Read 2 Samuel 11.
I wanted to preach a nice, fairly traditional sermon on temptation and how to avoid it. That is a fair and relatively easy application of this text. But I couldn’t do it. I sat down at my computer to write, and I ended up just surfing the web or playing games. For two days, I tried to write the nice sermon about avoiding temptation - the expected sermon when dealing with this passage, but I just couldn’t get the words to come out.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, I started digging into the passage again. I went online and read every sermon or article I could find on this passage. Danielle Shroyer, a pastor from Texas, knew the way to my heart when she asked: “Anybody brave enough to preach this one squarely?”
What? A controversial sermon on a difficult topic? I never do those. OK, I’m in.
The David and Bathsheba story is famous because it deals with the big three: money, sex, and power. It’s famous because it describes the messy fall of a hero. It reads like a soap opera, and that’s why we like it.
But this story isn’t just about the massive failure of one man and its many consequences - although that is the outline of the story. If David and Bathsheba were simply about adultery, then - as Tim Elliot said at lunch on Thursday - this sermon could have one simple point: “Don’t do it.”
This story is more complex and more painful than that. We are not allowed to stand at a distance as people not concerned with this story - not when we really hear it. This story is about the misconduct of a leader and the cover-up that followed. And that, unfortunately, is something we know a lot about. Just consider this very brief inventory of high profile abuse and cover-up in the past few years.
- In 2002, the Boston Globe newspaper ran a series of reports of catholic priests abusing children and church leaders working hard to hide the abuse and to protect the offending priests. The Roman Catholic Church has paid an estimated 3 billion dollars in damage settlements to victims.
- Last year, US Presidential candidate Hermann Cain was forced to drop out of the race after several charges of sexual harassment and adultery became public.
- In Korea a story came out last year about a pastor who was secretly blackmailing and pimping one of his church members.
- Outgoing Korean president Lee MinBak has been plagued with corruption scandals as prosecutors discover bribes given to people in his family, but this is not a new phenomenon. After leaving office, several Korean presidents have been found guilty of corruption.
- One of the big stories in the US over the past few months has been the conviction of Jerry Sandusky of 45 counts of sexual abuse on the grounds of Penn State University. The bigger story was how the head coach, the university president, and a variety of other university officials failed to report Sandusky and tried to cover up the abuse. As events came to light, the university received several sports related penalties and the biggest fine in academic history: 60 million dollars.
Unfortunately, we could go on and on and on. The point is that we haven’t left David and Bathsheba’s story behind. We love this story and have made it famous because we are still living it. Our leaders are still failing, and we are still working together to cover it up.
Let’s pause for a closer look at what actually happened with David and Bathsheba. A few observations.
- This was an unequal power relationship. We have no idea what Bathsheba wanted, and the narrator doesn’t seem to care. This is a story about the failure of David the King. Bathsheba could hardly say no. As the story reveals, David could kill her or anyone else he wanted. But, even if Bathsheba wanted David, even if Bathsheba intentionally allowed him to look at her, the higher burden of responsibility lies with David as the shepherd of his people. David’s relationship with Bathsheba was a misuse of power.
- Sin is a slippery slope. Probably David started small. When he first saw Bathsheba bathing, there was probably a righteous instinct to look away, but he thought, “What’s the harm in looking?” That was his first sin - taking the second look. Then, that moved quickly to asking about her and bringing her to the palace. Within a month, he had arranged the death of her husband and made plans to marry her. Sin starts small, and then it takes over. If we don’t stop sin when it’s small, the sins and the damage grow like cancer.
- David was a “good” man. David is famously called a “man after God’s own heart.” He wrote about half of the psalms we have in the Bible. He was God’s anointed leader for Israel. He was a good king and a good leader. But being good didn’t stop him from failing spectacularly. When bad leaders fail, we know what to do: get rid of them! But when good leaders and good people fall, it’s much more painful and confusing.
- Many people are involved. We want to believe that no one else knew and that no one could have stopped it. Someone asked around to find out who she was. Messengers went to her house to get her. Did her neighbors see? Probably. When she entered the palace, she passed any number of servants and possibly members of the royal family. Bathsheba sent another messenger back to David. Did people wonder why David called Uriah back? Did they whisper secretly that they knew the reason? Who took David’s gift to Uriah’s household? And Joab seems to know what’s up when David gives the death order. He obeys, but he sends a message back to David using an obscure story about a leader who was destroyed by a woman. But nothing happens. Uriah dies. David marries Bathsheba. Eight months go by. The son is born - a little too early. By now, everyone knows. Dozens of people know from their own personal involvement, but hundreds or thousands of people have heard the gossip. But no one does anything. They all just sit quiet and let the king abuse his power.
- Uriah is the silent hero. Uriah is the only character in our story who doesn’t do anything wrong. It seems strange to us that he wouldn’t go home to be with his wife, but all of the Israelite soldiers probably took a vow of celibacy before going to war. Uriah maintains the highest standards of integrity. And his very integrity reveals David’s corruption. Or did Uriah know? Did the palace gossip reach his ears? Is that why he wouldn’t go home? We don’t know. But we know that he would not allow someone in authority over him to compromise his values. He resisted pressure from above, and in doing the very difficult right thing, Uriah forced evil deeds into the light. Without Uriah’s resistance, we wouldn’t even have this story. Without Uriah, no one would ever know that David had abused his power and broken his vows. The name “Uriah” means “The Lord is my light,” and Uriah’s integrity shines a light on David’s darkness.
