Years ago when I lived in Valleyview, one of the members of my church decided to do something he had never done before: read the Bible all the way through. He was quite excited about this. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to use, and he set aside fifteen or twenty minutes each night to read a few pages. I had warned him that he would not finish the project quickly, and in fact it took him about eight months, at the rate of about four or five pages a day.
He was quite surprised by some of what he read. Like many Anglicans, he’d only ever encountered the bits of the Bible that we read in church on Sundays, and if you didn’t already know this, let me tell you now that we tend to airbrush out some of the more difficult passages for public reading! But he was determined to read the whole thing – bloody sacrifices, cursing psalms, incestuous relationships and all. He had absolutely no idea how much of this stuff there was in the Bible, and it really bothered him.
“I thought the Bible was going to be full of inspiring stories about people – good examples to follow”, he said to me one day when he was about half way through. “But it’s not. The people in the Bible are just as bad as we are! What’s the point of reading a book like that? How does that help us?”
He’s not alone in thinking like this. I know of young people who’ve given up on church because, as they put it, the church is full of hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach. Of course, as we get older, we gradually come to realize that hypocrites are all God has to work with. There’s not a single one of us who practices what we preach perfectly. We’re all flawed and sinful human beings; every one of us knows that we have not loved God with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.
And yet, in God’s mercy and grace, he continues to be patient with us and to work with us. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). The ‘treasure’ he’s talking about is the gospel message, and the ‘clay jars’ are you and me – not much to look at, but we’re all God’s got to work with!
And so we come, once again, to David. The story of David is the longest biography in the pages of the Bible; it stretches from 1 Samuel 16, where he is a seventeen-year old shepherd boy in Bethlehem, through the rest of the first book of Samuel and the entire second book of Samuel, and on to the second chapter of the first book of Kings, where he dies as an old man of seventy. Our Old Testament readings through early summer have been following his story and will continue to do so for a few weeks more, but of course a lot has been skipped over; you can’t read everything, at least, not if people want to get home in time for Sunday lunch!
Today’s reading is the turning point in the story; after a twenty-year wait, David is finally crowned as king over all Israel.
‘Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel”. So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel’ (2 Samuel 5:1-3).
But this coronation has been a long time coming; as I said, it’s twenty years since Samuel first anointed young David as Saul’s successor, and the journey has been a long and convoluted one. Today I want to step back from it, and offer two observations about the story of David as a whole.
The first is the length of time it takes for God’s promises and God’s call to be fulfilled. As we have seen, when David was seventeen, the prophet Samuel went to his home in Bethlehem and anointed him as king over Israel. But Israel already had a king at that time: Saul, who had disobeyed God and who had consequently been rejected. It was many years before Saul’s reign actually came to an end; for some of this time, he actively persecuted David, who he understandably saw as a threat to his throne. It was thirteen years before David became the king of his own tribe of Judah, and seven more years before he became king of all Israel, in the passage we’ve read today.
David would have been less than human if he had not doubted the call from time to time during those twenty years. Many times during those years Saul tried to kill him, but the record is clear that he never responded in kind; as far as he was concerned, it was God’s job to bring Saul’s reign to an end in his own time, and David didn’t need to do it for him. Some Bible scholars are skeptical about this; they think that the authors have whitewashed things out of the story. My response to that is that if whitewashing was happening, there are lots of other things that would have been left out, too – David’s adultery with Bathsheba, for instance, and his murder of Bathsheba’s husband so that he could take her as his own wife! No – David had lots of failings, especially in the area of marriage and family, but he seems to have been able to hold on to his sense of God’s purpose, even when things looked dark for him. He chose to continue to believe that the call was real, even though it took a long time to be implemented.
I think I have a sense of what David might have felt like. As many of you know, when I first went into full-time ministry I was part of an Anglican missionary organization called the Church Army. We were trained as evangelists in a two-year training program, but we were not ordained priests – we were lay ministers. Many of us actually ended up being asked to work in parishes as full time lay ministers, and in some cases this caused complications because we could not preside at celebrations of Holy Communion; we had to bring ordained priests in to do that. But we were cheap and cheerful, and we went where we were sent, and in those days bishops appreciated that, as not all of their clergy would go where they were needed – a situation, I might add, that is even more true today than it was then.
I was commissioned as a Church Army evangelist in May of 1978. Marci and I moved to Arborfield, Saskatchewan as newlyweds in October of 1979, and within a year of that move, I had begun to sense that God was calling me to be ordained as a priest. I raised the subject with my bishop, and he and I began to have conversations about it. There was, of course, a well-travelled path to ordination, which would have involved me going back to school for no less than seven years, but, for a number of reasons, that road was problematic for me. Eventually I left Saskatchewan without being ordained and moved to the Diocese of the Arctic, and there, about ten years after I first sensed the call, Bishop Jack Sperry ordained me as a deacon. But it was another eighteen months before I was ordained as a priest, in Valleyview, by Bishop John Clarke.
It seemed like a long and winding road, and there were a few times when I felt like giving up and staying as I was. But I couldn’t avoid the sense that God was in this, even if the church didn’t always seem to agree, and in the end, in God’s good time, it came about. And of course, I learned a lesson on the way: that God’s timing is often different from ours. We live in time, and we perhaps have a sense of our own mortality, so we tend to be in a hurry. God, I believe, does not live in time, and God sees the big picture, and feels no need to be in a rush. In fact, teaching us to be patient may be a much higher priority for God than it is for us!
So if you sense that God is calling you to something, don’t be unduly worried if that call isn’t fulfilled right away. As I mentioned last week, in Luke chapter eighteen Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow, and Luke says quite clearly that it was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). He would not have told them this parable if he thought they wouldn’t sometimes be tempted to lose heart and give up on their prayers! So the lesson is: keep praying, keep being faithful to what you believe God is calling you to do, and leave the timing in God’s hands. That’s the first thing.
