This was one of those weeks when I thought I was being pushed towards a sermon by people outside the parish. I suppose, upon reflection, it began a couple weeks ago with the discussions with people not in our parish about the events in Aurora, CO. As with any tragedy, people strolled into church wanting to know where God was in the midst of that shooting. Some, angry or disbelieving, just wanted to make their point that God is impotent. Others were genuinely trying to come to grips with the idea of a holy, righteous and good God and the events of that terrible night. Just as those conversations began to die down, we had someone attack a Sikh temple, of all things, and kill several members and a police officer, all in the apparent name of racial superiority. Finally, and perhaps more influential in today’s sermon, I have been privileged to meet several teens attending AA. Now, before you all sin by becoming judgmental about those youths, let me tell you briefly that none of the three drink at all. All have watched members of their family turn to the bottle and have seen, far better than the vast majority of us, the destruction such activity can have on an individual and a family. They come when they are stressed and tempted to turn to alcohol. In some cases, the only solution to problems or stresses that has been modeled to them is the drinking of a loved one. They come to remind themselves that God loves them, that God has a plan for a them, and that the bottle offers neither a solution nor love, only far more pain and suffering. Hopefully, you’ll understand as I get into this sermon why worried that I was preaching a sermon that might feel a bit preached at instead of to.
But then 8:00am happened, and I realized what I was saying today needed to be heard within this congregation as well as without. I want to take you back to the civil war reading we have in Second Samuel this morning. Those of us who do not know the history might be surprised that there was a civil war in Israel. Others of us might be surprised that David mourns the death of his usurper son in such a public and deep way. I will try to help you understand what is happening here so that you can see its application in your life.
If I ask what was the big sin of David, nearly everyone in here can recite it to me. No doubt we all know the sin of David with Bathsheba and his sin against her husband, Uriah the Hittite. For more than two and a half millenia, David’s sin has remained prominently linked to his name. How many of us, though, know the curses that resulted from that particular sin? When Nathan makes it known that God knows David’s sins, he also pronounces God’s judgment against David. The fruit of that union in adultery will die, we are told, and so it happens. God also tells that David that He will allow the family to split the kingdom and bring civil war to his people. We read about the fruit of that particular curse this morning. Absalom has seen his father, David, becoming a withered, weak old man. As the heir presumptive to the throne, all Absalom has to do is wait for David to die ad the throne will be his. But, like so many in history, Absalom chooses to take matters into his own hands. He plots treason. Initially, he is nearly successful in killing David. David is forced to flee Jerusalem, so great is Absalom’s seeming success in the beginning. Many of the military commanders switch to Absalom and the promise of riches and power in his service. There are many harrowing moments. Though God promises that David will not die yet, the reader is often left to wonder how he will ever escape with his life, let alone raise an army to restore himself to his throne.
Fast forward to today’s reading. The final battle is at hand near the forest of Ephraim. David has raised an army from among those loyal to him. Prior to the battle, David instructs his generals and soldiers to spare his son Absalom in the coming battle. Scripture this morning is clear in that it tells us that all the people heard when he gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. The battle is joined, and things go poorly for the usurper. The cost of life is horrific--20,000 men are slain, though Scripture says that the forest killed more than the sword that day. At some point, Absalom sees the defeat and flees. While fleeing, he becomes wedged in the branches of an oak. His mule continues on, and Absalom is left hanging by his neck. When Joab’s men find him, you might expect them to obey David and simply arrest Absalom. After all, he is hanging there defenselessly. But no, they kill him.
When the troops return to tell David of the great victory, a victory that has restored him to his throne, David wants only to hear news about his son. While the Cushite declares that all enemies of the king should face the same fate as Absalom, David is overcome with grief. Rather than celebrate the victory with the troops who risked life and limb for him, David goes off to mourn his son’s death alone. Those of us hearing the words for the first time this morning might be surprised as David’s reaction. “O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Is this not the young man who rose up against him and plotted treason? Is this not the same man who killed many of David’s allies? Is this not the same young man who slept with all of David’s concubines on the rooftop of the palace, in a dual effort to bring David’s sin into the light and to mock his father who is powerless to stop him? Why on earth does he feel grief over his death?
Plus, Absalom has committed sins enough to merit death. Sitting here this morning you might wonder what he has done. Chiefly, Absalom has plotted treason, has taken into his own hands, the death of God’s anointed. Though David sinned greatly against Uriah the Hittite, he is still the king. He is still the anointed. And David himself has modeled the behavior expected by God’s people in the presence of God’s anointed. Though Saul plotted time and time to kill him, David never takes matters of succession into his own hands. Whenever he has the chance to kill Saul and to take the throne by force, David chooses always to wait upon the Lord’s pleasure. Saul is God’s chosen king. It will be up to God to keep His promises to David. David never tries to rush the process. Plus, unlike his father who repents whenever he is confronted with his sins, Absalom never repents. Absalom is never sorry for his actions, and so he proves himself an unworthy heir.
