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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

August 2, 2015

 You Will Not Despise

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:15; Luke 18:9-14

             I can’t help but envy Nathan, as perhaps any preacher would. My preaching professor in seminary, Elizabeth Achtemeier, certainly did. I will forever remember her grin as she taught us Nathan’s brilliant rhetorical sting operation that arrested David. (Phrase borrowed from Richard Hays). David had no idea what was about to hit him. Nathan drew him in with a simple little story about one ewe lamb. Nathan melted David’s defenses, played upon his moral sensibilities, and then punched him in the gut. “You are the man!”

We have read, over the last few weeks in worship, accounts that rank among the most embarrassing in the Bible: Embarrassing for the people involved, embarrassing for us who hear them uttered in public, here among young children. King David, the man who is, supposedly, after God’s own heart, violates more laws and norms in one day than you and I could recognize. He shirks his duty as king to stay home and relax as other kings go out to war. He points and clicks onto the image of Bathsheba as she takes a shower on her rooftop. He logs on to Ashley Madison to propose adultery, likely unwilling to take no for an answer. He violates purity laws by hooking up with her while she is in her period of cleansing. But that is just the beginning!

            To cover himself, he invites her husband home from battle, plies him with liquor, and invites him to head home to the comfort of his own marital bed. But Uriah proves to be more righteous than the man after God’s own heart, and refuses to go – twice. So, a desperate David must extricate himself somehow, and sends the soldier to his death.

            It ranks as one of the most embarrassing, offensive events in the Bible. Anyone who reads it has no choice but to conclude that David is a disgusting man: a lustful, arrogant, deceiving, heartless, murderous king who does whatever he wants, because he can.

            It would be reasonable to judge that David’s throne should be taken away and his honor stripped from him. If David were President today, I assume that most of the believing citizenry would call for his impeachment. But that is not what happens in the Bible. David is not really punished. And we continue to read about him and to honor his memory to this day. How on earth is that?

            Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Those are the words of Psalm 51, attributed to David in response to Nathan’s punch. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. They are the words that the Christian church has placed at the heart of its understanding of the human condition. I was born guilty; a sinner when my mother conceived me. As offensive as the notion is to most people, both non-religious and religious, it remains Christian doctrine. Human beings do not simply choose badly sometimes. Humans are essentially sinful, totally depraved, meaning that there is nothing about us that is not infected by sin. No matter how long we live on earth, how long even that we grow in grace, we remain essentially sinful, waiting for the Lord Jesus to return and make us suitable for his heavenly kingdom. It is a conviction that most modern people find terribly offensive.

            David Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a commentator for PBS. In his latest book, The Road to Character, he pulls out of storage that three-letter word, “sin.”

             Today, the word “sin” has lost its power and awesome intensity. . . We’ve abandoned the concept of sin, first, because we’ve left behind the depraved view of human nature. In the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century, many people really did embrace the dark self-estimation expressed in the old Puritan prayer “Yet I Sin”: “Eternal Father, Thou art good beyond all thought, but I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind. . .” That’s simply too much darkness for the modern mentality.

 

            When I read Nathan’s rhetorical sting operation, though, I wonder if Brooks doesn’t leave one thing out. Was there ever a time when a human being gladly welcomed a prophetic word? Was there ever a time when a prophet wasn’t taking his life in his hands to confront a sinner? The Bible says that when he finished, Nathan went down to his home. I would bet that Nathan went home to gasp for air and then throw up, amazed that David didn’t have his head cut off and his body buried with Uriah’s. I seriously doubt that our age is the first to dislike a prophet who confronts us in our sin. In fact, David’s story may be in the Bible exactly because David did not respond as most would. That he actually repented is miraculous, and it happened in part because Nathan tricked him. Nathan told him an innocent little story that brought down David’s defenses, played upon his moral sensibilities, and then punched him in the gut.

            I guess you should treat that as a warning. Be careful with the stories. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.” We know the story so well that its sharp edges have been smoothed for us; we know that the Pharisee is self-righteous and the tax collector repents. The Pharisee is judgmental and the tax collector goes home justified. And we know that the take-away for us is not to be self-righteous or judgmental. But is the story really that simple? Or does Jesus have his own sting operation going on, just like Nathan? And if he really is bringing down our defenses, playing upon our moral sensibilities, what punch is coming? If this story has never stunned us, do we really know it as well as we think?

            Emily Dickinson wrote a brief poem entitled “Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant.”

             Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -   Success in Circuit lies

            Too bright for our infirm Delight   The Truth’s superb surprise. . .

            The Truth must dazzle gradually     Or every man be blind.

             Or, as Colonel Nathan Jessup put it in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.”

