December 18, 2011

Out of Place

How many of you have heard the old adage: “There’s a place for everything and everything should go in its place”?  I’m a big believer in this.  No, you don’t understand.  I’m a big believer in this.  I know I’ve talked before about my blight of perfectionism.  It gets worse.  The other night Lisa and I had made some cookies and there were several remaining on the plate.  I looked over and noticed that they were laying on top of each other.  I reached over and spread them all out so they were flat.  I’m incessantly picking things up around the house and putting them where I think they should go.  (Notice the emphasis there on where I think they should go…everyone else doesn’t always agree.)  There are some activities like washing up in the morning, showering, fixing meals, and the like that if thing aren’t where they should be or I start them in the wrong order I’ll forget to do parts of them.  Josiah has been getting over a cold for the last couple of weeks.  As part of his process of healing and teething at the same time he doesn’t want to drink his bottles (these are the times I let myself wonder a bit if God isn’t at least a little like the Far Side’s mean kid on an ant hill with a magnifying glass).  Thus, whereas we used to be able to lay him on a blanket on the floor with his bottle and a couple of pillows to prop up his arms, lately we have had to coax and beg every drop into him.  His pattern is off and it has stressed me out.  I have to keep reminding myself that he isn’t capable yet of malicious thought.  It’s tough to stay frustrated when he raspberries milk everywhere and follows that up with a really big almost toothy grin.  Now, some folks might say that I’m borderline OCD in all of this and have the potential to drive the people around me right up to and yes, sometimes sailing over the cliffs of insanity.  They might be right.  But, I tend to think that I’m meticulous and working to create an environment in which to the extent of my ability I know what to expect.  When everything is in its place and happening when it should be happening, life is a lot smoother and more comfortable.  When all the toys are picked up regularly there is less of a chance of me stubbing my toe on one of them.  When things are happening in the right order I end up with a clean face and good breath every morning.  Do you see how all of this works out to everyone’s advantage?  Well, not only is this a positive good when we are talking about things and routines, but it is also a positive good when we start talking about people,  You see, as people, there are places we should be at certain times.  There are things we should be doing at certain times.  And if we are not there, doing them, the potential for negative consequences begins to rise.

This morning as we continue our series, Fanfare for the Common Man, we are going to look at a story which has something to say about all of this.  So far on our journey we have taken a look at the stories of Judah and Tamar and Rahab and the Spies.  These were both pretty tough stories.  Neither of them really fit the mold of what people who don’t know the Bible very well are expecting when they open it.  I mean, there are people who actually think the Bible is boring.  I tend to think those are the people who haven’t spent much time really reading it.  They may have taken the skim and checklist approach (you, when you read quickly and only for the purposes of marking something off your daily Am-I-Spiritual-Enough? checklist), but they haven’t actually engaged it.  Anyway, in these two stories we saw how God can and does work through the lives of common people.  We often picture the Bible as full of faith heroes only to discover that there are a number of stories about people who don’t seem all that heroic; people who were all messed up by sin and yet who God used in spite of it.  These are the kinds of people Jesus came to save.  People just like you and me.  The only onus resting on our shoulders, then, is to live lives that are able to experience the full impact of Jesus’ coming.  I have called this an Advent-ready lifestyle.  So far we have encountered two principles of such a life.  First, we are going to be ready to receive the coming Christ when we are able to embrace the truth when faced with it.  We must also deal with the fact that His kingdom has to come before everything else in our lives.  In this radical reordering of priorities, sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.

Today we are going to encounter yet another story; this one even more familiar than the previous two.  And just like our previous two stories, this is one that is about something more than what it appears at first read.  Our story this morning is found in 2 Samuel 11-12 and is widely known as the story of David and Bathsheba.  If you have been in the church for very long, you probably know this as the story about David committing adultery and then murder and God calling him out on it. And if you stopped reading about halfway through chapter 12 it would be.  But that’s not the end of the story.  This story is actually about what happened when David wasn’t where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing.

Let me address one other thing here before we get to the story itself.  I have said from the beginning that this series is about looking at the lives of common people to be reminded that Jesus came to save us too.  Well, in most of your minds, David probably isn’t such a common person.  I mean, he is the only person in Scripture described as a man after God’s heart.  He was a king.  In fact, he was the greatest king the nation of Israel has ever known.  He’s the reason there is a city of Jerusalem.  Before he came along it was called Jebus and was filled with pagans.  He killed a nine-and-a-half foot tall giant.  He led armies to countless military victories.  He was such a good friend of God’s that God promised he would always have a descendent on the throne of Israel; a promise now eternally fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  None of those things scream common to me.  In fact, they don’t even whisper it.  Yet consider this.  Were it not for God’s direct intervention, David would have spent his life herding sheep for his father and brothers.  That’s about as common as they come.  And though David attained a high position during his lifetime, he was just as broken as you and me.  He struggled with things like doubting God, not listening to God, pride, putting his desires before what was right, anger, and the list goes on.  All of that comes together to make him a very much common person.

