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Taking the Scenic Route – The Itinerary: Ephesians 3:14-21 and 2 Samuel 11:1-15

The story of David, Joab, and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 is a story about timing and about faithfulness. In the first verse of the story, the author of 2 Samuel lets the reader know what the kingly itinerary was supposed to be and that David had not followed the standard procedure. Evidently, springtime was the time for war—a sad thought to me because it seems war had become almost an annual tradition. Retired professor of Old Testament Richard W. Nysse says it this way: “David has made war a routine.” And, part of this routine was that the king was supposed to go with his troops into battle. I’m not sure if David had tired of going to war with the troops, or if he had just decided Joab was capable and could handle having the army delegated to his command, but in either case, David had a place he was supposed to be, and he had chosen not to go.

This story in the life of David is so familiar that we have probably already heard most everything there is to say about it. What more is there to say that hasn’t already been said?

Yet, the Spirit moves and is active and speaks to us, even through the most familiar and difficult stories of our faith. So, let’s listen to what the Spirit is whispering today.

For the summer, we are taking a road trip with God as we engage with Scripture. We’ve looked at the roundabouts, the rest areas, and the directions we might need along the way. This week, we are going to consult the trip itinerary, even though it might seem a little bit late in our trip to be first consulting it. 

When I was a kid, my dad always made us packing lists before we went anywhere. We didn’t take a lot of trips, but when we did, my dad made sure we were organized and prepared. I think a lot of it was his Boy Scout training. We always needed to bring an extra pair of socks, just in case. You never knew exactly what might happen on a trip, and you had to be prepared. Most of the trips we took were either to visit family or to spend time at our family cabin in the Rocky Mountains, and the goal of our trips was to explore and experience the world as it happened – no itineraries needed.

But, on one particular trip, my family had scrimped and saved so that we could travel to California and go to DisneyLand. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and my parents wanted to make sure we experienced as much as we could, in the best and most helpful order possible. To that end, my dad made an itinerary in addition to our packing lists. He read an unauthorized guide to DisneyLand to make sure we could avoid waiting in line for the rides and find all of the hidden gems along the way. Even though my dad’s itinerary left plenty of open space for play and taking life as it comes, it made sure we knew where we needed to be and by when.

In our text from 2 Samuel 11, we see three totally different responses to being where we are supposed to be. I imagine that at some point in our lives, we’ve been all three of these. And while the events in the lives of these three people may vary significantly from our own lives, we can still see ourselves in the way they responded to God’s calling. Through this story, I believe God is calling out to us and urging us to be faithful in the small things, wherever we find ourselves.

First, we find David ignoring the itinerary altogether. It was springtime, the time for kings to lead their armies into battle, but David stayed home. The text doesn’t tell us why he stayed home, but it says that he sent Joab instead of going on his own. Whatever the reason, David was supposed to be with his army, but had chosen to stay home instead. 

The decision to stay home might seem like a small thing. And, at first, this small decision seemed to work out well for David and the people of Israel. The end of verse 1 tells us, “they [the army of Israel] ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah.” David entrusted the army to Joab, and the army had succeeded in a mighty way. But, this small thing was like pushing a snowball down a steep incline. One decision to step away from the itinerary led to more decisions, to decisions that deeply hurt people, and to choices that took David so far off course that he needed an intervention through the prophet Nathan. 

In our walk with God, it can be so easy to get off track. We can lose sight of the itinerary, or we can see the itinerary and choose not to follow it. Either way, we can get off track, and it can be a struggle to turn things around. 

Back to the story of my family going to DisneyLand when I was little. My dad’s itinerary was based (in part) off of his reading of an unauthorized guide to Disney. He read that book, took notes, and calculated our itinerary based on his reading. We followed his itinerary (for the most part) on the days when we were at Disney, and as a result, we never stood in a single line waiting to go on the rides. Now, I’m sure there are times when things happen that are outside of a person’s control. A ride might break down, or something might happen that causes delays and troubles. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. But, when we followed the itinerary, we stayed on track and we got to have the experience we had hoped for.    

When David strayed from the itinerary, things seemed to work out at first. But, we know it did not end there. He exploited his position as king and took Bathsheba. He orchestrated the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. And he put his trusted leader Joab in charge of cleaning up the mess David had made. One step away from the itinerary turned into a disaster.   

Once, when I was rushing to be with family because a beloved family member was actively dying, we got caught in a snowstorm. The storm was raging and we focused all of our energy on staying between the white lines on the road. When we got to Omaha, we did not even realize that the interstate split and we needed to take an exit to stay on the right track. In our grief and in our worry about staying safe in the storm, we did not notice our mistake until we had driven almost all the way to Kansas. When we passed a huge sign in the middle of nowhere for a casino, we knew we were not where we were supposed to be. We lost so much time on the road that we did not make it in time before our loved one died. That one little mistake had consequences that I think about to this day.

