When Bible Stories are Rated R

Posted: August 28, 2012 by Todd in Justice, Sermons
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I preached this sermon at Grace United Methodist Church on July 29, 2012.

We’ve got a tantalizingly juicy Scripture for you this morning. If you had stayed at home and watched the most obscene thing you could find on cable TV, it wouldn’t be as bad as this.  Now, that I’ve got your attention, “A reading from God’s holy word…from II Samuel, chapter 11 starting in verse one.

Now, that’s an R-rated Bible passage – it feels kind of scandalous even to read it from the pulpit.  I’d probably be in trouble for telling such a deviant story in church if it weren’t straight out of the Bible.  We should probably keep this quiet.  Now, you can all dutifully turn your bulletin in at the restaurant after church for a discount and they never need to know about the dirt you’ve been listening to all morning.  Though, I don’t know why you’d want to go to a restaurant when our youth are hosting a delicious Mexican feast for you after worship.  Youth, if this Scripture was a movie, you parents probably wouldn’t let you go and see it.  So what’s up with this R-rated passage?  Isn’t this David, a man after God’s own heart?  In this passage, we see an embarrassing chapter of David’s life.  First, we hear that war has become so commonplace, so distanced from meaning, that it is scheduled – in the spring, you know right after the apple festival.  And this war starts with what sounds like a fraternity prank.  Peace envoys sent by David were harassed and a foreign king shaved off half their beards  True story.

And not only does David command the slaughter of the Ammonites, but he outsources the dirty work to Joab – even though Scripture says it is the time when kings go out to battle.  David chicken hawks this war from his palace back in Jerusalem, lounging in his lay-z-boy until late in the afternoon.  When that 2:30-feeling undermines what moral energy he might have left, he rolls off his couch to look at pornography,  according to the text.  David’s big screen television was a view right into the courtyard of one of his most valiant fighters, Uriah the Hittite, who was out on the battlefield.  David enjoyed watching Uriah’s wife take a bath, so he had some of his minions figure out who she was and bring her to him.  And when they meet, we get the distinct impression that they weren’t playing checkers as one preacher has suggested (login required).  And when the king asks you to play checkers, you really don’t have much of a choice.  Commenting on this passage, John Wesley says, “And the bed of sloth often proves the bed of lust.”  

With Bathsheba’s pregnancy, it seems that David’s life of comfort now has threatened David’s life of comfort.  Somehow, this boy of courage, who’s faith in God led him to be the hero of the greatest underdog story of all time, now had let power, prestige, and wealth lure him away from a connection to God.  David came to the throne to do good and stayed to do well. You see, comfort has a way of concealing God.

Now, I can sort of understand David’s predicament here.  I love to sit down in comfort on a couch to watch a nice football game.  Actually, I like to lay down on the couch if I can manage to kick everyone else off of it.  And nothing goes with an afternoon of football watching on the couch better than snacks and cold sodas, preferably within arms reach.  And when I run out of snacks and drinks, it sure is nice to have a wife or a child to fetch some more.  And isn’t the remote control a great invention?  Of course, a full day of football watching and snacking requires a good nap.  And so it was with David.  His comfort required more of itself  and rather than face the discomfort of repentance, he sent for Uriah.

David tries to lure Uriah with the comfort to which he’s become addicted.  But Uriah is no slave to comfort.  He seems annoyed even – that David has called him home from the battlefield for some R & R.  David, of course, had a secret agenda. To tell you about it, I need to let you know that in our R-rated Scripture passage, there’s a bit of foul language.  The ancient phrase “wash your feet,” meant to have sex.  You see, if David can lure Uriah into going down to his house for a little footwashing, he can weasel his way out of this bind.  There were no paternity tests to reveal who the baby daddy was.  Then David could remain distant from the pain of his actions.

Comfort requires distance from pain.  David enjoyed comfort by distancing himself from the battlefield, by having others fetch Bathsheba, by treating her as an object, by having Joab do the dirty work of killing Uriah.  There are certain things you can’t enjoy in the presence of pain.  At that moment, David could enjoy sex, but Uriah could not.  David was too distant from pain for it to bother him, but Uriah carried the burden of the battlefield in his heart.  You can’t enjoy eating a steak in front of a starving child.  Indeed, we’d prefer not to know how many of the things we consume come to be.  It is just a little harder to enjoy our consumption if we’re made aware of how suffering might be connected to our cell phone, our tennis shoes, or our food.  And willful ignorance distances us from God.

It is interesting to note where the Scripture says God is present in the story.  At this point in Israel’s history, God was said to live in the Ark of the Covenant.  And Uriah tells us where God is– on the battlefield where there is pain and suffering.  That’s the sort of God we have.  A God who shows up at the heart of pain and suffering.  A God who comes into our world through a dirty manger and is kicked out through a cross.  God seems to be present most when pain is most present.   So, our quest for comfort through distance is what disconnects us from God.

