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Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church Service for Sunday 1st August
Photo Credit Gabriel Bassino – Unsplash
The Rev’d Andy Braunston Hero or Villain?
Hello. My name is Andy Braunston, I work with four URC congregations in and around Glasgow in Scotland’s Central Belt. I also co-ordinate the Daily Devotions from the URC. In our service today we’re going to be thinking a little about David, an early King of Israel to whom the Psalms are often attributed and who was an ancestor of Jesus. David is held up as a hero, he slew Goliath, he consolidated the monarchy in Israel after a bumpy start but he also had a man killed and abused Bathsheba. Our hero is something of a villain. Today’s service is the base of the one I will be using in Orkney as I preach at our most northerly church, the Peedie Kirk – Peedie being an Orkadian word meaning small. The Peedie Kirk is in the centre of Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town, and overlooks the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral. Once an island chain of poor fishermen with better off farmers, Orkney was transformed in the 70s by the arrival of North Sea Oil and then, in later years, by tourism. In recent years cruise boats have made Orkney a regular stop and, before Covid, the streets of Kirkwall would be groaning with crowds of tourists site seeing and shopping. This year Orkney is quieter. So as you listen say a wee prayer for our most northerly congregation. And so we start our service.
Call to Worship
Come before the Lord with joyful songs, because God is good and generous, because we lack nothing. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgivingand God’s courts with praise.
Serve the Lord with gladness, because of God’s greatness and justice,
because God puts an end to war, and to all forms of violence. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgivingand God’s courts with praise.
Come before the Lord with joy because God is a faithful promises keeper; God’s Word is eternal. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgivingand God’s courts with praise.
Know that the Lord is God, and we are God’s own people, a community, the family of God. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgivingand God’s courts with praise.
It is God who has made us to the praise of the Holy Name, and therefore today, in the same spirit, we have a festival to celebrate God’s peace. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgivingand God’s courts with praise.
HymnLet All the World In Every Corner Sing George Herbert (1593-1633) BBC Songs of Praise
Let all the world in every corner sing, ‘My God and King!’ The heavens are not too high, his praise may thither fly; the earth is not too low, his praises there may grow. Let all the world in every corner sing, ‘My God and King!’
2 Let all the world in every corner sing, ‘My God and King!’ The Church with Psalms must shout, no door can keep them out; but, above all, the heart must bear the longest part. Let all the world in every corner sing, ‘My God and King!’
Prayers of Approach, Confession, and Forgiveness
Eternal God, we thank you for this new day, for the beauty with surrounds us, for the movement of time and tide, for crops growing in our fields waiting for harvest, for fish swimming in our waters, for the summer breeze that refreshes, the rain that nourishes, times of recreation that renew us and give us strength. After a difficult 17 months we give you praise, God, our redeemer, that you’ve journeyed with us, giving us strength in times of despair, creativity in times of sadness, and love in times of mourning. We give you thanks for the creativity of scientists who have developed vaccines, the logistical abilities of those charged with their distribution, the tireless love and commitment of NHS staff which have seen us through. Forgive us when we’ve given into despair, when we’ve doubted your presence with us, when we’ve been tempted to give up. Remind us of your energy, your love, and your grace, that we may not perish, but flourish. Amen.
The Lord is gracious and forgives all who turn to Him, you are forgiven – be bold and forgive yourselves!
Prayer of Illumination
As we listen to reading and sermon, O God, break open your word to us, that we can hear you speak to us, and that we can respond, be changed and be agents of change in our world. Amen.
Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “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.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Be merciful, O Lord for we have sinned Be merciful, O Lord for we have sinned
Have mercy on me God in your kindness. In your compassion let out my offense. Oh wash me more and more from my guilt and my sorrow; and cleanse me from all of my sin
2: My offences truly I know them and my sins are always before me. Against you alone have I sinned O Lord, what is evil in your sight I have done.
3: Create in me a clean heart O God. Put a steadfast spirit in my soul; cast me not away from your presence O Lord and take not your Spirit from me
4: Give back to me the joy of your salvation let your willing spirit bare me up and I shall teach your way to the ones who have wandered & bring them all home to your side.
In our culture, perhaps in all cultures, we tend to divide people into heroes and villains. Comic book characters, brought to the big screen help in this division. For every Batman there’s a Joker, for every Superman there’s a Lex Luther, for every Luke Skywalker there’s a Darth Vader. This dichotomy continues in our press reports – people accused of the most heinous crimes are evil. Full stop. Nurses are, generally, heroic. Full stop. Society, of course, doesn’t really know what to make of ministers or politicians!
We see in the Bible stories which are marvellously complex and rather resist this division of people into being either heroes or villains – and that’s good news when we’re all a mixture of both. In today’s reading from the David cycle of stories we hear of the prophet Nathan trick David into repentance. David is one of the great heroes of the Old Testament. The shepherd boy chosen to usurp an anointed king. The child who slays a giant. The one whose voice soothes a king driving into rebellious skirmishes. The guy who marries the king’s daughter but seems to have the crown prince in love with him. This is the man that the Biblical authors attribute many of the Psalms to – including the one we’ve just heard which is often paired with today’s reading from 2 Samuel.
