This year marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of Protestantism – that is, the churches of which the Presbyterian Church is a part. We will celebrate and talk more about that in the final Sunday of October (known as Reformation Sunday), but for now, I’ve been thinking about it. One of the central figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther, contributed one of the most helpful pieces of Christian theology in a short statement.
In Latin, Luther said that all Christians are simul justus et peccator. In English, that means, “simultaneously saint and sinner.” That is to say, every single Christian is, in his or her own way, a saint. We have been inspired by God, we attempt to do the work of God, and in our best moments, we let Christ shine in our lives. That makes us saints. At the same time, we are still human beings; we are just as fallible as anyone else, and we continue to sin. We seek to be justified in God’s eyes by doing right, yet we find that we always fall short and continue to be imperfect.
Which leads me to this: let me tell you one thing about a pastor. You know you’re going to mess up, because you know you’re a person. You know that you’re simultaneously saint and sinner, and yet people are always going to expect you to be the “saint,” and would rather you leave out the “sinner” part out of your life. Every time you mess up, it feels like you should quit – after all, who can do it? Who can live up to that standard? The thing is, I know that being an elder in the church can feel the same way – burdened with the leadership of the church, feeling like you can’t ever make a mistake. But church isn’t alone in this feeling. Being married can feel this way. Being a coach, a volunteer, a mentor, a politician, a boss, even a parent – any position where your choices affect someone else – when you mess up, it stings extra hard.
And so today, we arrive at the story of King David. David, as you’ll recall, was a very special boy. He was handsome, a good athlete (killing bears and saving sheep and whatnot), and played the harp beautifully. The youngest of 8 boys, he was somehow always forgotten in his family – but never by God. The prophet Samuel anointed him to become the next king after Saul, an inept ruler. David killed the giant Goliath and earned the praise of the other Israelites, while at the same time causing Saul to hate David and try to kill him. David’s best friend, Jonathan – the son of Saul – saved David’s life. But eventually, Saul died and David did, in fact, become king.
He was a pretty stellar king, too. He succeeded in battle, united all twelve tribes of Israel (Saul never managed that in his time as king), and he was beloved of the people. David had it all. Well, he thought he did. Until one day, when he saw a beautiful woman bathing on a roof. Her name was Bathsheba, and David had to have her.
Now, there have been interpretations through the years that she seduced him; that’s not in the text at all, so it doesn’t make sense to me; in fact, as we hear later from Nathan, it’s actually not a very good interpretation of this story at all. Instead, David treats Bathsheba more like an object than a person. He wants her, and he’s the king… so he takes her. He even knows that she’s married to one of his soldiers, a man named Uriah. As it turns out, their encounter together results in her becoming pregnant. She tells David, because this is going to be particularly because her husband was off fighting in David’s name.
So David develops a plan; he tells Uriah’s commander to send the troops out into battle, with the order that when they get to a certain point, they’ll pull back. Only, David tells the commander, Joab, not to tell Uriah about this. They charge into battle; some of the men die; Uriah is one of them – no surprise there. The whole thing was set up so that Uriah would die. It was murder by proxy; David wanted Uriah dead, and he made sure that it happened.
This is a universally awful act. First of all, one of the things Saul was criticized for as a king was that he often let his soldiers fight for him; he didn’t ride out into battle himself. David was different. Only now, having been king for a while, he was starting to rest on his laurels and just let things happen, just like Saul did. So his actions are shameful as a king.
David was already married to two wives, and didn’t need another. He had children, which kings are always under such pressure to produce. And yet, he ends up impregnating a woman whom we’re not even sure had a choice in the matter, so his actions are shameful as a man.
And to top it all off, David commits murder to get away with his crime, now being able to take Bathsheba as his wife, letting her bear his child without anyone raising an eyebrow, and not having a problem with it. So his actions are shameful as a human being.
All in all, it’s truly despicable. And this is the man whom God has chosen as king! Not only is he a king, he goes down as the best king (or one of the top-4, anyway) in the nearly 500 year history of Israel and Judah as a kingdom! Not only is he special, even among kings, but he is the one king given a covenant by God. A covenant is a promise; a covenant from God means that God makes a promise that can never be broken. God’s promise to David is that there will always be someone from his line on the throne in Jerusalem. So David is given an eternal legacy, just four chapters before this moment, and yet David still finds a way to screw up so much that it calls into question whether or not he was ever a righteous king in the first place.
David is the “chosen one,” God’s special servant – yet, he messes up. And like all of us, he needs someone else’s help to see just how messed up he is. Now, he is the king, so you have to come at him with a little bit of tact, and that’s just what Nathan, the prophet, does. He tells a story about a wealthy man with everything who takes a beloved sheep from a poor man who has nothing else. David’s first reaction is like what most of ours would be – get mad, want revenge.
But then Nathan says to him, in no uncertain terms, “You are that man; you have everything, and yet you felt the need to take the wife – and the life – of Uriah.” Nathan takes the bold step of calling out the king for his actions. That may not seem like a huge deal. After all, we live in a country in which you can call or write to your representatives in the government and criticize them all you want, and they have no recourse against you; you’re allowed, even encouraged to do that. In ancient days, though, such a thing could be sentencing yourself to death.
So David is stunned – not because he’s called out, but because he realizes that Nathan is right. Some leaders – Saul, the king before David, for example – would dismiss someone who said something so bold to them. But David, for his part, possesses more wisdom than that.
David realizes that Nathan is right. He knows that he has done something wrong. But what David learns here is not that you have to be perfect. In fact, David immediately realizes that he must confess his sins to God. These are great sins, grave sins. The kinds of sins you’d think could never be gotten over. I think, if we knew him in real life, most of us would be unable or unwilling to forgive David his sins. How could we be asked to forgive something that big?
But that’s what’s convenient about our ultimate fate being in God’s hands. Many, perhaps most, and potentially even all of us have done (or will yet do) something that would easy to think of as utterly unforgivable, even if we didn’t do something so extreme as David’s actions. Yet, God is able to forgive. And what good news that is for us!
We are never beyond God’s reach; never. Never, ever. The story we know so well, the story at the heart of our faith, the story of the resurrection of Jesus, is a story about the place we are most separate from the world, most unreachable. And yet, God can bring Jesus back. Even in David’s state of depravity, God never gives up, God absolutely always looks for us, and calls us closer. There is no boundary too big for God to cross – even death, even sin. God can do it.
This is a story in which David, the saintly king, is revealed as a lowly sinner. And as his sins are laid bare for everyone to see, he needs to hear a story to understand. Brothers and sisters, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we read the stories of the Old Testament because they are our stories. They teach us about ourselves. They are our Nathan the prophet. These are the stories that we use to teach us about ourselves and our actions; they are the parables we need to hear. Just as Jesus taught in parables, we need stories. Yes, we have the stories of Jesus, and yes, these stories are different than those, but the point remains: we hear this story because God needs us to hear it – and the stories like it. Like David, we are sinners; like David, we need to hear it; like David, we are forgiven by God who, across even the border of sin, loves us: unreasonably, irrationally, and infinitely. Amen.