With all of that said, let’s turn to the story itself.  If you have your Bibles with you this morning, turn to 2 Samuel 11.  Let me tell you the story, we’ll dissect it a bit, and then talk about what it has to do with having an Advent-ready lifestyle.  Let’s start reading at the beginning of the chapter.  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.”  I just want to make sure you caught that.  The spring of the year was the time when kings led their armies into battle.  But this particular spring David had sent everyone and stayed behind.  Stay with me in v. 2: “It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.”  Alright, so David is home when all of his army is away making war on the Ammonites.  Remember, David is a warrior.  He has been his entire life.  Sitting at home all alone as he is, he’s probably bored out of his mind.  This was in a day before he could kick back and throw a game on the TV in the evenings to fill time before bed.  He did about the only thing he could have done for entertainment.  He went for a walk on his roof.  Well, because he wasn’t where he should have been, he saw something he shouldn’t have seen: a beautiful woman taking a bath.  Now, you might be wondering why she was taking a bath on the roof in the first place.  The way the houses were built back then, a person’s roof was the most private place she had to go.  It was the equivalent of going in the bathroom and locking the door.  Everyone had houses that were the same height—a single story; everyone, that is, except the king.  His house was tall enough to look out over the city.  He was to keep watch over the city.  Except on this night, he wasn’t keeping watch, he was just watching.

David wasn’t where he should have been so he saw something he shouldn’t have seen which led to his doing something he shouldn’t have done.  Instead of walking back inside to give this woman her privacy he watched with interest.  And as his interest rose, so did his desire.  Soon he summoned some servants to go find out who she was.  Now, the servants knew their master was heading down the wrong path.  They came back and reported: “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.”  In other words, “Hey David, she’s taken.  If you want to entertain yourself in this way, why don’t you try one of your wives?”  But David was too far gone.  He had the servants summon her to his house and things went downhill from there.  So here we have Bathsheba out actively seeking to obey the Law of Moses which basically commanded women to take a bath a week after their monthly cycle ended in order to make sure they stayed clean and healthy.   In other words, she was where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to be doing.  And then she gets summoned by the king to go somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be.  Now, we can argue all day long that she should have said no, but he was the king.  Kings get what they want.  Particularly when it comes to women.  Particularly in a culture in which women ranked only a little above animals.  While she was certainly passive, this was in all likelihood not a consensual encounter.  And to add insult to injury when it was over David sent her out like a piece of trash.  End of story.  Except it wasn’t.

Now someone might wonder why the detail about the timing of her bath—a week after her cycle ended—was given but it should be obvious to all the women in the room.  About two to three weeks later Bathsheba sent word to the king: “I’m pregnant.”  Now things were complicated.  It was going to look awfully funny when Uriah came home from battle to a pregnant wife when the timing didn’t work out.  David had to do something.  And so he did.  Now today, this probably would have played out with David quietly paying for Bathsheba to have an abortion.  That option wasn’t available to David.  So instead he summoned Bathsheba’s husband Uriah home from the frontlines in hopes that he and his wife would have a happy reunion, covering things up nicely.  But Uriah didn’t cooperate.  Instead of going home, he slept on David’s front porch because as he says in v. 11: “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in [tents]; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife?  As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.”  Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to do something wrong and someone doing right gets in the way?  David took another tack—get him drunk and then send him home—but that didn’t work either.  So, he sent Uriah back to the battlefield, and had him deliver a letter to Joab which contained instructions to make sure that Uriah died in the next battle.  So now David is an adulterer, probably a rapist, and a murderer.  That’s a lot of baggage just from being in the wrong place.

After giving Bathsheba an appropriate amount of time to mourn the death of her husband, David brings her into his house and marries her.  This would have been viewed culturally as very charitable of David.  The fact that Uriah was a Hittite suggests that he probably didn’t have any family in the area who could have taken Bathsheba in.  David’s gesture kept her from having to live under her parent’s roof as a widow.  Of course, we know what was really going on.  David was covering his tracks and likely figured everything was settled.

But God doesn’t let things like this go so easily; particularly in the lives of His leaders.  He sent His prophet Nathan to confront David.  Nathan told David a story about a man with everything stealing the single sheep of a man with nothing.  Upon hearing this David flew out of his chair demanding that this rich man be put to death for what he had done.  With David’s ire up Nathan sprung the trap: “You are the man!”  He went on to reveal God’s word for David starting in 12:7: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.  Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?  You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.  Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun.  For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”

In addition to all this, God announces as an additional punishment, the baby born out of this adulterous union will die.  Now, let me acknowledge that this is one of those places in the Bible that’s hard to deal with.  God is unfailingly just, but sometimes His justice operates in ways that we cannot and will not understand until we can see all things from His perspective.  Let me also add here that although this baby’s death is directly related to the sin of his parents, this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that such a thing is normative.  This story is descriptive, not prescriptive.  In any event, the baby dies over David’s most sincere pleadings.  Yet even in this time God is gracious.  The new couple conceives again a child who will one day follow his father on the throne and become the wisest king Israel has ever known.  This makes for a nice ending, but even this is not yet the end of the story.  The story actually ends a few verses after this when David finally goes to join his army and lead them in completing their conquering of the Ammonites.  In other words, the story ends with David finally in the place he should have been all along.  And when he gets here, he finally gets the victory that should have come long before and without the collateral damage in the interim.

