September 18, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FOLLOW THE LEADER: DAVID
The second in a series of seven.
If I were to ask you your favorite passage in the Bible, it would not be unanimous, but I know what many of you, maybe most of you, would say without even having to think it over. “The 23rd Psalm”. In fact, I don’t think many of you even need the words in front of you to say it. Let’s check that out:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me,
In the presence of my enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
We’re going to be talking today about the man who wrote these words. David, the shepherd king. If we were to list the most important people in the Bible, we would list Jesus first. I hope we can agree on that. But who would be second? Abraham? Moses? Mary? Paul? Well, Paul makes it pretty clear who would get his vote. In one of his sermons he calls David “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22). Pretty high praise. Other than God and Jesus, I don’t know who else gets such high praise in the Bible.
David was a great man and a great leader. And yet his sin against God also was great. He wrote the 23rd Psalm. He also wrote the 51st Psalm in which he expressed his anguish over what he had done. He had done something truly awful.
Most every story of a great leader has a chapter in it like this. Maybe not quite this bad. Maybe worse. And so as we continue our series on leaders in the Bible, we’re going to see how one of the greatest of leaders rose to the highest of heights, fell to the lowest of lows, and is remembered still as “a man after God’s own heart”.
First. it takes time to become a leader. It takes time for God to do the necessary work in someone’s life.
We first meet David as a teenager. The prophet Samuel has been sent by God to find a new king. King Saul is not working out quite so well. Samuel is led by God to the house of Jesse. Somehow he knows that one of the sons of Jesse is to be the new king.
Jesse has several sons. They all show leadership potential. They all look the part. But one by one they are set aside. Samuel has not yet found the one God has chosen. He asks Jesse if he has any other sons. “Well, yes, but you won’t be interested in David. Little David. He’s out watching my sheep.” Samuel insists on meeting this shepherd boy named David. And he anoints him with oil in anticipation of the day when he will be king.
He doesn’t look like a king. His older brothers looked like kings. Saul looked like a king. Maybe that was the problem. Appearances are deceptive. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).
The very next chapter tells the story of David and Goliath. Everyone is terrified of this giant. Everyone but David, who is not old enough yet to even be in a battle. You had to be 20. The best estimates of David’s age at this time range from 15 to 17. The only reason he was there was because Jesse, his dad, had sent him to bring his brothers some food. But I think you know how it ends. Goliath is dead. David is standing over him, the unlikely hero. But David is not yet king.
There are 15 chapters in the Bible and likely about that many years before David becomes king. In the meantime, David serves in King Saul’s court. He plays music for him when he is in a bad mood. Which becomes more frequent. Saul is jealous of David. He tries to kill him. David runs away and becomes a fugitive. There are many twists and turns to the story, but the point is that all this time God was preparing David to be a leader. It takes time. Mushrooms can pop up overnight, but it takes time for a mighty tree to grow. Which leads right into the next one.
Leaders grow. David is growing as a leader this entire time. Here are some of the key events in David’s life:
Age 15-17 Anointed by Samuel
Serves in King Saul’s court
Is a fugitive on the run
Age 30 Becomes king of Judah
Age 37½ Becomes king of Israel and Judah
Brings Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem
Birth of Solomon
Instructions to Solomon, the new king
Age 70 David dies
David is growing as a leader this entire time. There are peaks and valleys. It is not a straight steady line. But David is learning valuable lessons as he goes. One reason is that again and again, we find these words: “David inquired of the Lord.” He never got to the point where he thought he knew all he needed to know. He never thought he had arrived as a leader. He knew the limits of his own wisdom, so he kept turning to the Lord.
In contrast, we have King Saul. David, as he worked for Saul had the opportunity to observe a leader who refused to learn. Who refused to grow. And the fuller he got of himself, the more the tragedy of his life played itself out.
