Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how certain biblical stories have crossed over into popular culture? If I were to use the phrase “David and Goliath,” for instance, even outside of church, most people would know I’m invoking a classic underdog story. Little guy defeats giant. And we love rooting for the little guy, right? Movie scripts and Sports Illustrated articles alike abound with underrated individuals rising to greatness. Who doesn’t love a story like that, and that’s how David’s story begins. Youngest son in a big family, watching the family’s sheep back at home while all his big brothers go off to war. Dad sends him as an errand boy to check on them and bring provisions and while he’s there he sees the entire Israelite army terrified of a giant named Goliath. And then it’s this kid - way too small to wear the armor King Saul offers him – who manages to bring Goliath down with a slingshot and a few smooth stones.
Unfortunately, the hero of that, more familiar David story became a real bully later on. Little Dave became a rich, powerful king. He got used to getting whatever he wanted. And that’s where he ran into trouble.
Think about it. From being told to stay home while the grown-ups go off to war, to parading through town as a great military hero. From chasing after a bunch of smelly sheep to striding through a palace in royal robes. From perhaps being picked on by his big brothers to commanding armies and ruling a nation.
They say it does something to a person—wealth, power, fame. And in David’s case, the former underdog began trampling others underfoot. Killing a guy off to steal his wife – that’s the villain’s role. But David? Brave, heroic David? What happened?
Turns out the narrator of 2 Samuel calls David out even before Bathsheba draws her bath. “In the spring of the year,” chapter 11 begins, “when kings go out to battle,” … “David rose from his couch” one afternoon and “was walking about on the roof.” That’s not just narrative filler. The author is making it clear: this king is shirking his responsibilities, sending the little people off to do his dirty work while he lounges around and gets into all kinds of trouble.
Enter Nathan. I’ve often wondered what the Old Testament prophets were like as kids. What kinds of qualities were modeled for them, or nurtured in them. What they were taught. Because how do you think Nathan learned to stand up to a powerful king like this? Don’t forget that as a prophet of the royal court, the king basically signs Nathan’s paycheck.
Carefully, deliberately, Nathan begins to tell this story, this parable. (I love that in the Veggie Tales version, he uses flannelgraph to get across his point.) Nathan tells the story so well that the king’s completely drawn in. Where is this rich man who stole the poor man’s only sheep?! We’ll string him up! We’ll make him pay! And then the punch line: “You are the man.” In Hebrew it only takes two words to say. No doubt two of the bravest words ever to cross Nathan’s lips. This guy you’re prepared to execute for the seriousness of his crime, your highness? Says Nathan: atah ha-ish. You’re the guy. You’re that bully. It’s you.
It interests me that the classical Old Testament prophets enter the scene just as Israel gets itself established enough to create a monarchy. Other figures earlier on are sometimes referred to as prophets, though they don’t function in quite the same way. But once Saul is anointed king, you need a Samuel. And once David trades in his slingshot for a crown, you need a Nathan. Why? Because even when it’s a former underdog in command, look what power can do. The hero has become the villain. David has essentially become Goliath. And when power corrupts like this, there had better be prophets around to point it out.
To be fair, just as David had trouble catching on that the story was about him, we might miss its directness too. It’s fun to identify with Dave the little guy. It’s significantly less fun to identify with David the giant. Powerful. Self-centered. Stepping on others to get what he wants. But sometimes, whether as individuals or as groups, I wonder if we’re the giant.
God knows it’s all too easy for a powerful, wealthy nation to expect the world to follow its agenda.
God knows it’s all too easy for those of us who already have plenty to want more, and to forget how little others have.
God knows if kings need prophets, so do presidents and senators, CEO’s and celebrities.
And God knows if they need prophets in Washington and Hollywood, we need them too.
God knows all of this, and that’s why in every age God raises up women and men to speak to us the painful truth: “It’s you.” To which we hopefully respond with repentance, like David owning up to our sin, asking God to forgive us for our selfishness, our blindness to the way our decisions affect the lives of others.
Of course, there’s another way to read ourselves into this story (ideally, I think, we’re challenged to read in both ways at once) – and that is to identify ourselves with the prophet.
What do prophets do, when power corrupts? We name it. In person in print, in flannelgraph if we need to, we make clear that things are not right.
And what else do prophets do, when power corrupts? We poke fun at it! Like the set-up of the David and Bathsheba story back in chapter 11. Only a complete joke of a king, in those days, would stay home lounging on his couch while his troops went off to war. Right here in the official history of David’s reign, blatant ridicule of the king for his selfish decision.
You may know that marvelous Eleanor Roosevelt quotation - “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I suppose the corollary is that no one should be allowed to feel superior without our consent either. So let’s not let the stand-up comics and political cartoonists have all the fun.
What do prophets do, when power corrupts? We take its cockiness down a peg or two. Biblical scholars believe the story of God creating Adam from the dust of the earth, the dirt under our feet, was written while David was king. What better time for a reminder that we are made of dust and to dust we shall return - than when Israel was at the height of its power, and its king felt on top of the world? It’s important that a ruler like David be told now and then that his feet still smell a bit, of sheep poop.
What do prophets do, when power corrupts? We call it like we see it. They say you’re not supposed to mention politics, money, or religion in polite conversation? I’m afraid if we’re going to talk like prophets, we won’t have a choice.
The good news is that we also won’t have to do it alone. The good news is that prophecy has gone communal since Nathan’s day! William Willimon notes that “the Hebrew prophets are often depicted as lonely people.” But when the early church gathered on Pentecost, just as the prophet Joel had foretold, God’s spirit was poured out on all flesh. Young and old alike caught visions and dreamed dreams. Sons and daughters started preachin’ up a storm. God’s spirit was poured out upon kids and senior citizens, upon underpaid maids and janitors, and suddenly those who never appeared on the pages of the New York Times, those who had never been asked to say a few words at the microphone, began to speak. “After Acts 2, prophecy is a group thing.” As Moses once blurted out to Joshua in the wilderness, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” “That day is now,” says Willimon. “Those prophets are us.” 
So we’d better not get too comfortable with power or wealth or privilege, whether our own or that of others.
In a world seemingly saturated with bullies abusing others to get their way, in a world without enough Nathans speaking the truth to power, where might God be nudging us? Where might God even be judging us? Informed by biblical stories such as the one we’ve read today, how is our story meant to unfold?
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
 William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, (taken from pages 250-259).