            When we read of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have no problem identifying the white hat and the black hat. The Pharisee is the bad guy. We don’t like him. The tax collector is the good guy. We like him because he’s humble. We dare even to identify with him. We read how he goes down to his home, justified, and we subconsciously think, “I’m like him.” And there is the problem, you see; the punch to the gut. Jesus just tricked you. Jesus just drew you into his rhetorical sting operation and slammed the door.

            There is no safe place to stand in this story. If you identify with the Pharisee, then you’re not justified. And that, of itself, can be offensive, because by all accounts he is a very moral person. Some interpreters, these days, actually claim that his surplus of morality is what justifies the tax collector. He is an upstanding citizen and very religious man. The problem is, though, that no matter how moral a person is, it’s never enough. There is something essentially flawed about us humans, even the most moral among us.

            So, you and I run to the tax collector as our model, and we take solace in his humility. But where does that leave us? Identifying with someone who is greedy and deceptive, stealing from his own people, victimizing them for the sake of the occupying, tyrannical, pagan government. And this leaves us feeling relief?

            There is no safe place in this parable. It’s a trap. Jesus tricks us. If you are exceptionally fortunate, or shall we say, blessed, you might find yourself beating your own chest, weeping at your sinfulness, and begging God for mercy. You might find yourself staring face to face with the prophetic truth that no matter how moral you are, you were a sinner when your mother conceived you, and you are helpless without the mercy of God.

            Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. One person who wrote about his life says of Milosz, “A[s] a professor at Berkeley for more than 30 years, he was used to the company of academics who regarded Christian faith as ‘something held by others that they have rejected for themselves, and [he was used to] successive generations of students who ‘live in an atmosphere of tolerance vis-à-vis all creeds, cults, persuasions of thought, provided they be sufficiently loose, syncretic.’ ” But for Milosz, human life in its mystery still made sense according to that Christian story of sin and grace. He wrote, “Man cannot know his own true evil; all he can do is trust in divine mercy, knowing that the sins he confesses to will almost certainly be nothing but a mask and a disguise. In other words, I am with all those people who have proclaimed a distrust of Nature and relied solely on the boundless freedom of the divine act - Grace.” (Quoted in Context¸March 2006 from the Time Literary Supplement, October 21, 2005.)

            The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace.” The Second Helvetic Confession says “repentance is a sheer gift of God and not a work of our strength.” In other words, we need a prophet like Nathan to set up the rhetorical sting operation, to melt our defenses, to play upon our moral sensibilities, and then to punch us in the gut. We need a Messiah like Jesus to atone for our sin, or we are lost.

            Luke’s Gospel sends to us other witnesses to this: the Apostle Peter, on the occasion when he meets Jesus, is overwhelmed and cries out, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” A sinful woman visits Jesus as he is dining with a Pharisee, and weeps, washing his feet with her tears. To our modern ears, it all sounds just a tad uncivil, unseemly. But it is what our confessions declare about true repentance: “the sinner grieves for his sins from his heart, and not only bewails and frankly confesses them before God with a feeling of shame, but also with indignation [he] abominates them.”

            Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. This is why David is still in the Bible. He was no saint, in the ordinary sense of the word. He was lustful, arrogant, bullying, deceptive, heartless, and murderous. He was blessed to have a prophet who showed him the truth he could never show himself. And he was broken. And that is the paradoxical good news: we have to be broken. All of us. If we’re not broken, we coast through life imagining that we’re not all that bad, not as bad as most people. But if we are broken, we manage to walk this pilgrim journey with a deep modesty about ourselves and a vigilant mercy toward others, whom we know to be fellow travelers in sin.

            You see, we’re not talking about your sin versus my sin; we’re not talking about what offends me or what offends you. We’re talking about the basic human condition, which is surely mysterious but unavoidable. David Brooks says it: “Sin is baked into our nature and is handed down through generations. We are all sinners together. To be aware of sin is to feel intense sympathy toward others who sin” (54).

            Of course repentance is a gift! Who on earth is naturally able to see his own sin instead of the sins of others? It was far easier for David to see the sin of the man in Nathan’s story than his own sin. It’s far more natural to feel contempt for other people’s sins. And that’s part of the deceptiveness of sin itself; it distracts us from the very thing that separates each of us from God. It produces reality show after reality show of other people shamelessly parading their flaws in public, in exchange for money and fame. We feel relief that we’re not as bad as they are. And we feel contempt for them to the point of being utterly distracted from our own sins, which are profound. We need a prophet.

Thank goodness for the Apostle Paul. He launches his own rhetorical sting operation in Romans 1 and 2. He declares the sinfulness of all humankind, the lostness of the human race without grace, illustrating his point with a sin that he knows will meet with “Amens” from his hearers: gay sex. And just when the church is shouting “Amen,” he punches them all in the gut. “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

            And if we’re fortunate, or shall we say blessed, we will all find ourselves beating our chests, weeping at our own sinfulness, and begging God for mercy. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

 

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