Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Pentecost 10 – Year B

The 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 I had died instead of you,
O Absalom, my son, my son!”
2 Samuel 18:33

How could it all have come to this, the death of David’s beloved son after such a succession of tragedies? David’s earlier life had gone so well and held such promise – he was strikingly handsome, strong, courageous; so successful in battle, so loyal to his king, so forgiving of Saul’s treachery toward him. But in these latter days, so much had gone so wrong. Popular acclaim for his victories had been turned angrily against him by the paranoid king. His soul mate Jonathan, Saul’s son, whose love for David “surpassed the love of women,” he had said, had been slain. His reign as king had revealed deep flaws in his character – his affair with Bathsheba, his unconscionable murder of her husband, his attempt to cover it up. And then word had arrived of Absalom’s bizarre death in battle, his head caught in an oak tree, his dangling body stabbed by Joab and his men. How could it all have come to this?

Father and son had become caught up in a tragic, senseless conflict with each other. Maybe some of it was in the genes: David was good-looking and ambitious, Absalom was good-looking and ambitious; David was proud and stubborn, Absalom was proud and stubborn. Genetic or not, it’s well known that parents criticize the faults in their children which are most true of themselves. I certainly confess to that as I look back on my own parenting days. And I believe that’s why God made us this way! It can give us a much-needed dose of humility when we own up to it. But we do resist seeing ourselves as we really are, don’t we? Certainly Absalom and his father did. The conflict had all started when Absalom’s beautiful sister Tamor was raped by his half-brother Amnon. In retaliation, Absalom had Amnon killed; but that made David furious, because Amnon was his first-born son and he was devoted to him. The result was, David grieved angrily, and Absalom fled quickly.

After three years had passed, Joab, David’s top general, always anxious to better himself with the king, tried to arrange a truce. He got Absalom back to Jerusalem; but David refused at first to see him. When they finally met, David did kiss and bless his son – but too much bad blood had infected their relationship. Absalom had been laying plans for a rebellion; and he put them into action. The result was a full-scale war between what remained of the king’s forces, and the armies of Israel whom Absalom had won to his cause. And it was only after David and his troops had been driven out of Jerusalem and all the way across the Jordan River, that he was able to mount a counter-attack.

That is what is going on in today’s passage when King David, so remorseful about all that has happened, pleads with his three generals, Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” But it is too much to ask of these defenders of the king, now caught up in violent battle. Things have gone too far. The tragic succession of events has taken on a life of its own, and it will end inevitably in disaster. David waits anxiously by the gates of Mahanaim, the city to which he has fled, his eyes straining for the sight of some messenger bearing news of the outcome. The messenger comes; and the news is bad. “O Absalom, my son, my son! Would that I had died instead!”

It has been aptly said that our worst punishment in heaven will be to come face to face with those whom we have wronged, or let down, or disappointed; or, to be faced with the painful truth that our own ill-considered or self-serving decisions have been the cause of dreadful consequences for others. I shudder to think of some of the things I’ve done or said over the years. Something that still haunts me is the time I was visiting a lovely old lady in the hospital, a woman whose grace after a life of heartache had endeared her to me and my family. She was slowly slipping away, but I thought I could go make another pastoral call and she would last ‘til I got back. She didn’t. I got back and she was dead. And I felt awful. And I remember the time I did a fairly major favor for a young friend at some cost of time and money. But afterward some evil streak in me made me let him know just how much I had sacrificed for him. And things were never the same between us again.

What one of us has never suffered the unintended consequences of our actions? Over the past week or so I’ve been thinking of the Turkish explosives expert who so carefully placed the charges in that huge building, expecting it to implode on itself like all the others we’ve seen on television. He had my deepest sympathy as it simply rolled over and landed virtually intact, upside down, in a nearby park, in full view of the entire world! And the world just couldn’t get enough of it – all the TV channels played it over and over! I think there’s a message in that: you and I want to find out through the failings of others that somehow the world really doesn’t come to an end when we ourselves screw up!

After David’s sin against Bathsheba and her husband, the prophet Nathan found out about it and came to confront him about what he had done; and the king was deeply repentant. God punished him for that terrible sin by making him face the death of their child. But God also forgave David. Life went on. Life had to go on. There was so much that God still had for David to do. After a time, Bathsheba conceived again, and she and David became the parents of Solomon, who would eventually succeed David as king, and become famous the world over for his wisdom. Somehow life always has to go on. You and I do know that fact, but sometimes our sins and shortcomings blind us to it.

King David had to learn it again after the unspeakable tragedy of Absalom’s death. As you know from today’s lesson, he was inconsolable afterward. And if you read ahead into the next chapter, you find him still wailing loudly after his victorious troops return. “The king covered his face,” says the text, “and…cried with a loud voice, ‘O my son Absalom. O Absalom, my son, my son!” But, then, see what happens! Joab, his chief general, confronts him: “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life….for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.” David gets the message! He goes out and welcomes his troops; and they all return to Jerusalem; and he goes on triumphantly with his reign; and he will be enshrined forever in the hearts of all Israelites as their greatest king.

Life does have to go on. At some point, like David, we need to get up off our “pity pots” and go on with the process of living. In the case of his sins with Bathsheba and Uriah, David needed to accept God’s forgiveness of him. Not to do so would have put his life and his kingship on hold indefinitely. And in the case of his son Absalom’s tragic death, David needed to accept God’s acceptance of him as a father and as a human being. That didn’t mean that grief wasn’t right and good. The capacity to grieve is one of God’s greatest gifts. And it didn’t mean that his remorse wasn’t appropriate. His childish obstinacy and un-forgiveness of Absalom were unconscionable. But there comes a time when we have to pick up the pieces and go on. God calls us to live lives that impact the world for good. Like David’s troops there are those around us who need us to acknowledge them; like the people of David’s kingdom, others need us – our families, our friends, our companies, our communities. God wants us to go on living the lives we’ve been given.

