Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Absalom, Absalom

Some people who like to thump their Bibles
         haven’t read them.
Bible thumpers think the Bible is a rulebook.
But it’s actually a storybook and the lessons
         are a lot more complicated than
                  “Do this. Don’t do that.”
The Bible is an all too human story.

Take King David.
He struggled with all the complexity of family life
         multiplied by having several wives
                  and children by each of them.
The backstory of today’s lesson is this:
         David’s son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar.
         Tamar’s full brother Absalom was coldly furious.
After biding his time until he got his chance,
 Absalom murdered Amnon.

For this murder, Absalom was banished for a while.
Eventually, David relented and let Absalom come home.
But Absalom never forgave his father for banishing him.
His grievance fuelled his ambition.
Absalom spent years telling political lies to undermine David
         and to build a coalition of all the disaffected people in Israel.
He was as handsome and charming
as David had been in his youth;
         so he was successful in turning people to his side.

David did nothing to stop his son because he loved him.
Eventually, Absalom organized an army to depose his father.
When they marched on Jerusalem,
         David and the loyalist part of the army fled.
But Absalom wanted a complete victory,
         so he had his army pursued David
                  across the Kidron Valley, across the River Jordan,
         all the way to the Forest of Ephraim,
         before David finally stopped and took his stand.
As David sent his men into battle,
he didn’t give one of those battle speeches
the hero always gives before the decisive battle.
He did not say “Win a might victory for God and country.”
David said, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom.
                           Don’t hurt my son.”

But the army did win a mighty victory.
When the messenger came to tell David they had won
         and the kingdom was saved,
         David asked “Is Absalom safe?”

 Hearing the fatal news
         old David buried his face in his hands and said,
         “O Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom!
          Would that I had died instead of you.
          O Absalom, my son, my son.”

The discord and even violence in David’s family
         did not end that day.
It went on until his death and after his death.
To keep this story in perspective,
         we need to remember that this was
                  the Golden Age of Israel
     and right to the day of Jesus,
people were hoping for a messiah to restore the Kingdom,
         to get things back they were in David’s time.

So what’s the moral of this story?
There isn’t one.
No, David is not being punished for his sin
         with Bathsheba and Uriah.
That has already been dealt with and forgiven.
Was he too cruel in banishing Absalom
         or too lenient in letting him get away with the sedition?
Maybe, but mostly Absalom just seems to have been
         a proud rebellious young upstart who wanted Daddy’s throne.
David wasn’t out of favor with God.
God never loved anybody as much as he loved David.
But all this happened anyway.

The point of this true story is say this is how it is.
This happens.
When you see your child going off the rails, it is hell.
When someone you love too much hates you,
         it is hell.
When you lose a child, it is hell.

Does the turmoil of David’s life still happen?
Just this week I spoke with a priest who had been
         at a court sentencing with her parishioners.
One son had injured their daughter.
Then another son killed the first son.
He got life in prison. It happens.

That moment in the Ephraim Forest where David cries,
         “O Absalom my son, would that I had died
                  instead of you”
         -- that is part of the human experience.
The Bible does not shrink from that.
It doesn’t say suffering is an illusion.
It doesn’t say suffering is optional
– if you just get your mind right
                  and think happy thoughts,
                  everything will go fine.

The Bible doesn’t claim there is an infallible spiritual technology
         for a family harmony, business prosperity,
                  and good digestion.
The Bible tells the truth.
Life is beautiful and wonderful and glorious
         but it also hurts.

 The Bible says a lot of different things about human pain.
One writer says such and such about one kind of suffering.
Another writer says something else about another kind of suffering.
But the bottom line is the Bible doesn’t explain suffering.
It acknowledges that suffering is real
and it answers suffering with hope.

Paul says to the Thessalonians,
         “We do not suffer as those who have no hope.”
1st Peter assures us that our personal heartaches
         share in the suffering of Christ,
         but we shall also share in the resurrection joy of Christ.

The Bible’s answer to suffering isn’t an explanation
         or a prescription on how to avoid it.
The Bible’s answer is the love of God
         which is powerful enough to heal our hearts
                  and redeem our lives from any of the pits
                           into which we fall.
Sometimes that redemption happens here in this life
         at unforeseen times and in unforeseen ways.
Grace almost always comes as a surprise out of left field.

But our ultimate hope does not lie in this life.
Our ultimate hope is in eternity.
The Bible answers suffering in the Book of Revelation, Ch. 21:
         “He will wipe away ever tear from their eyes,
          and death will be no more,
          neither shall there be mourning nor crying
nor pain anymore,
         for the old order of things has passed away.”

The Bible promises us a glory and a joy
         in union with God that is great enough
                  to swallow up even the memories of old pains.
It promises us a destiny that makes our worst ordeals worth it.

St. Paul was no stranger to hardship himself.
He knew as much about the human predicament as anybody.
Paul wrote to the Romans,
         “The sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing
                  to the glory that is to be revealed.”
That’s what we mean by faith.
With faith we don’t suffer any less,
         but our suffering is wrapped in hope,
                  and never despair.