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First Impressions: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

August 4, 2009

The Lectionary offers another abbreviated reading from 2 Samuel that will require a lot of careful explanation to the congregation.  The trick will be to provide the relevant background information—the rape of Tamar and Absalom’s ensuing murder of his half brother (2 Samuel 13), the strained relationship between father and son (chapter 14), and Absalom’s rebellion against his father and David’s flight (15-17)—without creating a ponderous sermon.  It will be no easy task.

I will expand the Lectionary periscope, and may break the reading into two pieces with a hymn or anthem in between.  The first segment might be 18:1-9, and the second 18:9-15, 24-33.  That would leave Absalom “hanging between heaven and earth” from one reading to the next, creating some drama for the congregation.  I might, however, decide that route is a little too clever and instead break the reading into 18:1-15 and 18:24-33.  It is a more natural break, and still builds some drama between Absalom’s death and David’s breathless waiting for news.

18:1-5 I will include the first four verses of the chapter.  David’s preparations for battle help lead us into the story as well as providing a reason for David to tell his commanders to “deal gently” (18:5) with Absalom.  These verses reveal the complexity of being both a king and a father.  David’s soul is clearly in turmoil.  This may be a good lead in for a sermon.  We all have complex relationships and roles, and need guidance to navigate them successfully.

9-15 The Lectionary leaves out verses 10-15, perhaps the most meaningful segment of the story.  The parallels between the deaths of Absalom and Uriah are powerful, and remind us of the great, unanticipated consequences of our sin.  Joab is the instrument in both killings.  David used him to cover up Bathsheba’s pregnancy, and then Joab, contrary to David’s wishes, killed the king’s son.  In both cases, Joab probably saw himself as remaining loyal to the king.  Perhaps Joab thought he was protecting David against the king’s own foolish hope that Absalom could remain alive.  A possible sermon based on these verses could describe that terrible web of consequences we  weave when we allow sin to reign in our lives.  Absalom’s death came as a direct consequence of David’s sin, and was foretold by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:9-12).

24-33 David waited by the gate with hope in his heart.  We know his hopes were about to be dashed to pieces.  In fact, it was a cruel joke on David that the first messenger was Ahimaaz.  David assumed that good man would carry good news to the king (18:27).  The second messenger, however, brought the news that broke the father’s heart: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!” (2 Samuel 18:33).  Many of those hearing a sermon on this text will understand David’s grief.  They, too, have worried over children who ruined their own lives with disastrous choices.  A sermon that attempts to provide some comfort through God’s sympathetic grace could be quite welcome.

One difficulty on preaching this text is that God is not obviously active.  The preacher may want to remind listeners of David’s prior relationship with God and how that affects the story.  The authors of our text this week, of course, assumed that the human actors were simply working out God’s will in the world.  There could be a sermon in that, too, but tread carefully.  It is too easy to leave people with the impression that everything that happens is God’s will or that we are simply puppets in the divine scheme.

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