The Ruined Empire of Sin

Text: 2 Sam. 11:1-15

Date: July 25, 2021

Perhaps I watch too much TV. But this morning, when I think about the story of David and Bathsheba, I can’t help but think of the show Breaking Bad. For those unfamiliar, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, an apathetic high school chemistry teacher who has just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In many ways, the story begins as the nuttiest midlife crisis ever. Walter is a very smart middle-aged man who never quite achieved his dreams. He works two jobs to support his loving, pregnant wife and son with cerebral palsy. However, the desperation of his cancer wakes up Walter from the slumber of his unfulfilling life. Walter determines to leave behind a nest egg for his family before he dies.

One day, Walter accompanies his brother-in-law, a DEA agent, on a drug bust. Here Walter witnesses how much money can be made producing crystal meth. As a chemistry teacher, Walter imagines he would have more than adequate knowledge to cook this drug. So he talks a former student, Jesse Pinkman, into becoming his partner. Quickly Walter discovers that he has a knack for this. He’s an artist of sorts, able to cook the purest crystal meth Albuquerque has ever seen.

What makes Breaking Bad such a unique and complex show is the transformation which you witness in the life of a main character. In most T.V. series, the leading characters remain, for the most part, the same. Marshall Dillon policed the same little town, Dodge City, Kansas, on Gunsmoke for twenty years. Somehow M.A.S.H was able to keep the Korean War going for eleven years. Matlock was the same hotdog eating defense attorney who seemingly never lost a case for nine seasons. Jack Bauer was and always will be the same guy who saves the United States from terrorist attacks. And no matter how many seasons the show continues, the gang is just as crazy as ever in It’s Always Sunny.

Not so with Walter White. This show is about his slow transformation from unassuming savant to reluctant part-time criminal to something much worse – an opportunistic gangster. As he travels down this path, we watch the moral dimensions of the choices he makes. How the lies and acts of deception pull him away from the people he loves most. How his attempts to cover his own trail often lead him further away from the places he wishes to go. How his interactions with gangsters transforms his personality, opening him up to some of the more aggressive parts of his soul he never knew about. As the show continues, we witness Walter becoming imprisoned to this new way of life. He can’t leave it behind. Part of it is the money, part of it is the enjoyment of living within dangerous situations. Each action seems to lead him further towards damnation. His deceptions and lies continually threaten to break up the family. At times Walter must even commit murder to keep his secret life hidden. Everything he does further destroys the life he had known.

And not just his own life; we also see how Walter’s indiscretions transform the lives of those closest to him. How the lies and distance affect his wife. How she longs to rebuild a connection with her husband and how she must lie to herself and her family to explain away the unexplainable behavior of her husband. Walter’s actions also propel his son to act out. The more involved in the drug business Walter becomes, the worse of a father he becomes. Walt Jr. just desires his father’s attention, his father’s love. So he acts in ways which force his father to notice him.

Last week, I talked about Paul and the concept of Sin. I talked about how Sin is a force that acts, a force that imprisons, a force that enslaves. I’m convinced that Breaking Bad is perhaps the best modern portrayal of the machinations of the ruined empire of Sin. For the show explores how Sin transforms our desires. How Sin binds us closer to ourselves, how it seduces us to become self-centered. And how it traps us in a way of being which is almost impossible to break. The further down we go, the more inhuman Sin seems to make us, the more death and destruction enter into our lives and the lives of those we love.

In many ways 2 Samuel 11 is an ancient version of Breaking Bad. This time, however, the lead character is King David. Much like Walter White, David is undergoing a mid-life crisis. The good old days of his youth are over. No longer do the women swoon as he makes his way through their town. They’re used to him riding in his chariot with his royal cape flapping regally behind him. It turns out governing the nation is not nearly as exciting as becoming king in the first place. David misses working the rope lines; shaking the hands of all the adoring citizens. The shouts of “Saul has slain his thousands, David his tens of thousands” are faint echoes from his past, distant reminders of the better days that once were. 

By this point in his life, David has accomplished all he set out to do; he consolidated the kingdom; he conquered foreign lands; he recaptured the ark; he built up the holy city of Jerusalem. Now there isn’t much left for David to conquer. He has all the power he can dream of and his age is beginning to limit what his body can do. So he begins to settle. The previous story details David building himself a mansion. David knows his days of expansion are over so he highlights his power, his prestige by building a mighty house for himself for all to see. 

We see David settling further at the beginning of our passage: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army.” Springtime is when all nations readied for war. For this when the roads and meadows dried up enough to allow invaders the chance to travel to neighboring lands. Every year in the spring, David led his army to battle a neighboring kingdom. But this year, David says enough; he decides to send another and stay home. He’s bored and ready to relax in his nice, new palace.

Idleness and power are a lethal combination. With nothing better to fill his time, David forgets what his power is for – keeping Israel faithful, keeping Israel secure. Instead David uses it for his own gratification. One evening, after waking from a nap, with nothing much to occupy him, David wanders around looking for amusement, for gratification. His gaze settles upon a beautiful woman. Suddenly David finds something new to conquer. David doesn’t care that the woman is ritually unclean from her period. He ignores the fact that Uriah is one of his best soldiers, and what’s more a sojourner in Israel who deserves special respect. This story is about toxic masculinity and the effects it has had on men and women for millenia. For this is a story about David’s desire to possess another, to possess a woman, not for ever but for now, not for sharing joy but simply to experience and display his power, once more. 

The text is clear, David has no interest in anything but Bathsheba’s body. He isn’t lonely; he isn’t longing for companionship. In the text, David never even speaks a word to her. There is nothing here that can lead us to say that David even lusts after her. This is not a crime of passion. It’s too premeditated and routine. This is simply David doing the one thing he does best – conquering. The quick succession of Hebrews verbs tell us all we need to know: “he sent, she came, he slept, she left.” No remorse; no guilt; no shame. 