But what David could experience only in part, you and I have in abundance, and that is the inexpressible love of God in Jesus Christ. “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel from John 6. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” You and I are called to go on living, friends, no matter the joys and sorrows of our lives. But we never, ever, go alone.
stubborn, Absalom was proud and stubborn. Genetic or not, it’s well known that parents criticize the faults in their children which are most true of themselves. I certainly confess to that as I look back on my own parenting days. And I believe that’s why God made us this way! It can give us a much-needed dose of humility when we own up to it. But we do resist seeing ourselves as we really are, don’t we? Certainly Absalom and his father did. The conflict had all started when Absalom’s beautiful sister Tamor was raped by his half-brother Amnon. In retaliation, Absalom had Amnon killed; but that made David furious, because Amnon was his first-born son and he was devoted to him. The result was, David grieved angrily, and Absalom fled quickly.

After three years had passed, Joab, David’s top general, always anxious to better himself with the king, tried to arrange a truce. He got Absalom back to Jerusalem; but David refused at first to see him. When they finally met, David did kiss and bless his son – but too much bad blood had infected their relationship. Absalom had been laying plans for a rebellion; and he put them into action. The result was a full-scale war between what remained of the king’s forces, and the armies of Israel whom Absalom had won to his cause. And it was only after David and his troops had been driven out of Jerusalem and all the way across the Jordan River, that he was able to mount a counter-attack.

That is what is going on in today’s passage when King David, so remorseful about all that has happened, pleads with his three generals, Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” But it is too much to ask of these defenders of the king, now caught up in violent battle. Things have gone too far. The tragic succession of events has taken on a life of its own, and it will end inevitably in disaster. David waits anxiously by the gates of Mahanaim, the city to which he has fled, his eyes straining for the sight of some messenger bearing news of the outcome. The messenger comes; and the news is bad. “O Absalom, my son, my son! Would that I had died instead!”

It has been aptly said that our worst punishment in heaven will be to come face to face with those whom we have wronged, or let down, or disappointed; or, to be faced with the painful truth that our own ill-considered or self-serving decisions have been the cause of dreadful consequences for others. I shudder to think of some of the things I’ve done or said over the years. Something that still haunts me is the time I was visiting a lovely old lady in the hospital, a woman whose grace after a life of heartache had endeared her to me and my family. She was slowly slipping away, but I thought I could go make another pastoral call and she would last ‘til I got back. She didn’t. I got back and she was dead. And I felt awful. And I remember the time I did a fairly major favor for a young friend at some cost of time and money. But afterward some evil streak in me made me let him know just how much I had sacrificed for him. And things were never the same between us again.

What one of us has never suffered the unintended consequences of our actions? Over the past week or so I’ve been thinking of the Turkish explosives expert who so carefully placed the charges in that huge building, expecting it to implode on itself like all the others we’ve seen on television. He had my deepest sympathy as it simply rolled over and landed virtually intact, upside down, in a nearby park, in full view of the entire world! And the world just couldn’t get enough of it – all the TV channels played it over and over! I think there’s a message in that: you and I want to find out through the failings of others that somehow the world really doesn’t come to an end when we ourselves screw up!

After David’s sin against Bathsheba and her husband, the prophet Nathan found out about it and came to confront him about what he had done; and the king was deeply repentant. God punished him for that terrible sin by making him face the death of their child. But God also forgave David. Life went on. Life had to go on. There was so much that God still had for David to do. After a time, Bathsheba conceived again, and she and David became the parents of Solomon, who would eventually succeed David as king, and become famous the world over for his wisdom. Somehow life always has to go on. You and I do know that fact, but sometimes our sins and shortcomings blind us to it.

King David had to learn it again after the unspeakable tragedy of Absalom’s death. As you know from today’s lesson, he was inconsolable afterward. And if you read ahead into the next chapter, you find him still wailing loudly after his victorious troops return. “The king covered his face,” says the text, “and…cried with a loud voice, ‘O my son Absalom. O Absalom, my son, my son!” But, then, see what happens! Joab, his chief general, confronts him: “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life….for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.” David gets the message! He goes out and welcomes his troops; and they all return to Jerusalem; and he goes on triumphantly with his reign; and he will be enshrined forever in the hearts of all Israelites as their greatest king.

Life does have to go on. At some point, like David, we need to get up off our “pity pots” and go on with the process of living. In the case of his sins with Bathsheba and Uriah, David needed to accept God’s forgiveness of him. Not to do so would have put his life and his kingship on hold indefinitely. And in the case of his son Absalom’s tragic death, David needed to accept God’s acceptance of him as a father and as a human being. That didn’t mean that grief wasn’t right and good. The capacity to grieve is one of God’s greatest gifts. And it didn’t mean that his remorse wasn’t appropriate. His childish obstinacy and un-forgiveness of Absalom were unconscionable. But there comes a time when we have to pick up the pieces and go on. God calls us to live lives that impact the world for good. Like David’s troops there are those around us who need us to acknowledge them; like the people of David’s kingdom, others need us – our families, our friends, our companies, our communities. God wants us to go on living the lives we’ve been given.

But what David could experience only in part, you and I have in abundance, and that is the inexpressible love of God in Jesus Christ. “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel from John 6. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” You and I are called to go on living, friends, no matter the joys and sorrows of our lives. But we never, ever, go alone.