O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Though it has been eclipsed recently in the public consciousness by news of the pandemic and the election, earlier this year our country was struggling mightily to come to grips with the ambiguous character and legacy of our history, of our founding fathers and of generations of civic leaders who followed them: Christopher Columbus, “discoverer” of a new land which was not new at all, but which lay open for conquest at the cost of the indigenous peoples; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, champions and defenders of freedom, who yet owned slaves; Andrew Jackson, President of the common man, who yet signed the Indian Removal Act which led to the deaths or relocations of unnumbered native Americans. The list could go on, and does — sometimes reasonably, sometimes as an exercise in over-reaction and self-flagellation. Statues are toppled and monuments are defaced and peoples are divided. It is a struggle.
When I was a child, things were much simpler: not better, just simpler. Heroes were heroes — period. In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue to give us this great new land; a courageous and noble explorer he was. George Washington was the founder of our nation and its first president, an honorable man worthy of respect and admiration. Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, a true polymath, a man deserving of honor. These were the stories from the history texts — and the common imagination — of my youth. They were — and even this expression is fraught now — they were whitewashed, sanitized of their inherent moral ambiguity and conflict. I do not stand in judgment of any of these men, though critique of the educational historians who distorted their stories is perhaps appropriate. We are, all of us, mixed bags of good and evil, virtue and vice. Why should we expect our great historical figures to be different?
Unlike the history books of my childhood, the Bible — particularly the historical narratives of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles — the Bible presents the leaders of Israel warts and all. The biblical authors weigh these men in the balances of covenant faithfulness, and some come up wanting in spite of their otherwise positive contributions. Saul beat back the Philistines and began to establish Israel as a sovereign nation, yet he was a disappointment, a failed, self-absorbed king; God repented that he had ever made Saul king and ripped the kingdom from his grasp. Solomon started well, but didn’t run the race faithfully to the end; he became old and fat and complacent and was lured away from single-hearted devotion to embrace foreign wives and their idols. His son, Rehoboam, was just an immature jerk from the start, and he alienated — lost — ten of the twelve tribes: civil war in the time of the fourth king of Israel. The united monarchy lasted no more than one hundred twenty years. Jeroboam, Rehoboam’s rival, was given control of those ten northern tribes; he was the worst of the lot, with no redeeming graces. He immediately drew Samaria into apostasy and things went downhill from there. These are the stories of Israel’s “founding fathers” as the Bible presents them, without whitewash.
If you were paying close attention, you probably noticed that I skipped David in this lineage of Israel’s kings. Well, how does he stack up? David is the archetypal king of Israel, the exemplar against which all other kings are measured. Put David on one pan of the balance scale and any other king of Israel or Judah on the other, and the scale comes crashing down in David’s favor. And yet: and yet if we refuse to whitewash the record, we must also note that David had his failures, and that they were not minor. He was a headstrong and sometimes violent man whose pride and temper got away with him; if not for the intervention of Abigail, for instance, David would have murdered Nabal and all Nabal’s men just for boorishness — not really a capital offense. Then there is the whole sordid affair with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, one of the truly good men in all scripture. And what did it get him? Betrayal by his king and death by treachery, all to hide David’s adultery with Bathsheba. And the end of David’s life was not without blemish. Against his counselors’ advice, against God’s instruction, he numbered his troops, somehow forgetting that God was his refuge and strength. Even on his death bed, David gave his heir and king apparent a hit list, acting more like a Mafia don than a righteous king of Israel. That is David — the man after God’s own heart — warts and all; and it is all in the biblical record.
But, it’s not here in our reading this morning, not in Sirach 47, which reads as a paean of praise to David: chosen of God, faithful and brave shepherd, giant killer, mighty man of war, sweet psalmist of Israel, worshipper extraordinaire, head of an everlasting dynasty. What about the reality of David’s sin? Where is that? There is one brief mention of it: just one, but it’s all and everything we need to know.
11 The Lord took away his sin (Sirach 47:11a).
The truest telling of David’s life lies not in recounting David’s sin, but in extolling the Lord’s forgiveness. We see in David something we never saw in Saul or Solomon or Jeroboam or Rehoboam, and it made all the difference:
1 Have mercy upon me, O God, in your great goodness;*
according to the multitude of your mercies wipe away my offences.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness*
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my faults,*
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight,*
so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless in your judgment.
9 Turn your face from my sins,*
and blot out all my misdeeds.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,*
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,*
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
12 O give me the comfort of your help again,*
and sustain me with your willing Spirit (Ps 51, selected verses, BCP 2019).
David knew the destructive power of sin. He was not spared its consequences; it ripped his family and the kingdom apart. But David also knew the redemptive power of repentance: of contrition (godly sorrow), confession, amendment of life, all of which we see in this outpouring of his heart to God in Psalm 51. Most importantly, David knew the character of God:
17 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you shall not despise (Ps 51).
So it is that God himself “whitewashed” David’s story:
7 You shall purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
you shall wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Ps 51).
It is disingenuous for historians to whitewash the lives of their subjects. It is disastrous for sinners to whitewash their own lives. But it is the very essence of the Gospel for God to whitewash the life of a sinner who falls before him with a troubled spirit, with a broken and contrite heart. Sirach’s telling of David’s story is a foreshadowing of the Gospel.
There is an old hymn from my childhood — and by it you will know immediately that I’m no cradle Anglican — an old hymn that sings of this holy whitewashing:
For nothing good have I
Whereby thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.
Jesus paid it all,
All to him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He wash’d it white as snow (Jesus Paid It All, E. M. Hall and J. T. Grape).
That was as true for David as it is for you and me. All the good that he had done – and he had done much good — gave him no claim on God’s grace. All the evil that he had done — and he had done great evil — had left a crimson stain, a bloody stain on his life. But, he embraced the Gospel insofar as he knew it: Have mercy upon me, O God, in your great goodness; according to the multitude of your mercies, wipe away my offences. And though David did not know it, though he could not know it, he was calling out for mercy to his descendant — the son of David, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. All forgiveness is from Jesus Christ, from his sacrificial death; there simply is no forgiveness apart from him. David was forgiven through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world. That is why it is possible to recognize the Gospel in the Old Testament — even in the Apocrypha when it appears. Sirach’s record of Israel’s kings is the Gospel hiding in plain sight, if we have eyes to see; hence, the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Advent is a penitential season, a time for examen, a time for confession, a time for us — as David did — to seek the mercy of the Lord, and not mercy only, but amendment of life. May it be said about us, as Sirach says about David: The Lord took away his sin. Amen.