Sunday, 21 August 2011

Restorative Justice - David and Bathsheba

It’s happened again!

It happened this morning … and it’s happened again this evening.

Before going away on our holiday I planned today’s services. The Order of Service Sheets would be ready to print. The services planned. One less job to do this week.

I anticipated going away for a quiet couple of weeks and coming back to the tale of end of an uneventful summer.

We have certainly had a wonderful holiday.

But in the middle of it came the news of the rioting in what seemed the length and breadth of England. It was a strange feeling being in Wales, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland watching on the news, reading in the paper of what was happening in England. It came quite close to home when Hackney featured on the news and we found ourselves on the phone to our Phil in Hackney.

Unsettling, disturbing.

One night in the early hours I found myself reflecting on what I might preach, how I might re-write the Highbury News Piece I had already written. It made great sense in the middle of the night. By morning what had made sense seemed not to make such sense.

What right have I to pass comment?

Is it indeed the task of us in the church to pass comment?

I decided not to change things .. and instead I turned to the orders of service that had already been printed. And this morning’s passages seemed to speak right into the situation that we have all witnessed albeit at a distance.

And in a strange way, I found this evening’s passages speaking into the situation as well.

Taking up our reading of the Old Testament once again we find ourselves today into the 2nd book of Samuel. It’s so easy to think of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as the great history books of the Old Testament. But it fascinates me to find they are counted as prophetic books in the Hebrew Scriptures.

When we arrive at the story of David as it unfolds it becomes apparent why they should be deemed prophetic.

Prophets don’t just predict the future. They hardly do that at all.

Prophets in the Old Testament hold the powers that be to account. It is no coincidence that the prophets for the most part are very closely tied into the Kings of Israel. Prophets declare God’s word into an often turbulent and fraught political situation. They speak God’s word into the lives of those in power and make them stop in their tracks and think again about what they are doing.

What David does as he gains power is what so many with power have done through the ages – the power goes to his head.

One of the worst moments in the story is the decision David makes to give his intended victim the letter containing the orders that will result in Uriah’s death. Uriah out of the way David thinks he has set himself up with Bathsheba for he is after all beyond reproach as King.

Then he is confronted with what he has done by Nathan. Interesting isn’t it that once again we find a Prophet confronting the powers that be in the shape of the King by means of a story. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he chose to use stories in order to get his message across about the kingdom of God.

This story is as plain as can be: it is a powerful story of injustice … it is the story of a rich man and a poor man. One lamb is simply the main course of a meal for an unexpected visitor as far as the rich man is concerned. That lamb is all the poor man has. The rich man has no qualms in taking it.

David is enraged. Rightly so.

And Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

That has to be one of those lines in all literature that sends a shiver down the spine.

Then Nathan confronts David with the wrong he has done.

David knows the seriousness of what he has done … and he repents.

Psalm 51 is the Psalm that is linked with this moment in David’s life.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

.The subsequent story of David’s reign is a fascinating one that raises all sorts of issues. When Bathsheba’s son is born, he is sick and dies at a few days. Nathan, David, the prophetic writers writing this narrative interpret that as God’s judgment. That provokes many an atheist thinker today to reject a God who can do that kind of thing. What we have here is an understanding of God that actually contemporaries of these prophetic historians are already calling in question … Ezekiel rejects it out of hand. When Jesus comes to bring all the prophets to fulfilment he is in line with Ezekiel. When he meets the man born blind in John 9 people assume one or other of his parents must have sinned for him to be born that way … but that is a position rejected by Jesus. God is not like that. It is important to hear the conversations that take place within the Bible itself – and sense different ways of understanding God, that then reach their fulfilment in Jesus. How important for us to take our stand with Jesus.

David continues to reign. In some ways his rule goes from strength to strength. In other ways he continues to have immense problems, not least within his own family. His son, Amnon, has an incestuous relationship with his sister Tamar and as a result is killed by another of David’s sons, Absalom. Absalom wins the hearts of the people, causing David to flee from the city he has made his capital, Jerusalem. When Absalom is subsequently killed in battle contrary to David’s explicit orders to spare his son, it provokes one of the most heartfelt cries of bereavement captured so powerfully in the words of the Authorised Version.

“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

And as for the second son born to David and Bathsheba we will learn more of him next week, his name is Solomon.

The strand of this story that struck me so forcibly as I came to prepare my sermon for this Sunday in the wake of all that has happened while we have been away was the second chance that David was given.

He is confronted with the wrong he has done, brought to see the significance of that wrong, challenged to change round,, and then given the opportunity to shape things all over again.

This is a strand that finds its fulfilment in Jesus. When Jesus is brought face to face with the woman caught in adultery he writes with his finger on the ground. The men bent on the execution by stoning of the women keep questioning him … what do you say? The Bible is absolutely clear in the Law – that such women are to be stoned.

They keep questioning. The Bible says … what do you say?

He keeps writing in the sand.

Then he straightened himself up and said to them, “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And once again hebent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “no one.”

And Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus gives the opportunity to start all over again … and put things together.

One particular word caught my attention in that wonderful prayer that makes up Psalm 51.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

It is the word ‘restore’.

It’s a word that could have cropped up much more in the last couple of weeks.

In the wake of the crimes that have been committed in the rioting, justice is called for.

But what kind of justice?

Not a lot has been heard from politicians or for that matter from the courts of restorative justice.

Coming to these passages quite unexpectedly in the wake of what has happened. I find myself challenged by these stories.

I fear that calls for lengthy prison sentences, the removal of all income from a whole family, and eviction on to the streets smacks of a retributive justice that will be counter productive and exacerbate the situation.

Restorative justice would be no soft option. It would confront the perpretators with the consequences of what they have done, it would set up a context in which they could meet the people whose lives they have ruined and see what has resulted from their actions, they would then have to play their part in putting things together again. And the purpose of it all is to change those people. To restore them.

Editor of Youth work magazine and himself a church youth worker, Martin Saunders wrote this of Pip Wilson, a writer on youth work whose thinking and books have played a significant part in youth work for a long, long time, not least in our own Hy-Tec.

“One of the greatest youth workers I know (and there are many), the sixtysomething Pip Wilson, has given his whole life to the inner-city teenagers we might term "hardest to reach". Last week I saw a tweet from him. "You may not like this," it read. "I love these kids #LondonRiots. I don't love their behaviour but I LOVE THEM." It was a wonderful illustration of the difference behind faith-based youth work. Pip sees these young people not as problems in need of a solution, but as people in need of identity, grace, love.”

[Face to Faith, the Guardian, 13th August 2011]

That, more than anything is what we learn of these stories from the Bible today. David and the woman Jesus met were not problems in need of a solution, but people in need of identify, grace, love.

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