We’re turning to another halloween image: ghosts. Maybe the most well-know story of ghosts is not even a Halloween story. It’s a Christmas story. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a story of transformation prompted by a series of visitation from ghosts and spirits. Ebenezer Scrooge is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” On Christmas Eve, he turns down a dinner invitation, fails to open up his palm to give alms to the poor, and insists that his clerk come to work on Christmas Day before finally relenting. That very night, the ghost of his former business partner appears in heavy, clanging chains from a lifetime of greed and selfishness. He tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits; if he doesn’t listen to them, then he’ll receive chains of his own. The ghosts are messengers, or maybe angels, who have the capacity to deliver Scrooge from a lifetime of imprisonment.
A Christmas Carol is illustrative of the way that ‘ghosts’ are performative in all of our lives. Each of us will be threatened by some ghost in our lives—some past shortcoming, some resentment, grudge, grief, whatever— and it has power to haunt us. But if we listen to the ghost, it has the power to bring liberation. A philosopher, Peter Rollins, says that we are each a haunted house, though most of us are too scared to look inside. What will happen if we open up the doors to our hearts and see if any ghosts are lurking around? The bad news is that there is almost always some ghost, but the good news is that it might open the door for liberation.
Reynolds Price was Duke’s most famous English professor. He tells a story about his fight with spinal cancer. He had this vision, not a dream he insists, that he was by the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus called him into the water and started to wash him in the water. Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” and walked away. Reynolds called out, “Well what about the cancer? Wasn’t the sins I was worried about. Am I cured?” Jesus turned back around and said, “That too.”
I identify with that—like I’d prefer you to forgive my student loans, but I guess I’ll take forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But really, can we address those loans first? We all have something we want from Jesus, but he’s always more concerned about forgiveness; that’s just not our priority. The culture we find ourselves will avoid it at all costs. On a national level, we’ll never admit that we made a mistake. Like ever. It’s also true on a personal level. I talked about sin last week and I felt this heaviness in the room. It’s possible that imagined it; I always get more anxious when I talk around shame and guilt. I’d rather avoid that discomfort and preach prosperity. I want people to feel grace, without the conviction. Proclaim the assurance of forgiveness, without confessing the sin. The problem is that it’s not the Gospel. God loves us just the way we are. That’s good news. But God loves us too much to stay that way. We can become more—holier and a better reflection of Jesus. That’s even better news. We can be forgiven. That’s the story of David.
David’s at the height of his power, he is loved and adored by the people, and he has a multitude of servants, soldiers, and statesman. The nation is doing well—it’s expanding and prosperous. Remember that he started from the bottom, as a humble shepherd boy, then he rose to fight Goliath, and now he’s become a King—though, maybe a lazy one. Scripture says that it was the time of the year when kings were to go to war, but David did not go. “He slept in,” Scripture says. That’s a better gig than war. But he’s bored and desolate. One day he was walking on the palace roof working on his tan when he spots this woman. And she was bathing, probably with only a pitcher of water. Then Scripture says, “he took her…he took her.” He took what was not his. She did not consent. That’s a polite way of describing rape, isn’t it?
The whole scene takes on a new heaviness in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s scandal. The great threat of power is that you begin to think you’re entitled to whatever, or whoever, might be laying around. Too often, powerful men have misused power to try to take what is not theirs. And the tragedy is that most women have experienced some form of this in their lives. Men like David have to be confronted. Women like Bathsheba must be protected, believed when they tell their story.
Bathsheba discovers that she is going to have a child. David’s the father. He weighs his options. First, David tries to pass off the child as Uriah’s. That doesn’t work out. So David turns to plan B and orders a hit on Uriah. David tells Joab, when you go to battle “put Uriah at the front lines during battle. And as the battle starts, pull back and leave Uriah at the front.” It works and Uriah is killed in war. And like most men in power, his secret is safe, at least for a while. He’s free to marry Bathsheba and get on with his life. No one will know about the rape, scheming, and murder. It’s a happy ending for David. All is great—except there’s this God. Can we agree that God can be really inconvenient—like that rock in your shoe that you can’t seem to get out? God won’t leave him alone.
Later in the story, David’s friend and a prophet of God, Nathan, comes to him and tells a story. He says, “There was a rich man who had everything he could dream of, and there was a poor man who had just one insignificant lamb, which he treated like his most prized possession. The rich man needed a lamb to feed a friend, and so he took the poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it for his friend. The all righteous, King David is outraged: “Who would do such a thing?” he screams. Nathan looks at David and says slowly and sternly, “You are the man.” “Don’t you get it? David, can’t you see? ”
Do you feel that weight? We’d all be blessed more than we deserve if we had one friend like Nathan—a friend who tells you not just when you have broccoli in your teeth, but if you’ve become a liar, thief, and a murderer. Nathan’s words pierced his soul. David can’t shake it, can’t leave it behind. The things we bury by day return to us and haunt us at night. David, who is the King of Israel, becomes David the King of repentance. He pens these words: “Have mercy on me, O God. According to your steadfast love. Put a new and right spirit within me…do not take your holy spirit from me…and sustain in me a willing spirit.” The problem is his spirit—his spirit is broken. It’s haunted.
