Success and Excess
Success and Excess
2 Samuel 12:1-10
November 19, 2017
Let’s review. For centuries, our ancestors in faith were slaves. They made bricks. Life was secure. Their basic needs were met. They had food. They had shelter. However, they had no freedom, no chance at meaning, no opportunity to live with purpose. Life was predictable and routine but the most essential part of what it would mean for them to be full human beings—an awareness of the choices which were their’s to make and a willingness to make those choices—was absent. Not surprisingly, any sense of God’s presence was absent, too—until the day that Moses arrived and freedom became a possibility— until the day when they chose to claim their own freedom and leave Egypt in the rear view mirror.
Our ancestors chose that freedom and almost immediately regretted their choice. The problem is that when we are free, we are also at risk. Almost nothing is secure. What are we going to eat? What will we drink? Where are we going? Who will we follow? The questions overwhelm us. We are free but we are also acutely aware of the wilderness in which we are walking. At our best, though, what we come to realize is how much we need each other and how much we need God. At our best, we become tougher and wiser and more prepared to do what it takes to make our way into the Promised Land—whatever our personal, “Land of Milk and Honey” might be. We might even learn to recognize that real meaning and purpose are being lived in the wilderness before we ever get near the Promised Land, at all.
What I am suggesting to you is that the experience of Exodus was not solely an ancient experience. We all have been captives to routine. We all have spent our fair share of days making bricks. We all have spent time “asleep at the wheel.” We all know what it is like to trade freedom for security and to forget God altogether until something awakens us from our slumbers and we realize that this strange thing looming in front of us in a choice.
What I am suggesting to you is that the experience of wilderness is not confined to the wandering tribes of our ancestors in faith. We have all stood in moments where the good news was that we were free like we had never been free before but the bad news was that we were also totally insecure and vulnerable. In such times, we still discover how much we need each other. We still discover the presence of God, mostly because we find ourselves crying out, “My God, how am I ever going to get through this?”
I remember my first summer on my own. I got to do whatever I wanted—like wait for the sample pizza to be put out at the grocery store because I didn’t really have enough money to eat. It was a scary, exciting, growing time. There was a profound connection to those around me because we were going through what we were going through together. The core truth for me was that it was that wilderness summer—working on a painting crew and eating Mac and Cheese, that was the essential chapter in ultimately making my way to seminary.
This morning, I want to add a third archetypal human experience to this list. There are times of Exodus. There are wilderness days. There are also the challenges of living in the Promised Land. As much as we long to get there, there may be nothing more challenging to our integrity and to our faith than to think that we have arrived.
The wandering tribes eventually were led into the Promised Land, not by Moses but by Joshua. As we’ve mentioned before, Moses didn’t get to go there because he broke the rules. It seems that those who may be terrific leaders for wilderness times may not be the leaders we need for times of conquest. Joshua leads the people. The people use all the strength that they have garnered in the wilderness and they fight. They have carried the Ark of the Covenant with them through the wilderness—a box containing the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments—as a sign that wherever they went, God went with them. Now, they will carry the Ark into battle. (Is there anything that feels quite so good—or is quite so dangerous—as going into battle knowing that God is on your side? Is there anyone who has gone into battle who didn’t think God was with them?)
When the battles ended, the people settled in to their new home. Each tribe established itself and its own leadership. (Do you remember those few days after 9/11 when we felt so much like one nation? Do you remember how quickly that feeling evaporated?) The leaders were judges and many of them were people of great integrity. However, when the judges were replaced by their heirs because, well, that’s how the world works, the leaders grew less effective and more corrupt. The tribes, who had been one people, became more contentious and conflicted. Any sense of God’s presence and of responsibility to God began to erode.
The answer that the people arrived at was to be like everyone else. Everyone else had a king. We want a king, too, (even though God had essentially been their king all along.). Everyone else had a temple. We want to build a temple, too. We want to give away our freedom and our responsibility to one human being who will promise us that we will be more secure than ever. Even though God has always gone wherever we go, we want to take the Ark—the sign of that presence—and put it in the center of a building in a place where hardly anyone ever gets to see it. And then, we will all be shocked when over time, since no one is ever reminded of God’s presence, no one actually thinks all that much about God’s presence at all. The people forget who they are and whose they are. They plant the seeds of their own destruction.
That destruction doesn’t happen over night. Samuel warns them that they really don’t want a king, that the king will take their sons and make them soldiers and take their daughters and make them concubines. The people let Samuel have his say. Then, they say what they want: “We want a king!” What Samuel gives them is Saul, a truly horrible, broken man who becomes more and more paranoid, whose fears can only be soothed by the singing of a shepherd boy named, David. Everyone suffers under Saul’s rule until finally, the people get what they really always wanted—a king whom they could worship—King David.
Now, there was a lot to love about David. As a boy, when Goliath called out all the men of Israel to fight him one-on-one for the fate of the two nations, David not only was brave enough to face Goliath but he was crafty enough to kill him. David was handsome. He was talented. He was smart. He was the kind of man that the men would want to have a beer with. He was the kind of man who could make a woman weak in the knees.
David was also altogether human. Like every other human being who has ever walked the earth, there was that all-too-familiar hole inside of him, the insecure place, the part of him that searched for meaning and realized that he hadn’t really found it. The thing was that unlike the rest of us, he really could have anything he wanted. The people adored him. He had all the power in the world. So, while the rest of us dreamed of what we would do if we were rich or powerful or got to make the choices of the day, David was all those things. The truth was, though, that he was restless. Wealth wasn’t enough. Power wasn’t enough. There was still that empty place inside his soul that was gnawing at him.
Now, I would like to suggest that this empty place that is inside of us all is a spiritual craving. I believe we long for relationship and connection—to the world around us, to the people around us, to the God who is with us always. The problem is that the easiest place to see this is in the wilderness when we have next to nothing. In the wilderness, we might have dreamed of the Promised Land—of the day when we would arrive. However, there were daily experiences of catching a glimpse of God’s presence and God’s blessings because we had food today or we had something to drink or we were helped by someone else and it sure seemed like God was shining through them. Of course, the problem in the wilderness is that just because I have been blessed today doesn’t mean I can make that blessing happen tomorrow. In the wilderness, I have to depend on God’s grace and the kindness of others. Ask yourself: who really wants to do that?
When we arrive, we get to make things so much more concrete. I can take care of my own wants and needs, thank you very much! Of course, although the 2 pound bag of Doritos sounded good and I could pay for them, mostly I just felt sick afterwords. I reach a certain level of success where I figure, “I’ve got this! I can do this on my own.” The people around me become less essential and more disposable. The God who is with me becomes more like that stray dog that follows me to whom I occasionally throw a bone. I use the power that I have to try over and over again to stuff myself with something that will make that gnawing in my soul go away. It takes me a long time to discover that nothing works.
Success leads to excess. Excess corrupts us. Excess kills our faith. I start out just wanting to be like everyone else and sooner or later, I discover that this is exactly what I have become—broken, just like everyone else.
Nothing filled David’s soul—until lust for Bathsheba did. It wasn’t a “love” affair—not at first. It was just flat out power—“I want her.” He sent her husband—a loyal soldier—to his death. He got want he wanted. Then, Nathan gave David what he deserved: the truth: “What you have done is terrible. You are such a good judge that you have no choice but to convict yourself. This corruption will cost you dearly.”
We thank God on the day that we arrive in our Promised Land and then we craft the story of how we got where we got on our own. We marginalize God and trade our freedom for security. Success leads to excess but nothing seems to fill that hole…