But then there are rather less heroic aspects to David. He forces himself on Bathsheba when her husband was away fighting in a war. When he realises he made Bathsheba pregnant David arranges for her husband to come home but Uriah doesn’t play the game and so David has him killed. This means he can marry Bathsheba and raise the child as his own. We don’t know much about Bathsheba in the story – she’s acted upon but at this point in the narrative doesn’t act much in her own right.
We have, however, this mixed view of David – a great king, a hero of the people, a man after God’s own heart who, at the same time can be seen as a usurper who inveigled his way into the royal family getting two of Saul’s children to fall for him and who forces himself on a defenceless woman and then has her husband murdered. What would the press make of him I wonder, hero or villain?
Preachers are tempted to play him as one or the other. We might gloss over his good stuff and focus on the horror we have about his treatment of Bathsheba or we might gloss over his behaviour with Bathsheba and focus, instead, on the positive aspects of his character. Yet the truth is that David was a mixture of hero and villain, saint and sinner, righteous and unrighteous, friend and enemy of God. And he was these things simultaneously. There’s no easy division of good and bad here. This makes the story one that still fascinates us – we might have sympathy with the young David and horror at the David we meet today. We might consider that David is complex, just as we are.
We can understand the notion that we can do wonderful things but also do things which we’re ashamed of. We might not rise to lead a kingdom, we may not slay a giant, I hope we don’t send an illicit partner’s spouse to their death – but the extremes in the Biblical story can bring home to us the complexity of our own lives, the way in which we’re both, simultaneously saint and sinner, hero and villain. How, however, do we try and become more saintly and less sinful?
Psalm 51 is used by many Christians a prayer of repentance. It appears in the cycle of prayers and Psalms that are used by monastic orders, clergy and those who use the Divine Office every Friday – traditionally a day of penitence in memory of Jesus’ death on Good Friday. When prayed the Psalm is more than an interesting poem, more than a link with David (though we’ve no idea if David wrote it or not). Instead the prayer is a way of examining ourselves, our actions and our motives. The Psalm can be good therapy.
In our traditions it is not the practice to examine ourselves in the way that other Christians might before they make a confession. We have time in worship to seek forgiveness but we’re not always very good at self-examination – maybe as a corrective to a past over emphasis on sin and failure. Yet the practice of gentle self-examination can be good for us – if David had then maybe the prophet Nathan wouldn’t have needed to trick him into repentance. David couldn’t speak truth to himself and so needed someone to speak truth to him. If we learn to be realistic about ourselves hopefully we won’t need others to tell us when we get it wrong!
As we get to know ourselves better we realise that we are a curious mixture of saint and sinner, of hero and villain. Sometimes we’re tempted like David to over emphasise the saintly hero side of ourselves, mostly, I suspect, we’re more tempted to over focus on the sinful villainy in our souls. Both are unhealthy, both cause pain, both approaches disconnect us from reality – even though that sharp division fits neatly in to our cultural assumptions about people.
Our press doesn’t want to think about criminals, notorious or not, as being complex people with a history and a pattern of emotions, experiences, hurts and joys that have made them who they are. Few of us will read of people who have committed the most atrocious acts and feel that there by the grace of God go we. It’s the same with politics – we cheer our political heroes and boo our political villains – of course we might change our minds from time to time as Scotland as a whole has over the last 15 years or so – but generally we like the simplistic assumptions that come with dividing people into, to coin a phrase, sheep and goats.
Yet the truth is much more complicated, people are much more complex, simple explanations rarely hold water. Those held up as heroes have feet of clay, those arraigned as villains have a back story which, if might not excuse but will certainly help explain. They, like us are a curious mixture of facets and we need to be gentle not only with those in the news, those we encounter we might think of as villains but also with ourselves. We, like David of old are complex, confusing, annoying and wonderfully and fearfully made. Like David we’re saintly. Like David we’re sinful. Like David we’re heroic, and, like David we can be villains. Will you pray with me?
God of complexity help us to more fully understand both our world’s heroes and villains, help us to more fully understand ourselves, that we may be more gentle with others, and with ourselves, always remembering both your mercy and your glory. Amen.
Hymn Father Eternal, Ruler of Creation Laurence Housman (1865-1959) (alt.) Oasis Chorale
Father Eternal, Ruler of Creation, Spirit of Life, by whom all things are made, through the thick darkness covering every nation, light to our blindness, come now to our aid!
Your kingdom come, O Lord, your will be done.
2: Races and peoples, still we stand divided, and, sharing not our griefs, no joy can share; by wars and tumults Love is mocked, derided, his conquering cross no kingdom wills to bear;
3 Envious of heart, blind-eyed, with tongues confounded, nation by nation still goes unforgiven; in wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded, building proud towers which shall not reach to heaven.
4 Lust of possession causes desolations; meekness is honoured nowhere on the earth. Led by no star, the rulers of the nations still fail to bring us to the blissful birth.
5 How shall we love you, holy, hidden Being, if we love not the world which you have made? Oh, give us purer love, for better seeing your Word made flesh and in a manger laid.