Given all that, you and I might be surprised at David’s grief. Why should he be so mournful that this selfish young man has perished? We forget, of course, that Absalom was his son. We also forget that David’s primary duty was to understand the torah , to pattern his life after its teachings, and to instruct his citizens in the holy, righteous behavior expected by God. Absalom has paid attention to David, but only to the selfish and self-seeking actions of David. We might well condemn Absalom for seeking to seize the throne for himself, but was it not David who taught him that such was acceptable behavior when he took Bathsheba? We might well condemn Absalom for the terrible loss of life in the civil war, but cannot the argument be made that he learned how to take innocent life from his father after the census and even in the case of Uriah? You see, David’s grief is driven by the fact that he has failed his son. David has failed to instruct his son Absalom in the ways of the Lord. He has failed to model a “kingly” example for his own son. And for his failure as a father, Absalom has paid with his life.
Those of us who are parents might now understand the emotions raging in David. David recognizes that his shortcomings, his failures, have led his son to walk apart from God. Those of us who have had similar experiences can well understand what David is grieving. Parents and grandparents of those youths at AA certainly understand that they placed their youth on a bad path. I cannot describe the sobs. I cannot describe the fear in their voice. They, better than many of us, recognize than it is only through the grace of God that their loved youths are not on the same path. As we have watched the vulture of the press hound the parents and loved ones of the alleged shooter in Colorado, we have seen a glimpse of this guilt. I am sure those scenes will be repeated as the press hounds the family of the man who killed the Sikhs and the police officer. What David feels is natural. Most parents can relate to it, even parents outside the church. There is, whether we like it or not, a natural tendency to associate horrific acts with bad parenting. When our children fail, no matter how significant or insignificant that failure is, we parents often feel the failure is a direct reflection of our parenting skills. Sometimes we are right to feel that guilt. Sometimes we do contribute significantly to our children’s failures. If we do not teach children to be polite, they will back talk people in authority such as teachers, principals, and law enforcement. If we do not teach children to persevere, they might well get a reputation of a quitter. If we do not teach them the value of a dollar, they may well grow to become spoiled brats or incompetent to manage their own financial affairs. I could go on and on. At other times, however, parents are not to blame. There are countless examples of good parents whose children made terrible choices. There are far too many examples where parents did a pretty good job and the children chose poorly, destructively, hatefully.
One area in which we as Christian parents and grandparents need to recognize our particular failure, repent, and get back to work is in our stewardship of our children. What do I mean by that statement? Far too often nowadays, I hear from parents that they made or are making a “noble” choice not to force baptism on their children in an effort to give their children the freedom to choose what belief system they want to follow when they grown up. The idea is that the parents don’t want to force their beliefs on their kids. If the kids want to grow up to be Christian, great. If they want to grow up and be spiritual but not religious, great. If they want to be atheist, well, that is ok, too. Never mind the overriding instruction to parents in Scripture that we are teach our children to love and to fear the Lord. To some people, such a decision seems noble and praiseworthy. But there is a huge problem. Most of the parents making these decisions are not active in a church themselves, have no spiritual or prayer life themselves, have little or no time committed to the worship of God. My question to them is always “How will your child ever learn if he or she is not exposed to the faith in their youth?” When the vicissitudes of life hit, how will they even know to turn to God based upon the way that you are raising them? Given that less than half of the population in this country self-identifies as “sort of Christian,” who will know the stories to point them in the direction of God or His Church? I say this, brothers and sisters, not accusingly but simply in an effort to point out a problem. Sometimes when I travel and speak to the Church’s involvement in the effort to eradicate slavery in terms of the Exodus event, I am always, always asked what I mean by the Exodus event. If people do not know the Exodus story of the Old Testament, or Scripture’s claim that the New Exodus event was the cross, how can they ever understand God’s grace in the little events of their life?
As parents and grandparents and family friends at St. Alban’s, we can all feel a bit of the spiritual wedgie. How many of us have used the philosophy with our own children, only to see them face life with no concept of the love that God has for them? How many of us have watched our children, or parents of that generation, take our grandchildren or others of that age out of the church and remained silent? Sure there are many competitions for the time of families today. But are we as the “wiser” generation willing to accept that our youth really do not have the time to worship God for a whole entire hour or so each week? Really? How many of us have listened to people complain about soccer practice, work during the week, girl scouts, boy scouts, lego club, this, that and the other thing and never taken the time to remind our children that the number one responsibility of any parent is to teach their children how much God loves them? Our silence, brothers and sisters, carries a cost. And, like David experienced this morning, the cost of our silence, of our failures to speak boldly to those whom we most love, is born by those who come after and who risk dying outside the faith.
