(Trigger warnings: Discussion of rape and sexual assault, incest, and violence. Nobody said the Bible was for kids.)
Grief, though not often talked about in church, sadly, is a very real part of life, as it is in the bible. There is much to be said about grief. Too much, really. The thing about grief is that it varies greatly from person to person. No two people will experience it the same way. There’s no set standard for experiencing it, despite the standard 5 stages of grief, which is merely a guideline, and less of a rule. When it comes to the death of one’s own child, well, even those guidelines can go right out the window.
As we come to the end of this sermon series on Samuel, we end with both a victory and a tragedy. David has triumphed over his enemy, and remains king of Israel. Tragically, that enemy is his own son, Absalom, and though he plead with his generals to deal with Absalom gently, he still was killed in battle.
Though David lived a mostly charmed life, when we come to the end of his life, we see that even a man of God’s own heart is not immune to life’s tragedies. Few have experienced what David has, but no doubt even those of us who have had little experience with grief can learn more about God in this story.
The Long, Winding Road to Tragedy
Now, some of you will be bewildered at the events of this passage. There’s a huge leap from last week’s passage to this one. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover when it comes to David’s son Absalom. Fair warning: this is not a very kid-friendly story, but neither is the vast majority of the bible.
Absalom’s story begins, rather, with his brother Amnon and his sister Tamar. Without going into too much detail, Amnon fell madly in lust with his sister and then proceed to rape his sister. Absalom, upon hearing about this horrible act, killed Amnon, and then went into exile, fearing the wrath of the authorities for the murder. Three years later, he came back to the kingdom after whatever furor died down, only to burn down the field of a man named Joab–who just so happens to be David’s general. (That will come back to bite him in the tuchus later.)
So after this, Absalom decides he would rule Israel better than his dad would. He begins to set up shop at the city gates and rule on whatever court issues would go on–making himself popular with the people. This snowballs into thousands of people becoming loyal to Absalom…instead of David.
So now we come to today’s scripture. The final battle is set to occur in the forest of Ephraim. The armies are ready. And David gives a final decree: When you find Absalom, deal kindly with him. Take him prisoner. Don’t kill him. He may have led a rebellion but… he’s still my son.
That is something we ought to take note of. Even in rebellion, David still loves his son, unconditionally. That is something only a parent could do. There are some who would disown their own children, but not David. David, a man of God’s own heart, still loves his child, come hell or high water.
Then, the battle rages. Chaos ensues, and by chance and chance alone, Absalom gets caught in a tree, and Joab finds him. Joab, though a loyal general of David, could not forgive as David could because of what Absalom did to Joab. You know, burn his house and fields down. You don’t forgive that easily, even if the king commands you to.
So Joab loses his patience and sticks not one, not two, but three spears directly into his heart. Then, he tells his servants not to tell David that he did the deed, but rather, in the best political fashion implicating nobody, that “Absalom was killed.” No need for David to know what happened, or who killed whom.
All of this leads to the tipping point of the scripture. After hearing from one messenger who wouldn’t tell of Absalom’s fate, David hears from a Cushite servant, who enthusiastically tells him the leader of the rebellion has been felled in battle!
…And then David, struck by the news, crumples to the ground in grief. His son, beloved in spite rebellion, is dead. And grief overwhelms him. And David is at his most vulnerable, as any parent, as any human would be. His son is dead. And David would trade places with him in a heartbeat.
The Ripple Effect
David’s life was perhaps one of the most consequential lives in the Old Testament. His story contained almost everything someone would want out of an ancient epic. But this story has ripple effects down the ages. Because, you see, David is a man of God’s own heart. And this story is actually but a prelude to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God, in God’s infinite wisdom, provided to us this story in his book which we call the Bible, and it is in our beliefs as United Methodists that everything in the Bible is knowledge sufficient for salvation. That said, as complex and confusing as the Bible may be, it is still the bible that I believe God meant for us to have.
In this story, it is really like a dramatic opera in many ways. One of the In an opera, there’s often poetic echoes in the story, either from the past, or to the future. And this story is a good microcosm of the Gospel.
David, here, gets to experience a bit of what God has experienced from the beginning of time. David’s own child, whom he loved so much, has made countless bad choices, and eventually, outright mounted a rebellion against him. This is not a new story. This is rather God’s story and his people Israel.
God made humanity, and even imparted the very image of God onto us. However, even though God has provided everything and loves us to no end, we continue to rebel against God. We sin against our brothers and sisters, and in doing so, we sin against God’s design for us, and sin against God. Despite all of that, God remains faithful to us.
However, in Absalom’s death and David’s lament, we find a key element in God’s design. David said that he wished it would be him that died instead of his son. David, being a man of God’s heart, felt as strongly for his own son as God feels for us. And so, in the end, is this not what God did for us in Jesus Christ?
Our rebellion proved to be fatal, and so to stem this eternal death, God enacted a new plan in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh. God himself came to be like us, to show us how we ought to live, and in the end, died for us and for our sins. God got to live out David’s own desire to love us so much. He died so that we might live.
A Story For our Own Hearts
So we’ve come to the end of our journey through Samuel, and we end with a tragedy. But though it be a tragedy, it still has a hint of promise. It won’t always be tragedy. There will be hope.
In Jesus Christ, we find the resolution to that tragedy. We have a new life. We will not die, but rather find new life in Jesus. That is a story I want you to take with you. To believe in the new life that you have in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.