The second thing that impresses me about the story of David is David’s real, and flawed, humanity. This goes along with what my friend discovered when he read the Bible through for the first time. People in the Bible are not saints with halos around their heads; they are ordinary sinful human beings like you and me. And David is no exception.
I can’t summarize the whole story of David here today; as I said, it’s the longest piece of sustained biographical writing in the whole Bible. I would strongly encourage you to read it for yourself.
But if you read it, be prepared: this David is not a saint with a halo around his head. Yes, he’s a brave young man who fights off Goliath and leads Israel to great military victories, and he’s also a man whose natural respect for those God has chosen to be in authority over him prevents him from ever being in real rebellion against Saul, even though he knows God has called him to take Saul’s place. The Bible presents him as praying and seeking God’s guidance and God’s blessing; it calls him ‘a man after God’s own heart’ and ‘the sweet singer of Israel’, and many of the Old Testament psalms are associated with his name. How many of them he actually wrote is impossible to tell for sure, but there’s no doubt in my mind that some of them come from him.
All well and good, but there were depths of darkness in David’s soul too. He was hopeless at marriage and family relations. In a few weeks we’re going to read the most famous example of this. After he became king of Israel, while his army was out fighting against the Ammonites, he was walking on the roof of his palace in Jerusalem one day, and he saw a beautiful woman having a bath. He sent for her and slept with her (I don’t imagine she had a great deal of choice in the matter). Her name was Bathsheba and she was the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers fighting for David at the front.
Inevitably, Bathsheba got pregnant, and now David had a problem; he had a reputation as a man of God to uphold, and also, according to the Law of Moses, Bathsheba was in danger of being stoned to death. David’s first plan was to get Uriah home from the front line and into bed with his wife as soon as possible, but for one reason or another that didn’t work (you’ll have to read the story to find out why!). So David sent an order to his general for the troops to attack an enemy stronghold and then withdraw and leave Uriah to his fate. And that’s what happened: Uriah was killed in battle, Bathsheba mourned for him, and then, very quickly, David married her.
Later, the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, and David repented. I believe David’s repentance was genuine; after all, in those days, kings had absolute power, and if David didn’t like what Nathan had said, he could easily have had him killed. But repentant or not, this is the sort of man David was. He had eight different wives that I can count (not that this was a biblical record: his son Solomon had several hundred of them!), and he made no secret of his favouritism for one of his many sons, Absolom. Absolom had a sister named Tamar, and when their half-brother Amnon raped her, Absolom plotted and eventually killed his brother. Eventually, by a complicated series of events, Absolom led a short-lived rebellion against his father, which ended up in his own death as well. And inevitably, when David was an old man and on the point of death, there was a power struggle between his sons; Bathsheba’s son Solomon was ultimately successful, and Adonijah, his chief rival, lost his life too. That’s the sort of family life that David had; it’s not very edifying, is it?
Even at the end of his life, David had apparently not learned some of the most vital lessons of living. During his life he had carried several grudges against people; on the surface he had forgiven them, but apparently this was a sham. On his deathbed, he gave his son Solomon careful instructions concerning these people; “Don’t let their grey heads go down to the grave in peace”, he said. Solomon did as he was told; one by one, these old enemies of his dad, who thought David had forgiven them, were bumped off by Solomon’s hatchet man Benaiah son of Jehoiada.
So this was David: a man who loved God, a man who prayed, a man who tried to do what was right, but also a man of lust, a murderer, an adulterer, a man who made a show of forgiving his enemies while all the time carrying a deadly grudge against them in his heart.
Is this okay? Of course it’s not okay; all of these things are serious, and in the end, David suffered from them too – as we said last week, he was ‘his own worst enemy’. These things spoil the life God has planned for us, and Jesus is calling us to leave them behind and learn a new way of life from him.
But here’s the thing: we’re not going to be successful in entirely freeing ourselves from sin, at least, not in this life. All of us are works in progress. We’re people of faith, people who love God, people who are trying to learn the way of Jesus. But we’re also sinners: selfish, self-centred people. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We love doing things God hates, and we hate doing things God loves. We wish we could be different, and we try, but over and over again, we fail.
We know this is true, but in our dark moments we tend to think it means God can’t use us to serve him. The story of David assures us that this isn’t the case. Flawed and imperfect human beings are all God’s got to work with. And this means we have to be patient with ourselves, and patient with each other as well. I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “I would never join any club that would accept me as a member”. Well, brothers and sisters, this club has accepted each of us as members, with all our faults and imperfections! We’re well aware of our own shortcomings, and this ought to make us more gentle with the shortcomings of those around us. And through it all, God continues to use us to bless others, just as he used David.
So what ties all of this together today? I’d suggest that the common theme is the patience of God. God is doing a work in Israel, and God is doing a work in David, and God is prepared to take a long time to do it, if that’s what it takes.
Are you thankful for the patience of God? I have to confess that sometimes I’m not. Sometimes it irritates me! There are prayers I’ve been praying for decades that I haven’t seen answers for yet – at least, not answers I like! There are things I think need changing, and I wish God would hurry up. I suspect you feel the same way.
I would suggest that we need to learn to be deeply grateful for the patience of God. I’m aware that there are besetting sins in my life that have been ‘besetting’ me for all the years of my Christian journey! Is that God’s fault? No, the fault is entirely mine. And there has been change, yes, but nothing like what could have happened if I’d always responded wholeheartedly to God’s call. I believe God is grieved by this, but I also know that God loves me and will not give up on me. And meanwhile, God can still use me to do his work and to bless other people.