It might seem noble and informed and praiseworthy not to drag a kid to church each week, but by failing to do so we are already setting our children up for failure. Every day our children are bombarded with competing world views. Advertisers teach boys and girls alike that girls are only worth their bodies. Who they are is how they look! Advertisers are not at all bashful about bombarding us with the idea that we can have it all, now, and that there is no consequence to borrowing against one’s future for the newest or bestest whatever. He or she who dies with the most toys wins! And when they go off to college and face the deconstruction of their worldview which is an integral part of the “college experience,” one of the first things they learn is how ignorant, how superstitious it is to believe in a God, let alone a God who loves them as much as Christ. What is the countervailing messages that kids are hearing now? If they are not being raised in the faith, how will they ever learned that they are more than their bodies? That they are more than their “things?” That they need sometimes to wait patiently? And that there is a God who loves them, who knows them, who calls them by name, and who has all those answers they are seeking?
Yes, brothers and sisters, put in those terms, many of us can relate to David’s guilt. We can see how he could be moved to such guilt and such deep sadness in the death of his son, despite the fact that his son rebelled against him. Like David, we know that our failures can sometimes have an eternal dimension, an eternal cost.
Were we to end there today, brothers and sisters, it might be a fair proposition. But I suspect many of us would go away feeling like failures. No doubt more than a few of us might go away recognizing we were a poor mother, a poor father, a poor grandparent, or even a poor priest. But just as David’s mourning points to our own guilt, his own life reminds us of the pattern which God demands of us. Though we have spent a great deal of time concentrating upon David’s failures this morning, how is he known throughout Scripture? A man after God’s own heart. It seems a curious statement in light of the sins we have discussed this morning, doesn’t it? And, just for the record, we have not by any means exhausted all David’s sins. Yet God calls David a man after his own heart. Why?
The simply truth, brothers and sisters, is that David repents of his sins. Unlike Saul and Absalom and countless others who “make mistakes,” David simply repents of his sins. Each time he is confronted by God or God’s prophet, David recognizes the charge, repents, and begs forgiveness from God. That’s it. And for his willingness to humble himself before God, what happens to David? Though he least deserves it, David is honored by God. God swears an everlasting covenant with David and promises that a son will come forth to rule rightly and justly for all eternity. That’s right, David will become a great, great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth! Talk about grace. Talk about mercy. Talk about undeserving love.
One of the lessons not imparted by those who avoid church like the plague and who try to give their children the freedom to choose when they get older, as if those kids don’t have that choice when they grow, is this understanding of guilt, repentance, and forgiveness. Each of us, every single person with whom we will interact over the course of our lives, will fall short and sin. Some will do so more abundantly than others. One of the reminders of David’s pattern of life is what God expects of us when we sin. It sounds far too easy, sometimes, to admit one’s sins and ask for forgiveness, but that is all God requires of us. As Christians, we understand the need for forgiveness and its true, unique cost; and so, at our best, we are quick to forgive others for the harms done to us. What is the lesson of the rest of the world? How are the youth outside the church taught to think and feel when they are wronged? Some choose to isolate themselves. Some choose not to risk really caring for another individual. Some become experts at carrying a grudge and settling a score.
All of this, all of this understanding of repentance and forgiveness admittedly hinges upon one simple fact: that He came down from heaven, died for our sins, and was raised to new life! Absent that, our pattern of life makes no sense whatsoever. If His Incarnation, death, and Resurrection are not true, then we are most of all to be pitied because we have been living a self-denying life for no benefit. If what Scriptures teach us is not true, then we are deluded and worthy of scorn and derision. But what if it true? What if He did come down, die, and was raised just like we are told and taught? What if all of that is true? To what kind of eternal life are you commending your loved ones when you withhold instruction, when you withhold wisdom, when you all the world to teach them rather than the Lord who died for them? Are you truly loving them? Are you truly serving them?
Brothers and sisters, do you believe it? Do you believe the Good News of God in Jesus Christ? Do your children know that you do or would they be surprised by your sudden declaration? Do your children’s children know it, or would they, too, be surprised to learn that “you are one of those people?” How about their friends who have come over for a visit? It may seem a cruel thing to ask that question and give us space to answer it for ourselves on a lazy summer morning. But cruelty is knowing the truth and keeping it to yourself. Just ask David this morning. Just ask any parent who wishes he or she had “a do-over” with respect to his or her kids. You and I have that possibility of restarting relationships each and every day because we know what Christ has done for us and our relationship with God. You and I can repent of our failure this moment, recommit ourselves to sharing His story within our families, and remind our loved ones that He loves them far more. Will they all start showing up at church next week? Perhaps not. But then, in many of our cases, our complicit silence has given them permission to skip for some time now. All we can do is repent before God and them and beg forgiveness. Then, as always, it is up to Him and His grace.