Sunday, August 9, 2015

Days of Our Lives

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. 9 Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.

10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ 11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” 15 After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. 17 The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.

18 On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.” 19 David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked.
“Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.”

20 Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.
21 His attendants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”

22 He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

We’ve been having some fun thinking of King David’s life as a soap opera. But, this week the King David story takes another turn. No longer is David a young king on the rise. There's more sand through the hourglass, piling at the bottom. Today he is middle-aged man facing some of the most difficult issues in his life.

We pick up after the tantalizing story of King David’s “affair” with his married neighbor Bathsheba while her husband is off at war. David takes Bathsheba and gets her pregnant. Rather than own it, he tries to cover it up by inviting Bathsheba’s husband back from the front so that he can go into his wife.

But he doesn’t. Instead the young husband stays chaste. He thinks it would be wrong  to enjoy all of the comforts of home, so to speak, since his fellow soldiers and even the ark of the covenant are at the battlefield in tents.

So the soldier, sleeps outside, forgoing the opportunity to lay with his wife and lay claim to the son within her. David has the man killed in battle to cover up his crime.  

But, he can't hide from God. God knows of David’s sins. And while God promises that David will not die as punishment, a whole host of other terrible things will happen.  

God promises to raise up trouble for David from his own house. And it happens. One son rapes one of his daughters. Another son kills the rapist and then tries to steal the throne from David. But the first punishment that David experiences is the one we read about today. The baby he has with Bathsheba will die.

This story of God’s punishment confronts us with the biggest challenges of the Christian faith. It forces us to ask the hard question. Why do bad things happen? Why does tragedy strike people who don’t seem to deserve it?

Any time a child dies it feels unjust and unfair. When a parent dies and leaves young children it feels tragic. Bad things will happen to most of us during the days of our lives.

In the Bible David hears the news that his child is sick and does what many of us have done or would do. He falls to the ground and starts to pray. He prays, he fasts, he lays on the ground in despair, pleading with God.

His elders stand around him and try to get him to get up and do his job as king. But David keeps praying.

His servants stand off in the corner whispering and worrying that he may kill himself out of despair. But David keeps praying.

When the sick child finally dies, the servants are afraid to even tell David. But, he hears them whispering. He looks across the room and sees the panic in their faces. In his heart he already knows it. The baby is dead.

And David gets up, cleans up, worships and resumes his life.  David did all of the right religious things and it made no difference. It didn’t matter that he was the king.  It didn’t matter that he was God’s anointed. It didn’t matter that he prayed unceasingly. David did not get his way on this one.

Unsurprisingly, this passage is not in the list of scriptures that a lot of preachers use. It may be one that you didn’t even know existed until today. This is a passage that challenges our faith. It doesn’t contain easy slogans that we can post on Facebook. It doesn’t lend itself to religious platitudes. It doesn’t make us feel good.

This part of the David story shows us a fierce and frightening God—a God that we don’t control. And it leaves us sitting with our Bible’s open and our hearts breaking as we wonder, Why?  Why do innocent people and babies suffer in this world?

Why God? is a question that I ask a lot. God is big enough for my questions and yours. 

Why God? I asked it at the funeral home last year looking at the body of a bright, talented, faithful young woman in a coffin as her parents tried to understand why she would commit suicide.  

Why God? I asked it a few weeks ago after sitting in my truck talking with another young woman who had been in my Sunday school class while her three year old played with friends in the yard. The heroin is so easy, she said. I just don’t know how to quit. 

Why God? I asked it in high school when my friend's father got through a quadruple bypass surgery only to die in a car accident a short time later.

Why God? I ask when I read that 130 children were killed in Sudan after being gang raped and castrated. Or the 20-thousand children killed in Syria. Or a hurricane that slams into a city. Or someone’s miscarriage. Or someone’s cancer.

Thoughtful and faithful Christians have been asking the question Why? since Christianity began. In fact, thoughtful and faithful Jews were asking why bad things happen before Jesus was even born. The book of Job in the Bible asks why bad things happen to good and righteous people.

I wish I could stand up here and tell you I have the answer. I wish that I could stand up here and preach to you that bad things only happen to bad people. But you and I know that’s not how it works. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes babies die. 

It turns out that we people of faith have a logic problem:

God is all-good 

God is all-powerful 

God is all-knowing 

and yet

Bad things happen.

It does not make sense. Why does a good, powerful, all-knowing God allow bad things? Why does evil exist? The study of this conundrum is called theodicy. And I highly doubt that you and I are going to solve this problem today or in this lifetime.

