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Sermon: A King and a Father

August 7, 2009

2 Samuel 18:1-15, 24-33

We live in an ocean of relationships, and it can be a rough and stormy place to be.  You can have calm seas in one moment, and 40-foot waves and a back breaking wind in the next moment.  One reason that relationships are so dangerous and complex is that the rules don’t always apply.  You love your spouse and you love your parents, but if there is serious conflict between the two it is no fun to be stuck in the middle.  There may be no simple resolution to supporting your spouse and honoring your father and mother.

Parents often have difficulty sorting out trouble between their children.  Here is a typical example.  “Dad”—and it is never “Dad” but always “Daaaaaad”—“he hit me!”

“Did you hit her?”

“No.”

“Yes, he did!”

“Why would she say you hit her?  What happened?”

“I didn’t hit her.  I pushed her.  And she pushed me first.”

In a situation like this, a parent will sometimes make a decision that makes one child happy and the other angry, but usually, whatever the parent does will make both children upset.  It is difficult to navigate our many relationships, and sometimes it feels as if everything we do is wrong or there are no right decisions from which to choose.

King David had troubles in his personal relationships, especially those with his children.  David’s home life was even more tumultuous than his love life.  The background for today’s scripture lessons is one of the most brutal episodes in our Bible.  It is about the conflict between two of David’s sons—half brothers—after one of them raped one of the sisters, Tamar.  If you would like to read the entire episode, you can find it in 2 Samuel 13.

In the story, some time has passed since David killed Bathsheba’s husband and took her to be his wife.  But David had other wives, and his firstborn son was Amnon, born to one of these other wives.  Because Amnon was the firstborn, David loved him very much.  Two other of David’s children were half siblings to Amnon.  There was a son named Absalom and a sister named Tamar.

Amnon fell in love with his half sister Tamar, so much so that his lust made him sick.  Amnon stewed in his lust for a long time, and finally arranged to have Tamar alone with him in his bedchamber.  When Tamar refused to sleep with him, Amnon raped her.  Immediately after his crime, Amnon felt a terrible loathing toward Tamar, and he sent her away with angry words.

Tamar’s brother Absalom saw that she was distressed, and asked what happened.  She told him the whole story, and Absalom took her into his house where she remained for the rest of her days a broken and desperately unhappy woman.  David, the father and king, heard about all these things, but could not bring himself to punish his son Amnon for his crime.  You can imagine—or perhaps you already know—what it feels like when your children hurt one another.  David may have felt trapped, knowing that Amnon deserved punishment, just as David had deserved punishment for murdering Uriah, but also not wanting to see another one of his children—especially beloved Amnon—hurt.

David was caught between his roles of father and king.  He was afraid to act, and so he did nothing.  Tamar’s other brother, Absalom, was angry.  For two years, Absalom let his anger burn until he found an opportunity for revenge.  When he did, he and his servants killed Amnon.  Then, because he was afraid he might face his father’s wrath, Absalom fled the country.  David, of course, was crushed.  He had lost yet another son to death, and his son Absalom seemed lost to him, too.

Absalom eventually returned, but it was in order to stir up a rebellion against his father.  The tribes in the north were not completely happy with the king, so they joined Absalom, and David was driven from Jerusalem.  He and his loyal followers escaped into the wilderness.  Our scripture lesson picks up the story as David and his troops were preparing to meet Absalom’s forces in battle.

The text tells us that David’s soldiers routed the rebels, but that isn’t the heart of our story.  The most important episode begins with Absalom encountering David’s soldiers in the forest of Ephraim.  Absalom rode along on his mule, and Absalom’s head became stuck in the branches of a low hanging tree.  The text tells us that Absalom was left hanging between heaven and earth.  His fate was in the balance.  It is a fitting image for David’s difficulties with his children.  David spent much of his life hanging between heaven and earth.  He was the king who should punish the wicked and the father who wanted to protect his beloved children.  He was the man chosen by God to be a leader of the Chosen People and a murderer who violated God’s commandments.  Because of David’s sin and his inability to act, his own son Absalom was also hanging between heaven and earth passively awaiting his fate.