Third, leaders are tough and tender. I don’t think I need to convince you how tough David was. He pretty well proved this against Goliath. Earlier he had proved it against the lions and the bears that threatened his sheep. And he continued to display his toughness as king, leading his people into battle, winning victory after victory. But David wasn’t just tough. He was also tender.
Just a couple of quick examples. Remember how King Saul was jealous of him and turned on him and was doing his best to track him down and kill him? For years David was running for his life. If the king wants you dead, the odds of you living a long life are not very good. David beat the odds. Which says something about how tough he was.
But wouldn’t you think a tough guy, given the chance, would kill before he could be killed? That would be considered self-defense, justified homicide. And yet, not once but twice, David had an easy opportunity to end the life of King Saul and both times he chose to walk away.
Another example. King Saul’s son Jonathan was next in line to the throne. But Saul and Jonathan died on the same day. That meant Saul’s grandson, Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth was next in line. But Mephibosheth was five years old. He had a nurse who was babysitting him and when she heard that both the king and the king’s son were dead, she put two and two together and concluded that the life of the little boy she was responsible for was in danger. So she picked him up and ran with him to safety, but in her haste she tripped and fell and the boy was crippled for the rest of his life (II Samuel 4:4).
So when David became king, he was aware that there was this rival to the throne. Most kings would have eliminated that rival. It could have been done without anyone knowing David had a thing to do with it. Most kings would not have hesitated. But not David.
In one of my favorite parts of the whole Bible, not only does David choose to let Mephibosheth live, he invites him to live in his palace and eat at his table. He was treated “like one of the king’s sons” (II Samuel 9:11).
Now as I was putting this sermon together in my mind, I knew that we would eventually have to get to the dark and ugly episode in David’s life that I mentioned earlier. You can’t leave that out. But I figured this whole Mephibosheth story would be perfect to mention next. We all love happy endings. We all love redemption stories. I thought this would illustrate how God forgives sins and changes
lives – that David in his old-age did this wonderfully kind, magnanimous thing, and that we can remember him for that and not for adultery and murder.
Then I opened my Bible and discovered that the whole Bathsheba episode came after he was so kind to Mephibosheth. Which illustrates something else, also important. Even great, good, kind, godly people can fall.
Which brings us to our fourth and final point for today. Leaders recognize enemy number one. And enemy number one is the person looking back at us from the mirror. Very often leaders, even great ones, miss this.
CNN has been doing documentaries on the 1970’s. One I saw recently was all about Richard Nixon and Watergate. In 1972 he was elected to a second term as our president. He received 520 of the 537 electoral votes. He won 49 of the 50 states. And 21 months later he was forced to resign from office. He was a brilliant man and did many good things as our president. But he had a fatal flaw which was his undoing. Richard Milhous Nixon, famous for his enemies list, should have had one enemy in bold, in capitals, highlighted in bright red on the top of his list: RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON.
This is important in this series on leaders. We’re calling this series “Follow the Leader”, but we don’t want to always follow the leader. Leaders can lead us astray. As long as the leader is a flesh and blood human being, no matter how great that leader might seem to be, there is always the possibility of a shocking, surprising, tragic, evil fall from grace.
It happened to David. It happened when he was at the peak
of his power and popularity. Just like Richard Nixon. There’s a saying: new levels, new devils. The Bible says it like this: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he falls” (I Corinthians 10:12).
It’s interesting to trace what led to David’s fall from grace. If you are following along, we are in II Samuel, chapter 11. The first sign
that something might not be quite right is in the first verse.
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
David the warrior decided others could go to war for him. He would stay home. He had earned that. Let the others risk their lives. He was going to take it easy. And so he had time on his hands. Too much time.
We’re told in the next verse: “It happened late afternoon when David rose from his couch . . . ” Does anything sound wrong with that? It is late in the afternoon, the day is almost over, and David is just now getting up?? Sounds like summer vacation for a teenager at home with no job. When life is that easy, no challenge, no purpose, when there is nothing pressing enough to get you out of bed in the morning, watch out.
