Scripture – 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 14-15, 28-332
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, August 30, 2015
We pick up where we left off last week – with the ongoing saga of David. To recap last Sunday, David was King over ancient Israel and his army was off fighting the Ammonites. While strolling the perimeter of the palace, the dazzling Bathsheba caught David's eye, and failing to control his lust, he ordered her brought to him. Bathsheba's husband Uriah was one of David's faithful troops battling the enemy, but David disregarded that and slept with Bathsheba. In a short time, she discovered that she would give birth to David's child. Attempting to cover his culpability, David recalled Uriah from the fighting so that Uriah would sleep with his wife. Then, in the coming months, he would think the newborn was his.
However, Uriah failed to cooperate and David panicked. Rather than coming clean, he hatched the scheme that assured Uriah would be killed in battle. Then, as part of the cover-up, David married Bathsheba and hoped no one would connect the dots. However, the prophet Nathan saw through David's game plan and confronted the king for his unscrupulous actions. A great reminder for all of us that the concept of privacy is vanishing.
Nathan's parable allowed David to see the gravity of his actions, and prompted David to confess his sin. Nathan assured David that God forgave him. However, like events in our own lives, no episode stands alone. Past events have an impact on the present, and sometimes, our past mistakes haunt us and lead to disastrous consequences. Such is the story of King David.
Do you know the children's book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? It is a humorous example of how doing one thing can lead to a consequence which in turn leads to a consequence that can set off a chain reaction. It reads: "If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he'll ask for a straw. When he's finished, he'll ask for a napkin. Then he'll want to look in the mirror to make sure he doesn't have a milk mustache. When he looks in the mirror he might notice that his hair needs a trim. So he'll probably ask for a pair of scissors. When he's finished giving himself a trim, he'll want a broom to sweep up." Sweeping leads to washing the floors, which leads to the mouse getting tired, which leads to you making a bed for him, which leads to you reading him a book and...you get the picture. It is a delightful story of how simply giving a mouse a cookie can lead to countless repercussions.
The story of David is a similar story, but without the humor. It is a reminder of how one bad decision can lead to countless calamitous consequences.
Today's passage tells of events decades later, but first, we fill in the intervening years. King David is older and has a number of children and a number of wives. In fact, his first three sons are the children of three different women. The middle son died, leaving son number one: Amnon, and son number three: Absalom. David also has a daughter named Tamar, and she is extremely appealing to her half-brother, Amnon, David's eldest son.
The Scriptures say that Amnon becomes so infatuated with his half-sister that he makes himself ill desiring her. He knows his feelings could lead to disaster, but he fails to harness his hormones. Instead, he tricks Tamar into entering his bedroom where he forces himself on her. Once the vile deed is done, he has his servant throw her out.
Disgraced and disgusted, she runs away. However, her brother Absalom finds her sobbing and comforts her. She reveals the reason for her distress and Absalom is outraged. In his fury, he plots the demise of his older brother.
Word of Amnon's assault drifts back to King David, who begins to boil. However, he does not punish his son. How could he? If David confronts him with his despicable act, Amnon will surely say, "Dad, tell me the story of how you gained Bathsheba as your wife."
Our actions have repercussions and we deceive ourselves when we fail to recognize the impact we have on others. What parent has not seen his/her own behavior reflected in the actions of their child?
That is the story of King David's family. The sins of the father are visited upon the oldest son, Amnon, who, in turn, rips apart the world of his half-sister. However, the chain of events does not cease. The younger son, Absalom, concocts a plan to destroy his older brother and the scheming ways of David escalate as his sons adopt his tactics.
After Amnon's rape of his sister, Absalom bides his time until the older brother believes he has weathered the worst of the storm. Absalom invites Amnon to a party and he accepts. But once he has downed a few glasses of wine and dropped his defenses, Absalom unleashes his body guards who kill Amnon. Everyone flees the party in terror.
Absalom knows the news will reach his father quickly, so he immediately leaves the country. He stays away for some time, trying to figure out what David will do.
In the meantime, Absalom's personal political capital is on the rise. For one, he is the best looking man in all of ancient Israel. In addition, many people see him as honorable and courageous because he stood up for his sister. Of course protecting his sister's reputation was not the only motivating factor for slaying Amnon. Now that the older brother is dead, guess who is at the head of the line to become the next king? How convenient.
Absalom stays away for three years and David's anger subsides. Again, how harsh can Dad be? David had a man killed to gain his wife. At least Absalom was standing up for his sister.
So, after three years, David sends word to his son that he may return to Jerusalem. Absalom returns, but it is not long before he hatches a new scheme. He decides to undermine his father's influence and build his own following. Anxious to inherit the throne, he takes steps to hasten the timetable.
Absalom positioned himself by one of the gates leading into Jerusalem and when anyone approached, he would befriend them. Moreover, when anyone brought a suit to the king for judgment, Absalom would say, "It is a shame. Your claims are good and right; but there is no one appointed by the king to hear you. If only I were judge in the land! I would give you justice." The Scriptures say this is how Absalom stole the hearts of the people." (2 Samuel 15:2-6)
Once Absalom believes he has turned enough people sour on David and built up his own militia, he declares himself king and unleashes a surprise attack against his father. David is driven out of Jerusalem and Absalom claims the throne. Absalom believes he is invincible and sends his army in hot pursuit of David. He dreams of finishing off the old man once and for all.
But David was a military genius and was confident he would defeat Absalom's army. Before David sent his troops into battle, he told his officers not to kill his son, Absalom. Despite the armed rebellion, David could not stand one more death in his family.