What do we do when a good man falls? David’s name means “beloved.” What do we do when a good, well-loved leader gets Uriah-ed? Do we kill the Uriah? Do we try to dim the light? Do we pretend it never happened? Or do we drag everything into the light and let God sort out the truth?
When a good leader falls, we face four basic temptations.
- Cover it up. There are all kinds of seemingly reasonable justifications for keeping everything quiet. Do it for the sake of the institution. (What will happen to the nation, to the church, to the school if this comes out?) Do it for the sake of the victim. (Think of how painful this will be for her to have to go through all of the courtroom drama.) Do it for the sake of the offender. (But this will destroy his career.) Minimize the offense. (It wasn’t that bad was it?) Cover it up because that’s just the easiest thing to do.
- Blame the victim. When a good leader is accused, it’s often too painful to believe that someone so good could do something so bad. So what do we do? We blame the victim. She seduced him. She’s not believable. She started it. She’s the problem, not him. In several eras of Christian history, that is exactly what preachers did with this text. Despite the lack of any evidence, they invented stories that made Bathsheba the initiator and David the victim of a scheming female.
- Demonize the offender. Tim Marvin pointed out this tendency to me. We want everything to be black and white, and we want everyone to be good or bad. When a leader fails morally, we are so hurt that we reject everything about that leader. We paint him with demon horns and a pitchfork. We want justice so badly that we don’t even consider the possibility that this was a hurting individual who made mistakes and needs healing.
- Do nothing. This is perhaps the biggest temptation for most of us. We may hear rumors. Someone may tell us something that happened to her. We may see something inappropriate. We may even be victims ourselves. No matter where we are in the situation, the easiest thing to do is ... nothing. It’s not our place. It’s just a rumor. It was probably a misunderstanding. It probably won’t ever happen again. It will cause so much trouble. So we just ... do ... nothing.
These four responses are all wrong. They may feel right when we are in the situation, but they are wrong. They are not what the Bible teaches, and they are not what is best for our communities.
To help us understand the situation better, we’re going to watch a video about how the International Church of the Nazarene is working together to help protect our children and our churches. The statistics are from the USA, but the basic concepts are the same anywhere.
Let’s review those four responses. They are really the key for dealing with sexual misconduct effectively and appropriately.
- Raise Awareness. It’s so easy to pretend like this doesn’t happen. It’s even easier to pretend that it can’t happen here. I’ve done it, and so have you. That’s just dumb. King David shows us - and a thousand other examples show us - that good people fail. Sometimes bad stuff happens in good places among good people. Be aware. Be wise. Talking about the problem is the first step toward solving this problem.
- Reduce Risk. We can take steps to reduce the risk of sexual misconduct. As a pastor one of my rules is not to be alone in private with a woman. If a woman comes to my office for a meeting, I leave the door open a little. Our children and teen volunteers are not allowed to have 1 on 1 meetings with students of the opposite sex. Don’t even let misconduct be an option. There are many ways to reduce risk - for our leaders, for ourselves, and for our children. These are important and necessary.
- Respond Appropriately. Think of what would have happened if someone would have responded appropriately to David more quickly. Think of how much damage could have been avoided. However, in our complex social systems, it’s not always clear how to respond in the best ways. As I think about the many different situations in which you may observe some kind of misconduct, the possibilities are too various for me to give you any clear rules for how to respond. But you must respond. You can’t do nothing. In some circumstances, like seeing something that is on the borderline, it may be best to talk directly to the person concerned. In other circumstances, you should report to your supervisor or that person’s supervisor. In many large institutions, there is a protocol for how to deal with misconduct of all kinds. Follow that protocol.
- Report Confidently. This may be the hardest part. We don’t want to “create a scandal.” We want to keep things quiet. However, there are two basic, unbreakable rules here. First, if the action concerns the possible abuse of a minor, you MUST report it to the police and/or to your local child protection services. In many places, this is a legal requirement. Second, if the action concerns a person of authority (a pastor, a professor, or a teacher), you must report it to that person’s governing body - the district office or the school administrators. This is also a basic legal requirement in many places. Don’t be afraid of following the law. Dealing with the truth is always better than denying the truth. As we’ll see in next week’s passage, facing his sin was David’s first step toward healing.
We will never know what would have happened if David hadn’t taken advantage of Bathsheba. We will never know what would have happened if some of his servants or soldiers had tried to stop David. We will never know what would have happened if dozens of people hadn’t participated in the cover-up. We will never know what would have been. But we don’t have to make the same mistakes.
Good leaders still fall. It seems like that will never end. We are neither immune nor innocent. We have a responsibility to discuss the problem, to reduce our risks, to speak up when we see something wrong, and to respond appropriately. But speaking the truth is the first step of healing for all of us.
God has entrusted us to each other’s care. May God help us to be faithful to God and to each other.