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in the one and only God, Eternal Trinity, from whom, through whom and for whom all created things exist. God alone we worship; in God we put our trust.
We worship God, source and sustainer of creation, whom Jesus called Father, whose sons and daughters we are.
We worship God revealed in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh; who lived our human life, died for sinners on the cross; who was raised from the dead, and proclaimed by the apostles, Son of God; who lives eternally, as saviour and sovereign, coming in judgement and mercy, to bring us to eternal life.
We worship God, ever present in the Holy Spirit; who brings this Gospel to fruition, assures us of forgiveness, strengthens us to do God’s will, and makes us sisters and brothers of Jesus, sons and daughters of God.
We believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, united in heaven and on earth: on earth, the Body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit to glorify God and to serve humanity; in heaven, eternally one with the power, the wisdom and the love of God in Trinity.
We believe that, in the fullness of time, God will renew and gather in one all things in heaven and on earth through Christ, and be perfectly honoured and adored.
We rejoice in God who has given us being, who shares our humanity to bring us to glory, our source of prayer and power of praise; to whom be glory, praise and adoration, now and evermore. Amen
Eternal God, through the ages your people has been full of heroes – people who defied the odds; the midwives who dared defy Pharoah, Moses who freed your people, Miriam who led them in joyful celebration; Deborah who fought off the enemy, Esther who saved her people in their darkest hour. Help us, like them, to put the needs of your people before our own. Help us to support those who give selflessly.
Eternal One, through the ages your people have been full also of villains, those who led your people astray in the wilderness, the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery, kings who put their trust in foreign alliances and pagan wives, Herod an anointed king who slaughtered the innocent, those who left your Church early on. Help us, to see within ourselves when we are in danger of being villainous that we may not let you, or others down and, when we do, give us the grace of forgiveness and the time to change.
Eternal God, through the ages your people have been a mixture of the good and the bad and the ugly. We remember Abraham who pimped Sarah, David who seduced his way to power and abused Bathsheba, Solomon the unwise king full of wisdom. Remind us, O God of the complexity of life, the complexity of self that we are gentle with ourselves and others as we realise we’re an infuriating mix of both saint and sinner.
Eternal One, we remember your people know, saints and sinners, whom we love and worry about and whom we bring to you in a moment’s silence.
Eternal God, we bring our own lives before you, help us to see ourselves truly, to examine ourselves regularly, that we may not perish but grow in your truth. All this we ask in the name of your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the ages this dichotomy of saints and sinners has plagued the Church in many ways – not least in the issue of money. We’ve accepted widows mites and murderers’ millions. We’ve used our power to fight against empire, and been complicit in it. None of us have clean hands when it comes to money but, like everything else in our complex lives money has a part to play. We remember now our obligation to give to support charities and the church. Will you pray with me?
Loving God, all things come from you and of your own do we give you. Bless our giving and our loving, that at the end we may all, saint and sinner, hero and villain, come to know you more. Amen.
Hymn Soli Deo Gloria Marty Haugen (b.1950) Words and Music: (c) 1999, GIA Publications Inc., anonymous choir on Youtube
O God of mercy, all praise to you! Your loves surrounds us our whole life through. You are the freedom of those oppressed; you are the comfort of all distressed. Come now, O holy and welcome guest:
2 All praise for wisdom, great gift sublime, through words and teachers of every time; for stories ancient and knowledge new, for coaches, mentors, and counsellors true whose life of service brought us to you:
Soli Deo gloria! Soli Deo gloria! (tr: To God alone be glory!)
3 All praise for prophets, through grace inspired to preach and witness with hearts on fire. Your Spirit chooses the weak and small to sing the new reign where mighty fall; with them may we live your Gospel call:
4 All praise for music, deep gift profound, through hands and voices in holy sound; the psalms of David, and Mary’s praise, in wordless splendour and lyric phrase, with all creation one song we raise:
5 All praise for Jesus, best gift divine through word and witness, in bread and wine; incarnate love song of boundless grace, priest, teacher, prophet in time and space, your steadfast kindness with human face:
6 A billion voices in one great song, now soft and gentle, now deep and strong, in every culture and style and key, from hill and valley, with sky and sea, with Christ we praise you eternally:
Soli Deo gloria! Soli Deo gloria! (tr: To God alone be glory!)
May the One who told us to let the weeds grow with the wheat, the One who knows the complexity of our saintly yet sinful lives, the one who seeks villains to turn them into heroes, allow you to grow, to know yourself, and to be found by powerful grace. And the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and all whom you love, now and always, Amen.
Sources and Thanks
Opening and Closing Music Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davis (1934-2016) from the Yellow Cake Revue played by Adrian Lord 2016
Thanks to John Marsh, Helen Sharpe, Sarah Wilmott, Rhona Newby and Marion Thomas for recording various spoken parts of the service along with the Rev’d Lindsey Sanderson and people of Righead URC and the choir of Barrhead URC.
Where words are copyright reproduced under the terms of Barrhead URC’s CCLI licence number 1064776, Some material reprinted, and streamed, with permission under ONE LICENSE A-734713 All rights reserved. PRS Limited Online Music Licence LE-0019762