"A Blessing in the Wilderness"
June 21, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon 2 Samuel 12:24-16:14 and Psalm 3
We continue a story we began last Sunday. Then we heard from the Biblical character, King David, about a terribly wrong choice he made in committing adultery with someone elseís wife. That sin took on a life of its own, as one poor decision led to another, until it resulted in murder. Sounds like the plot line of many a current novel, doesnít it? However, God is in this story, as surely as he is behind the scenes in every story. The repercussions of Davidís sin become Godís judgement. Today we recall what happened in the years that followed.
Yes, it is a dark story. Why remember it on a day we honor Fathers? Well, it is a tale of a father, though not a very good father by todayís standards. The details may seem foreign to us, for back then the rich were allowed multiple wives, each with their own children. Furthermore, there was a ruthlessness in the quest for power which offends our democratic sensibilities. The long and short of it is that Davidís oldest son by one wife rapes Davidís daughter by another wife. This father does nothing about it. Her brother eventually takes revenge. Again, David is passive. Years later, this same son weasels his way into power, and takes over the throne from this man whom he sees as weak and inactive, perhaps without compassion. A classic father/son conflict, made worse by the knowledge that David brought this upon himself. The details are, hopefully, very different for the fathers among us today. It could be, though, that many of us will say, "been there, done that."
Letís begin with the voices that surround David at the time of this story, and then enter a song which, if we look it up in the Bible, is prefaced with these words: "A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom."
II. Background Reading: "No Help in God"
III. Psalm 3 (a song)
Being a father is one of the most important things in life for a man to be about. I donít mean to imply that anyone who chooses not or cannot travel this route is any less of a man. Itís just that we need to claim fatherhood as one of lifeís greatest professions. In fact, those of us who find ourselves in this position need constantly to orient our lives such that this calling comes above what we normally consider our occupation. Though I stumble regularly in this area, I try to keep in mind that when it comes to what matters most in my life, first comes God, then comes my family, then my other profession - being pastor of this church. Of course, itís never quite that simple, for me or anyone else. After all, doesnít "church-work" come under the "God first" category? To be honest, folks, when push comes to shove, NO! God entrusted me with this wife and these children as a primary calling. Though I fall down on the job frequently, they must come ahead of "the other stuff." I hope you who are also fathers out there feel the same.
Speaking of stumbling, though, fatherhood is a hard act to follow through on. Once we move past the romaniticised image of being a "Dad," we enter the wilderness of everyday life. Face it, no family has ever lived in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve honeymooned there, but their kids were definitely an "out of the garden" experience. By the way, the Bible does not offer up an idyllic view of family for us to worship. Itís portrait of the way things are is quite realistic. Think of that very first family. One son ended up killing the other. My sons havenít gone that far, but there are days when Cain and Able are not so distant cousins. And it isnít just the boys, is it? Whoever said that girls were made of "sugar and spice and everything nice" certainly hasnít lived in my house. And weíre only on the brink of the dreaded "teenage" years.
No, fatherhood is no Garden of Eden. It comes closer to being a wilderness experience. "Wilderness" is unfamiliar territory, a place where you live only in what each day provides, wondering what comes next, which path is the right one, and how am I (are we) going to make it from here to there. Now, most of us would prefer things a bit more settled than that, but letís be honest - while there are a lot of predictables to family life, the surprises greatly outnumber the "sure things." Part of the task of parenting, of fatherhood in particular, is learning how to live in the wilderness.
Iím treading on very Biblical ground when I say that. "Wilderness" is a familiar theme in this book of books. At key points, places in time when real beginnings and transformations happened, all of them took place in the Wilderness. It was in the wilderness that those slaves Moses led out of Egypt became Godís people. It was in the wilderness of the exile after Jerusalem was destroyed and her people scattered that these folks became a people of the book, much of what we call the Old Testament written down during this time. It was in a wilderness period, when Israel was occupied by a foreign power, that Jesus arrived on the scene - much of what he had to say and do taking place in the wilderness. A case could be made that his greatest acts took place, not in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness outside of it, on that garbage heap called Golgotha where he was crucified, and the city cemetery.
Some of lifeís most important stuff happens in the Wilderness. Such was true for King David also. Now, Iím not sure I want to get into analyzing Davidís family life. Face it, things were different back then. I canít imagine having more than one wife as he did. One is quite enough for me, thank you. Youíve heard that saying, "If Momma aint happy, ainít nobody happy"? Can you imagine trying to keep all those women happy? Of course, he had money and power which most didnít. Multiple wives were, after all, the playground of the rich and famous. Your average people were just trying to get by.
And Davidís many children by all those wives and concubines - itís enough to drive you nuts trying to figure out who is connected to who. When I counsel couples, I draw up little sociograms on paper to keep straight who begat who and in what order. No way I would touch Davidís family. Besides, counselors of kings often end up with their heads chopped off. Could you imagine trying to tell David he ought to spend more time with his children? "Sir, your son Amnon is acting out some things you need to pay attention to. Iíve seen some warning signs that ... what did you say? The door? Oh, you want me to go out the door? Fine. Have a good day, sir."... What order do you suppose this person, whom the Bible calls "a man after Godís own heart," placed his life? God, family, job? Somehow, I donít think so. Remember, this book is not about a collection of perfect people who always make right choices and do what is best. If you think that, you havenít read it. (By the way, the same is true of the church).
David, as we heard last week, messed up big time - and things kept snowballing for him and his family, as convoluted and (dare I say) dysfunctional as it was. We toss that word around so casually today. Now there are some really messed up families around us. The truth is, though, all families are dysfunctional is some way. Face it, none of us live in a Garden of Eden. Our task is to learn how to live in the Wilderness.
