2 Samuel 12:1-9; James 1:18-25
In the devotional book I’ve been reading for the last several months, we’re asked to reflect on our compassionate heroes. One of the heroes the author names is Aung San Suu Kyi. Two years ago, when Joyce Rupp was writing this book, this woman was admired as a champion for human rights; she was seen as a picture of grace through her illegal imprisonment for pro-democracy activism. She even received the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadly, much has changed in the time it took for the book to come to publication. Now, as State Chancellor of Myanmar, Suu Kyi has been in charge during a massive persecution of the Rohingya people. Floods of refugees have entered neighbouring Bangladesh, which can ill afford to care for them. More than half a million Rohingya have fled the country since August 2017. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority; they’re seen as a threat to national identity and security by the Buddhist majority.
According to a BBC online article, “Ms Suu Kyi makes most of the important decisions, but the military retains control of three vital ministries – home affairs, defence and border affairs. That means it also controls the police. The military is the real power in northern Rakhine State, along the border with Bangladesh.” (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42824778, Jan 25, 2018) While this may explain some of her reluctance to speak out, it is sad to see a woman of courage so utterly silent in the face of such suffering. How our heroes fail and fall!
I couldn’t help thinking of King David’s encounter with the prophet Nathan when I read Suu Kyi’s name. King David is the King Arthur of Israelite history and legend. He is their golden king, the one who united the southern and northern tribes and made Israel a power to be reckoned with. Through the centuries his line is seen as uniquely called and blessed by God. Yet despite that, like Arther, like Suu Kyi, he is deeply, tragically flawed, and his flaws lead to not only his own suffering but the oppression and death of others. The Bible does not whitewash its heroes. Despite the pro-monarchy stance of much of the Old Testament, there is also a prophetic thread, which reminds us that even the wealthiest, wisest, most powerful monarchs are human, and that when they fail, others will suffer.
In today’s story King David has a mirror held up to his soul, and what he sees is not pretty. He had taken Bathsheba from her home, got her pregnant, and had her husband killed. This is a man who had been chosen by God for his pure heart! As a result of Nathan’s parable, he mourns his failings, and begs God for forgiveness. He is, indeed forgiven, but the prophet Nathan reminds him that there will be consequences, as there always are, from his evil act. His house, his line, will be plagued by the sword – and this turns out to be true, as civil war erupts from the conflict between his many sons, and many lose their lives.
What we have done cannot be undone in practical ways. If a woman gets drunk and mows down a pedestrian on a sidewalk, she can’t take that back. If a child repeatedly bullies another child on a playground, the effects of those actions will be with the victim for the rest of their lives. If a man lies and cheats in his marriage, eventually that marriage will self-destruct. There are very few do-overs in real life. Uriah is dead, Bathsheba is the victim of rape, a child has died, and none of that is going to go away. That is the stark truth of the story. People have been hurt, and that won’t stop because David is forgiven.
But there is yet forgiveness from the heart of God. That’s why we talk about “amazing grace”. Grace is that unique combination of mercy, forgiveness and compassion that comes from the Divine. When we look in a mirror and see the truth about ourselves – all those shadowy bits we try to hide from the world and from ourselves – we might despair. We might think “How could anyone love this? How could anyone forgive this? How could anyone redeem this?” Yet that’s exactly what Jesus told us God does. That’s what Martin Luther was trying to get across – that even if we do all the wrong things, when we repent and turn to God we can find God’s grace reaching out to us. In fact, Luther went so far as to say that even the act of repentance has its source in God – that we are not capable of true repentance without God acting in us. That’s why he didn’t like James’ epistle. He didn’t think humans could actually choose to do good!
I don’t agree with Martin Luther. I side with James – that we have a choice, a real choice, as to how we will respond to God’s amazing grace. We can turn away from what we have learned about ourselves and about God, and continue to keep living out of those shadowy bits of ourselves; or, we can face who we are squarely, let ourselves be wrapped around in God’s transforming grace, and let that grace give us the strength to choose to live differently.
I wish I could say that from this point on David is reluctant to turn to violence. Unfortunately, right after this story he goes off to war again, conquers the Ammonites and captures their royal city. The only time he hesitates is when his sons are on the brink of pulling the country into civil war. It is not until he is absolutely forced to it by the actions of his son Absalom that he gets personally involved in the conflict, and then it is with great reluctance and deep sorrow at the loss of life – especially the loss of Absalom himself. It seems that David’s relationship with Bathsheba improves – at least, they are able to grieve the loss of their son together, and the son she eventually bears will become the heir of his kingdom. In our #metoo era, this is not even close to a happy ending, but it is perhaps the best that might be hoped for in that patriarchal age.
Was David changed by his encounter with God’s grace? It’s hard to say. He does seem to be more merciful from this point on in the story, so perhaps he learned something about how to treat those with less power than he. One could hope that all leaders might learn the lesson of mercy at the hands of the Living God. But people can make choices, and the choices far too many rulers make, blinded by wealth and power and privilege, is to further their own interests and not the well-being of others.
I wonder how often we face the same temptation? And how often do we make the wrong choices? What do we do when we look in the mirror and see something like David saw, even if on a smaller scale? What if someone like Nathan, or a book, an article, a video or a comment from a friend or stranger, stirs our consciences and makes us realize we’ve lost our way? What then?
The psalm prayed as our Opening Prayer this morning gives us a model. We turn to God in prayer, confessing our wrongs and asking God to be cleansed and renewed – to have those sins, those broken places, wiped out, so that we can stand before God and know ourselves forgiven, so that we can stand in front of our own mirrors and recognize ourselves as beloved children of God, no matter what. God’s amazing grace can do that! Then, it’s time to live out of that grace – to let our lives be changed by it, and to try to reach out to those we’ve hurt so that they might experience healing too. This is never easy, and we are not owed their forgiveness. They must come to that in their own time, if at all. All we can do is give of our best, and pray for God’s grace to intercede on their behalf.
In the here and now, I’d invite you today to take home the coloured sheet in your bulletin, and try the exercises this week, each day, as you look in the mirror. These are simple questions that invite us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. May this be so. Amen.