We begin every Sunday pretty much the same way: with a prayer called the Collect of the Day. It’s a prayer said to collect us: to gather us in prayer around one needful gift from God to us – and in that prayer today, we call on the mercy of God, asking God to cleanse and defend us. It’d be nice to think mercy comes without fallout – can be a kind of Get Out of Jail Free Card. But tradition tells us it isn’t. Instead mercy comes to cleanse us and defend us by exposing the truth about us. And truth said in love hurts before it heals.
Today, returning to the Second Book of Samuel, the prophet Nathan comes to King David to rebuke him for a terrible wrong he’s done to a man who depended on him. If you’ll recall, David took from Uriah his one true love: his wife Bathsheba, a deed announcing itself any day now with a child on the way. To solve that incoming problem, David sent Uriah into battle to die without sufficient protection. And today, in the wake of his sins, Bathsheba grieves the death of Uriah.
Up till now, this story spares no words for David having second thoughts. When we meet up with him today, he’s too full of his own power to know he’s done anything wrong. From the outside in, we know there must be a reckoning. And to that end, the prophet Nathan approaches David with a parable about a rich man who wants to meet his obligations: a nice person, ready to welcome the traveler on the road with a warm meal, but who does so without cost to himself. Rather than choose any lamb from among his own abundant flock, he sacrifices the one and only lamb held dear by someone else, a poor man without recourse or means of self-defense.
As Nathan tells this parable, we’re there with him: arm in arm with the great prophet, watching David listen. And like Nathan, we already know what David’s done, and how he thinks he got away with it.
Very likely, when David peers into this parable, he sees something he lost somewhere along the way on his rise to power—some important awareness he’s forgotten to live by. It’s there in the poor man and his little ewe: a golden memory from an earlier time, back when he was still a child and knew a lamb of his own, a ewe he loved like a daughter.
Back then, a shepherd boy named David knew what it meant to look after the great gift of a fellow creature. Back then, it seemed everything and everyone belonged to God, and all of it stood in shared dependence on God’s provision, leading us beside the still waters and through the valley of the shadow of death.
Nathan’s parable mirrors what David has done to Urriah and Bathsheba, only David can’t see it, can he? Hearing this parable, David thinks he wouldn’t have done what the bad man did. He’d have done the right thing. It’s so easy to see. Anybody can see it, right?
When David cries, The man who’s done this deserves to die, we marvel at how blind he is to his own self-judgment, and with Nathan we want to say, You are that man.
Lucky for David, God has sent a prophet who’s not afraid to treat a king like a man, who’s not afraid to speak the truth in love, a prophet who knows truth heals.
Buddy, Nathan seems to say, I know just what you’ve done, and God knows it, too, so let me tell you how things are going to play out. What you did, all history will know about it.
And as he says his piercing words, it’s so easy to feel the justice of them, heaped like dung on the crowned head of David. It feels good and right, a slam-dunk for all the times somebody did us wrong.
So, maybe now’s a good time for us to step away from our own certainty, and admit that as we peer into this story, we mostly see ourselves in Nathan, here somehow to shed light on David’s soul, forgetting we might also need to stand beside David, to draw near to him like our brother, in order to shed light on our own souls.
We may not share his power, and his sins and temptations may not be ours, but we often share his self-deception. We all sin, and we all lie about it, even to ourselves, sometimes without knowing it. And the good news is God wants us to see who we really are, which is after all how God sees us. God sees the truth of our lives. And God loves us anyway. It’s we who, like David, cannot bear to hear the truth in love.
If you’ll notice, David sees what’s wrong in the parable today, as clearly as you and I see what’s wrong with him. Seeing ourselves is the harder thing. And like David, we’re so desperate to believe in our own goodness, we can’t wait to go out and fix the world—naming all that’s wrong in it without cost to ourselves.
I don’t doubt David’s sincerity anymore than I doubt my own or yours. But it’s the great gift of this story to show us the value of peering into our own broken and divided hearts, so that with David we might say, I have sinned against the Lord.
While it’s not the way back to that golden life of short-lived innocence, it’s the only way forward, the only way to live as people who depend on the mercy of God. And it isn’t as simple as we might hope, at least not if we’re to learn from the example of David, because like him, we’re stuck in time.
For David, there is no going back to that innocent shepherd boy, not with blood on his hands and a child on the way, a child who won’t live long enough to know his name. That longing to go back is a fierce tug—we all know it—and sometimes imagine it as a kind of heroic do-over for our own messy lives, a way of avoiding fallout, anything to keep us from addressing—from naming out loud before God—the hidden truth of our own sins.
We have sinned against the Lord—against the one who made us all. And in our moments of deepest surrender, we offer our selves, our souls and bodies, completely dependent on the hope of mercy. And without fail, God draws near to us.
This story is here for us to imagine being David. Not Nathan. We don’t need the mercy of God if all we can imagine is being the prophet Nathan. The mercy of God can only speak its truth in love to us when we have the courage to imagine, and know in our bones, we are sinners.
The mercy of God in Christ is the bread of life. It doesn’t save us from our sins. But in them.
In the Christian tradition, we kneel to say what David says. I have sinned against the Lord. And on the other side of that admission, through the mercy of God, we also stand. The good news is we do not stand alone. God in Christ stands with us. And brothers and sisters, in and through the mercy of God, we stand together to receive the healing mercy of God.