Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12 (Year B)
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if you ask Siri about something with more depth than how to get to Jilly’s Cupcake Bar, she get cagey. For example, if you ask her whether there is a God, she will often tell you, “I eschew theological disquisition.” Siri knows her limits. As an electronic assistant, she has many talents—I can ask her where to get ice cream, and she’ll show me a map of 15 options close to me, organized by the positivity of their online ratings. She can pull up and call my husband’s cell phone number with just a two-word cue.
However, she realizes that answering life’s big questions is beyond the scope of her ability. Siri won’t get anywhere near the issue of a greater power in our universe. She’s not curious to inch her way toward a metaphysical cliff; she’s actively pushing us back from letting her near the edge. Siri is not interested in being tempted.
King David could learn something from Siri. The writer of Second Samuel provides many clues leading up to the climax of today’s Old Testament lesson to let us know that David is inching his way out of his safe zone, tip-toeing his way toward catastrophe. “In the spring of the year,” Second Samuel says, “the time when kings go out to battle,” dot-dot-dot “David remained at Jerusalem.” He sent out his whole army to fight the battles of Israel, but instead of accompanying them, he stayed on the home front. He seems to say, “I’m strong enough to resist the ladies prowling the streets. I’m not some undisciplined fool! The women’s husbands may be gone, but I know they’re married. That’s no problem for me.”
Then, late one afternoon, David struts around the porch of his palace, enjoying the scenery from the highest point in the city. The passage continues, “He saw from the roof a woman bathing”–semi-colon–“she was very beautiful.” Of course there aren’t semi-colons in ancient Hebrew, but it seems clear that he didn’t just accidentally glance and Bathsheba’s body flicker across his field of vision; he looked carefully enough to take in her beauty. His gaze was intentional. It was long enough to do harm to them both.
You know what comes next. David finds he’s not strong enough to avoid temptation. He’s edged himself up to the cliff, staying home from the battles, walking the roof at a particular time of day, looking intently at a beautiful, but private moment.
David thought he could handle the temptation that was cropping up in his life, but he out of his depth, and he refused to admit it until he’d gone so far to cover up his sin that he’d killed Bathesheba’s husband.
In the Gospel lesson today, we hear two well-known stories about Jesus’ ministry that tell us much about who he is. But there’s something else revelatory about Jesus wedged between these two pericopes: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
The people had been fed, physically and spiritually from Jesus’ hand and he had healed their sick. They realized, as the lesson says, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Having witnessed the work of the Promised One, having been in Jesus’ presence, they could think of no better thing than to have him rule them—just as the prophets of old had said that he would.
Though Jesus often tells crowds who surround him that an earthly ruler who would save the Israelite people from the hand of Rome is not what the prophets had in mind, in this instance, with the people so stirred up with his popularity, he runs away. Jesus doesn’t stay to try to explain, allowing the mistaken people and their delusions of grandeur seep into his mind and heart, he turns his back to the adoring people and goes to the place where he often retreats when the crowds and the demands of ministry press in on him. He goes to the mountain, and he goes by himself.
Jesus knows that the power of temptation is almost undeniable. When he sees the first hint of temptation, Jesus does not stick around in order to fight the good fight or tell himself, “Hey, I don’t need to worry that I’m going to get a big head and fall off-course, I’m God!” Sure, there are times in his ministry when he does stick around, but more often than not, John or Matthew or one of the other Gospel writers sticks in a sentence, “He went off on his own.” Or “He left that place.” Here, in between two famous miracles, Jesus takes time to check himself before he wrecks himself. Jesus removes distractions, seeking stillness and God’s presence in order to remember his purpose on earth and to remind himself how to most faithfully and effectively carry out that call. Filling our attention with God assures us that we won’t find ourselves out of our depth. Temptation works to make things cloudy before our eyes—causing us to forget exactly what we are meant to be and to do. As we allow our vision to fog we lose our way and end up mired in sin.
But really, it’s easy to notice when fog starts to collect, isn’t it? Things like what Jesus and David faced are easy to guard against in our own lives—don’t think too much of yourself, and don’t think that you don’t need accountability. But what if the fog has been collecting for your entire adult life? What if the path is at so slight an incline that we can completely ignore the descent?
This is one of the questions that Peggy Noonan asks in her Wall Street Journal column this week entitled, “The Dark Night Rises.” Noonan points out the evermore thrilling—evermore graphic—development of action movies in the last few decades. Gradually we’ve moved from villains who are meant to be cautionary, but ultimately amusing, toward characters who are evil to their core, so dark as to intrigue, in some cases. The power of these stories, these images, and these characters desensitizes the population to violence, such that children and young people—all of us, begin to see a more violent way of life as the norm. She cites studies that prove that violent media, when exposed to children, produced children who engaged in more violent acts, hitting and fighting with their peers.
So, I wonder, what is so ingrained into our everyday habits that we haven’t even noticed that it has slipped into the realm of temptation and sin?
I close with words of G.K. Chesterton, from his hymn, “O God of Earth and Altar,” let us pray:
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!