Today's text tells us what happens next: 2 Samuel 18:5-10, 14-15, 28-33
5The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai saying, 'Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.' And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. 6So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. 9Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. 14Joab said, 'I will not waste time like this with you.' He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. 15And ten young men, Joab's armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. 28Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, 'All is well!' He prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground, and said, 'Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.' 29The king said, 'Is it well with the young man Absalom?' Ahimaaz answered, 'When Joab sent your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.' 30The king said, 'Turn aside, and stand here.' So he turned aside, and stood still. 31Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.' 32The king said to the Cushite, 'Is it well with the young man Absalom?' The Cushite answered, 'May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.' 33The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, 'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!'
As David's troops rout the opposing army, Absalom realizes the tide has quickly turned against him, so he makes a run for it. In what sounds like a comic routine, Absalom is riding his mule through the forest and when the mule gallops under an oak tree, Absalom's head becomes caught in its branches leaving him suspended in mid-air.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann "suggests that Absalom's mid-air suspension reflects the tension in the narrative. Brueggemann says, 'Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father."1
David's troops come upon Absalom dangling from the tree and take matters into their own hands. David is not present because his commanders insisted that he stay back behind the lines because he was too valuable to be lost in battle. David is back waiting to receive word; hoping and praying that his men will win the battle, but his son will be captured alive.
His time of waiting was grueling. The future of his kingdom and the future of his family were at stake. Finally, David spots a messenger running toward him. The man blurts out that the battle has been won. David's only question is "What about my son?" The messenger says he does not know.
A second messenger arrives and informs David that Absalom has been killed. David will remain as king, the rebellion has been squashed, his throne is secured, but all David can do is weep with all his soul: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you."
David's anguish arose in part from his guilt. He knew that his own dark side had fed Absalom's scheming ways. He knew his own culpability for the person Absalom became.
However, we dare not let Absalom off the hook. His behavior was not entirely his father's fault. Parents have a significant influence over us, but they are not the sole source for who we become. Our parents had character flaws and made mistakes, but we have a choice whether or not to repeat them.
I have heard parents blame themselves for their child who becomes a misfit. If only they would have done something differently. Perhaps. But not necessarily. There are many influences on our lives and parents can never take full credit for their child who is a success, nor all the blame for their child who is troubled. Each person must choose which path in life to take.
David's heartache was partially rooted in his guilt, but chiefly in something else – his love for his son. Despite his rebellious son trying to do him in, David never stopped loving him.
This is the story of the entire Bible. God loves us even when we are unlovable. God loves us even when we rebel. God loves us even when we nail Jesus to the cross, which we do over and over again. We do it when we neglect people who suffer. We do it when we fail to take care of God's creation. We do it when we fail to respect people of other races and other nations. We do it when we opt for war over peace.
Like David, God is heartbroken because God has such high hopes for us and knows we can do better.
Mary Ann Bird was born with multiple birth defects: a cleft palate, disfigured face, crooked nose, and deafness in one ear. As a child, she suffered not only her physical impairments but terrible emotional damage inflicted by other children: "Mary Ann, what's wrong with your lip?"
Worst of all was the school's annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child forward, the child covered one ear and then the other, and the teacher whispered a simple phrase: "The sky is blue," or "You have new shoes." Mary Ann could not hear in one ear and did everything possible, including cheating, to minimize attention to her disability. She despised the whisper test.
But one year her teacher was Miss Leonard. The day came for the dreaded hearing test. Mary Ann cupped her ear. Miss Leonard leaned forward. And Mary Ann has never forgotten the words that God must have put in Miss Leonard's mouth. Seven words that changed her life. Miss Leonard did not say "The sky is blue" or "You have new shoes." She whispered, "I wish you were my little girl."2
God whispers in our ears, "You are my child. I love you and want the best for you."
Will we ignore those words and rebel? Or, will we live in such a way that helps to mend God's broken heart?
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE ~ Randall T. Clayton
Great God, who liberates us from bondage to sin, who delights in our joy, shares our sorrows, and reaches out to us even when we reach away from you.
Despite our best intentions and our earnest efforts, we know that there are times when we fail to follow, when we turn our backs on those in need, when our priorities are misguided, when our preconceived notions and our prejudices cause us to disregard or to hurt others. Trusting in your grace to forgive us and your power to change us, we ask that you develop in us a new willingness to live as your people, and a new openness to your call.
We pray for peace, O God, in this violence ridden world, and in particular in our own violence ridden country. Death and injury are certainly fueled by the proliferation of guns, a disregard for human life, and a desire for revenge. And the things that make for peace are certainly fueled by trust, and faith and love. Help us to see how we might demonstrate the things that make for peace in new and visible ways to the world around.
We pray for peaceful and democratic solution to the widespread governmental corruption in Guatemala, and ask that you be present with those who have chosen non-violent means to achieve change in that country. We pray that peaceful efforts to bring about change will not be met with violence and retaliation. We ask that solutions will be reached that are in the best interests of the Guatemalan people and their most basic needs. We pray for hope and liberation from the oppression and from the suffering and death that too many experience daily.
We ask, O God, for your comforting presence to be with those who grieve, and to be with those who are frightened or lonely. We ask for your healing presence to be with those who are sick in body or in mind or in soul – bring wholeness where people feel as if lives or hopes have been shattered. For those who are in a time of transition, offer the assurance of your presence.
We ask these things, remembering the prayer which Jesus taught, saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven......."
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