In the long story of God’s covenant relationship with his beloved but rebellious child Israel, the story of David and his beloved but rebellious child, Absalom, occupies 6 long and painful chapters. It is one of the most gripping and heart wrenching stories in all of literature. Indeed, it has been the inspiration for some great extra-biblical literature, such as Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.
Like all great literature, this story is rich with meaning. Thus, it is amenable to multiple interpretations and applications. Indeed, your major challenge as a preacher is to decide which layer of meaning to press in your sermon. Your response to that challenge will be largely determined by how far back you go in the story. If you focus only on the immediate context of II Samuel 18 (that is, chapters 13-18), you will end up with a sermon full of the pathos of human dysfunction. If you go back further to the sins of David with Bathsheba and Uriah (chapters 11 and 12), your sermon will be about God’s punishment of David. And that will lead you to talk about how God’s plan interacts with David’s behavior. Or, finally, if you go all the way back to God’s election of David to be the King whose dynasty would always rule God’s people, you will end up focusing on God’s larger plan to bless the world through Abraham and his seed. That will lead eventually to that greater Son of David, Jesus Christ.
Let’s begin with the part of the larger story found in the lectionary reading for today, which hop scotches through II Samuel 18, touching only on the verses relevant to the final cry of David in verse 33. Though there are a host of fascinating characters in this chapter, the clear focus is on David (mentioned 34 times) and Absalom (26 times). This is all about the tortured relationship between a flawed father and his arrogant son. Notice that there is no mention of God, until everything is over and done. Then both of the messengers give credit for the victory to Yahweh God in verses 28 and 31. Until then, it’s as though God is not involved in the action. And the story is so good, so juicy, so filled with deeply human details, that it is tempting to preach on that deeply human level.
So, you could focus on what a scalawag Absalom was, reminding your listeners about his murder of Amnon, his half brother who raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar; about his flight to safe haven in Geshur from which David finally brought him back upon the urging of General Joab; about his arrogant self-promotion and his eventual coup at the palace; about his scandalous public rape of David’s concubines; about his merciless pursuit of his desperate old father over the Jordan; about his ironic and brutal death at the hands of General Joab. There’s plenty of fodder there for a sermon about the shiny promises and the ugly wages of sin.
There is even more detail about David that would make a heart rending sermon on regretful fatherhood. Here is the man after God’s own heart, loving his rebellious son, even as God loved rebellious David. Here is an indulgent father who neglected to discipline his murderous son and ended up almost getting murdered himself. Here is a sinful man regretting that his own son has repeated the father’s sins in that vicious cycle of generational sin that has ruined many a family. Here is a father whose love for his son was greater than his sense of duty to his country. Here is the quintessential picture of a father’s excessive grief over the death of a son whose sins could not destroy his father’s love. This story is a perfect text from which to preach on the tragedy of family dysfunction. You can touch your people’s hearts deeply by focusing on these details of the story.
But if you stop there, you will have abused the text, because it is not first of all about David and Absalom. This story is about David and God. It is important to spend time in the sordid details of the story, because that will help people get the main message in those details. Here’s the message. In the details of our lives, the Word of the Lord is being carried out. The Word of the Lord to David back in II Samuel 12 is the dominant factor in this story of family dysfunction, palace intrigue and violent warfare.
Yes, of course, the rebellion of Absalom, the sin of David, the hard action of Joab, the breathless news of the messengers, and the keening grief of David are all factors in the story, too. But the hand and mind and will of the invisible God moves all things. This is a hard thing to preach.
I think that Patricia Dutcher-Walls does a good job of balancing the human and the divine in the story. “While the human characters in the David story do indeed make their own choices and initiate actions and reactions that make sense within their own perspectives, throughout all that occurs the intentions of God are inexorably working themselves out. The story seems to be making the theological point that God is not heavy handed in intervening in human affairs, yet is still sovereign over human life. Human choice and God’s will are intertwined in enigmatic ways, yet, if David’s story reflects truth, then God’s providence is the context of our lives.”
This is not just a story about human passion that would make a great soap opera. It is the story about God’s passion to take a people for himself and make them the beach head of his kingdom on earth, the advance troops of a mighty army whose mission is to save the world from sin and evil. In other words, this juicy story is part of redemptive history, just one chapter filled with larger than life characters who are part of God’s movement to redeem his fallen creation. Or, as the second messenger put it in verse 31, “Yahweh has delivered you this day from all who rose up against you.” A sermon about how God is involved in our daily lives, working out his saving plan even when terrible things happen to us, will hit a tender, even painful spot in many lives.
But you will hit an even sweeter spot if you focus on two words spoken by the second messenger. Indeed, David anticipates those same words as he sees the runners approaching the gates of the city. Three times he says, “He must have good news.” The first runner gasps, “All is well!” and the second shouts, “My lord the King, hear the good news!” Those men, of course, were referring to the good news of victory over Absalom and his army. But you can use those words to announce the Good News of God’s victory in Jesus Christ.
Yes, we need to be careful about forcing Jesus into texts where there is no real connection to him. But think of how this text parallels the gospel. David shows us a father’s love that overlooks even the most heinous sin. Nothing can sever the bonds of love. To the bitter end, the rebel, the adulterer, the murderer remains, “My son, my son.” That is a perfect picture of God’s love for his rebellious children. Nothing in all creation, even sin, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What’s more, the final words of David anticipate the sacrifice of Christ in a way that sends chills down my spine. “If only I had died instead of you,” cries David. The greater Son of David did precisely that. Buechner says it in his inimitable way. “If David could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”
So, preach this text as a picture of what God has done for us in the death of his Son. To do that effectively and empathetically, you’ll need to tell it graphically with all due attention to the sin of the characters. And you’ll need to explore the mystery of how God is involved in all of the mess of life. But you haven’t finished your sermon, and you haven’t really helped people, until you show how the cry of David for Absalom is the cry of God for us. But God was able to do what David couldn’t. He actually did die, so that we rebels might live. Our lives are messed up, but the good news is that Yahweh in the flesh has delivered us from all who would ruin us.
In the recent avalanche of school shootings, we are confronted again and again with frantic parents, devastated children, posturing politicians, and, occasionally, real heroes. When the high school in Santa Fe, Texas was attacked in May, a teacher named Steven Rose told his students to hide under their desks while he waited behind the door to the classroom, ready to jump on the shooter if he came through the door. In Davidic, even Christ-like language, albeit with a Texas drawl, he said to them, “It’s my life before ya’lls.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 12, 2018
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 Commentary