I’m positive that Bathsheba wasn’t David’s only instance of sexual and spiritual abuse. More than likely, David worked hard to create a system in which his crimes were impossible to detect; however, a potential problem emerges when Bethsheba speaks her only and deeply vulnerable utterance – a devastating three-word message: “I am pregnant.” Quickly, David’s evil plotting rapidly becomes more sinister. David’s first solution is to pass off the child as Uriah’s. He brings Uriah home, gets him drunk, and tries to get him to sleep with his wife. You have to pick up the irony and comedy in this scene. David is powerful, but try as he might, he can’t persuade a manly soldier to go home and sleep with his stunningly beautiful wife. Uriah’s priorities become simpler the drunker he gets; meanwhile David’s priorities become murkier however sober he remains. 

Look what happens to David. First he chats normally to a man he has betrayed. Then he tries to persuade his faithful soldier to be less faithful and more selfish. Then he spends a whole evening getting this soldier drunk. David is getting more and more desperate, more and more unscrupulous, and more and more powerless. He is turning into a monster. Having tried every subtle approach and failed, without hesitation David resorts to a ruthless and violent solution – to murder Uriah. The whole situation has gotten out of control; his only way out is for Uriah to be eliminated. Still eager to appear righteous, David orders his commander Joab to engineer Uriah’s death in battle. But if we keep reading, we learn that many other soldiers are also killed in order to make Uriah’s death seem plausible. All casualties of David’s clumsy attempt to cover up his sins. Idleness leads to rape; rape leads to more lies and deception; deception leads to murder. 

This is the story of Sin. It’s a madness that takes over our lives and sets us on an unending journey, a journey which dissolves our humanness. As soon as David starts down his path of deceit, as soon as he breaks bad, he becomes his own prisoner, bound up in a lie, restricted, enslaved, always attempting to cover up his trail. The more he denies what he has become, the more he watches his life dissolve, watches his life become something he never wanted, something he never intended. Sin consumes his life affecting all those around him.

I find it interesting that the lectionary stops here. The second half of the story doesn’t come until next week. What would have happened if Nathan hadn’t discovered David’s indiscretions and the elaborate cover-up, would his sins have been wiped out by history? Chronicles conveniently overlooks this event. But not the lectionary; it calls us to look directly at the empire of Sin. It prevents us from focusing too quickly on the second half of the story, on David’s repentance and restoration. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the tyranny of Sin.

Because whether we are rich and powerful like David or a commoner like Walter White, we all can easily become ensnared by the temptation of Sin. Our journeys often are not as dramatic as David or Walter’s, but the outcome is the same. Sin strips away the humanness of ourselves and others. It causes us to turn others into objects whose value is only what we get from them. Sin is simply the name we have for all the ways we refuse to love, all the ways we refuse to share the love that makes us human, the love that forms our lives, the love that is God.

Sin starts with our eyes, with how we see one another, how we look at other people. Through the lens of sin, we objectify, we reduce, we cannot see beyond the surface, we refuse to see the surprise—the mystery—that comes with being human. The way David reduces Bathsheba to her most apparent gift – her physical beauty; the way he sees poor Uriah as first a way out and then simply collateral damage. Sin is the way we refuse to receive someone as a gift, and instead take their gifts and run. The giver becomes an object for our fulfillment; and once we get what we want, they mean nothing to us anymore.

And Sin rarely, if ever, affects only the individual. Almost always it affects everyone closest to us as well. It’s no coincidence that just two chapters after David’s series of sins, we find his children performing the exact same acts. Amnon rapes his sister Tamar, and then Absalom deals with this sin by killing his brother. Our knots of self-deception often draw others into our webs of deceit.

The ruined empire of Sin affects us all. There are times when it leads us down paths we never thought we could go, paths we never wanted or intended. Times when it causes us to imprison ourselves and transforms our desires. Often because Sin centers us upon ourselves instead of God, the more we try to defeat or hide it, the more madness overcomes our lives and the lives of those we love.

I think our Anabaptist mothers and fathers of the 16th century knew this well. They saw vividly the tyrannical effect which Sin had upon their lives and the world. For this reason, they frequently talked about discipleship as Gelassenheit, a word meaning something like surrender or submission, self-abandonment or yieldedness. They understood that the Christian life is about learning how to give up our sense of direction, to surrender our sense of control; it’s about learning how to wait patiently, even suffer patiently, for God’s Spirit to break forth. It’s learning how to rest in God’s presence so that God can rid us from all the ways we try to secure what we have made for ourselves. 

When I think of what Gelassenheit means today for us as privileged Americans, I think Gelassenheit means divestment. It means unraveling and unwrapping all the ways our white privilege continues to wreak havoc on not just our world but our lives as well. It means learning to divest ourselves of all the ways toxic masculinity continues to plague our actions, our imaginations, our life together. It mean surrendering, deconstructing much of our power, our securities, our status, because we know that so much of it is only possible because other people, the land, animals, so many other forms of life are suffering and deemed dispensable, so that it can happen. It is surrendering all the ways our lives are made possible because our systems refuse to see God in everything that is around us.Gelassenheit, surrender, this is a helpful way of dealing with the tyrannical reign of Sin. Yielding to the Spirit, resting into God’s presence, allows God to reform our desires; it allows God to show us the true humanness of ourselves and others. When we yield, we remember that we are infused with God’s love and called to let this love flow through us and into our friends, neighbors, strangers, co-workers, whoever. When we yield, we allude Sin’s grasp, letting go of those desires and habits which refuse to let God’s love reform our lives. And as we let go, we are renewed by the Holy Spirit and become earthen vessels of God’s love for the world. Amen.

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