Surprised by Beauty

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 11:1-15
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21

For those who attended the EP Summer Gathering earlier this month, the occasion provided the opportunity to spend a few days worshiping together, cultivating friendships, and reflecting on the importance of beauty for the church. Throughout the gathering, especially as I listened to Scott Cairns’ plenary talk on Sacramental Poetics, I found myself giving thanks for the people in my life who continually draw my attention to the beauty all around me. Among the many influences who have taught me about beauty and challenged me to grow in my understanding of what is beautiful and true, it should come as no surprise, are the people I share my life with on a daily basis—my wife and my children. In particular, my youngest son, who is five years old, reminds me regularly what it might look to live in a state of wonder at the beauty of the everyday.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as we walked beside our driveway, my thoughts—which were probably going in a hundred different directions—were interrupted when my son let out an audible gasp. Shifting immediately into worried dad-mode, I pivoted to see what was wrong. His gaze was fixed on a wildflower sprouting in the grass. “It’s so beautiful!” he exclaimed. “How did it get here?” In that moment, I was reminded of what it feels like to be open to the beauty that might present itself in any given moment, to be struck with awe, filled with delight, even taken by surprise that something like a wildflower could be so beautiful. In a world where nothing much surprises us anymore, my son’s moment of rapture showed me what it might look like to embrace the surprising moments of holy, wonder-filled beauty that God holds out to those with eyes to see. Even as exhibited by a five year-old, such a posture could appropriately be described as sacramental.

This week’s texts challenge us, in positive and negative ways, to adopt this kind of posture. Psalm 145, attributed to David, demonstrate what it looks like to open our eyes to the works of God, giving thanks, pointing to the glory of God’s kingdom, telling of God’s power. Such attention is similar to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote that the world was charged with “God’s grandeur,” so that every moment, every encounter, possesses sacramental potential.

The story that we read in 2 Samuel 11 is a story of David, but the man at the center of this story seems to be looking at the world around him through a different set of lenses than those of the Psalmist. We read that King David, one spring afternoon, looks out from the roof of his palace and sees a woman bathing. “She was very beautiful,” the text says, perhaps revealing David’s initial impression of his neighbor. But this acknowledgment, from the beginning, is charged with a transgressive quality, as will be evident in all that follows.

The David that we encounter in this story sees a beautiful woman—another man’s wife—and desires to possess her. His recognition of Bathsheba’s beauty is bound up with the sins of lust, greed, and pride, so that he fails to see this woman as a child of God, and instead sees her as something he must obtain. This will lead him to engage in what amounts to rape, deception, and ultimately murder, all in a quest to have this beautiful thing (and to David, Bathsheba seems more of a thing than a person) that his desires tell him he must have, because he is a man of power, the king of Israel. Such is our attitude toward what is beautiful when we fail to see that all beauty flows out of God’s goodness and love, and instead allow our broken desires and disordered affections dictate our attitudes and actions.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes out his prayer for that church, which articulates his longing for them to be “rooted and grounded in love,” so that they might “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” The power that Paul speaks of here might be understood as a capacity for wonder, a posture of receptiveness toward the beauty of God’s love. Paul is praying that the church will be able to see their life in the world as charged with God’s grandeur, that they might be able to see in the works of God the glory of his Kingdom.

The key to this posture—what Paul prays for the Ephesians and what David lacked in 2 Samuel 11—is to be rooted and grounded in God’s love so that all good and beautiful things might be viewed as gifts of God’s grace, and so that we might be taken by surprise, arrested in big ways and small ways by the beautiful things that God presents to those with eyes to see. Then we might understand that our God can accomplish more than we could ever ask or imagine, even transforming our broken desires and disordered affections, that we—like all beautiful things—might live for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

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