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Sunday, 2 August 2015

It's you, dear!

I want to talk about our Gospel reading in a minute, but first of all, we need to look at the Old Testament reading, the story of David and Bathsheba. This is, in fact, the second week of this story – you may have heard the first part last week, but just in case you didn't, I'll recapitulate.

David is now King of Israel and Judah, a united kingdom. He has built a very splendid palace in Jerusalem, and is one of the richest and most powerful men in the region. And, like many rich and powerful men, he has a high sex drive, and, of course, many women find riches and power very aphrodisiac.

So David can more-or-less have any woman he wants, and, quite probably, the reverse is also true – any woman who wants the King can have him! And there is Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, who allows herself to be seen while having her ritual bath – and responds to the King's summons.

Unfortunately, what neither Bathsheba nor David had any way of knowing, given the state of medical knowledge back then, was that when you have just finished your monthly purification rituals is when you are likely to be at your most fertile. And so it comes about that Bathsheba finds herself pregnant, and there's no way it can be anybody other than David's.

And they panic. David could arguably have got away with it, but he wasn't going to abandon Bathsheba like that, and, it's probable that it was she who panicked. Uriah, from what we read about him, strikes me as very much the kind of person who always does the right thing, no matter what the personal cost to himself, and in this case, the right thing to have done was to have had Bathsheba, who had obviously committed adultery, stoned to death. Yes, killed. Even if he hadn't wanted to do that. He was far too prim and proper to sleep with his wife while on active service, no matter how hard David tried to make him do that – if he had, he would have accepted the coming child as his own, and their problems would have been solved. But he refused, because his country was at war and he was a soldier on active service, and wouldn't even go and see Bathsheba, even when David got him drunk, but just slept on his blanket in the guard room.

So David feels he has no option but to get rid of Uriah, which he does by causing him to be sent into the front line of battle, and get killed. And as soon as it is decently possible, he marries Bathsheba.

End of story? No, not quite. You see, it might seem to have all been tidied up and nobody any the wiser, but they had forgotten God. And God was not one bit pleased with what David had done.

So he sends Nathan the Prophet – brave man, Nathan, wasn't he? - to say to David that there is a man who only had one sheep, just one, and a rich bully had taken that sheep away from him. So David said, well, who is this bully, I'll deal with him – he can't get away with that sort of thing in my kingdom, so he can't! And Nathan looks him in the eye and says, “It's you, dear!”

And, then David sees exactly what he has done. The lust, the adultery, the deception, the murder. He looks at himself and does not like what he sees, not one tiny little bit. He doesn't know what God must think of him, but he knows what he thinks of himself – and he knows, too, that he needs to repent. Which he does, and some of the words he is said to have used have come down to us:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
   according to the abundance of your compassion
      blot out my offences.
  Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
   and cleanse me from my sin.
  For I acknowledge my faults
   and my sin is ever before me.
 Behold, you desire truth deep within me
   and shall make me understand wisdom
      in the depths of my heart.
Turn your face from my sins
   and blot out all my misdeeds.
  Make me a clean heart, O God,
   and renew a right spirit within me.
  Cast me not away from your presence
   and take not your holy spirit from me.
  Give me again the joy of your salvation
   and sustain me with your gracious spirit;
Deliver me from my guilt, O God,
      the God of my salvation,
   and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness.
  O Lord, open my lips
   and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
  For you desire no sacrifice, else I would give it;
   you take no delight in burnt offerings.
  The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

And so on. There's a bit more, but I've not quoted it all – it's Psalm 51, if you want to have a read of it.

Anyway, the point is, his repentance is genuine, and he will be reinstated. The child will not live, though. And there is that lovely scene where the child is born, and David is told that it cannot live – it hasn't “come to stay”, as they used to say – and he prostrates himself before the Lord in prayer. And the baby duly dies, and the servants are at a loss to know how to tell him, thinking that if he's in that sort of mood, he might well shoot the messenger, but when they have stood outside the door for ten minutes going “You tell him,” “No, you tell him!” he realises what's going on – and when he finds out that the baby has died, he astonishes them all by going and washing his face and going to comfort Bathsheba, and when asked, he points out that while the baby was still alive, there was hope that God might yet be persuaded to let it live, but now that it's dead, there's no hope and it won't help anybody to lie on the floor rolling about in grief.

And as we know, just to round off the story, Bathsheba and David do eventually have another child, who becomes King Solomon, arguably the greatest King of the combined kingdoms.

David's main fault, I think, that started the whole sorry saga, was greed. He was greedy for life, and for women, and for pleasure. He wanted to have it all, and had to learn the hard way that it wasn't all his.

Jesus says much the same to the followers in the Gospel reading, doesn't he? It takes place almost immediately after Jesus has fed five thousand or more people with a small boy’s packed lunch.
He then sends the disciples on ahead of him, so he can spend some time in prayer and being quiet for a bit –
in some of the gospels, we’re told that he’s just heard about his cousin John’s execution and needs a bit of space to grieve.
Anyway, he then walks across the lake to join the disciples,
and next day the crowd finds him on the other side of the lake than they’d expected.

But Jesus reckons they’re not following him because of his teachings,
but because they want another free lunch.
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs,
but because you ate your fill of the loaves."

And this is not what he plans for them.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.”

Jesus points out that in the wilderness, it wasn’t Moses who provided manna for the children of Israel to eat, but God.
And it is God who gives the true Bread from Heaven.
“I,” said Jesus, “am the Bread of Life”.
You know what I’m reminded of here?
The story of woman at the well, a little earlier on in John’s Gospel.
She asks Jesus to work the pump for her, which he duly does, but he tells her that he is the Living Water, and any who drink of that water will never be thirsty again.
Same sort of principle.

Many – not all, but many – of those who followed Jesus did so because they wanted the spectacular. They wanted a free lunch from a small boy's packed lunch. They wanted to see the healings, the deliverances, the people collapsing on the floor as evil spirits left them, and so on. They weren't interested in the teachings, in the way your faith has to manifest itself in actions or it isn't really part of you, in loving their neighbour, in feeding the hungry.... they were wanting to believe in Jesus without having to become Jesus' person. I don't want to pre-empt what you'll doubtless hear about next week, but many of them walked away when the teachings got too hard for them to cope with.

And what about us? What about you and me? Are we just interested in the next thrill, the next sensation, the next fashion? Are we willing to be Jesus' disciples, and pay the price that the Bread of Life requires – all of us. Even the dreadful bits, even the bits that we'd rather keep hidden. David had to surrender all of himself before he could receive God's forgiveness. Can we do that? It's very far from easy, and I don't pretend to be able to, at least, not all the time. It has to be a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment surrender. And when you find you've taken yourself back again, as it were, then it's all to be done again. What it needs, of course, is the will on our part to be Jesus' person, even if we don't succeed all the time.

King David was not a wicked man. He did a very evil thing when he allowed his lust for Bathsheba to overtake his common sense, but normally he was God's person – and when it was pointed out to him where he'd gone wrong, he came back.

My friends, let's be like David. When we go wrong, when we take ourselves back and live our own lives again, and when we realise we're doing that, then let's recommit ourselves into God's hands. He will be there to welcome us back with loving arms. “There you are, there you are at last! Welcome home!” Amen.

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