That’s when David notices Bathsheba while she is bathing. Bathsheba is a married woman. David is a married man. But why should that stand in the way if you are king? Kings get to do whatever they want. Don’t they? The rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you when you are that powerful and that important. David had never been that kind of a king before. But as he gazed upon beautiful Bathsheba, David “the man after God’s own heart” became David the man controlled by his own selfish lust.
He slept with Bathsheba. She becomes pregnant. They say the cover-up is worse than the crime. First, David tries something that is almost comical. He tries to maneuver things to get Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to have a romantic moment alone with his wife. That way he would think the baby was his. That fails.
The cover-up moves next to a sinister phase. David arranges for Uriah to go to battle and to be placed in the heat of the battle where he would likely be killed. That plan worked. Uriah was killed. It may not have been murder by the strictest of definitions, but it amounted to pretty much the same thing.
Earlier David could have arranged to have Mephibosheth killed. Nobody would have known. David had the integrity not to do so. Now he seems to have lost his integrity. He could have Uriah killed in battle. No one would know. And he did it even though he knew it was wrong. And of course now everyone does know. There are no secrets. There is no such thing. It’s the low point of David’s life. And as you read the story, at this point it would appear that David is not particularly bothered by what he has done.
It took Nathan his prophet to open his eyes. Nathan takes the indirect approach. He tells the king a story. There was a rich man with “very many flocks and herds”. And there was a poor man whose only possession was a single ewe lamb. The rich man has company. He needs to kill an animal to serve an elaborate meal. But rather than kill one of his own that are more than he can even count, he kills the ewe lamb that was the poor man’s sole possession (II Samuel 12:1-6). You notice he’s talking about sheep. And David the shepherd began to understand the enormity of what he had done.
Then we come to the verse that tell us that David has come to his senses. He does not kill the messenger. He does not lie about what he has done. He does not give an excuse. He does not try to make it sound like it isn’t so bad. He does not say that other kings have done worse. He simply says, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13).
There’s a parallel verse to this in Psalm 51: “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Thy sight” (vs 4).
No one knows when David wrote the 23rd Psalm, but it is generally accepted that David wrote the 51st Psalm after his eyes were opened to this terrible thing he had done to Uriah and to Bathsheba. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (vs 10) he writes. This is the man who was chosen to be king because God could see past the outer appearances and into this teenager’s heart. This is the man who was after God’s own heart. And yet David’s heart had turned away from God. It needed to be cleansed. It needed to be made new. This is what David prayed for. And God answered that prayer.
There were a lot of bad things that came from David’s sin. The baby he and Bathsheba conceived died. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that. I’m pretty sure we don’t have a God who kills babies to punish the sin of their parents. But sin does have consequences. Even though David is forgiven and is allowed to continue as king, there is a lot of grief and many problems in the final chapters of his life.
But here is a footnote to help us see that even when our leaders are faithless, God remains faithful. It’s pretty amazing really. David and Bathsheba’s baby dies. But there is another baby. His name is Jedidiah, which means “beloved of the Lord” (II Samuel 12:25). But he is better known to us as Solomon. He is the one who, through many twists and turns eventually succeeds his father as king. And he is the one whose name is found in Matthew chapter 1, in the genealogy of Jesus. “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (1:6).
It was a sin. And bad things came from that sin. But even our sins cannot block what God is doing. God’s redemption comes, even through the worst thing that a great leader ever did.
God, you send us leaders. You can spot them, you can equip them, you can inspire them. But even the greatest of them can still fall. And when they fall, it is a long way down. None of us, O God, has such integrity and such a close relationship with you that we are exempt. All have sinned and fall short of your glory. So God, we pray for our leaders. Make them strong. Make them good. Do good through them. And God, we pray also for ourselves. That our ultimate loyalty might be to you and you alone. As we learn from David when he was at his best, when we lack wisdom, we do not look within. We do not rely on other humans. We inquire of you. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.