Basil the Blessed, a saint of the church, lived at the same time as the violent tsar, Ivan the Terrible. One year during Lent, Basil took a gift of meat to Ivan the Terrible, but Ivan refused to eat it in honor of Lent, claiming to be a devout Christian. Basil shrewdly replied, “Then why do you feed on innocent blood?” It was a gutsy thing to say to a tsar, and it was a gutsy thing that Nathan did to King David.
Both the saint Basil and the prophet Nathan knew that you cannot just waltz right into the palace and speak your mind the way a modern person flaunts a facebook status. You have to use your keenest speech when you want to make a real difference. You must have real reverence for the power of words, and the wisdom to arrange them just so.
Eugene Peterson says parables are like time bombs—seemingly sweet stories that slip past your defenses, and then detonate at just the right moment to shatter your misconceptions about yourself and about your world. And there may not be a more explosive example of a well-placed parable in all of Scripture as the one that Nathan told to David.
Shortly after the affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, Nathan paid the palace a visit. David got caught up in Nathan’s story about the ewe lamb, and we are able to see that David hadn’t lost all his scruples after all. He still felt compassion towards the lowly and oppressed; he still had a sense of justice. He rightly felt angry when an innocent person was exploited. With this simple story, Nathan tapped into what was pure and good in David, the conscience that still resided down deep somewhere, buried beneath the pressures and prestige of royal life. That’s the power of a good story—taking you beyond your limited perspectives, past your defense mechanisms, subtly introducing you to searing truths.
I don’t believe it was arrogant self-righteousness that prompted David’s response—it was something more elemental, more core. His intuition, his conscience, his heart was reawakened; he just didn’t know (at first) that such a reawakening would cut him wide open. There was nothing wrong about David’s indictment of the rich man—David’s anger was the first step towards something more important. David engaged the story and the story engaged him back. David entered the story, which allowed the truth of the story to enter David.
Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of stories that make me angry. I don’t know about you, but it happens to me just about every time I pay attention to the news. I’m furious to see what people or businesses get away with, distraught to know people can be so violent and hateful, angered to see our society allows such injustices . . .
The best wisdom says that world peace starts inside a person; that justice, kindness and compassion begin with you. That doesn’t mean you ignore the signs of injustice around you, that you hole up like a hermit and fight your inner demons, closed off to the world. It just means peace and justice and love will not spread if you don’t have them in your system already. You’re not contagious until you’re infected. You’re no threat to the darkness unless you’re lit.
Which says to me the anger I feel at news reports won’t accomplish a thing if I direct it all outward, towards the “bad guys.” I shouldn’t ignore injustice; but the trick is to direct the anger, so that burrows through my own cold-heartedness, detonates explosive truths, and reawakens my heart.
That is what happened to David, you see. It was David’s anger of all things that led him back home to himself.
Sometimes we think anger itself is a bad or dirty sort of emotion—not very Christian, certainly not nice. But anger is a good tool, if we listen to it with wisdom and use it right. Only most of us still cling to this philosophy that our humanness is a bad thing we should shed. If only we were more god-like, we could remain stoic and unaffected by frustrations.
But the God I read about in Scripture is very affected by the world and full of emotion—including anger and sadness, grief and desire and empathy—emotions we often regard as wrong or weak. What if these things we call “human” emotion were, instead, part of the Imago Dei? Glimpses of the image of God, placed inside us by our Creator?
I’m growing more aware of the way I treat my humanness—my emotions, my instincts, my body—the way I treat them like limitations, even enemies, rather than treating them like the guardian angels that they are. My body and my feelings protect me and guide me and teach me. If that sounds strange to you, I am talking about being created in the image of God. I am saying God is very good Creator, and if only I would give his creation more credit, I might learn how to trust Him better.
But instead of trusting the Creator with his creation, I am like this: If I get sick, I am mad at my body for failing me, rather than proud of my body for all the hard work it is doing to fight off the infection. If I am tired, I am angry at myself for lacking more energy, rather than grateful that my body knows how to signal me when I’ve been neglecting adequate rest. If I am plagued by anxiety, I am frustrated that I don’t have better control of my emotions, rather than listening to my spirit as it tries desperately to signal that something is amiss and I need to slow down. If I am nervous or uncomfortable in a situation, I think my stupid body is weak or shy; I never believe that the Holy Spirit is inside of me, protecting me and steering me. I seldom take it seriously that I am a temple of God, the way Scripture says I am. I certainly don’t think of my body—my arms and legs and stomach and toes—all my pieces as parts of God’s temple. Things would be different if I did. I’d feed this body differently, for one. I’d sleep different, rest different, play different. I’d honor each part of me like the gift that it is, and by making peace with the flesh and blood of me, I’d learn how to make peace with the flesh and blood of my neighbors.
I am more and more of the persuasion that the opposite of indulgence isn’t asceticism; if you want to stop indulging yourself, start by honoring yourself. If you honored your appetite, maybe you would feed it something nutritional, something your stomach and liver will truly thank you for later. If you honored your feelings, maybe you would listen to them instead of squelch them, and that would take you on an unbelievable journey to the depths of yourself. If you treated yourself like God’s temple, maybe you would fill yourself with light, with music, with prayer, all the best temple adornments.
When David took Bathsheba and murdered her husband, I think he silenced his God-given intuition. Something in his gut warned him against it, but he suppressed it. A lack of humanity tripped him up; he sunk to something more animalistic and indulgent. And when Nathan shows up, he doesn’t really give David any new information or insight. He helps David listen once more to what was already inside of him.
Nathan’s move was gutsy, but it worked because Nathan wasn’t trying to prove a point or have his own voice heard. Nathan was after repentance and healing, and those are the only motives that get a speech like his off the ground.
David’s response to the rich man was right on target; the crucial turning point was what came next. David listened to the anger the story made him feel, and then he kept listening when Nathan spoke those powerful words, “You are the man.” David allowed the truth to cut him open and bring him to repentance. He didn’t wallow in disappointment or self-pity; he repented, he recovered the image of God that still existed down inside him somewhere. He returned to himself; he returned to God.
What would it take, my friends, for the people of God to repent, to recover the Imago Dei, to return to the arms of God, to come home to ourselves, that place where we are loved and honored as valuable creations? What stories will we tell each other, stories with the power to lead us home?
I am wondering if you could conclude this sermon with me in prayer. Close your eyes, treat yourself to a second of silence, and then I will pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and may I know the difference between my humanity and my sins. May there be no shame in my humanness—my desires, my feelings, my body. Where I have truly erred or failed to act in love, obliterate that shame with your grace. May I be moved to repentance, not by guilt but by your kindness, not by despair but by the hope of new life. Free me entirely of toxic guilt. De-tox my soul with love and gentleness.
Truth be told, I am so hard on myself I cannot see that You are gentle. I am so hard on myself, I am not free to be anything but hard on others
And that is why I ask again and again for your mercy. Not because you haven’t given it freely already, but because I cannot get enough, because I scarce believe it is real, because the very thing this world needs is mercy, and here I stand, blocking the portals of love with the poison of my shame and my disdain for my neighbor.
Sweet Mercy, gentle mercy, mercy mercy may you follow me all the days of my life. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.