2 Samuel 11:1-15, John 6:1-21
‘The whole point of scripture is the transformation of the soul’ (Richard Rohr). And the transformation of the soul is what it’s all about. So when we come to scripture, as we might come to almost anything, and say, ‘what does this mean, and then, what does this mean for me? What choices does it lay before me? It would be no lie to say that scripture, from beginning to end, presents us with choices. Which way will you go? What will you choose? Whose side are you on? There is verse in Deuteronomy, addressed to the ancient people of Israel: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you may live.’ (Deut 30:19).
Today we begin a series of readings in the OT and NT which, at first sight, seem an unlikely pairing. The OT reading in 1 Samuel is the beginning of the dramatic and tragic story of David and Bathsheba, continued for the next 2 Sundays with its judgement by God through the prophet Nathan; and in the story of the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus in the Gospel of John over the next 4 Sundays. Today we get the ‘action’ in both stories and I want to reflect on them and the choices they offer us. And I don’t want to steal any thunder from sermons over the next few weeks. Brother and sister preachers, relax!
David is one of the big heroes of the Bible. Youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd, slayer of the giant Goliath, army general, writer of many Psalms, man of faith, second king of Israel after Saul. The first verse of the NT, in Matthew is: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David’. But the bible’s authors don’t gloss over its heroes’ faults. Here is David, at the height of his power. He is having some time out, having sent Joab, his general, to fight some wars. After having his afternoon nap, walking on his roof, he sees a beautiful woman bathing, sends a servant to get her and inevitably, as night follows day, sleeps with her. She conceives – the bible even tells us that she was at the peak time of the month for conception. Caught literally with his pants down, David sends for her husband, Uriah, who is a senior army officer, and tempts him to go in and sleep with his wife while he’s off duty. But neither the king’s command, (‘Go down to your house and wash your feet’, v.8, is a euphemism for, ‘Go and sleep with your wife’), nor a present (bribe), nor large quantities of alcohol make Uriah do that: he is still on duty, his brothers are on the front line, and loyalty wins out. Frustrated, David sends a letter to General Joab, sent by Uriah’s own hand, to put Uriah ‘in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die’ (v.15). Joab did this, and Uriah was killed. At a stroke, King David broke the following commandments: the 10th, ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife’; the 7th, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; and the 8th, ‘You shall not murder’. The result, which we will hear about over the next 2 weeks, was quite simply, and completely predictably, hell.
Turning to the Gospel, we read the story of the feeding of the 5,000 – 5,000 men, that is, no mention of women and children! So a very large crowd, maybe 10, 15, 20,000. Incidentally, this is the only miracle of Jesus, apart from the resurrection, that is recorded in all 4 gospels. All these people, following Jesus: nothing to eat. Jesus then puts the question out there, as a test, to Philip: ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ (5). Philip replies that even an awful lot of money wouldn’t be sufficient to buy enough food. The Andrew comes forward with a little boy who has 5 barley loaves – they are the cheapest kind – and two fish. With those fish and loaves in hand, Jesus then feeds the whole vast crowd. There is enough after all! I don’t want to go into the significance of the miracle, that’s for next week, except to say this: it was a moment when the Kingdom of God crashed in to so-called ordinary life and was revealed in not just ‘enough’, but ‘far more than enough!’ It was super-abundance on a massive, industrial scale. 5 loaves and 2 fish fed up to 20,000 people and there was shedloads left over too. Anthony Bloom, former Orthodox Metropolitan said: ‘A miracle is not the breaking of the laws of the fallen world, it is the re-establishment of the laws of the Kingdom of God.’ We might say that it was heaven breaking in. So where the David and Bathsheba story led to an earthly sort of hell, the miracle of the bread and fish led to a taste, literally, of heaven.
If we are concerned with the transformation of the soul, we should take note of these stories and in particular, where it all started from. For they present us with a choice. ‘Choose life!’. For poor David, the writer of 2 Samuel is clearly telling us that David had his guard down. It was like he was ‘on leave’ from his calling, his vocation as the chosen King of Israel. It goes like this: ‘In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him…But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.’ I don’t want to go through this story in salacious detail, but I do want us to take note of that whole thing of having your guard down, of thinking somehow you won’t be found out, that what happens next will have no consequences, that you’re somehow on holiday from reality. Because actions have consequences, and what we choose to do today will have an effect on tomorrow, for good and for bad. And David had been so close, so close to God. When we read the Psalms he wrote, we have the impression of someone wrapped up in God. David himself wrote these words: ‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways’ (Psalm 139:1,2). I wonder whether he wrote them after the events we read today. And if he had but reflected on that when he saw that beautiful woman at her bath – who knows? Perhaps we could take a moment to think about when it is that we are most likely to have our guard down, to give in to something that’s not going to go well.
We live in an ‘enchanted universe’, as Richard Rohr expresses it. A universe and a world subtly but definitely interpenetrated with the rich presence of God. It is more than just atoms and energy, as even modern physics tells us. So when we take our courage in our hands and exercise trust, something unexpected may happen. So it was that a mere boy, when he heard there was not enough food, thought, ‘well, maybe this will help, at least’. So he stepped up to Andrew, who told Jesus (John 6:8,9). And it was enough. Enough for the abundance of the kingdom of God to break in and feed a crowd. ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3). Because it was a boy, a child, who did that. Of course, he can have had no idea what would happen…or did he? He was close enough in that crowd to speak to Andrew – maybe he had seen and heard Jesus before, maybe he had been following him, and at that moment of need a surprising feeling took root in his heart: perhaps Jesus can start with this…? I don’t know.
Two stories. Two beginnings. One led to disaster, to a personal hell (although in the end, there was redemption. But that’s for another day). The other led to blessing, to a serious break-in of the kingdom of God, to heaven. And always, always a choice. David might have been doing what kings were supposed to do, go to war, and the moment wouldn’t have happened. As it was, he was on his own, isolated. When he saw Bathsheba, he could have resisted the temptation. He could have turned away. But no, he gave in to the craving of his ego, he allowed his sense of power – ‘I’m King!’ – to convince him that he would never be found out. He even forgot biological reality, so when Bathsheba conceived he compounded his deception by trying to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, to cover it all up; when that didn’t work, he had him murdered. At every point there was a choice, but every time he chose the darker route, the route of deception, the cold, hard way of fallen humanity out of touch with the presence of God. It has been repeated endless times throughout history and still the lesson has not been learned by our race. What a beautiful contrast with this young boy who innocently, trustingly offers his packed lunch to Jesus and heaven breaks in.
‘The whole point of scripture is the transformation of the soul’ May these two stories, recorded in scripture, speak to us in our minds, our hearts and our bodies. May we be a people of trust, a people who choose life and not death.
 Anthony Bloom, The Essence of Prayer, DLT 1989, p.69