, requiring courage, sacrifice and strength.” God, I felt, interrupted the football festivities and advertising frenzy to speak to us of agape, Christ’s love, our love for him, his love in us for others.

Paul invites us to realize, “is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.” Why, wouldn’t you be tickled if God just did what you asked? God does more. No, it’s “far more.” And “far more abundantly.” Even than what you can think with your brilliant but limited brain. C.S. Lewis wrote (in Letters to Malcolm) that if you hold in your mind the most fabulous, beautiful, stupendous vision of heaven you can muster, the reality of heaven will be far, far greater, better, more stunning and fulfilling.

The same holds true for life with God down here, now. We might ask God for this help or that assistance. We might dream of a life of calm or meaningful purpose, good health or happy relationships. What God can do is “far more” than we can dream of or even think to ask for. Lewis also wrote (in The Weight of Glory) that our problem isn’t that our desires are too strong, and faith is supposed to throw cold water on our desiring. No, God wants us to desire far more than we desire. We play around with lesser goods, pleasure, money, diversions, things, when God promises us more elusive but more delightful goods, like joy, purpose, belonging, hope. And joy.

John 6:1-21. One week or five? I blogged on this story – as a whole, and then also divided into its five lectionary parts, three years ago, and I can’t really improve on it now!

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