This might be the dirtiest passage in the Bible, but maybe not – there’s a lot of dirt in this book (hold up Bible).  We could have a whole R-rated series.  I’ll ask Pastor Bryan about that when he gets back…  From time to time, I like to browse the Bible section in bookstores and despite the hundreds of flavors of Bibles one can find, I haven’t seen one with a cover that says “Rated R” or “Contains material that may not be suitable for children under 18.”  Perhaps if we put a “rated-R” sticker on our Bible it would help us to dispel the myth that this book is merely God’s precious love letters to you.  That’s a half truth at best – no, there’s some uncomfortable truth telling about a very broken world happens in here.  God engages an R-rated world.  And in the Bible sometimes, it seems that God must have said to God’s self, “I can’t seem to talk to some folks through beautiful poetry and grand stories about the way I want the world to be.  I guess, in some places, I’ve just got to expose the ugliness of the world.  And sometimes that ugliness is at the very heart of the people who claim to be mine.”  You see, sometimes, God can’t get God’s point across through a sonnet.  There’s no way Schindler’s List, the great movie about a man who tried to save Jews from a Nazi concentration camp could have been rated PG.  And the beautiful and still unfolding movie of God redeeming the world cannot be told without the part showing our R-rated world.

And out of this R-rated story, we see how God is at work taking our dirtiness and making something beautiful out of it. God uses broken vessels to do this redemptive work.  In our passage, God uses Uriah, who somehow was blind to his participation in a senseless war, and some might even accuse him of neglecting his poor wife. Nevertheless, he showed integrity that provided the possibility that this scene in the movie might make the final cut.  Had David been directing his own movie, it would have been rated PG, but it wouldn’t have been the truth.  Through the Christlike sacrifice of Uriah, David was ultimately saved by what should not have happened. Uriah’s death unconcealed a truth that kings, and perhaps a nation would rather hide.  This story is the perfect example of why God wept when the people told Samuel that they wanted a king to govern over them like the other nations -rather than God.  But Uriah’s willingness to die for a king willing to kill him forced a truth upon a king and a nation that again raised the question, who will Israel be lead by, a king or a God?

Soon David is confronted by the prophet Nathan and ultimately repents and again becomes a man after God’s own heart.  He would go on to write some of the most beautiful words not only in the Bible but in all of literature that we know as Psalms.  God uses broken vessels in this redemptive movie.  Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr says that truly spiritual people must experience great loss or commit great sin.  David does both, as his 1st son with Bathsheba would soon die, only to be followed by further tragedy.  It was only when David’s empty shell of a soul was broken that it could be filled up with God’s wisdom and grace.  God fixes the world with broken vessels, killing 2 birds with one stone – redeeming both an R-rated world and R-rated people in the process.  Only through this miracle could God pull forth from David redeeming words like we read in Psalm 51, written as a prayer of confession for this R-rated incident.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

Like David, we’re all broken vessels.  I don’t pretend to understand why, but time after time, God uses broken vessels to move this movie of God’s redemption forward.  In our R-rated Bible, Noah has a drinking problem, Moses was a murderer, and Paul was a killer and persecutor of Christians.  Most of you aren’t even as bad as these starts of the Bible.  So you’ve got a part to play.  Now, R-rated movies come with a warning for a reason, so here it is.  Being a broken vessel trying to redeem an R-rated world is difficult.  No matter how many times God fills you up, an R-rated world drains the Spirit from you.  David had forgotten how to refill his broken vessel.  Uriah had not.  And so, he was able to walk with integrity in the face of temptation.  Intense temptation, refusing sex with a beautiful woman in opposition to his military commander.  Then refusing it again while drunk.  That takes a powerful connection to God.

There are many ways you can join God’s story through your involvement at Grace.  After worship, we’ll have a discernment meeting for those of you who might be considering taking our JustFaith class.  I can promise you this about JustFaith – it won’t be comfortable and you will not remain distant from pain.  You’ll learn about the David’s of this world that use power to protect their own comfort at the expense of others.  You’ll learn about the Bathshebas of this world who are voiceless and are victims of all sorts of R-rated abuse.  And perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn about the Uriahs of this world, who are faithful to death in a way that exposes and redeems the dirt in this world.  I have never personally participated in any program that has the power to transform and deepen faith the way JustFaith does.  I think the reason is because it is more than a 30 week study of an R-rated world, but it is intentionally designed to refill broken vessels throughout the journey with community, prayer, and Scripture.  So if you’re even a bit curious, I hope you’ll join us for our discernment meeting after worship in Fellowship Hall #1.

That, of course, is just one of the many ways in which you can join or deepen your involvement in God’s story.   History has taught us that God’s redemptive story is a long one and the end is no where in sight, but you’re invited to play a part.  God’s kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven.  We’ve all been created by God out of dirt to serve a God who calls forth beautiful things from dirt.  God redeems dirt with dirt.  This is an R-rated movie that you can feel good about watching.

Let us pray.
Our closing prayer is selections from Psalm 51, David’s Psalm of confession.  Let it be our prayer as well.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

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