David ignored the itinerary. He passed his job off onto someone else. And, that one decision led to devastating consequences for Bathsheba, Uriah, and Joab. In this story, we are called to be faithful even in the smallest of things. As Jesus says in Luke 16: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” We may not know what to do in the big picture. We might feel stuck wondering what God’s ultimate plan for our lives might be. It’s OK if we can’t see the end from the beginning. I can’t think of a single person who can. But, we can choose to be faithful in the next step in front of us. Like we learn in the movie Frozen 2 – “Do the next right thing.” 

By contrast, Joab seems to follow orders to the letter. He leads the army for David. He brings Uriah to David to try and help David cover up what he had done to Bathsheba. Joaborders the army to abandon Uriah at the front of the battle so that Uriah will die and David will be off the hook. Whatever David says, Joab does. Joab was following an itinerary, but it was the wrong itinerary altogether. He was following David’s itinerary instead of God’s. And, part of me can’t blame him. I imagine that if Joab had stood up to David, there would have been far-reaching consequences. Joab was faithful – but to the wrong calling. 

We live in a day and time with so many competing voices. Every news post tells us how to feel about it or how we should react. Our family and friends’ opinions and thoughts flow on social media like a never-ending current. We are surrounded by advertising that tells us what the next thing ought to be for us. And sometimes it is hard to tell whose voice we are listening to. From David, we learn that even when we can’t see the big picture, we can still do the next right thing. And from Joab, we learn the importance of knowing who we are listening to.

I imagine things were very confusing and scary for Joab. After all, the king of Israel was selected by God. He had been anointed. He was in charge. And, we see what happens to Uriah when he doesn’t do what the king wanted him to do. There were steep consequences. God does call us to follow our leaders. But, what do we do when what we are asked to do by our leaders – or by others around us – is against what God is calling us to do? First, we need to make sure we know who we are listening to. Joab very well thought that by doing the king’s bidding he was listening to God’s call.

In this busy and loud day and age, it is more important now than ever before to know who we are listening to. This is difficult to do when the voices around us are so loud and constant. When we aren’t sure what to do or who we are listening to, we need to get away to a quiet place. We need to find spaces where we can listen. We need to separate ourselves from all of the opinions and pressures and demands so that we can truly hear. Jesus demonstrated this by seeking out quiet and isolated places to pray. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for Jesus to be surrounded by people who were calling out to him with their needs? And in his compassionate heart, he probably wanted to heal each and every single one of them. He wanted their suffering to end. He wanted them to have abundant life. Yet, he also knew that we need to be sure of who we are listening to. He found time to get away, to pray, and to listen, and be recharged. Each of us need that too.

On our road trip journey with God, we can’t see the destination from where we are, but we can do the next right thing. We can turn off the loud noises so that we make sure we are listening to the right voice and taking the right way. But, even when we do all that, sometimes things still happen that are beyond our control.

This leads us to Bathsheba. In our text for this morning, the author of 2 Samuel goes out of his way to let us know Bathsheba was doing all the right things. She was following the law by bathing to cleanse herself. She was bathing at a time that was customary, and very likely she was in a garden or courtyard that was intended to be private. She did not draw attention to herself, but was spied from David’s rooftop – the highest viewing point in the kingdom. And he decided to take her. 

Even though Bathsheba followed the itinerary, she encountered pain and suffering that was outside of her control. Her husband was killed. She lost her child. Her life was turned upside down. We might look at her and think – this is what happens when we are faithful? 

If we learn from David the importance of doing the next right thing – even if that thing is small and seems inconsequential – and from Joab the importance of knowing whose voice we are listening to, we learn from Bathsheba that even when we do everything right, we live in a broken world where terrible things still happen. That might seem like a downer of a place to wrap up our look at this story, but stay with me.

Bathsheba suffered. She was faithful and she suffered. Her story serves as a stark reminder of the importance of not judging people for the pain they are suffering. There is no room to blame the victim or think, “If they had only done this, things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.” Sometimes we suffer, and it is not because of anything we did to deserve it. But, even still, Bathsheba showed remarkable strength and persistence, even with all she endured.

Later on in her life, she advocated for her son Solomon to be king. She stood up to David (on Nathan’s urging), and because of her courage, her son took the throne in Israel. For too long in history, Bathsheba has been painted in a judgmental light. She’s been viewed as a temptress who made the king fall from grace. To the contrary, Bathsheba is an example of a faithful, discerning woman who did not give up when life dealt her impossibly painful circumstances. She stayed the course, remained faithful, and is treated as a person in a position of honor in the kingdom of Israel.

Friends, what is the next right thing God is calling you to do? Where are you called to be at this moment, even if you can’t see where the end of the road leads? Whose voice are you listening to? Let’s take a timeout on our trip so that we can consult the itinerary.