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Not Again

I am a huge fan of the old WWII movie Von Ryan’s Express, starring Frank Sinatra as American POW Colonel Joseph L. Ryan, based on the novel by David Westheimer. It came out in 1965. Ryan helps rescue a trainload of British soldiers from the hands of the Nazis. It’s got everything you could want in such a movie.

Spoiler alert! The last scene is shot in El Chorro, a region of Málaga, Spain, where a train full of escaping soldiers weaves in and out of the gorge through miles of tunnels. After his heroic leadership, as the mission comes to a climatic success, Ryan, who is still on the tracks, is shot dead and those he rescued speed away looking out over the dead body of their liberator.

I watch the movie again and again, and when that scene is coming, I kind of think, “Oh… not again!”–even though I know what’s going to happen. And it always does. It is the same way I feel when the ending of Braveheart comes along; when the Death Star from Star Wars unleashes its death ray destroying the planet Alderaan; or when little Nemo’s mother and thousands of siblings are gobbled up in Finding Nemo. I watch those movies again and again, knowing there will be parts of the story where I will wince–parts that I wish weren’t as they are.

This year I have been re-reading I and II Samuel, the retelling of great and horrifying stories, beginning with the birth of Samuel and finishing up with the reign of David. And here’s a “Von Ryan’s Express" moment: David and Bathsheba. David, God’s anointed king, the great, beloved and incredible monarch of Israel, is taking a stroll one day and catches a glimpse of the beautiful Bathsheba bathing on her roof. You know what happens next: a glimpse turns to lust, lust turns to obsession, and obsession turns to deceit, adultery and finally murder. I wish the story was different and I find myself saying “Oh…not again!” as I approach the story in 2 Samuel 11-12.

There is no way around it. Von Ryan is not getting up off the train tracks and the story of David’s lust and violence are, well, part of the story. Yet here’s the good news: this story is also about God’s relentless pursuit of David’s holiness; not just relentless pursuit of David–but of David’s holiness.

God sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. David is a bit dull at first, but finally “gets it” when Nathan utters the word, “You are the man!” In that moment, the scales fall from David’s eyes and he ‘fesses up” saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” God could choose to turn His eyes away from David’s sin, but what good would that have done David? He would likely have continued to sin, going deeper and deeper into the darkness, and wreaked havoc along the way.

No, God does not just want David, He wants a holy David, so He sends Nathan to give David a chance to confess and repent, and that’s exactly what David does. And then Nathan tells him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” If you know the whole story, God’s forgiveness did not get David out of the consequences of his actions: they were still his to face. Yet he was forgiven by God.

Many believe Psalm 51 was written by David in response to the conviction he felt as he came to terms with his own sin in this story.

And I have a little confession myself: I am a sinner. I sin so much more than I wish I did. I say prayers before bed and yet can find myself sinning in thought before I finally drift off to sleep. I try and wake each day with a prayer in my heart, but right alongside those prayers is usually a thought, a word or perhaps even a deed that makes me think, “Oh… Not again!” I wish it weren’t so. I wish my story were different, but, thanks be to God, for He “sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.” I John 2:2

The price for your sins and mine has been paid. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” on the Cross, (John 19:30) He meant it. The work to “atone” for our sins was done–account settled and grace bestowed. Grace invites us continually back to the Cross when our own Nathan comes and says, “You are the one.” We experience the forgiveness offered to us through confession of our sin.

Yet the strange irony of the pursuit of holiness is that, as we grow, we become more, not less, aware of our sinfulness. By the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, I may not struggle with the same things I struggled with 30, 15 or even 5 years ago, but I still have plenty of “Not again!” moments; moments where I fall short; moments where I come face-to -face with more areas in my life where I am yet to know the fullness of who God made me. The more I climb, the steeper it gets.

This is perhaps too much detail, but in my shower, I have what is known by our Hebrew friends as a Netilat Yadayim, or a “wash cup.” If you visit homes, places of worship, or even restaurants and restrooms in Israel, you will see these cups. Faithful Hebrews often use them to wash their hands before meals or before they pray. They might use unconsecrated water from the sink to fill the cups, but there is still something sacramental about using the cup to wash one’s hands. Whenever I take a shower, I first fill my cup, then pour the contents over my head three times and I pray the words from this Psalm of David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Now, I am not superstitious and though I am a magician (as you know!), I don’t believe in magic. The washing cup, along with the prayerful words, remind me that I cannot pay the price for my sin, but I know the One who has; One who wants not only my darkness, but also to wash that away so I might live as a child of the Light. The washing is an outward and visible sign that I need the forgiveness available to me, and I need the power of God to create a new heart and a right spirit until the next occasion that God convicts me of my sin, another “Oh… not again!” moment.

So, friends, remember when you sin, you are in the company of many, but here’s the difference between Von Ryan’s end and yours: God has already rescued you. As Paul wrote, “He has rescued us form the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Colossians 1:13 Take hold of that when you stumble and fall, take your sin and guilt to Him, and take your heart to Him. Allow God to lead you into the holiness He calls you to—again and again and again.

A Prayer of David, from Psalm 51:10-12
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
               and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
               or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
               and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
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