Nathan confronts David

Discerning What Displeases the Lord

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13a

Our Old Testament lesson brings us to one of the most dramatic moments in this extraordinary narrative of David when he is confronted by Nathan the prophet. It is high drama in this narrative and it is a high drama in the history of prophetic speaking truth to power.

David stole Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, committed adultery with her, and then when it was discovered that Bathsheba was pregnant, he used his power to have Uriah killed by the Ammonites. The last sentence of chapter 11 says, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” The next sentence, which begins chapter 12, says, “And the Lord sent Nathan to David.”

My question is “how does the church come up with Nathans?” Or as Moses wished, “How can all of God’s people be prophets?” How do we grow and form the people of God who will know when something displeases the Lord? How can the church be prophetic so that it will not only have courage to speak truth to power, but it will have the wisdom to know the truth in order to speak?

Several years ago I ran across a story of a university in the upper Midwest having student protests that grew into rioting where some cars were overturned and torched and students marched on the administration building. Marching against racism? Standing up against poverty or injustice? Protesting another one of our country’s wars? No. The students were morally outraged that the university had decided to close the student center bar and outlaw beer and alcohol sales on campus. And even though there were numerous bars and liquor stores within a block or two off campus, these students were not deterred. The old slogan “Hell no! We won’t go!” was replaced with “Hell no! We don’t want to walk 100 feet to buy booze.”

We have no shortage of folk who are morally outraged about one thing or another; the question is whether it’s something that displeases the Lord.

Prophets are not born in a vacuum and neither was Nathan. He was born and raised and formed and trained in a community of faith that also nurtured and raised King David. Nathan spoke out of that common community and tradition, calling David back to the community’s shared convictions. Theologian James McClendon said, “In or near a community there appear from time to time singular or striking lives, the lives of persons who embody the convictions of the community, but in a new way; who share the vision of the community, but with new scope or power; who exhibit the style of the community, but with significant differences… these lives may serve to disclose and perhaps to correct or enlarge the community’s moral vision, at the same time arousing impotent wills within the community to a better fulfillment of the vision already acquired” (Biography as Theology, p. 37). Prophets come out of and speak from and to a community.

And a profound conviction of our particular community, the church of Jesus Christ, is that the key in knowing what pleases or displeases the Lord is discernment. William Stringfellow, the remarkable Episcopal layperson, theologian, and lawyer for the down-and-out, believed that discernment was the most basic gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. It enables Christians to expose and rebuke the Powers of death while also affirming the living, promising Word of God actively incarnate in the world. He said, “Discernment has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings . . . to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair.”

Stringfellow believed that to be able to practice discernment requires an immersion in God and in Scripture, and that this immersion is a “primary, practical, and essential tactic of resistance.” To know God means to be immersed in God, to participate in God. And immersion in God empowers us to resist the Powers.

Prophets like Nathan are called forth in and out of the community that nurtures and shapes them, and part of that shaping is the immersion in God – by participating in worship and in prayer and reading Scripture, service, forgiveness, and on and on. Stringfellow, who used the term “the Word of God” or simply “the Word” in a way that meant the fullness of the incarnate Christ, said, “Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, defend the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word.” Only by immersion in the Word, in God, can there be any hope of discerning what pleases or does not please the Lord (see Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, pp. 120, 138-139, 143).

2 Responses to “Discerning What Displeases the Lord”

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  1. Rich Irwin says:

    Thank you Kyle. Our congregation is going through Ephesians right now, but a comment or two from the David/Nathan story is hard to resist.

    I am wondering about revelation which McClendon seems to hint. There seems to be little need for discernment when God tells the prophet, “go to this person and say this…”

    It seems like Stringfellow is trying to broaden our biblical witness of prophecy. I am also wondering IF someone did receive some direct revelation like Nathan it would need to be tested against the previous revelations (scripture and/or tradition of the church). Specifically, if a prophetic word was given against a power like America, how does that fit within story of God’s Kingdom? Is there a tension between God’s “unconditional love” and “reaping what we sow” with droughts, mass murders, economic injustice. Or can there even be “unconditional love” without judgement/consequences for those activities that “displease the Lord.”

    Going back to the text, it appears that David’s repentance and penance did not result in complete forgiveness. Wondering how that might fit within the Church’s current situation in America where it seems to me that forgiveness is preached above all other activities of God.

    • Wayne Rollins says:

      Interesting questions posed by and arise from the article and the comment. The tension between unconditional love and consequences is one at least partially answered by what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” We want to alleviate our guilt by applying cheap grace to anything from keeping the extra change given in error to issues of climate change. Nathan’s accusation of David was a call to repentance, before the consequences became real. Repentance does not eliminate the consequences, but it does accept responsibility for the causal action. Repentance is a restoration of a relationship even while acknowledging that relationship will somehow be changed. Hopefully, God’s unconditional love will eliminate the final consequence when the time comes.

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