Rev John Howard (Methodist Church of Great Britain)
“Living for God: Morals and Ethics.” 2Samuel 18 5-9, 15, 31-33. Ephesians 4 25 – 5 2.
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (19 in Ordinary time) Year B.
The long narrative in 1 and 2 Samuel about David, shepherd boy, hero, soldier and king. Blessed by God, yet who betrays God by his actions with Bathsheba, whom despite this, God upholds through God’s love for him – is one of the Bible stories that speaks at differing levels. At one level it is a story of a piece of history, written of course as all history is with the eyes of the powerful, the victors, the leaders, and often with rose tinted spectacles, but never the less based upon events that actually happened. It is doubtful if the story would have been passed down so many generations if that had been all that it was. At the heart of the story of David is the account of a particular man’s relationship to God, which changes, grows, matures and which reveals as much about God as it does about David.
The Bible is not like any other book we read. As a collection of writings written over more than 500 years, and containing material that was previously passed from generation to generation as oral tradition, it contains stories that were vitally important to the people who owned them. The oral tradition which became a part of the written bible was itself much older still than the bible as we now have it. One of the key questions we always need to ask ourselves as we read passages from the bible is – “What is this passage telling me about God and the life of faith.” Very few of the stories in the bible are told simply as a story, they were preserved, and then recorded in writing because the stories contained important truths for the people who told them, read them and reflected upon them. They were truths about being human and about the human relationship to our maker.
David is not just any character of the Old Testament. He is the King who transformed Israel from a disparate group of connected tribes, into a nation. He was the one who made Jerusalem the capital of the nation. For a few years Israel was the dominant power of the region, and until the twentieth century that was the only time in their history when Israel was in any real sense a power in the region. Not surprisingly then David was seen by the bible editors as being blessed by God. The shepherd boy, the youngest brother defeats Goliath the giant hero fighter – the humble shepherd boy becomes the great victorious King chosen by God. David exhibits the most wonderful qualities human beings can exhibit, but he also exhibits terrible human failings.
The story we have read this morning from 2 Samuel has shades of David at his best and his worst. The background to David’s troubles is his fall from grace as a result of his affair with Bathsheba and, because of it, his arranging for the death of Uriah the Hittite. His first son by Bathsheba dies as God’s punishment of David, but that is not the end. David’s son Absalom lives and becomes a pretender to the throne. He leads the rebellion against his own father. Joab is David’s loyal army commander, he has been with David through thick and thin, and clearly has a contempt for Absalom, which David as Absalom’s father cannot share. While it seems those around David, who have stayed by his side, want Absalom dead, David does not and his grief, when Absalom does die, reflects the love of the father who longs for the return of the wayward son. Its the story told in the parable of the prodigal son, except in this case that the prodigal never returns. David’s grief is inconsolable. Its a very human story. Many the parent of a wayward child who longs for their return. But the story has overtones that makes it one of the great stories of the bible, for David’s relationship with Absalom, is a mirror image of God’s relationship with David and wider with all his children. David too strayed, but God’s grace has welcomed him back. God has wept over David, God weeps over each of us as we stray from being the people God wants us to be. Absalom has treated David his father terribly. We treat God terribly. David weeps for his son, God weeps for you and I as we stray. The human response is seen in Joab. David exhibits the divine response. He weeps over a son who has treated him shamefully.
The way we treat each other, and therefore the way we treat God is at the heart of what Paul is focussing upon in the New Testament lesson we read from Ephesians. Paul is speaking about the very heart of Christian ethics, how we live our lives as faithful Christians. At its heart is verse one of chapter five, “Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us.” It is hardly possible to give a better description of what it is to be Christian – Imitate God, love as Christ.
The passage above this verse goes into the practical details of what this way of life is all about. Verse 25. Be truthful no falsehood, its not just addressing what we say but how we live. Live with integrity. Verse 26. Be angry but do not sin – don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Christians are to be passionate – we should be angry at some of the things that happen in the world around us, the terrible plight of the people in Gaza for example – we should be angry about that, but keep control – don’t sin, don’t let the anger take you over. One part of that is the very good advice to deal with the anger before sleep. For one thing – you’ll sleep better – but also its a part of keeping control of the anger. Verse 28. Thieves give up theft. In other words make your living in ethical ways. This is a lot more challenging than it sounds. Too many people today are willing to make their living in unethical ways. For example, working for arms companies. Lets not fool ourselves, many of the wars around us are being fed by arms companies making huge profits from selling their arms into conflict zones. It is unethical to work for them. Another example of working for unethical companies, working for financial companies that make their money by buying up healthy companies and stripping their assets and making the workers redundant. Paul address thieves, but thieves today come in many shapes and sizes! Verse 29. Watch your mouth, the tongue can be the hardest part of the body to control. Speech is a wonderful gift – given only to humans, use it well. Verse 31. Keep away all bitterness, wrath (if you like – out of control anger), wrangling (in other words underhand dealing), slander – again the dangers of the tongue. Avoid malice, don’t bare grudges.
Then Paul puts the other side of all this – avoid all these pit falls – but Christian life is not simply about don’t do this and don’t do that. It’s just as much about doing right as it is about avoiding doing wrong, verse 32. “Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” These positive qualities are the very qualities of God’s nature. While in the Old Testament reading David shows forgiveness and tenderness he is reflecting the nature of God. Paul is saying that we must do the same thing. Our lives should take the qualities we recognise in the personhood of God and replicate them in our own lives. That of course is precisely what the disciples recognised in the person of Jesus. He showed in a perfect form what human life, lived in a divine way looks like.
All of that, the keeping clear of the negatives and the taking on of the positives are all aspects of what it means to Imitate God, love as Christ.
There is much of this we can learn for ourselves by thinking and praying carefully about how we live, but sometimes it is helpful to look at one of the modern people who have lived out their Christian Faith. I find that reading biographies or watching a video about key Christian people of the 20th or 21st century is a real help to me. Take the book “Let the Trumpet Sound” by Stephen Oates. It’s a very good biography of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In it you see how Martin Luther King, who elsewhere is often described in saintly terms – had his failings, struggled with temptations, found himself in situations he could not cope with. But you also see how he deals with it – in prayer, in discussion with colleagues, in conversations with his wife, through thinking out faithfully how best to respond. You can see in the book how as his life develops – his faith grows, he as a person grows.
For those who don’t like books but get on well with videos, the video “Romero” is an inspirational film to view. It tells the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, assassinated in1980 while leading Mass. Part of the story here is of a man who had shown ability and talent, but his courage was only evident as he took on this senior role at a very violent time. Again you see in the story the video tells, how he grows as a man through prayer, friendship, colleagueship and reflection. He championed the cause of the poor and risked his life daily, he had to come to terms with what it meant to face death daily. Finally while in a very public place he is gunned down, and his death itself becomes an inspiration to others to challenge the injustices of the time.
The bible guides us through stories and through the writings of the Colossi of the faith, like David and Saint Paul. Much though is summed up in the paraphrase of Ephesians 5 verse 1. Imitate God, love as Christ. “ Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us.”