Compassionate God, help us to remember in this time of worship that you are with us in every part of life, in both good times and bad. And may our hearts be open to your presence and your word to us this day and every day. Amen.
Today, we conclude our sermon series on the legacy of King David. David’s story is quite an epic tale, as we’ve seen. And we’ve really only touched on some of the most memorable moments (both good and bad). But, through it all, I hope we have gained an appreciation for the complexity of this prominent figure of both the Jewish and Christian traditions. David had his ups and downs, but the legacy of the Davidic monarchy is one that helped shape the history of the Jewish people and their religious tradition, and therefore our own. The unification of the tribes of Israel, the political and religious prominence of Jerusalem, David’s birthplace of Bethlehem, and this brief experience of independence from regional imperial powers all had a lasting impact on the tradition and history that would follow.
So, today we come to an episode later in David’s life. And things are not going well for him. One of his sons, Absalom, has rallied a number of the people of Israel in a rebellion against David in an attempt to dethrone him. As a result, David was forced to flee with his trusted men and wage war against his son’s own forces.
Even though battle now seemed inevitable and the rebellion had to be knocked down if his monarchy was to survive, David could not bring himself to kill his own son. And so he ordered that none of his troops should kill Absalom in battle.
But that doesn’t work out. Joab, David’s nephew and commander of his army, succeeds in weakening Absalom’s forces to the brink of defeat. And, in the midst of this defeat, Absalom tries to flee. But in the chaos of this flight, Absalom gets caught in a tree branch and his mule runs off without him leaving him stranded in the tree.
And that’s where Joab and his men find him. And Joab believes there can be no victory or security in David’s kingship if Absalom is left alive. And so, they kill him.
So, now how are they going to tell David? And when they do will he kill them or punish them for defying his orders? So, they end up sending a Cushite soldier (who may not have been in their inner circle) to tell David of their victory in battle and Absalom’s death.
But David’s response is not violent. Instead, it is utter dismay and despair. The text tells us that “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)
In this moment, David doesn’t see Absalom as a rebel. He is David’s lost son who is no more. It’s tragic and David’s intense grief and anguish is palpable.
But Joab hears of the king’s grief and thinks something must be done. He’s outraged that David mourns for the one who led this rebellion. “Why do you love those who hate you and hate those who love you?” he asks. “Would you have preferred ourdefeat and deaths and those of your whole household?”
Joab also knows that if David doesn’t thank his troops and act like their king and commander, he might well lose their loyalty and end up losing the throne or even his life.
It’s pretty bold of Joab to confront David. David is still the king. He could have Joab killed or exiled or whatever he wanted. But he doesn’t. And, instead, Joab is able to convince the king to lay aside his grief for a moment and speak a word of comfort and encouragement to his troops who have won this victory. And so David goes to the gate to meet them.
It’s quite a tragic drama, isn’t it… rebellion and war, power struggles and a shattered relationship between father and son.
And, though Joab disagrees and doesn’t quite get it, David’s grief is understandable to us. Regardless of the brokenness of their relationship, regardless of the circumstances of his foolish and fatal rebellion, Absalom was still David’s son. And despite Absalom’s self-destructive path, David’s first reaction to his death is a desire to take his place. He would sacrifice himself if he could save his son.
Theologian, Frederick Buechner, observed an interesting parallel in David’s self-sacrificial love for his child and God’s self-sacrificial love for all of God’s children. He wrote, “If he 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.” (Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, 1993)
If David’s love for Absalom can be that deep, how much deeper is God’s love for us? God, our fiercely loving and compassionate parent, never gives up on our redemption, despite our foolish rebellions. This is grace. And I think God knows something of the relationship between grief and grace. Both grief and grace are fueled by intense love that doesn’t quit.
There is a contemporary hymn that says, “God weeps at love withheld, at strength misused, at children’s innocence abused, and till we change the way we love, God weeps. God waits for stones to melt, for peace to seed, for hearts to hold each other’s need, and till we understand the Christ, God waits.” (God Weeps, words by Shirley Erena Murray, Hope Publishing Co., 1996)
Grief and grace are not opposites. And that is partly why grief is so complicated sometimes, just as it was for David. When we lose someone with whom we had a difficult or estranged relationship, grief can especially be filled with mixed emotions.
I think David also felt some guilt about Absalom’s behavior. After all, he modeled some of this for his son in his own life. David also grasped for power; his own arrogance and desires got the better of him sometimes. David probably had his regrets about what kind of father he was and what he taught Absalom.
And, for us too, guilt and regret can accompany grief. And perhaps only our self-reflection over time can help us sort out what might be true regret and what might be unhelpful guilt. We must come to terms with our real regrets. But we also must practice grace with ourselves.
