In our reading from Ephesians last week, we heard Paul pray that we might be rooted and grounded in love, and filled with all the fullness of God. That’s a beautiful picture of who we are called to be.
In our reading for this week, Paul keeps going. “I beg you,” Paul says, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Our goal, Paul says, is “the full stature of Christ.”
Today Carrie and I celebrate our twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. Today we celebrate our love. But I have to confess—of course, Carrie might disagree with me on this—I have not myself always achieved the perfect love Paul describes.
But I, all of us who are not perfect in love, can make progress. We can get better at loving, with God’s help and a lot of hard work.
I don’t know that I am better at loving this week than I was last week. Progress is not normally that fast. But I think—I hope Carrie thinks!—that I am a little better at loving now than I was ten or twenty years ago. I’d like to think that for all of us.
And to the degree that we have gotten better at loving God and our neighbors, that we have grown a little more into the full stature of Christ, we should celebrate our progress and give thanks to God.
But that’s actually another sermon. Today I want to focus on the sad fact that none of us are there yet, that none of us is perfect in love, that we all botch it sometimes. An important question for us is, what should we do when we botch it? Because we will.
In our Old Testament reading for last week, we saw David botch it in a big way. In that story, we can learn a lot about the destructive impact of sin. What we see this week, in the continuation of David’s story, is the healing made possible by repentance.
I won’t repeat the whole sordid story of David’s sin. But I want to make two points about it.
The first point is that sin tends to cascade. One sin, left unacknowledged and unrepented, leads almost inevitably to another sin, and then another, and so on.
In David’s case, it begins with his failure to do his kingly duty of leading his troops in battle. That failure gave him the opportunity to spy on the wife of one of his captains. Lust led to adultery. Adultery led to an attempted cover-up. Failed cover-up led to murder. Who knows how far this cascade of sin might have gone if Nathan hadn’t intervened? That’s one fact about sin we can learn from David’s story.
Here’s the second point: our sin affects the people around us, even people we might think of as uninvolved. Certainly David’s did.
When I first imagined this story, I pictured David’s sins happening in secret, behind closed doors. I thought of them as largely private.
But that was wrong.
Here’s a quick list of the people we know were involved in the scandal: the man David first sent to find out who the attractive woman was; the messengers (plural) that David sent to summon her into his presence; the messenger Bathsheba sent back to David a few weeks later announcing that she was pregnant; everyone present when Uriah reported back to David; the people at the feast when David got Uriah drunk; Joab the general whom David commanded to set up Uriah’s death; and Uriah’s comrades who participated in that plot.
Literally dozens of people witnessed one moment or another in this unfolding story. How well do you think they all kept their secrets? Especially how likely was this whole story to have remained secret when Uriah’s pregnant wife married David immediately after Uriah’s death? Everyone at court must have known the full story. David’s sin was public, not private.
Now think about the impact on the people at court or in the army, as the gossip about David and Bathsheba and Uriah circulated. Everyone learned that their wives and their lives were not safe around David, who could take whatever he wanted. Think about living with that.
Our stories are rarely so dramatic. But the story of David and Bathsheba shows us the potential impact of cascading sin in our lives and on other people, including many apparently uninvolved people. We fail to take sin seriously at our peril.
Thankfully we have a solution to the ongoing problem of sin in our lives. Whenever we fall into sin, we repent and return to the Lord. That’s our Old Testament lesson for today.
David appears to have been shockingly blind to his fall into sin. But Nathan the prophet forces David to see. I used to think of this encounter, too, as happening in private, and it may have. The biblical author doesn’t tell us. But as I imagine the story now, I picture Nathan confronting David in front of the whole court. After all, everyone has been affected by the sin. So everyone should see the repentance.
What we know is that David repented. David admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord.” I would add, David sinned against a lot of people, too.
And we get a picture of what David’s repentance looked like in our Psalm. The caption is not printed in the Prayerbook and so doesn’t appear on our insert. But in the book of Psalms itself, our Psalm is introduced as “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he [David] had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Our Psalm begins with David acknowledging that he has done evil, indeed that he has “been wicked from…birth, a sinner from [his] mother’s womb” (51:6). That is true enough, but it would be depressing and unhelpful if David stopped there.
Thankfully David doesn’t stop. David goes on to pray that God will forgive him, that God will purge his sin and wash David clean.
Then comes my favorite lines from this Psalm. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” David doesn’t deny his sin. But David doesn’t get totally stuck in his sin either. David asks God to renew the right Spirit in David, to set David back on the good path he had been travelling, to make David, once again, a man after God’s own heart.
And David ends, at least in our reading for this morning, by asking God to restore to David the joy he had always taken in loving and serving God.
As best we can tell, David’s prayer of repentance came true.
In David’s repentance, we can see that repentance is not a depressing obligation. Repentance is an opportunity to let go of the burden of our sins, to strengthen our relationships with God and with each other, to find the joy that comes with a renewed intimacy with God.
David’s repentance, after a truly destructive cascade of sins, is an invitation to us, when we have gone astray, to do the same, to return to God, to seek forgiveness, to embrace the joy that comes with living out our Christian calling to love.
And so I invite you to take time this week to reflect on your lives, to see what is not right, and to turn to God for forgiveness. That’s the only road to ever deeper joy in the Lord.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan