Power and Silence – First Sunday of Advent

Sermon given at Payson Park UCC Church, Belmont, MA November 28, 2010.

Scripture readings:
2 Samuel 11:2-5; 11:14b-15 and 11:26 – 12:7a (Bathsheba & David)
John 7:40-8:11 (The Story of the Adulterous Woman)

My thoughts today are on two themes, Power and Silence, which are both found in this morning’s scripture readings. We will look at how Power and Silence interact with each other in each story, and how they tie these two stories together across a one thousand year gap in time. Then we’ll close with some reflections on what we’ve learned and how these two themes are reflected in the coming of Christ, and Advent.

Let’s start by considering our Old Testament reading, and the setting of Nathan’s audience with David.

Nathan’s story is presented as a legal dispute. This is significant. For thousands of years throughout the ancient world disputes were brought to the local ruler or wise man for judgment. It was a very public event, with many people there: those seeking a resolution to their disputes, spectators, the King and his Court, all listening to the proceedings.

When Nathan presented his case to David, it was in such a setting; which, given what he intended to do, was a wise move! I suspect that if he had done this in a private audience with the King, he might have succumbed to a “Sword Malfunction.”

Let’s imagine what the scene must have been like: David is there with his badges of authority, a scepter and crown. He is sitting on a simple chair in front of the crowd. Scores, and perhaps hundreds of people are standing around the edges of the courtyard, waiting for their turn to be heard. David’s advisors are waiting off to the side for him to call on, if needed.

Then Nathan steps forward to tell his story. The King listens, his anger rising as he hears the tale, and when he can’t restrain himself any more, his face red, gripping his chair with both fists, he leans forward and says “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity!”

And then Nathan said four simple words, “You are the man!”

What would have happened? How did David react?

In the reading we see some of David’s reaction. He says nothing while Nathan, standing before the people, recites the long list of terrible things their King has done.

I imagine David sitting there while Nathan spoke, mouth open, in shock. The sin he thought he’d hidden so carefully from the people, from God and even from himself had been revealed. He had not fooled anyone. He had taken Uriah’s wife and impregnated her. He had used the men of the besieged city of Rabbah as a weapon to engineer the death of one of his greatest and most trustworthy warriors, Uriah. He then married Uriah’s widow as soon as he could, to make the child appear legitimate. He was a rapist, a murderer, and a liar. He had betrayed the trust of the people and of the Lord.

An important point in all of this is that not one word was said in condemnation of Bathsheba. Nathan does not accuse her, nor does David defend himself by trying to blame or implicate her, as Adam did with Eve in the Garden of Eden. Even though many in today’s world may believe Bathsheba enticed him, nowhere in the Bible is it even hinted that she had done anything wrong.

This is because David had all the power. He was the King. His word was, literally, the law. Regardless of what Bathsheba had done, David was responsible. Nothing would have happened if he had not succumbed to the temptation within himself. Whether she was willing or not, when he sent messengers to “fetch her” (the scriptures do not say “invite her”) to the palace, she could not say no. He was the King. When he told her to come to his bedchamber with him, she could not say no. He was the King.

David had no one to blame but himself. The judgment that came out of his own mouth, forcing him to take responsibility for what he had done.

David thought he had the power, and shows himself to be more than willing to use it for his own benefit. Yet, when Nathan reveals David’s sin, David is confronted by the greater power in Nathan. This power is one that Nathan did not use for his own ends, as David had done. This power is a power that Nathan knew he was only a custodian-of, not the owner.

There’s another important point here, which is that we hear almost nothing from Bathsheba. The one time she is heard from is when she sends that message to David: “I am pregnant.” A cry of fear and a cry for help. The beginning of the end of the life she had known: a sign that she was about to lose her home, her husband, her reputation, and perhaps even her life.

Bathsheba is silent in every other respect. David intervened to protect her mainly to save his own reputation and protect the child. We see no evidence of concern for Bathsheba except for a brief statement that David consoled her by fathering Solomon through her after the first child’s death.

Bathsheba, like so many others in that time, in Jesus’ time, and in our time, has no voice. Even Nathan, in condemning David, only mentions her in passing, referring to her as “Uriah’s wife”, not even by her own name. She was a possession, a baby machine and an object of David’s lust, unable to assert control over her own life; unable to be heard.

Now, let’s go forward about a thousand years to the time of Jesus and the story of the adulterous woman.

It’s a similar story in many ways. We once again have a public forum, an accusation of adultery and Jesus’ opponents are seeking to make him the judge, just as Nathan had done to David. Only, Jesus opponents are not seeking justice. Rather, as we just heard in the reading, just the day before they had bragged of knowing the law. Now, they sought to trap Jesus through their self-proclaimed superior knowledge.

It is possible that they’d heard rumors that Jesus was the product of an illegitimate pregnancy, the result of a liaison prior to Mary’s marriage to Joseph. The stigma of being conceived outside of marriage was severe. Those conceived by a single woman were often relegated to the outskirts of society. Most of us today have a hard time understanding how for millennia, even into this century, people conceived outside of marriage are ostracized; seen as sinful for something beyond their control.

So, perhaps those who were trying to bully Jesus into judging the adulterous woman were trying to get Jesus to condemn himself for being illegitimate. Maybe, but I think the main question in the minds of the Pharisees was the one that is constantly asked and addressed throughout the Gospel of John, which is “who knew the law?” Did Jesus know the law? It is clear these men were trying to trap Jesus into judging himself and betraying an ignorance of the law.

Yet, there is a major difference between the incident involving this adulterous woman and Bathsheba’s story. Bathsheba was not judged, nor was she present while David was judged. Here, we have the woman being judged, yet the man she was caught with is not seen or mentioned.

This is a critical detail. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is there a law that says a woman alone can be judged for adultery. The man must always be judged alongside her. The laws in Deuteronomy 22 make it clear that sexual sin required two participants. The woman could be held responsible only if she met the standard of the day of being a willing participant. In other words, the law recognized that a woman could not commit adultery by herself. The man had the power in such situations, both because of obvious biological fact and because, in that highly patriarchal society, women had little or no power to control even their own lives. The one who had the power, the man, always had to account for his actions.

So, where is the man? He should have been right there, standing next to the woman, waiting to be judged. Where is he?

He’s not there.

Silence is critical in both of our scripture readings this morning: the story of Bathsheba, and the story of the woman caught in adultery.

In Bathsheba’s story, we have the silence of the victim. We also have an inner silence. While David sits in shock, Nathan recounts David’s sins to the people. David was left alone to confront himself, and the enormity of what he has done dawns upon him like a searing light. The whole mountain of self-deception and willful blindness he’s built up for himself crumbles into nothingness. He stands completely revealed, defenseless, naked, guilty, before both the Lord and all of his people. In that inner silence he is confronted by his sin, and finds the truth. At that moment, I’m sure he cries out in his mind “Oh God, what have I done?!”

Only then could the King admit to his people “I have sinned against the Lord.” By doing so, he admitted that the very foundation of his legitimacy as a ruler, the favor the Lord had bestowed upon him, had been violated. He realized he had forfeited his legitimacy as King; and, as Nathan soon foretold, the consequences of that forfeiture would trouble him, his Kingdom, and his descendants for many years to come.

10 centuries later, Jesus spoke just a few short words to spark that same sort of inner confrontation in the hearts of the woman’s accusers. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

These men prided themselves in their knowledge of the law, yet they were misusing it for their own ends, just as David had done. They were hiding inconvenient facts and were willing to allow murder to be committed to satisfy their own self serving purposes, just as David had done. They were right if they were inspired by the story of Bathsheba to try and trap someone they believed was guilty by using his own words against him. What they forgot was that the sin in Bathsheba’s story lay with those who misused the power granted them for personal gain.

In this passage, the use of silence by Jesus is obvious: The accusers dragged the woman before Jesus and demanded he judge her; yet all he did was silently bend down and begin drawing in the dirt.

Now, many have speculated about what Jesus was drawing in the sand, but John is right in not telling us. What Jesus drew is unimportant. What is important is that in allowing silence, Jesus created a space in which the accusers had time to look at themselves. Jesus spoke, then returned to silence, again drawing in the dirt. Like Nathan did with David, Jesus allowed his words to grow in the hearts of the woman’s accusers. To stand up and proclaim the truth stridently would just have added fuel to the fire, and the message would never have been heard.

