The passage from 2 Samuel 12 where Nathan confronts David is a powerful, challenging story. It deals with the uncovering of power abuse and truth denial. I heard yesterday that most of us struggle in some way from being abused… though the perpetrators come in different forms both outside and even within. We should covet Nathan’s boldness but also David’s readiness to hear – to accept truth and be changed through confession and restoration.
The text below the sermon audio approximates (!) to what was preached.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday August 5th 2018 The Reverend Alan Neale; “Intervention – Firm and Loving”
So many times I hear wedding couples bemoan the inordinate, mammoth amount of details involved in planning a wedding, and I try to be sympathetic! One of the most complicated tasks is to plan the seating at the reception; trying to match the wrong people at the right table. One challenge of course is “where shall I put the priest?”. Well, that is nothing compared to the task, “Where shall I put the prophet, the prophet Nathan.” He seems so unpredictable – accommodating one moment, and embarrassing the next.
According to Chronicles Nathan was an historian of the reigns of David and Solomon; he was involved in the music of the temple. All this suggests to me a sociable, sensitive, agreeable man but… contrast the man we see in today’s reading who dares to stride into the king’s presence, seduce him with a moral story and then denounce him as one who abuses the weak and exploits the powerless.
Two weeks ago we read how Nathan chastises the king and thwarts his plans for self-aggrandisement; today he denounces the king. But this is also the man who offers comfort and counsel to the dying king and is winsome, agreeable enough that Bathsheba and David name their first viable child… Nathan!
During a pre-marital conversation yesterday, one partner spoke of the importance of “truth-telling in love.” This is no simple task… as Bill Wilson writes in a letter (1966) “Sometimes we need to place love ahead of indiscriminate ‘factual honesty.’ We cannot, under the guise of ‘perfect honesty,’ cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others.”
I covet Nathan’s boldness but also yearn for his winsomeness that caused even the castigated and challenged, the rebuked and reprimanded to remain in a circle of friendship and respect.
We hear much today of the phrase “truth to power”. It is as old as ancient Greece known then as ‘parrhesia’; it is similar to the tactic Satyagrapha (“truth-force”) used by Gandhi in seeking independence from the British. And one critic, speaking of Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, speaks of its ‘truth-to-power vibe, calling out all the phonies, as gut-punching now as ever.”
Nathan is the very personification of ‘truth to power’, he dares to enter an arena in which he could lose not only his livelihood, his reputation but even his very life (remember what happened to that other “truth to power” emblem, John Baptist – he lost his head!
Here Christians, the Church, find ourselves in miry and controversial ground – we want to be both pastoral and yet also prophetic… and friends this is not an easy vocation, though our vocation I believe it to be.
Consider, for a few moments, Nathan. He spoke with courage, clarity and compassion.
Courage! I remember, years ago in Oxford, I was showing a Norwegian Christian the city. When we returned to the college she expressed her surprise at the number of Christian texts she saw on billboards large and often. When asked to explain, she said, “Everywhere it reads ‘Take Courage’”. I just had to let her know that Courage was a popular beer not a reference to Joshua chapter 1. But we need to “take courage” and we do that as we spend time in the presence of God and the presence of God’s people. I read yesterday, “Lack of power, that is our real dilemma” – but it need not, should not be our dilemma.
Clarity! I consider it to be one of the most dramatic moments in Holy Scripture when Nathan has engaged King David in moral outrage, the king demands the name of the wretched and unjust perpetrator and then (probably after a moment of silence as the two men stare at each other)… Nathan declares, “You are the man.” There is no equivocation, no fudging of issues, no evasion… caginess… or ambiguity. “You are the man.” I remember the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37) “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ Anything more comes from the evil one.” We must strive toward, we must maintain (with the help of God) the goal that we mean what we say, though we be not mean when we say it.
Compassion! Despite these radical engagements between Nathan and David, there remains between them a relationship of friendship and respect. As he is dying so David calls for his friend Nathan; as David and Bathsheba seek to name their first viable child so they name him “Nathan.” I believe that the telling of the story about the poor, the rich man, the sheep was done so that David’s sense of moral outrage could be stirred and so that the moment of great revelation and truth (“You are the man”) was more palatable, more able to be received.
Nathan was determined to uncover abuse of power and to reveal the truth. Similarly churches locally, nationally, globally have also been dealing, continue to deal, with situations in which ordained power has been used to abuse and to deny the truth. We are, at the very least, in process and this process we will not surrender.
But there are two major protagonists in today’s story from Samuel; one to whom we have given much attention, Nathan, but remember also David.
In that obviously and ostensibly flawed man, there remained the man whom God could use; how comes? Because David was able, somehow, to hear the truth and be changed.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, our vocation is to be Nathan but our reality is to be David… with some hesitation and some temerity, I want to be ready, willing and able to hear God’s voice challenge me as Nathan once challenged David; are you ready to commit to this journey again. This I know, this will lead to a life more free, more useful… beyond my imaginings.
So be it, AMEN.