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Our lesson tells the story of Israel's ancient Civil War, the attempted overthrow of King David by his son, Absalom. Absalom was David's third oldest son, the child of a union with the princess of a neighboring city-state,(1) no doubt to consummate a political alliance, as was the practice of the day.
The first time we hear anything of Absalom beyond his brief birth announcement is as the avenging hero in a tawdry family drama.(2) It seems that David's eldest son, Amnon, had become romantically obsessed with his half-sister (and Absalom's full sister) Tamar. Passion took over. Amnon raped Tamar. Tamar told Absalom. Absalom gave her refuge in his home and coldly plotted revenge.
Two years went by. Absalom invited Amnon to a sheep-shearing party, got him drunk and had him killed. Father David was not happy. Absalom took off and found refuge with his maternal grandfather, Talmai, the king of Geshur, with whom he stayed for three years.
It proved to be the beginning of his public career and, at the same time, the beginning of the end of his relationship with his father David. There was something dashing about Absalom that had remarkable appeal. Perhaps it was that magnificent head of hair of his. Once a year he would have it trimmed, they say, and legend had it that the clippings tipped the scales at three and a half pounds.(3) The nation saw this daring young man as something special.
Meanwhile, unknown to Absalom, David was mourning the destruction of his family. He hated the fact that Amnon was dead, but he hated as well that Absalom may as well have been. He was gone. Here we meet Joab, commander of David's military and an all-round good friend. Seeing David's distress, he arranged a bit of chicanery to force the king into agreeing to immunity for Absalom, so the young man returns to Jerusalem.
Perhaps the ship of state would have had smooth sailing after that if only David had not second-guessed himself. Instead of the welcome home and promised freedom that had been originally offered to Absalom, the young man was now placed under a modified house arrest with instructions that the he should have no contact with the king. Nonetheless, Absalom thrived and his reputation grew and prospered.
Two years went by. Absalom wanted to meet with his father. He contacted Joab to see if he might act as an intermediary. Joab ignored him. He contacted him again. He still ignored him. Finally, Absalom had his men set fire to Joab's barley field; THAT got his attention. He agreed to intercede, David relented, father and son met, and we are now back to some semblance of normal (at least as normal as this brutally dysfunctional family might ever hope to be).
Who can say precisely when it was that Absalom decided that he should be king instead of his father? No matter. That IS the path he embarked upon. He played his political cards right, bided his time, and when the moment finally arrived, about half of the nation was ready to support him.
Four years had gone by. Time for Absalom to make his move. Civil War. Soon David and his entourage were forced to flee Jerusalem for their lives. As popular as Absalom had become, David still had loyal support, so the conflict would not just be a walk-over. The battle lines were drawn.
Please remember that David was no country bumpkin. To this day he is known as Israel's greatest king, and that is no accident. Once this rebellion had commenced, the king arranged for some deception of his own - Absalom would get bad advice; Absalom would have spies reporting his every move; Absalom would be forced to fight over unfamiliar terrain; Absalom would lose. And here we come to today's lesson.
The pageantry of the scene was breath-taking - thousands of troops massed against each other and ready for battle. The heart races, the breathing quickens, the adrenalin rushes. At Central Command, King David gives final instructions to his generals: get Absalom, but be gentle with him.
We know how it comes out. Terrible carnage - 20,000 casualties. Proof once again that "Civil War Isn't." Ironically, it was that beautiful hair of Absalom's that proved his undoing. Got it caught fast in the branches of an oak tree when his mule tried to run under it to escape his father's hard-charging troops. There was Absalom, the first of what would prove to be a number of politicians through the centuries to be left twisting slowly, slowly in the breeze.
General Joab gets wind of Absalom's predicament. Perhaps he was angry that the boy would take up arms against his father; perhaps he was figuring this would save the nation; perhaps he was still mad about the fire in his barley field. So, despite specific instructions to the contrary, Joab ran Absalom through right where he hung, threw his body into a pit in the forest and covered it up with rocks. Then, smart enough to know what might happen to the bearer of bad news, he had somebody else report the news to the king.
When the messenger arrived, the first words out of David's mouth were, "Is the young man Absalom safe?" Oh, he cared about the progress of the battle, but not as much as the well-being of his son. First things first. Then the news, and a father's heart-felt cry of pain: "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you--O Absalom, my son, my son!"
It was deep, sincere, gut-wrenching and perhaps the most honest David had ever sounded about anything. Even when his troops tried to comfort him with the reminder that he had won the victory, that the rebellion had failed, and even when his friend and confidant Joab got downright testy with him for appearing to be totally ungrateful to the very men who had remained faithful to him, all David could really say was, "But he was my son!" That was all that mattered. So sad.