Thatís where David learned. Events forced him there, of course. His son Absalom pushed him out. Usually itís the other way around. You want to hear the irony in all this? In Hebrew the name, "Absalom," means "father in peace." He certainly did not give his own father any peace. Perhaps he was returning only what he received. Did David "father in peace" his son? Do we "father in peace" our sons and daughters?
The story is a sad one. Absalom takes his fatherís place, proclaims himself king and, as the prophet Nathan foretold, he takes over his fatherís wives and concubines after David fled Jerusalem, in full sight of everyone. Iíd rather not know all the details behind that move. In some ways, though, isnít that at the heart of most father/son conflict. Here was an Oedipal complex acted out long before Shakespeare or Sigmund Freud. A son (and perhaps nowadays we should add daughter, though Iím not so sure) seeks to become his own person and, in effect, take over the reigns from his father. Itís called growing up, though it hopefully takes place in much healthier ways than was the case with David and Absalom..
In their story, it ended up with a son in the grave and a father back on the throne. Pitiful! To his credit, David did not dance at his sonís funeral. He wept bitterly, as bitterly as when his infant son by Bathsheba died, realizing that he was the cause of both deaths. Of course, it was more complicated than that, as always. However, in our childrenís mistakes, we see our own. Thatís part of what makes parenthood in general, and fatherhood in particular a wilderness experience. Anyone who says itís only children who learn is mistaken. We all learn how to live in the Wilderness. We learn by trial and error, from our blunders as well as our successes. When weíre all settled in and comfortable with life, what do we need to learn? The best fathers are the ones who appreciate the Wilderness and see it as a blessing from God, a place where not only little ones, but also big ones also, discover how to be Godís children.
Fathers, let me paraphrase that Psalm of David I sang earlier, and share it with you as one wilderness traveler to another. Hopefully those of you who are not fathers will hear in these words a blessing for your journey, also....
"In an age when fatherhood is both most ridiculed and most needed, donít believe for a moment that there is no help for you in God. The Lord is your shield, there to protect both you and those whom you love when you are vulnerable. You are not the only "protector." Trust in this shield. Allow the Lord to shine in you, to be first in your life, a "glory" that then covers and penetrates every part of your life, including your family. Lift your head up head and behold that glory in you and your family. When you are blind to them and to yourself, as well as to you Maker and Savior, then let God lift up your head. Cry to the Lord, as if face to face, your fears and tears, your frustrations and failings, your ecstasies and little joys. God listens and responds to your deepest needs. Speak them, so that you can rest on those nights when worry haunts your bed. Release into Godís hands what you cannot control. Your heavenly Father will take care of you. The enemies of life, whether they be tangible people or other intangible problems, God will provide a way through. And on this journey you will learn how to really live, so that you might become a blessing in the Wilderness."
The Background Story (told prior to singing Psalm 3)
2 Samuel 12:24 - 16:14
Sin takes on a life of its own. Last week we recited from the Old Testament the story of King Davidís sin with Bathsheba, how a man after Godís own heart could make terribly wrong choices. He saw a woman, lusted after her, took her and ended up murdering her husband. Sin takes on a life of its own. It grows... it multiplies. God is not mocked. David was confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan, and he repented.The verdict: He would not die. Still, sin takes on a life of its own, and the history of David and his family would from this time forward be filled with conflict and violence. So Nathan said for God.
The story continues in the Bible, a sad story of perversion and revenge, of sibling rivalry and father/son conflict. It begins with the crown prince, Davidís oldest son Amnon. Echoes of his fatherís sin with Bathsheba resound in Amnonís obession. You see, he fell in love with his half-sister Tamar, and by hook and by crook he brought to fruition a plot to have her as his own. Alone in a seemingly innoscent situation, he took her, and in spite of her protests, he raped her. His burning passion then changed to burning hatred and, again, despite her protests, he threw her out.
Amnonís did not go unobserved, however. Tamarís full-bother Absalom was a witness to his sisterís shame. Perhaps because their father, David, did nothing; perhaps because the future crown would be his if Amnon was dead; whatever the reason, Absalom waited for two years, planning his revenge and his future.
At a party, Absalomís accomplisses murdered the crown prince, Amnon. In the confusion that followed, Absalom fled. Yet again, King David did nothing. Why? Was it because memories of his own sin - taking Bathsheba in lust, murdering her husband - was it because these memories made him question his own ability as a father to his own children? Who knows.
The story does not end at this point. After 3 years, David was persuaded to bring his son Absalom back to Jerusalem. After two more years Absalom managed to get back into his fatherís good graces. He became part of the court again, in line for the crown. Gradually, like a vine climbing an arbor, Absalom gained power in his fatherís kingdom.
During the next four years Absalom made it a practice of standing outside the gates of the palace, on days when David was inside settling the disputes of any who came to him. Handsome, full of charisma, Absalom was the first to meet those who came to see David. "The king doesnít care about you," he told them, "otherwise he would have someone assigned to listen to your complaint. But if I were King, all that would be different." Little by little, Absalom sowed doubt and discord and gradually won over the hearts of many. When the time was ripe he gathered his forces in Hebron and proclaimed himself king.
Perhaps David had seen all this coming. Maybe not. Nathanís prophecy was being fulfilled.You see, sin takes on a life of its own, and Davidís earlier sin w as unraveling before his eyes in the life of his family.
With his closest supporters he fled Jerusalem, leaving behind his city, leaving behind the Ark of the Covenant he so loved. He took some precautions along the way, but essentially he fled to the wilderness. And Absalom took over the city, and the Kingdom, and Davidís wives as well.
Davidís lifeís work was in jeopardy. His flight marks a kind of climax to his career. In an unexpected way he was now thrown completely upon Godís mercy. The future hung not so much upon a great man, or should we say a "not-so-great man" full of faults. Rather, as always, the future depended upon God.
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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