David’s best general, Joab, heard that the rebel was caught up in the tree.  Joab never hesitated.  He was—as the cliché goes—a man of action.  He knew that the proper course of action was to kill Absalom.  That’s what happens in war.  You kill the enemy.  And, Joab knew, for the sake of the king, rebels must be exterminated.  You cannot rebel against the king and expect to live.  Even though David had told his generals in the hearing of all the troops that he expected them to deal gently with Absalom, Joab knew that was not possible.  He believed that by killing Absalom, he was acting in the best interest of the king.  And Joab was extremely loyal to David.

The ironic twist is that Joab was the man David used to kill Bathsheba’s husband.  David instructed Joab with the words, “Do not let this be evil in your sight.  The sword now kills one and now another.  That is the way of war” (2 Samuel 11:25, paraphrase).  And it was the same fiercely loyal Joab who cut down David’s rebellious son, Absalom.  Things were not going well for the king’s family.

David, meanwhile, waited eagerly for the news.  The first news was good: the king’s army had defeated the rebellion.  David could return to the throne.  But there was another shoe yet to drop.  A second messenger approached the town.  He repeated the good news of victory.

David said, “What about the young man Absalom?”

“May all the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”  By that, the messenger meant that Absalom had been killed.  David quickly retired to the gatehouse upstairs and began to mourn:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

I don’t know any parent who has lost a child who doesn’t share David’s grief and his wish that he had died instead.  It was one of the deepest moments of grief for a man who had felt many losses.  His despair was probably intensified by knowing that he shared some responsibility in Absalom’s death.  It was inevitable.  His role as king—knowing that a traitor must be punished severely—clashed with his role as father—wanting only to save the life of his son.  David could not act, and so Joab acted in the king’s stead.

Sometimes, in the great complexities of our relationships, terrible things like this happen.  We sin and make mistakes and we fail, and by then there are no good options left.  No wise decision can save us—or the ones we love—from pain.  We are trapped by our own actions.  It happens in life, and it happened to David, God’s own chosen man, quite often.  Of course, Absalom had his own role to play in this tragedy, but that knowledge didn’t soothe David’s grief one bit.

And again, just like the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah, God seemed conspicuously absent.  Where was God’s presence in this story?  The victorious army attributed their victory to God’s favor, but there is no other sign that God was present.  Where was God in this disaster?

From the Christian perspective, God, like David, is also a king and a father.  We believe that as Lord of all Creation, God is a divine ruler whose role is to guide and preserve Creation.  But we also believe that God is a Great Parent who wants to protect us from suffering, who wants to grant us grace and mercy, to wrap us up in the divine arms, to share forgiveness.  God, too, is trapped between the poles of justice and mercy.  And so God, the Great Parent, sent us a child—God’s only begotten child—to live among us, to teach us, and to die so that we might be forgiven.  God is no stranger to loss.  God understands the deep grief when a parent loses a child.

For this, we can say that God was indeed in the middle of the action.  We can say that God was with David as he paced back and forth, awaiting the terrible news.  God was with David when he poured out his spirit in sorrow.  God was with Absalom, hanging with Absalom, between heaven and earth, just as Jesus hung between heaven and earth on the cross.  God was even present with Joab when he made the fateful decision to kill Absalom.  Maybe God tried to stop Joab from doing what he believed was his duty to the king.  God was with the men who died in the forests of Ephraim.  The scripture tells us that more than 20,000 died that day.  God was with the mothers of those dead, and with their wives and children.

The witness of scripture tells us that the place we meet God is in the wilderness.  It is there—in our sin and confusion and pain—that God is revealed to us.  God walks by our side precisely in those most awful moments of loss.  God picks us up just when we think we can’t take another step.  That may be the only good news we can discover in our scripture lesson for today, but it is more than enough.  God is with us!  When you lose a child, God is with you.  When you lose your job, God is with you.  When your life seems too much to bear any longer, God is with you.  When drugs or alcohol seem to be on the verge of overwhelming you, God is with you.  God is with you.

One of our classic hymns does a much better job sharing this witness of faith and hope:

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light:

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

(Thomas A. Dorsey, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” 1932.)

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