Fascinating story, no question. For sheer drama, we would be hard-pressed to find better. But remember this is more than literature; this is scripture. What is it that God would have us take away from it? That the apple never falls too far from the tree? That Absalom's bad behavior was simply the fruit of David's own? That we should be careful about provoking our children or someday they might try a palace coup? That hard as we try, sometimes "Stuff Happens?" That "Civil War Isn't?" No. This is no morality tale. This is simply history. This is a reminder that God's purposes will always prevail, even in the midst of horrible circumstances.
But there is a lesson that is as modern as tomorrow's newspaper when we notice that this story is joined at the hip in the lectionary with the Epistle lesson from Ephesians giving instructions to the church. Listen to the passage again the way Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message:(4)
...no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ's body we're all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself. Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry--but don't use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don't stay angry. Don't go to bed angry...Did you used to make ends meet by stealing? Well, no more! Get an honest job so that you can help others who can't work. Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth...Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant...Love like that.We need those reminders these days, because there is simply too much nastiness lurking about. There is a mean-spiritedness and an incivility out there that is toxic. I doubt that the situation started with the partisan politicians in Washington, but there is no doubt they have raised it to its current unsavory level. Society has seen the behavior and too many have adopted it as acceptably their own.
So saying, the church is in the midst of this uncivil social order and the result is that some of the horrid behavior from out on the street has sneaked through our doors. The most recent evidence is the battle American Episcopalians are having over the election of a man who happens to be homosexual as Bishop of New Hampshire. Some Episcopalians are thrilled; some are horrified. The rhetoric has been fast and furious, and, as is often the case, lots more heat than light has been generated. It is no exaggeration to say that this is now an ecclesiastical civil war. Stay tuned.
Of course we know the issue is not unique to Episcopalians. Most protestant churches, including our own, are at varying stages of struggle with questions of human sexuality. The pope has just restated the Roman Catholic church's opposition to same-sex unions, but as the recent scandals, largely of a homosexual nature, show, the Catholic Church has its own set of problems in this area.
Why is this such a huge topic of controversy in our churches? Simple. Because this is society's problem and we are a part of society. The problem is not going to just go away, whether the church wants it to or not. It would be wonderful if the church could speak with one voice on the issue, but that is no more likely than Republicans and Democrats in Washington beginning to behave. And the issue is divisive enough as to threaten to tear churches apart the way our nation was torn before the War between the States.
With that kind of combativeness being generated over this issue, Ephesians gives us a clue as to dealing with the matter, not as the society for theological debate or the committee to promote social morality, but as church. As the lesson says, "we are all members of one body." In other words, we are in this together, we are family, so let us treat one another the way family wants to be treated. Yes, we can disagree on certain issues - all families do. But, ultimately, we remember that we are family and we will treat one another with love and respect.
In his book What's So Amazing about Grace,(5) Philip Yancey tells about his friend Mel White, a well-known evangelical pastor and author who announced to him one day that he is gay. Yancey was floored because he believed then and still believes that homosexual behavior is sinful. He had to somehow reconcile that belief with the fact that he loved his good friend Mel with all of his heart.
Yancey writes, "It occurred to me that my own life would be much simpler if I had never met Mel White. But he was my friend. How should I treat him? What would grace have me do? What would Jesus do?"
About the reaction of Mel's family to this news, Yancey writes, "Remarkably, Mel's wife continued to support him and speak highly of him after the divorce; she even wrote the forward to his book. Mel's parents, conservative Christians...had a tougher time accepting the situation...they went through various stages of shock and denial. At one point a TV interviewer asked Mel's parents on camera, "You know what other Christians are saying about your son? They say he's an abomination. What do you think about that?'
'Well,' the mother answered in a sweet, quavery voice, 'he may be an abomination, but he's still our pride and joy.'"
Yancey continues, "That line stayed with me because I came to see it as a heartrending definition of grace. I came to see that Mel White's mother expressed how God views every one of us. In some ways we are all abominations to God - All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - yet somehow, against all reason, God loves us anyhow. Grace declares that we are still God's pride and joy."
To be honest, one of the reasons I love being pastor of this church is that, for the most part, that IS the way folks treat one another around here. No question, there are wide divergences of social and theological views in these pews, but you have learned over the years how to disagree without being disagreeable. I applaud you and am proud of you, and I love you for it. Keep it up!
I wish all churches could be like this. Over the course of my years, I have seen too many civil wars under steeples, some caused by serious issues, most by the incredibly trivial. No matter - they are equally horrible and proof once again that "Civil War REALLY Isn't." Echoing through the corridors of the universe we hear the plaintive cries of the Lord of the church sounding for all the world like David mourning over his boy, "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom!" But when the instructions of Ephesians are taken seriously, what a difference there is.
Hear again the final admonition of the lesson and go into the world with it resounding in your ears: "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us."
1. See II Samuel 3:3
2. Read the story in II Samuel 13
3. II Samuel 14:28
4. Colorado Springs, CO : NavPress, 2002
5. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997 quoted on "The Immediate Word," an internet service for preaching at http://www.csspub.com