Jesus knew they had to be given time and space to be confronted within themselves by the truth. They had to realize for themselves that by throwing the first stone they would be admitting to either not knowing the law despite pridefully claiming they did, or that they were misusing the law for their own ends, violating the trust the people placed in them. They had to realize for themselves that by throwing the first stone, they would be misusing the power they held for their own purposes. It was a power for which they were only custodians; just as Jesus was custodian of the power that resided in him.

One by one, they came to that realization, that even if they had never sinned before in their lives, they were sinning now. And, one by one, they turned away and left. Finally, when they were all gone, Jesus straightened up from drawing in the sand and asked “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.”

Why is this important?

There are two reasons. First, Jesus encouraged her to speak, and she did. She was encouraged to affirm that no one was condemning her, and she did so by saying “…No one, sir.” This is unlike Adam and Eve, where Adam blamed Eve for tempting him, and unlike Bathsheba, who was not given a chance to be heard at all.

Then, Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus did not say “You are forgiven.” Instead, he is refusing to judge her. The only conviction she will experience is in that inner silence, where she must confront the truth for herself.

And then comes the crucial moment in the story, Jesus said “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” He empowers her. She is already no longer silent, but now he is telling her that she is also no longer able to take refuge in being a possession or in being oppressed. She must take responsibility for herself, and “go her own way”. It is up to her whether she will sin again, or not.

Jesus’ presence and the lesson of this day was that no longer being the silent victim means both no longer being silent, and no longer being the victim. She now has the power within herself to lead the life she chooses, not the life chosen for her.

In both of these stories, we see power, we see silence, and we see truth in the silence. We see power in David’s misuse of it, and the misuse of it by the woman’s accusers. We see a greater power in the few words spoken by Nathan and Jesus, men who both saw themselves as custodians of a power greater than that of any earthly King. We also see those who had been silenced being freed and empowered by Jesus. Finally, by not taking the path of King David, Jesus showed that he was a King, too: a King who understood the dynamics of power, and of silence, a King who’s Kingdom is not of this world.

At this point in writing this sermon, I got stuck. How do I tie all of this into Advent? How do I make what we’ve learned relevant and applicable to us here, today? The answer came to me through some wise comments from Lorrie Herzberg, whom – as many of you know, and as she herself told me that day, has a hard time being silent herself!

After hearing my thoughts earlier this week, she pointed out that in Matthew chapter 1, when Joseph first heard that Mary was with child, he could have judged her and acted immediately, as the Pharisees later tried to get Jesus to do against the Adulterous Woman. But, Joseph didn’t. Instead, he gave silence, and the power of God, time to operate in his heart, while he pondered how best to avoid “exposing Mary to public disgrace.”

In a dream that night, God, through an Angel, told him to not be afraid to take Mary to be his wife. Everything would be OK. Even though he would be taking on what at the time would have been seen as the disgraceful task of being a parent in place of an unknown father and possibly an unfaithful bride. Joseph accepted responsibility even though he didn’t have to. His taking time to be silent allowed God’s power time to work in his spirit.

This was the same power that Nathan and Jesus had. God’s power is often a quiet power, the power of truth. Our lives are the witness to such power being present and active within us. This is the power that we, as Christians, have within ourselves.

Joseph knew that this child of Mary’s might be condemned by others and forced to live on the outskirts of society that saw him as illegitimate. He knew that Mary herself would have to face rumors throughout her life about the parentage of this child. Yet, the Angel had said to not be afraid. The child was born of the Holy Spirit, and the people would name him Emmanuel. The God that had not walked the earth with man since the time of the books of Moses would walk the earth again, as a man. God would be with us.

In this Advent season, we celebrate the birth of that same child. We celebrate the quiet power that enabled Joseph to have the strength to do what the Lord willed. We celebrate that quiet power that allowed God to become one with those who had no voice. We celebrate that God comes not to judge, but to love us.

The power in Jesus the day he confronted the Pharisees is the same power that was in Nathan. It is the same power that was in Joseph. It is the same power that is within us. How will we, like Joseph, like Nathan, and like Jesus, enable that power to show forth in our lives? What quiet words will we speak this day to show God’s love and power to those around us, and enable it to grow within the quiet of their own hearts?

We often forget about silence, and the power of silence. I ask that today, this first Sunday in Advent, that we all remember the quiet power of God that lives in our hearts, and ask that it shine forth and empower and heals us, as it Joseph, and the Adulterous Woman. God loves us, and God is with us.


Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/.

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