The Gospel According to David

A head shot of Michelangelo's "David"
"David" by Michelangelo

Text: 2 Samuel 11:2-27

Last week, as we wound up the scripture reading, young David was about to chop off the head of Goliath the Philistine. Goliath did lose his head to that kid with the mean slingshot, and that began the exciting story of David, the future king of Israel. When we get to this point, David is now king. He's the head of the army, although he is not actually out in the middle of the fighting any more. It's too dangerous a place for the king. He has Joab, his commander-in-chief, out there.

As I said in my last sermon, David is my all time favorite Biblical character. When I said that to a friend of mine he said, "That seems strange, Anne. David is a pretty unsavory character. Why would you be so attracted to David?" That's a valid question. It's a valid question not only for why I like David, but for God. Why is God so attracted to David? We know that his early life had some real high points in it. He was a kid with promise. But it isn't too long before some troubling things start to pop up. We start to wonder about David before this story, back in chapter 8. Just in chapters 8 to 10, David massacres over 100,000 people. David sort of started the ethnic cleansing thing with the Philistines. And in those chapters, in an act that's particularly repugnant to my animal activist soul, he hamstrings all the horses.

"Well," you say, "that's how it goes in war." Ok, then explain the thing that I just read. That's an ugly story. It starts with lust and the rape of another man's wife, and ends with the husband carrying his own death sentence to his commander. This is not the only time you hear about Uriah. David had a group of elite warriors, his Army Rangers or Navy Seals. He had 30 of them. Uriah was one of those 30. He carries his own death sentence to his commander so that David can cover up the scandal.

If you ask me, David exhibits no redeeming qualities whatsoever, from the beginning of this incident to the end. He starts off messed up, and he gets himself in deeper and deeper and deeper as the chapter goes on. So what gives? If David were a United Methodist minister, he'd be out on his ear, no matter how many new members he'd brought into the church. God takes the kingship away from Saul before him for seemingly far less. How is it that, despite such despicable behavior and bloodlust, David remains not only as king of Israel but as the apple of God's eye? Why does God keep covenant with David? How can anybody ever reconcile God's choice of David as the ancestor of Jesus Christ? More than that, of David's several wives it is Bathsheba who carries the line that leads eventually to Jesus. Jesus is called "Son of David," and when people call him that he doesn't reach out and slap them. He accepts that as a worthy title. What could God possibly have been thinking?

I'm glad you asked. I titled this sermon "The Gospel According to David" because I think when we examine the question "why David?" the answer to that is what we have in the New Testament that we call "good news," the "gospel" that Jesus, the Son of David, embodied. Now before I go into that a little more, I want to warn you that the good news that I see proclaimed in the story of David and manifest in the life of Jesus Christ is scandalous. When you forget the fact that you have heard those stories again and again in safe, comfortable pews with nice music around them, the story of Jesus is offensive. It was so offensive to the religion of his day that it got him crucified for it. If you've never been offended and scandalized at least to some degree by the gospel, I would say you've never really heard it.

I want to help you hear it this morning, maybe help you be offended by it, so that you can move beyond that, ultimately to the freedom and to the joy that it has to offer. The core of the message is that our salvation is a gift from God. It's not contingent on our works in any way, shape, or form. The faithfulness that saves us is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, not our own.

In our time and culture, that notion is almost impossible for us to grasp. If you think for a minute about the role of works in our culture, we can't receive anything, it seems, without first having to show that we've either earned it or that we have the ability to pay for it later. We're graded in school, or admitted to school based on our work and on our behavior. We work hard on our resumes to show the ways in which we're qualified for a job. We send letters of reference proving that at least a couple other people think that we're worthy of whatever it is. We pay for goods or services in cash or in kind. In this country we often even have to be found deserving of charity. In Cross City, where I served my first church in Florida, you had to apply to get a food basket at Christmas or Thanksgiving. We have to meet certain requirements for government aid. And how many of us have passed a homeless person or someone looking for a handout and not given to them because we figured in one way or another they didn't deserve it or they'd misuse the money?