But if you’ve asked this Why? question and have felt unfaithful in doing so, I want you to know that you are not alone and it does not make you a bad Christian. If you have endured tragedy or illness or disappointment and been angry with God, you are not alone and you are not a bad Christian. There isn’t a feeling you can have that God does not know about or understand. There isn’t a thing that you can think that can separate you from the love of God.

And so I'd like to talk about this Why? question and how we think of it. The Why? question has gotten different answers from God's people at different times. 

Some Christians believe that when bad things happen it’s God’s punishment for sin or a test from God.  This is the most common explanation for the terrible things that happen in the Old Testament—for the baby dying, for stories of God’s smiting, for the story of Job. Bad things happen because it’s God’s punishment or a test of faith. This is a real stumbling block for many Christian’s today.

The Old Testament writers say God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The very next words say God will execute punishment to third and fourth generations of a person who has sinned. Children will be punished for their parents’ sins. ( Exodus 34:6-7).

The phrase "the sins of the father" comes from this idea. God punishes the children for the iniquity of the parents. This is exactly what happens in David’s story. The prophet tells David: by this deed [with Bathsheba] you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

How can we reconcile this with a good God? Can we?

Thankfully, idea of children suffering for the sins of the parents changes over time in the Bible. Turn to the middle of the Bible and Jeremiah and Ezekiel reverse this understanding and say that that the punishment for the parent’s sin will NOT be visited upon the child, but stay with the parent. A child’s death, illness or disability is not the result of the parent’s sins.

Flip further in the book, to the time of Jesus, and things change even more. Illness and disability were no longer God’s punishment.  The disciples ask Jesus the question, Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

And what does Jesus say? 

Neither. Blindness and illness do not come from sin.

The second way to answer the why question is to assume that the events in our lives are part of God’s bigger plan. Christians are able to believe that God is eventually working out all things for the good, even when bad things happen to them.  Some people who read this story think that David’s child is better off with God. That in death he is able to escape living with being the stain of David’s sin. The suffering and death lead to something better.

When we think of it this way, we use Jesus as our model. We believe that, like Jesus, the suffering we experience is part of a bigger and better plan. Jesus suffered and died that we might have eternal life. There was a purpose to his suffering, it was part of God’s plan. Our pain is not pointless. We experience redemptive suffering.

When bad things happen, it isn’t punishment or a test. It is a faith stance that says God will turn it into something good in the long run. But even with this approach this suffering is still of God.

Over time, some of us can get to the place where we can see how we have changed as the result of our suffering. What seemed senseless at the time can look purposeful in hindsight. This isn’t always the case. But many Christians believe that their suffering serves a greater purpose.

Some Christians believe that suffering never comes from God. Suffering only happens because we live in a broken world. The terrible things that happen are not from God, but the result of the sin that we have brought upon ourselves.

These Christians would say that Christ didn’t die for our sins as a blood sacrifice at the hands of an angry God, but that Christ died for our sins by our own violent hands. We snuffed out the light that came into the darkness. We crucified the goodness of God in the world.

And the good news is that God would not let that evil stand. God would not let Jesus’ death be the last word. God resurrected Jesus to eternal life to demonstrate that forgiveness is more powerful than our sin. Love defeats death. Good is more powerful than evil. God has the power to resurrect the goodness that we destroy. Suffering does not get to have the final word in our lives.  

In this view, God doesn’t cause the suffering, but God can walk with us through the suffering, through the valley of the shadow of death. God can walk with us until we get to the other side.

At some point in your life, you may believe all of these things—or none of them. I know that many of you have wrestled with illness or tragedy in your lives, you know that there isn’t one easy answer. 

You know that during times of darkness we need to take so much on faith because the “proof” of God’s goodness, the proof of God’s power and the proof of God’s wisdom is just too hard to see.

But, when I look out at this congregation, I see a powerful witness. I know that some of you have done what David did. You got up. You resumed living. You have taken a leap of faith.

The Bible says, “Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped.”

And here you are, too. Despite all you have been through, despite all you have felt and feared, you are here. Don't underestimate that.  You are in the house of the LORD to worship, like David.  You may come with questions. You may come with despair. You may come with anger, but you are here. You are here in faith. 

You are testifying to the power of God's love by just showing up.
You are demonstrating that hope in Christ can overcome fear and despair.
You are proof that the power of the Holy Spirit works in ordinary people.
You are the embodiment of the promise that evil and tragedy will not have the final word.
You are the proclamation of God’s goodness, power and wisdom.
You, each of you, are the body of Christ, broken, yet given for the world.


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