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Sunday, July 29, 2018
Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:1-15
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was as beautiful as a person could be. All who saw him grew enamored with him, but he never returned their love. Eventually, the women grew tired of him, so they asked the gods to curse Narcissus so he could feel the pain of unrequited love. The gods obliged, sending him into the woods where he came across a perfect pool of water, saw his image reflected in the water, thought it was a spirit who lived in that water, and fell in love with it.
Every time Narcissus leaned towards the image to kiss it, he fell in the water. He’d get up, see the image again, try the kiss again, and fall once again. He was so in love with the image that he began to starve, and eventually he withered away and died.
Now, typically we hear this myth and interpret it as a warning against self-love, which it certainly is. However, in our world that has shifted towards being image-driven, there is a new way to look at Narcissus. “The chief error of Narcissus was not that he fell in love with himself but rather that he failed to recognize himself in the water’s reflection. Narcissus became ‘numb’ to his own extended image in the low-tech medium of a water mirror. He could not perceive that the image was simply an extension of himself, and so he gave the image power to harm and ultimately kill. If Narcissus had understood that the water was simply a mirror reflecting his own face, the mirror’s power would have been dispelled, and Narcissus could have gained control over it. Narcissus…became enslaved to his own image. When we fail to perceive that the things we create are extensions of ourselves, the created things take on god-like characteristics and we become their servants.”
We are now undeniably living in a visual culture. Many of us can’t go out with friends without posting a picture on social media to share with the world what we’ve done. We communicate with memes and gifs. Reading is down, and watching is up. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a visual culture. In fact, we’ve gained a lot with it. After all, a picture is worth 1,000 words. However, we must be careful that we don’t just blindly live in this culture as though it does not impact us. It does – especially men, whom studies have shown are far more prone than women to find attraction visually. On some level we are all in danger of being a Narcissus, seeing our own carefully crafted images without recognizing our true selves in them. We may work hard at crafting our images, but we do that to cover up our own brokenness.
“Sin…often grows and flourishes in the fertile soil that is sight,” one preacher reminds us. “I may, after all, see my neighbor’s house or car and, as a result, covet it. Sin, however, seldom stops with such seeing. Undisciplined vision can easily become like a firecracker that lights another firecracker that is sinful action.”
God wants us to be honest with ourselves and with God. It’s the healthiest way to live, and yet we are so prone to ignoring the ways that we have strayed away from God’s will for us. We must take a close look at ourselves. Quite often we are not who we project ourselves to be. We may be good, decent people, but we are not perfect. Nor we are immune to wandering down paths that are destructive for us and for others. In my ministry, I’ve seen it happen with frightening regularity in peoples’ lives. From the outside everything looks pretty normal and okay, but on the inside things have become twisted. Good people in the church do some incredibly destructive things to themselves and others, and it all starts with one small step in the wrong direction.
Our text today fascinates me for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is that it exists at all in the biblical narrative. Here is King David at the peak of his powers. He has unified and expanded the nation of Israel. He is renowned throughout the world and revered in his nation. He is a warrior, a poet, a musician, a real Renaissance man. He has wives and children. He has palaces and armies and the Lord on his side. Yet here we have a detailed text of his undoing – one that is solely his own fault. And this story is relived in the psalms, most notably Psalm 51. I am amazed that the Bible includes such a terrible account of one of its heroes, but I believe it’s in the Bible because it speaks powerfully to us as individuals, as a church community, and even as a nation.
“We pause before this artistic rendering, because this text…has the power and the subtlety to address us,” challenges one commentator. “If we face this text at all, we are soon invited behind all the critical, scholarly questions to face the harder questions of human desire and human power – desire with all its delight, power with all its potential for death….This narrative is more than we want to know about David and more than we can bear to understand about ourselves.”