One thing is sure: when you can’t forgive, or find forgiveness, a broken spirit will fall upon you. One philosopher, Peter Rollins, says that we are each a haunted house, though most of us are too scared to look inside. We are haunted, I’m sure, by different things—things we have or have not done. There are people with whom we have unfinished business or grudges or grief or resentments that we carry on our shoulders day after day. These things that visit us in the middle of the night and we’re left wide awake. If you dared to take a flashlight and look inside of your house, your heart, what would you find?
Big things; little things. An offhanded comment or damning words to the person you love. A broken relationship—that one person you spot at Bi-Lo and you make a U-turn and go straight back to your car just to avoid talking to him. That just me? The guilt from not visiting her soon enough before she died, the physician who made the mistake in the diagnosis, the friend who parted ways over something silly, something serious. These things can haunt us. But it’s possible that they don’t have to. Rollins goes on to say that, “[Those] ghosts can become poltergeists [the ghosts that will haunt us]. But if you let them come out, they can become holy ghosts.” Ghosts that help you become more like Christ. O God, that you would put a new and right spirit within us.
There’s a good southern example of this: When Johnny Cash was young, his older brother died in a terrible accident. Cash grew up thinking it was his fault; he killed the person closest to him. That’s one reason why Johnny Cash thought grace was such good news. Maybe that’s why prisoners were drawn to him. Johnny Cash has this song about a ghost called I Hung My Head. The song is about a man who sights a rifle at a stranger in the distance for practice, but the rifle goes off and it kills the man. The song goes, “I orphaned his children/ I widowed his wife/ I begged their forgiveness/ I wish I was dead.” He’s sentenced by the judge to be executed. And as he approaches the gallows, the man he killed comes to him—he’s visited by the ghost. He listens to the ghost and it saves his soul. They ride together to the kingdom come. It’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness is about liberation. I wish we could disassociate the word confession from Catholic priests and guilt. Jesus seems to think that forgiveness is the best gift he can offer. The first word of his his first sermon is, “Repent.” And he will go on to say: “The truth will set you free.” Tell the truth about the cracks in your life, and God will fill them with grace. I love what Lewis Smedes says, “To forgive [to be forgiven] is to set the prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” What do we do with our suffering? We can carry it around, bury it, but it will assuredly come back to haunt. Or, we can give it to God. Jesus takes the haunted spirit and replace them with a new and right spirit—a Holy Spirit.
This is why I love the prayer of confession every week. One pastor told me to be careful ‘doing that prayer of confession every week;’ it will start to make people feel bad. If that’s how we feel, then we’ve missed the entire point. I get it—sometimes it’s rote. We say that same prayer every week. Some mornings all we can do is mumble the words with eyes glazed over. But when I pay attention, it strikes me as exceptionally beautiful. Where else in the world to people get together and say, “We messed up. But by God’s grace we’re all trying to do better.” Then, a ten year old kid looks me in the eye and says, “In the name of Jesus, you’re forgiven.” Be set free. This is free therapy.
We’re releasing all of these things that we are carrying around and God picks them up and takes the to the cross where they get crucified and raised to new life. It’s easy to believe that everyone else in the world but you has life figured out. Together, as one people, we admit that we don’t have it together. Contrary to what Facebook and Instagram says—contrary to your three piece suit and smile—contrary to your picture perfect kids with their monogrammed onesies—you are broken, too. None of us are excluded. And pastors need it the most. Have you noticed that it only takes one pastor to proclaim God’s forgiveness for all of you, but it takes all of you to proclaim God’s forgiveness on one pastor? We’re like really not off the hook. We’re in this together.
Let’s go back and close with David. Nothing can change his past. David still raped Bathsheba. Uriah was still murdered through David’s scheming. It’s despicable. It’s vile. And today, we’d call for his crucifixion. We’d put him behind bars and lose the key. But what’s shocking, absolutely profligate, and unnecessary is God’s grace. No amount of vile behavior is beyond the grasp of God. The brokenness is place in God’s hands and God will begin the slow work, sometimes really slow work, of putting the pieces back together. David’s faith deepens and he begins to find the grace to become a more holy leader.
God wastes nothing. The beautiful part of David’s story is that God takes that splintering King and creates a new family tree. David and Bathsheba would bear another son, Solomon, who is placed in a great lineage that would culminate in Jesus. And there, on another tree, a cross, Jesus won’t condemn the world, but he will cry out, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” God takes the evil, the worst we can do to each other, and he stops the cycle of violence.
Create in us a clean heart. Create. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the only subject for the verb create is God. Only God creates. God is the one who flings the stars in the heavens. The one who breathes into dirt and makes human beings. Repentance is God creating something new, starting with that big red organ that pumps blood throughout your body. He takes it and wipes off the dust, sprays the mildew, and scrubs it clean. Your past doesn’t have to be a haunted house. Your heart doesn’t have to be a tomb full of broken spirits. May your chains fall off. May your heart be free. May nothing be wasted. May everything be redeemed.