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July 29/29, 2018

Lectionary 17

Pr. Ben Adams


Binding the Strong Man

Wayyyyyy back in March, Pastor Craig preached a sermon where he called out the sin of supersessionism. That’s a big word, so let’s break it down again. It’s the idea that the New Covenant established through Jesus Christ, supersedes the Old Covenant, which was made exclusively with the Jewish people. Essentially it’s saying that Christians finally got it right with Jesus and we somehow became the new and improved version of Judaism. 

And this comes through in sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways. Like when someone says the Old Testament God is a jerk, or that the Hebrew texts are all law and no gospel, or thank God we have the New Testament. We as Christians can contribute to anti-Semitic prejudice against our Jewish siblings if we are not intentional about our own language and beliefs.

So with this in mind we decided that all summer at Holy Trinity we would do some in-house work and educate ourselves by preaching from the semi-continuous Old Testament readings. And today’s reading from 2 Samuel is one we all have probably heard before because it’s notorious: it’s the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah.

And this story is notorious because what David does is such an abuse of power, it’s truly a Game of Thrones -level #MeToo moment. And while ancient Israel called David’s action adultery, since David had intercourse with a woman who is married to another man, we need to understand this action as being closer to rape, because Bathsheba is not a consenting adult since she is taken by the king, who has power over his subjects.

On top of that, David tries to protect himself by bringing Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, home from battle to sleep with Bathsheba to cover up the fact that David was, in fact, the one who has impregnated Bathsheba. Then, when Uriah proves his uprightness by sleeping outside his home to be in solidarity with his fellow comrades in battle, David has Uriah sent to the front lines where the most intense fighting is taking place, and orders the troops to be pulled back leaving Uriah unprotected and killed.

What David has become as Israel’s king is a strong man. In a commencement address at Harvard University back in 1890, W.E.B. Du Bois characterized a strong man as this, “Individualism coupled with the rule of might… Under whatever guise as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole: the overweening sense of the I and the consequent forgetting of the Thou.”

The advance of a part at the expense of the whole, the overweening sense of the I and forgetting of the Thou. That is what guides the strong man, or the strong race, or the strong nation, and they achieve their ends by the rule of might.

From the opening sentence of today’s first reading we can see that David has fallen under the lie of the strong man. It says, “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; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah.”

It’s presented to us like a fact of life that springtime is when kings do battle, and David believes in what Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence. Wink says, “The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.”

And it’s what David has turned to as he has fallen for the lies of the strong man. David believes war will advance Israel, that sexual violence against Bathsheba is his right as king, and that murderous violence against Uriah will save David’s reputation and standing.

So what can we take from such a tragic and violent story? Is it simply a moral lesson against the abuse of power when we believe the lies of the strong man or when we put our faith in the myth of redemptive violence? Or maybe is it the fact that even someone who behaves as diabolically as David did can be made an instrument of God and eventually pave the way for Jesus Christ to create a second covenant so that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, will know that they are worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness and have been made members of the beloved community of God?

But I don’t know if that seems quite right. The former seems too moralistic, and the latter feels like a rush to forgive David, a violent abuser of power, and especially since we leave off in the middle of the story today, we haven’t yet witnessed any signs of David’s repentance. At this point in the story, the message of God’s grace and forgiveness for David feels too soon, and not a message of good news.

So I think we need to read God into this story. We know that God is a God of justice. We know that God is a God of peace. We know that even when the strong man is wielding violence and abusing power, God is present in and with the victims of that violence, and beyond that, God is at work binding the strong man.

We heard that line, “binding the strong man,” back on June 9th in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3. It is what Ched Myers claims to be the master metaphor of Jesus’ mission in Mark’s Gospel. This metaphor might make us uneasy, and it may even feel violent in its own right, but what Jesus is doing is in line with the whole arc of God’s story from the Old Testament to the New that affirms our scripture is a story about the reign of God coming to displace another reign.

But we live in a time of already, but not yet, where God has bound the strong man, but the work of binding continues. Because the strong man continues to reign and we see continued faithfulness to them myth of redemptive violence. With every woman silenced and paid off in the name of consent, with every bomb dropped in the name of peacemaking, with every police bullet that tears through the flesh of our black and brown siblings in the name of safety, and with every migrant child ripped from their mothers arms in the name of law and order we are witnesses to and complicit with the violent deeds of the strong man.

But God has bound the strong man. We can hold fast to non-violence and have faith in a God that has come to us in Jesus Christ not so that we would be part of the “right” religion, advanced at the expense of the whole, but that we would be able to see ourselves as part of the whole, so that we would not forget the thou or believe that we must comply with the rule of might and put ourselves above others.

God’s reign is one of peace, love, grace, and gentleness and it is coming to displace the reign of redemptive violence carried out by the strong man. King David believed the lies of the strong man and placed his faith in the myth of redemptive violence. We’d be lying if we said we aren’t susceptible to these attractive lies ourselves.

It can look like something as innocent as placing the New Testament over and above the Old, but supersessionism is the work of the strong man, it’s the overweening sense of the I and the consequent forgetting of the thou, as W.E.B. Du Bois so eloquently put it. So as children of God and members of God’s beloved community through the second covenant of Jesus Christ, we are reminded of our oneness and the infinite power of God at work in the thou to bind the individualism and might of the strong man. Amen.