Now I'm not saying that judgment according to works and payment for services is an unhelpful system or that it's not necessary at times. What I am saying is that every nook and cranny of our world is founded on the notion that you receive according to your ability to convince somebody else that you're worth it. Is it any wonder, then, that we keep trying to make the amazing grace of God something that we can earn, or at least something that we can go out and pay for later? That plays out in at least two distinct ways in our religious life.

The first is for those who just can't accept God's gift until they feel that they're good enough or worthy enough. Somehow they've got to get good enough to feel they can come to church, or to take communion -- somehow they've got to be worthy of it -- making herculean efforts to do good deeds, hoping that God's going to smile on them for their efforts. Others realize that they can't be good enough and don't try at all. They realize the vast gulf between the holiness of God and human beings, and know we can never be good enough to stand in the presence of such glory. So they set their jaw and go through a determined but joyless and Godless life, thinking all the time that God wants nothing to do with them, sinners that they are.

The other way our works mentality plays out in the church is with those who are willing to accept the gift as long as they can pay for it later. That group is willing to say, "Yes, God, you can make me clean, you can justify me, and by the grace of Jesus Christ I can stand before you." What they're unwilling to acknowledge is that the gift is really a gift, that it's free. It's not a loan to be paid for. It's not a deferred payment plan. It's a gift. Sometimes those folks will allow for sin before receiving the grace of God, but once you're in you'd better play by the rules or we're going to kick you out. Good works, for those folks, are still payment. It's a way of earning salvation. The only difference is when you have to pay for it. You just pay for it after you receive it.

The scandal of the gospel is two-sided. You can't earn your way in. If you think that through, that should also mean you can't sin your way out. Otherwise, it would be back to being about works again. Your good works won't save you. Your bad works won't damn you. Look at David.

"So Anne, are you saying that God doesn't care what we do?" No, but that's a valid question. It was one of the first questions that Paul seems to have wrestled with in the early church. If you remember the last line of the last verse that I read this morning, it says, "...but the thing that David had done displeased the Lord." God does care very much what we do. God wants us to act in a way that allows others to live in justice and freedom, and in a way that draws others to the God that we proclaim. When we mess up there are consequences, and God wants our repentance. We're going to look at that more as we look at the consequences and repentance of David next week. But the point is that, although there are consequences, one of those consequences is not God turning from us and saying, "Oh, you did that, I want nothing more to do with you until you can be good again." Our good works are responses of love that are freely chosen, not payment for a debt or insurance against foreclosure.

If you think about parents and children, and God often encourages us to think about our relationship with God in that way, in what we consider to be a good family, when a child does something wrong there are major consequences, but one of those consequences is not the turning away of the parent saying, "You did that, I don't love you any more." Unfortunately some parents do that, but that's not the standard that we hope for. It's the same thing with God. Our works matter, just as the works of children matter in the family, but the response of God is like that of a good, loving parent. Discipline, yes. Consequences, yes. Withdrawal of love and presence, no.

So go back to David. When we look at chapter 12, the next chapter after I read, and we'll look at that more next week, we see the prophet Nathan confronting David with his sin, and we see the 51st Psalm which David wrote, which represents his repentance over that act. There he throws himself on the forgiveness of God, and we see in that why it is that God chose David. David's deeds were awful, and he pays a significant price for his misdeeds -- that child that Bathsheba is bearing dies. He deals with the fallout both immediately and throughout his life. But David in his heart of hearts wants nothing more than God. However many times he might stumble and fall, he never once has a change of heart and says, "God, I don't want anything to do with you any more."

Compare David and King Saul, who was the first king of Israel before David. God booted Saul out. Why? Idolatry. Saul left Yahweh and went after other gods. David has a whole string of awful acts, much more awful than Saul's in our eyes, but David's heart stayed with the God of Israel. When David realized that what he had done hurt and offended the God that he loved, he was mortified and asked for forgiveness. The glory of the gospel according to David is that that desire, that love of God, that desire to be with God, to want God above all else, is truly all God asks of us. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." That's what God asks. Like any good parent, God doesn't ask that we never fail, but only that we keep trying -- that we keep moving along that path that leads to God. Not because someone has a whip to our back or because we're frightened of hellfire if we do otherwise, but because the God of love is the God that we desire above all things.