Sometimes when we lose a loved one, we’re filled with feelings of wishing we had done something differently, wishing we had made amends, perhaps, or wishing we had called or visited more often, wishing we had said something we didn’t (or wishing we didn’t say something we did). It’s extremely common, maybe even universal. David was neither the first nor the last to experience these feelings. And though our circumstances and relationships are different than his, I think that is one reason we can relate to his story of grief.
David’s conflict with Absalom was complicated. And in this time of grief, I imagine he was reassessing everything that had brought them to this moment; everything they had been through, everything he did or didn’t say to his son. Could he have prevented this outcome? Could he, as king and father, have done something to redeem their relationship? Maybe. Or maybe not. There is no way to know for sure.
And I think there is a lesson in this for us too. It was too latefor David and Absalom to reconcile. But perhaps we might sometime find ourselves in a situation, in a conflicted relationship, where it’s nottoo late. And, if so, might we remember David’s grief and seize the moment to see if we can help make things better? And even if that relationship cannot be restored to what it once was, perhaps we won’t later find ourselves wondering if we did all we could do. And perhaps we might find a path to forgiveness for both the other and ourselves, which might help us lay aside regret, lay aside the guilt.
Seeking reconciliation or coming to a peaceable parting (if that’s what needs to happen) takes courage. And it may take hard work. And it may take giving up some of our own power. I suspect that is something both David and Absalom really struggled with, to say the least. But isn’t it worth it to try?
I think this is true, not only on a smaller, interpersonal scale, but on a larger one too. If peaceable solutions to big conflicts are ever to be possible, then it takes people who are willing to seize the moment before it’s too late. It takes people who will lay aside some of our need for power and control and work towards reconciliation, who will compromise when necessary, who will find common ground and goals, and who will seek a way forward together.
Over the past several weeks many people have been remarking on Senator John McCain’s ability to do these things. We need more of that in our world.
One of the things that really struck me about David and Absalom’s story is that there are often no real winners in war. Even the winners lose a lot. Temporary victories may be won, but there is still much lost in the process. In the case of David and Absalom, this rebellion and ensuing battle seems so senseless. But even in cases where war may be justified, there are always casualties. And those losses are always tragic. And someone is always left behind in grief.
Given that the costs are so great and human life is so precious, shouldn’t we do everything we can possibly do to seek peace before it’s too late?
Now, there is another piece of this story that feels especially relevant. And that is the challenge David faces in navigating his different personal and public roles. He is a father. And he is a king.
In this moment of loss, his natural inclination is to be a father first. He is completely consumed by his grief over his son. Over and over, he weeps… O, Absalom, Absalom, my son, my son… He’s inconsolable, and understandably so. And our hearts break for him in this moment.
But Joab tells him to buck up and be a king. His troops need him. He must lay aside his role as father for now and be their king today.
And, on one hand, we should definitely nottake this as instructive. It is not helpful to grieving people to act as Joab did. If we are to help our grieving friends, we have to let them feel their feelings. We have to let them express themselves in the ways they need to. We have to give them the time they need. Everyone’s journey through grief is their own. There is no right way to do it. And there is no clear timeline.
And, by the way, our intention behind our grief support group here at church, is to provide a safe and caring space for this work of grief in the company of others who are going through similar experiences.
But, on the other hand, while we shouldn’t force others like Joab did, we do know that life goes on for those left behind. And people do find a new way forward to keep on living. And people do have to find ways to navigate these multiple roles they play, even in the midst of grief. And they do. A mother of young children, who loses her spouse, must still be a mother, for example. She must work. She must care for her children’s needs. And, boy, that has got to be so tough. And I know many of you have walked or are walking a tough road through grief yourselves.
So, I think we also should honor the courage of those who grieve, those who courageously carry on, even though it’s tough. And we should honor the courage of those who ask for help when they need it in order to keep on going. And we should honor the courage of those who express their feelings, and experiences, and needs with honesty and integrity.
And one of the roles we, as the church, ought to play in all of this, is as a community of support for those who grieve. No one should have to grieve alone. But far too many people feel like they do. And perhaps part of that is our culture. People don’t want to bring others down. Or they worry about being to self-centered. But honest expression of our feelings and experiences is not selfish; it’s healthy and necessary.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson of this story for us, as a community of faith. And so, let us strive to be people who offer a compassionate listening ear. Let us continue to be a community of support and encouragement. Let us work to let people know that they and all of their feelings and experiences that have shaped them, including their grief, are welcome here because this is a safe place where they and their stories will be met with compassion.
And let us remember the words of encouragement Jesus offered in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
May it be so.