Now, there are a lot of aspects to this story.  I could preach this passage for a month straight and focus on a different element each week.  Depending on where you stop reading it is a story about a failure of leadership, a failure of moral character, the dangers of infidelity, the dangers of unaccountable power, the consequences of sin, God’s graciousness to forgive when sin occurs, the importance of loving confrontation, the importance of confession, the value of dedication to duty, how to handle mourning the death of a child, and so on.  But one of the principles important in understanding the main point of a story like this is that if some idea or theme appears at the beginning and the end, this should be given extra weight.  These parallel bookends help make sense out of what comes in between.  In this case, what comes in between is all the fallout of David not being where he should have been.  When David was not where he was supposed to be, he got himself into a whole mess of trouble.  In the same way, when we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.

That’s kind of an abstract idea, though, so let’s get practical.  Does this mean that we should just be in church every time the doors open because we less likely to get into trouble here than we are anywhere else?  No, it doesn’t.  In fact, if we’re not careful, church itself can become a place we go to avoid being where we should be.  In this life, as Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time and a place for everything.  Just like having things in their place around the house not only enables me to know what to expect, but also to make sure that everything gets done as it should be, having things in our lives in the right place greatly increases the likelihood that we are going to be doing the right thing.  So then, what are some of the ways we can get out of place in our lives?  Let’s start with an easy one: church.  If your family comes to church without you very often, you are not in the right place.  Staying in the family, if you find yourself trying to get out of doing things with the family on a regular basis, regardless of how mundane they seem to you, so that you can do the things you would rather be doing, you’re not in the right place.  If you’ve ever used something like housework or yard work or running errands or finishing up something from the office to take the place of time that would normally be designated as family time, you’re not in the right place.  If you’ve ever taken time at work to do things that aren’t related to work, you weren’t in the right place.  If you’ve ever looked at any part of your life or your body and compared it with some other life or body, you were not in the right place.  If you have ever let yourself desire something that by all moral accounts you shouldn’t desire, you were not in the right place.  You see, being in the right place isn’t a purely physical thing.  It could be that our bodies or our minds or our hearts have gone off track.  But whichever it is, when we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.

When we are not where we should be, it becomes very easy to fall into destructive patterns or to make unaccountable choices that will have a lasting impact.  David experienced this in a very real way.  Now, on the surface, he didn’t seem too far out of place.  I mean, all he did was let his very capable general lead the troops into battle.  But he should have been there himself.  That was his place.  And everyone around him, including people who were otherwise totally innocent, suffered because he was not in the right place.  That’s the other side of this.  There’s no such thing as a victimless sin; a sin that affects only us.  Maybe this is just me justifying crazy, but if the things around the house aren’t where they should be then when we go to use them or have need of them, they won’t be available.  The same is true in our lives.  If we aren’t where we should be, we won’t be available to serve the people around us when we are in need.  We will also miss out on opportunities to be a part of what God is doing.  We’ll miss out on this because we will be present somewhere He is not working.  We’ll also miss out because the sin that so often accompanies being out of place will prevent us from joining Him.  Indeed, when we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.

So then, what does all of this have to do with an Advent-ready lifestyle?  When I was in grade school my family went to Yellowstone.  Near the end of our stay there we drove out to see one of the most spectacular geysers in the park.  It erupts fairly regularly, but not with the precision of Old Faithful, so we arrived early to wait for it.  One of the things you aren’t supposed to do at Yellowstone is throw stuff into the geysers.  It pollutes their pristine environments.  After waiting for a long time, I got bored.  I let my mind go where it shouldn’t have gone and begin wondering what kind of a splash the rock I was playing with would make if I threw it in the water.  So I conducted an experiment.  My parents rightly sent me to the car as punishment.  I still saw the geyser, but not as well as if I had been standing outside.  Jesus told His followers that when He came, it would be “like a thief in the night.”  For my Monty Python fans, it would be like the Spanish Inquisition.  Thus, if someone isn’t where they should be, doing what they should be doing, they’ll miss it.  When we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.  If we are stuck in destructive patterns because we are out of place, we’ll miss the power of the coming Christ in our lives.  Advent’s power will be there.  But we’ll be looking the wrong direction.  Because we’ll be in the wrong place.  God has given you a wonderful place in this world.  My prayer is that you will live there and not somewhere else.  When we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.  This Christmas, find your place and stay in it.