The story of David, to me, is a story of hope. In the year and a half before I went to seminary, all of my life came crashing down. You've heard some of those stories. It was a time of pain and confusion and nasty consequences. And as I sat there one day, surveying the rubble that was my life, a friend of mine who always has a knack for saying exactly the wrong things came to me and said, "I guess with all of this you'd have to question your call to ministry." Well, I hadn't for the first minute questioned my calling to ministry. But after she said that I did. She pointed out how pastors' lives needed to be better than that and more together than that, and I just didn't measure up, so I'd better think about that again. She's right, I thought. I'm not good enough to be a minister. And I got even more depressed than I already was.

Then another friend invited me to go down to another church with her, where there was a man named Frank Harvey who was doing one of those one-man dramatic presentations of Biblical characters. He was doing -- guess who? -- David. And as I sat through that wonderful performance, I saw the gospel come alive. David sinned and God loved him anyway. David broke almost all of the commandments, and God chose David to be the ancestor of Jesus Christ. I sat in that sanctuary with tears running down my face, realizing that if God can use David then God can use me. And I went back to my friend and said, "I'm going to seminary anyway. God can too use me."

But my friend was right. I wasn't worthy to be a minister. The good news was I didn't have to be. God could use me, in fact was eager to use me, just as I was. My life may have been a disaster, but my heart was true, as David's was. No matter what the circumstances of my life might look like, I still longed for God with all of my heart and soul. If there was hope for David, then there was hope for me. And there's hope for every one of you. What God wants is that we want God above all else. God will not leave us or remove our calling from us, no matter how many times our actions fall short of the mark.

Now please don't go home and say, "Anne said it doesn't matter what we do. Let's go rape and pillage." Don't say that, don't hear that. If you're thinking that's what I'm saying, cross that out and put a big red X by it. When David realizes how his actions have hurt others and displeased God, David is mortified. His repentance doesn't come because he is trying to worm his way back into God's favor. David repents because the love of God is so deep within him that he feels terrible about what he's done.

That's where our works enter the picture. Our good works spring from the love of God, just as we want to do good things for the people that we love in our lives, and when we truly love someone we're upset when we know we've hurt them or disappointed them. Whether it comes from a human being to another one, or from God to us or us to God, real love does not have to be earned or paid for. Real love is always a gift, because real love is always part of God, and God is always Gift. That doesn't mean that when we're in a loving relationship it doesn't matter what we do. Anybody who's married can tell you that. Anybody with a friend can tell you that. It does matter what you do. How we act in relationship with others affects us, them, and the quality of our relationship.

But those acts are not the source of love in a relationship. Real love comes as a gift for who we are, not as a reward for what we do. And when we're loved truly, we are loved even in the midst of our sins and our failures. Which is why, in any kind of relationship that we have, until we're willing to open up that maybe-not-so-pretty side of us to another human being or to God, we won't know what real love is about. Not because no one wants to offer it, but because we can't experience being loved in the midst of our sins and our failures if we haven't let those out. When that gift of love comes from God, the church calls it grace. That's what that term we sing about means.

Where are you in your walk of faith? Are you still struggling to be good enough, staying away from communion until you're worthy? Still worried that you're not really holy enough to come to church or to take part in ministry? Maybe you're thinking about going into ministry and some helpful friend has said to you, "You know, you're too much of a mess for that." Throw off that burden. It's way too heavy.

The good news is, you don't have to earn God's love. The scandal is, the person next to you doesn't either. That hypocrite in the other pew who drives you insane can have God's love even in the midst of their hypocrisy. The good news is, we don't have to earn it. The scandal is, the others don't either. We only have to want it.

Where are you in your walk? Are you frightened that your sin is too great for God's mercy? I don't know how many times I've preached this kind of message and somebody's called me in the week following to tell me, "Oh, but I've done this." It means you too. It's there for you. Trust me. If David can do all that stuff, you've got to work pretty hard to outdo him.

Are you killing yourself with good works, trying to make up for your sin or even the score? God is not keeping score. God will not leave you because you've fallen in the way. God will be right there in the rubble, in the mud, to help lift you up, helping you on to start again toward your heart's desire. God only asks to be that heart's desire.

Jesus sprang from the root of the house of David. What better statement of grace and freedom and love could there possibly be?


(c) 2000, Anne Robertson

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