One of my favorite TV shows of the past few years starred Jason Lee in the title role of Earl. “My Name is Earl,” is about a man who after a near-death experience and lost lottery ticket, has become convinced that “karma” has given him a chance to undo all the evil he has done in his life. A chance, perhaps, to recover the good fortune symbolized in the lottery ticket by doing good to others. The shows—at least in the first season—always began with Earl’s voiceover: “”You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life [stinks]? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting round the corner: karma. That’s when I realized that I had to change, so I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.”
It’s hard not to read our Old Testament lesson today and not think, if not of Earl, then at least of Karma. A notion that, at least in most forms of Hinduism, doesn’t mean fate or retribution as much as it does, consequences. For David here encounters, perhaps for the first time, the notions that we began to talk about last week, the notion that sin spills over into the lives of others and the notion that the consequence of sin is yet more sin.
As we take up our lesson, Uriah is dead. Bathsheba is in mourning but now a part of David’s house. The plan has worked. David appears to be the hero still. He has taken pity on this new widow, he has shown compassion for the sake of his honorable outsider, Uriah the Hittite, who died nobly in the service of his king. David’s tracks are covered. David is safe. David saw. David sent. David took. David lay. David murdered. And now, David got away with it. Except. . . .
Except, the thing that David had done displeased the LORD. A side note here. Perhaps some of you have seen the famous atheist bus ads begun by Richard Dawkins and continued by various atheist groups in Canada, the US and Australia. They say, “There probably is no God. So go ahead and enjoy life.” What they mean—and frankly, I’m sympathetic to the idea—is that the notion of God the smiting angry judge ready to pounce on every misdemeanor can be emotionally and spiritually debilitating and we are healthier when we leave it behind. But, pause and think about it. If there is no God, then Davids of this world get away with their crimes. If there is no God, Uriah is dead, David has his new wife and the world still turns. And that is true for every victim of human evil from Abel onward, true every tyrant who dies in his own bed. If the first half of the ad is true, all we have is the human approximation of justice which we all know is easily subverted. There is no final answer to the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Pol Pots, and the millions of their mini-imitators. No final rectification of the world’s wrongs. If the first half of the ad is true, I frankly don’t see how life can be enjoyed at all.
Suffice to say that this simply is not the world that the Bible invites us to inhabit. It invites us to inhabit a world—both in fear and in hope—in which our actions are noted and will one day be judged, to the vindication of the victims.
Except, the thing that David had done displeased the LORD. It is both a statement of caution—we are still dealing with the God who struck down Uzzah—and hope—the victim though dead will be judged in the right because the final word belongs not to David or to death, but to God.
So, the Lord sends Nathan the prophet to David with a parable about two men. The first is a poor man with a little ewe lamb that was a family pet far more than it was livestock. The second is a man so wealthy he has more flocks than he can count. And yet, when the second man is greeted by a guest, he simply took the poor man’s lamb, killed it, and served it to his guest. David, on hearing this story and, presumably believing it to be a true account (though it is truer than he knows), reacts angrily: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
And then come the haunting words of the prophet. Can you see him standing below David’s dais and pointing his crooked finger at the corrupt King? I can. “Thou art the man.” I can’t help but lapse into the language of the authorized version at this point in the story. The words, in my imagination at least, carry the weight they need to. “Thou art the man.” The prophetic challenge echoes through history from David to us. It ought to be recalled every time we try to rationalize, to justify, to evade, to explain away our sin. It exposes us to the searching light of the holiness of God, a light that has been searching for us both to judge and to redeem (and never one without the other!) since God went looking for Adam in the garden. “Adam, where are you?” comes the question. And lest we think we’re good at hiding and leaving God alone, God’s prophet has followed us into our cocoons of self-deception with the words, “Thou art the man,” “Thou are the woman.”
Then follows the pronouncement of sentence: your house, David, will never be free of the sword; what you did to Uriah in secret will be done to you in public. And David minimally acknowledges the wrong: “I have sinned against the Lord.” And here comes the Gospel. This time in the words of the prophet Nathan, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Does David’s repentance prompt God’s forgiveness? No. There is little, if any repentance in that acknowledgement. David is still shocked that he has been found out. Shocked that he has condemned his own actions in his fit of righteous indignation. He hasn’t had time to repent. And yet, Nathan says, “The Lord has put away your sin.” God’s forgiveness precedes David’s repentance. David’s repentance is a response to the prior gracious action of God.
