Absalom! My son, my son, Absalom!

August 9, 2015

Bible Text: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 |

If your appraisal of Sunday morning worship is determined by how quickly it ends, then you’ll be grateful for how abbreviated today’s Old Testament reading was. However, if you want to enjoy a really juicy story, then please know that the lectionary short-changed you this morning. We went straight from last week’s story about David and Bathsheba to today’s story of the death of Absalom.

But you’ve missed most of the Absalom story, which is straight out of a soap opera script. Absalom is David’s son, and the story picks up today when he was already deep into his rebellion against his father in an attempt to usurp the throne. But, despite his treachery, David commands his generals, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” He loves his son, even when the son is trying to destroy him.

Now, I’ve long appreciated this story for a variety reasons. The first is just plain silly and immature. The second reason is sentimental. But the third is of some actual spiritual merit.

But let’s start with the first reason anyway. For the plot of this story to make sense you have to know that Absalom was like a Greek God when it came to looks. In particular was this glorious head of hair he had. He was terribly vane and used to make a big deal about cutting his hair once a year because it just got so heavy from the sheer weight of it. And it was this hair, of course, which became his downfall, because during the fight as he was riding his little donkey through the forest, his hair got tangled up in the branches of an oak tree and left him hanging there like a piñata. And along comes Joab, David’s general, who – despite the king’s orders – takes three swords in his hand and thrusts them through Absalom’s heart.

Now – I’m a man of peace; I don’t like violence in any form. But in my early twenties when I was young and vane and already going bald, you can imagine what satisfaction this story gave me. All you men out there with your thick heads of hair: consider the fate that awaits you!

The second reason I’ve loved this story is my memory of cutting flowers in the garden with Petronella. She was a dear friend of mine – probably in her early eighties at the time – so full of life and joy and the most appealing love of God. She was the kind of person we all wish we could grow up to become. So one day we were cutting flowers in this old, overgrown garden. She had a head scarf tied around her hair and was trying to cut some branches off a wild rose when her scarf got tangled up in its thorns. I looked around and found her, with a huge grin on her face, flinging her arms in the air and shouting, “Absalom! Absalom!”

And that’s what leads to third reason I love this story. It’s that cry, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” This is David’s cry - probably the most anguished lament in all of scripture. No matter that his son was a murderer. No matter that his son had tried to kill him. Absalom was his son, whom he loved.

For all the drama and “soap operaness” of David’s life, it is scenes like this that make David so essential to our scriptures – he’s so perfectly human, in every sense of the words.

I imagine that there are many of you for whom this story finds particular resonance – whose children (or grandchildren or nephews and nieces) are choosing lives to their own destruction. I remember holding my infant daughter in my arms and thinking, At this moment, my arms and my chest are her entire world... It won’t last long. For, of course, our job as parents is to raise children who can and will move away from us and begin to live an independent life. That separation is always hard, but is rendered excruciating when you watch them making bad choices, sometimes from very early on. And what can you do when they are determined to choose the path of alcohol and drugs, or to partner with someone you know to be a bad match?

I remember being with a friend of mine as her twenty-something-year-old son’s life was spiraling out of control. He’d dropped out of high school, married a girl and started having babies, and now was getting divorced, with no job, no money, no prospects. And there she sat on the sidelines, holding the memories of the child he had been. But these were no mere sentimentalities; they were an anchor of sorts – her window into the deeper truth of who she knew her son to be, and the man he could yet become.

Now we know a parent’s knowledge is not complete or perfect in its insight. And as they grow they will reveal hidden parts of themselves to friends and romantic partners; there will be things that we miss or always misinterpret. But what we saw in our children – before fears and anxieties and social pressures set in – is the source of our endless love for them. We’ve nursed them through sickness, studied their every movement, delighted in them as they explored and discovered this world. Nobody will ever know them for the duration that we do; no one will understand who they were in their innocence like we do. And no matter what trouble they get into; no matter how deeply they screw up, our love runs more deeply.

So when David cries, “Oh, my son, my son! Absalom!” we know exactly what he’s feeling.

And what we see in David, and know from our own experience of loving our children, is also true of God… for all of us. Who but God knows us through and through? before fear set in; before bad choices were made; before we began hiding our deepest thoughts and desires.

For you yourself created my inmost parts; prays the Psalmist, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:12)

Who but God knows us so thoroughly and loves us so deeply even when we, like Absalom, are rejecting God outright? For surely God knows us even more purely than we know ourselves. God alone knows what it means for each of us to be made in the image of God. God’s love is total and pure and fully informed. Who we were and who we are and who we shall become, are all held and known in the bosom of God.

When we are foolish – when we make dumb choices that will reap consequences for the rest of our lives – it is the nature of God to show mercy. And what we see of David’s mercy, and believe also to be also true of God’s, is that this mercy is rooted in loyalty. Whom God has chosen God will never reject. And we are God’s beloved. We have all chosen sin. We’ve all operated out of foolish ambition and held petty grudges. We’ve all given way to fear. But through it all God says, “Behold my child. Absalom, Absalom.”

Julian of Norwich envisioned a master who sent his servant off to do some task. And the servant rushes off, in eagerness and fidelity, to perform the job he was given. But no sooner does he set off then he falls into a ravine that he can’t climb out of. And when the master finds him in the trench he responds in mercy: What gift can I give my servant who has suffered so on my behalf?

So it is with God. We set out in this life in innocence – with hearts ready to love and to serve. But along the way we’ve fallen in the pit. But, when God finds us there, it is not with anger and cruelty and vengefulness that he greets us. It is with a mercy rooted in loyalty to the creatures he made in love, who are now suffering.

And what is this suffering? What lies at the heart of all our woe? Julian says that the greatest suffering of the servant was that – there in the pit – he could no longer see his master’s face. For we were made to see and to love our God. Remember as children, how we cried when we were lost in the store or woke up afraid at night because we couldn’t see our parents’ face. Only in seeing them could we know true security. But we also wanted to be seen by our parents. “Look at me! Look at me!” we’d shout again and again while we played, convinced that they would take as much joy in us as we were experiencing in whatever we were doing. And they were right. We want to see God and we want to be seen by God. In this we know the fullness of life.

But as we age, and as the woes of this world overtake us, the face of God becomes vague in the thickening fog. What we can’t see, we struggle to believe and in God’s place we choose a thousand loves that fail to love us back. C. S. Lewis famously said, “All that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery--[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”[1]

But for all the folly of our bad choosing, of our descent into the ravine, Julian perceived a deeper truth in her vision of the master and his servant. The servant is Adam, she said, our earliest ancestor. And the servant is we, each of us. But the servant is also God’s own self, in Christ. Jesus has fallen with us, and as us, into the ravine, and suffered there with us, sharing all the pain and sorrow of this life. God’s loyalty to us is without end or limit. Even unto death.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.

These are deep mysteries, my friends.

But for all our cries and all our tears, tears that Christ himself has shed with us, we hear the Father’s voice, echoing from the rim of the ravine, “Absalom! Absalom!”

So this we believe: that the God who cries out for us – whatever our condition – has also found us and given his life to us, that all shall be well, and all shall be well. For Christ is risen. And we are forgiven. And our tears shall give way to laughter and our cries to shouts of joy. My lord and my God!

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

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