As I read the scriptures a few minutes ago, you heard the start of David’s descent. After years of success, he appears bored. He sends his troops out without him. David is wandering on the rooftop, unable to take an afternoon nap. He is pacing, agitated in spirit. From the roof he spies Bathsheba bathing. He summons her. He sleeps with her. She goes home. It is clear he was troubled before this, but because he didn’t take that close look in the mirror, he compounded his dis-ease, bringing someone else into his mess. “Sin doesn’t just grow out of being in the wrong place. Sin doesn’t just move from sight to action. Sin also often entangles others in its strong and sticky web.”
Now Bathsheba is pregnant. Clearly the child can’t be her husband’s because he is fighting David’s battles for him. Instead of owning up to his actions, he doubles down. He calls Uriah back from battle. He tries to trick Uriah into sleeping with his wife so the child could plausibly be his. Yet Uriah is faithful to David and to the cause and will not do so.
David doubles down again. Instead of owning up to his sin, he devises a plan to have Uriah killed and make it look like it was just the whims of battle. David implicates still another person, his general Joab, who follows the command of the king, puts Uriah and others into a deadly situation, and they lose their lives.
If only David had recognized his move toward sin before acting on it! If David had been on that roof, spied Bathsheba, and denied himself, then none of this tragedy happens. Bathsheba and David’s child dies after birth. Uriah and several others die in battle. David’s heart and hands are bloody. Like Narcissus, David failed to recognize himself in his own reflection. He was too busy destroying himself and others to get real.
When I was in third grade I had an assignment that required a parent’s signature. I forgot to get one, so I forged by mom’s signature. My teacher caught me, and my mom caught me. I recall her circling my forgery and writing this verse originally penned by Walter Scott:
O, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
I can still remember how she wrote those words. I remember the guilt of lying. But it’s stuck with me because my mom loved me enough to call me to account for a small deception, which kept me from thinking that getting away with lies was somehow worthwhile – something I wish our politicians would have learned in third grade!
This terrible story of David and Bathsheba is in Holy Scripture to show us the folly of sin. As I mentioned earlier in the sermon, I have often encountered people in the church who believe they’re getting away with something, just like David thought he could cover over his sin on his own. How many marriage vows must be broken until we deal with our sin? How many times will we cheat others in business before we realize the cost is not worth the gain? How long will we run from our evil?
The good news is that this text offers us several lessons that help us escape the trap of self-deception and find our way to the joys of living the way God wants us to. The first lesson is this: Don’t isolate yourself. David was alone. He had no one to stop him, and so he acted. If you are in a destructive pattern, you need to seek help outside of yourself to break the cycle. This is what church is supposed to be about. Among this community, each of us should be able to find others who will help us be honest with ourselves and who will help us live into God’s higher calling for our lives. If you’re struggling with something – addiction to alcohol or pornography, cutting ethical corners, finding anger towards someone growing in your heart – find someone who will walk with you in that. Don’t isolate yourself. You’ll be surprised how many of us are struggling too! We all need a community of accountability, and among fellow believers we should be able to find a space for grace and healing.
Second, learn to do something constructive with your boredom. David let his boredom lead down a destructive path. Most of us let our boredom lead us to less constructive places – binging on cable news, flipping through our social media feeds, getting into online arguments, and the like. Why not do something constructive when you have down time? Plant a garden. Help a neighbor. Paint a picture. Spread God’s love.
Third, learn how to trust in God more than you trust in yourself. David’s life was going pretty well when the Lord was doing things for him. But when he took things into his own hands, it was a catastrophe that impacted him and many others. Many of the psalms are attributed to David, so I’d like to think he learned a little bit from this. In Psalm 121 we hear these incredible words, “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” No matter what’s going on in your life, trusting God with it is the start to getting things really going the right direction. We all have some work to do in trusting God.
The story of David and Bathsheba stands as a warning to us all. Each and every one of us is capable of going down a destructive path that starts with ourselves and quickly pulls others into its web. It’s part of Scripture to remind us that, “Divine inspiration doesn’t provide divine cover-up. God’s people can be honest about sin because God’s people’s Scriptures are honest about them.”
Perhaps today is the day you get real with yourself.
 Hipps, Shane, Flickering Pixels, 34.
 Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel, 272.