Living in the Tension Between Judgment and Grace

In 2 Samuel 11, Nathan confronts David about his abuse of power, his violation of Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. He tells David of a wealthy rancher who had all sorts of livestock he could prepare to feed a visitor who was arriving at his house, yet who chose to take the only pet lamb from his poor neighbor to kill and prepare for the feast. David responds with rage and says that the one who did this should be killed and his estate be forced to repay the wronged poor man four times his loss.

That’s when Nathan responds: “You are the man!” He then recounts all that God has done and how David has, like so many of us, still wanted more. He became so full of himself as the “anointed one” that he soon came to think of himself as God. Nathan tells him that, because he used the sword of the Ammonites to strike down Uriah, the sword would never leave David’s house. Tragedy would continue to plague David’s descendants!

Judgment was pronounced!

But at the very end of it, David has a very penitential response. He confesses that he has sinned against the Lord, and Nathan acknowledges his confession by saying, “Now the Lord has put away your sin. You won’t die.”

Grace was offered.

The thing about this is that it is not cheap grace. It is not grace that lets us confess our sin but continue to live as though nothing happened. God didn’t say that the consequences of David’s sin would go away, but God did pledge to be with David despite his sin. That’s grace.

As I preached this recently, I focused on the prophet’s pronouncement of judgment and grace. I had talked about how God works even through our sin and our brokenness. But I realized that I had left out one key attribute:

David was capable of hearing the prophet speak.

As I have thought about that key attribute of David, I realized what a unique individual it takes to be a strong leader, to be anointed by God, to make the nations tremble … yet to be capable of listening to the prophetic voice. David is capable of self-reflection and self-evaluation. He is not defensive or combative. He doesn’t resort to calling Nathan names or belittling him for calling the king out on his sin. He doesn’t strike Nathan with the sword (though presumably, it could have happened without costing him much political capital).

David is capable of listening and reflecting and finally owning up to his sin … no matter how great the sin or how harsh the consequences.

He is finally vulnerable before God and the prophet.

That is the only appropriate posture in the presence of God. Vulnerability. It is difficult for those who are used to having privilege and power. In our European and American culture, think of the privilege and power belonging to the middle- to upper-income, straight, white male. Being vulnerable is not something I was taught, yet I came to realize years ago that my privilege was often a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

A close study of the gospels reveals that Jesus keeps company primarily with the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. If I wanted a closer walk with Christ, it was obvious that my privilege wasn’t going to get me there.

In my efforts to be closer to Christ, I discovered that I had to be vulnerable. I had to hear the marginalized and the oppressed calling out. I seriously had to reflect, not just upon my own sin, but upon the institutionalized, systemic oppression of those who did not look like me. That kind of reflection was scary … still is … and the feeling of vulnerability can produce anxiety, fear, and worry that, if I’m not careful, can warp the soul (which I believe is a primary source of systemic oppression).

John the Baptist was a leader, and it was from him that I began to learn the secret. John knew that it was not about him … I have learned that it’s not about me. In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, we find a story of John the Baptist’s disciples coming inquiring about this one who was baptized by John and about whom John spoke. Jesus himself was now baptizing people, and the crowds were flocking to him instead of John. John called Jesus the bridegroom, and thought of himself as the best man at the wedding. He said that his joy is in seeing the bridegroom and the bride together. His emphasizes this using one of my favorite verses: “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:30, NRSV).

Being vulnerable like David means that I still know who I am. I remember that I may have privilege that is automatically granted, but I am called to lay that down … to seek solidarity with those in the margins … to remember that in God’s scheme of creation, I am but a grain of dust and God is still God.

That for me is vulnerability. That is what it means to live in the tension between God’s judgment and God’s grace. It is what it means to live with hope!

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