So it is as a forgiven sinner that David’s heart is poured out in Psalm 51, our Psalm for today. It is a Psalm worthy of a full exposition on its own, the subject of a few sermons anyway (don’t worry. I’m not going to preach them today). David here admits his sin, acknowledges the rightness, the justice of God in holding him accountable; he reminds God of his “steadfast love”—the faithfulness of God to keep covenant even when the covenant is not upheld at the human end; and he asks to have his sin taken away—using throughout the language of cleansing. Sin had interrupted David’s relationship with God. It had made him “dirty.” Only God could restore the relationship. And David begs God to do it. And David repents and asks for restoration. And the good news of the Gospel is, he asks only after the restoration has already taken place.
There is a point here worth camping on. And it is this: where we often think our repentance prompts God to forgiveness, in the topsy-turvy world of the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—the Gospel is: it is the presence of God’s forgiving grace that prompts us to repent. Our repentance does not move God to act; it is the God who is slow to anger, abounding in love, and abiding in covenant faithfulness throughout the generations who moves us.
So it is that the God who meets us in the story of David is the God who meets us on the pages of the Gospel and not another. He is a God who is unequivocally on the side of victims. A God who judges justly to vindicate them. And at the same time, a God who seeks out and forgives, who cleanses, covers over, blots out, puts away the sins not simply of those who repent but so that we can repent at all.
And yet. . . .
And yet, that’s not the end of the story is it. God forgives David and yet, the consequences continue to ripple out from his actions into the lives of his wives and children. The consequence of more sin—which is precisely the judgment pronounced by God—is not set aside by the pronouncement of forgiveness.
David goes on to fast and pray for the child conceived in adultery in the hope that God will change his mind, reverse his judgment and allow the child conceived in adultery with Bathsheba to live. That does not happen. And shortly thereafter, the drama of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom unfolds. A drama in which an act of rape gives birth to a murder, which in turn spawns a revolt. And David, even as the prophet Nathan predicted, is publicly humiliated for the actions he undertook in stealth.
What are we to do with this? Why doesn’t God intervene to withdraw his judgment?
It seems to me that the answer implied in the text is, God cannot. At least not in the way we want him to. God’s judgment passed on all sin—a judgment passed in the Garden of Eden and only reiterated here—is that sin shall simply bring forth its own bitter fruit. And in passing judgment on David, God is not compelling people to act against their wills to do what they otherwise would not have done. God is saying simply, you will live in the world you have created. And God has been saying that since Eden to his sinful human children.
Even in a world where sins are forgiven, the consequences of those sins continue to resonate after us. And even if they are not God’s direct punishment—God smiting or striking or whatever—they are a reflection of what St. Paul will call in the first chapter of Romans, the wrath of God.
And so it is, as this story winds down, we are confronted again with what the prophet Isaiah called God’s strange task, God’s alien work. It is seen positively in the bringing of a good end to the story of Naomi; it is seen negatively in the permission of an ambivalent end to the greatest of Israel’s kings. What are we to make of it?
Had the story ended here, of course, the answer would be not very much. But even if the story of David comes to an ambivalent end, the story of David’s God continues. Later, the prophets of the Old Testament will speak of a time when the cycle of sin spilling over into yet more sin will be finally arrested. A time when, as Jeremiah will put it, the people’s hearts of stone will be replaced by hearts of flesh. A time when, as David himself put it in Psalm 51, the sacrifices of God will be truly offered—sacrifices of broken spirits and contrite hearts.
And for that end, Christians both look back and ahead. We look back because we are convinced that the judgment and grace both hidden in the story of David come to their climax and are made plain in the judgment and grace extended in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And we look ahead because we are all too aware that we continue to live in a world that looks awfully like the world of David. A world in which the consequences of our sins continue to resound no matter how penitent or even forgiven we are. We look ahead to the final appearing of our Lord in which the kingdom inaugurated will become the kingdom come, in which all wrongs will be judged, ever victim made whole, our tears will be wiped away, and all relations made whole.