Monday, September 21, 2009

"God-Impacted Life: Suffering and Reformation"

Scripture Readings: 2 Samuel 15:1-18, 23, 30, 18:1-19:4; Mark 15:33-34

We have been learning from the life of David: the shepherd boy who became the King of Israel and the ancestor of Jesus; so that Jesus became known as the Son of David.

I have been calling David’s life a “God-impacted” life because, whether he was living well or living badly, he seemed to always live in the presence of God. A large part of the Book of Psalms was written by David, or inspired by the example that he set of a life lived in the presence of God.

Look at the Psalms for yourselves. When David was inspired, and full of faith and peace, he communicated with God. When David was desperate, or ashamed, or afraid, or grieving, or angry, he still communicated with God. Wherever David was at, with God, made no difference, there was no distance between them; not on God’s part, and not on David’s part.

Because there was no distance between them, David was always capable of completely surprising everyone around him. David was totally free and he lived life to the fullest, because there was no distance between him and God.

We can see this in the story of David bringing the ark to Jerusalem. (2 Samuel 6) The ark was the gilded chest that held the treasures of the journey of Israel from their slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Those treasures included the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, among other things.

Bringing the ark to Jerusalem, it was well known that no human hand was allowed to touch the ark. But one of the priests did touch it, and that priest died.

This made David angry. He was furious and afraid, and he would not let the ark be brought the rest of the way to Jerusalem. And then, lo and behold, a few months later, David decided it was OK after all.

So he rounded up a new parade and they brought the ark home to Jerusalem. And on the way home David danced so hard that the short robe he was wearing bounced up and down so wildly that it showed that he wasn’t wearing underwear underneath.

His wife, the queen Michal, who was born of royal blood, was far too dignified for her own good. She was watching from a window while David danced so wildly, and she scorned him for his lack of dignity. But his lack of dignity was really, only his freedom. David was free because he was in love with God; and so he danced just as he lived, with all his might. He was not afraid to say or do anything in his friendship with God. Nothing held him back.

There was no distance from God in David’s life, and so he was “God-impacted”…except for the times in his life when he wasn’t.

David had a golden time in his life, early in his kingship, when he was God-impacted because he was supremely happy. And in his happiness he seems to have gotten bored and (because of this) he seems to have forgotten some things about the God-impacted life.

In his forgetfulness, he looked down from the terrace high upon the roof of his palace and he saw a beautiful woman taking a bath in her own private garden. Her name was Bathsheba, and she was the wife of one of his officers; Uriah the Hittite, who was away fighting for the nation (fighting for David) in a war against their enemies.

In his forgetfulness, David suddenly forgot that there was no distance between him and God. He sent for the woman and got her pregnant. He tried to conceal his involvement in her pregnancy by getting the husband Uriah home on leave.

The plan didn’t work. David got Uriah killed in battle, and then he married Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan confronted David about this, reminding him that there was no distance between him and God.

The sentence that Nathan passed on David, in the name of the Lord, was that David was still loved by God, but that he must live through the consequences of what he had done. Part of those consequences was that “the sword would not depart from his house” (NRSV); which means that “killing and murder would continually plague his family.” (“The Message”; 2 Samuel 12:10)

Around this time, something happened to David. Of course things were always happening to David, but this thing happened inside him. David seemed to become afraid, or paralyzed.

A couple of his sons start doing terrible things. David’s oldest son Amnon, raped his half sister Tamar, and David didn’t do anything about it. He did nothing, and we don’t even read of him saying anything. We read that he got really mad. But he let his anger be a substitute for doing something about this.

Tamar’s whole brother, Amnon’s younger half-brother, Absalom, took his sister in, and plotted against his brother for years. He ended up throwing a party, and inviting Amnon to it, and having his friends kill Amnon in his presence. This was cold blooded brutality.

Once again David did nothing and said nothing. Absalom ran away to a neighboring country. Eventually David let Absalom come back to Jerusalem, but he wouldn’t see him.

Absalom had to plot and scheme again for years to see his father again. When they did come together once again, it is not recorded that any words were said between them.

Absalom began to say that there was no justice to be found by people going to the king, and that he would be a better judge and bring better justice. Well, Absalom certainly saw no justice done by David in their own family, did he? He began to gather people to his side.

Even at this point David did nothing with Absalom, and said nothing to him. And during these long years of violence, and estrangement, and isolation we see nothing in David to indicate any freedom, any sense of the presence of God. There was no “God-impacted” life there.

Then there was war. Thousands of people died as a result. We see violence, atrocities, festering anger, and resentment, and bloody ambition in the sons of David. We see paralysis, and fear, and injustice in David.

Is there any other explanation for the evils in the world? These are God’s punishment of David; evil falling upon David and those who are on David’s side; evil falling on the whole little world of Israel.

There was a plan at work, and it was God’s plan. And God had his way. But God was not in any of the evil. And God did not approve of anything that was done to make all this evil happen. It was the doing of David, and his sons, and their friends and helpers. Everyone in Israel somehow played a part, in it either by taking sides or by staying silent.

Perhaps because David was indeed a man after God’s own heart, his life was like a laboratory in which we can see where sin, and evil, and suffering come from, in this world we live in. They come from us. We are involved, ourselves. It is true that sin, and evil, and suffering, and injustice, and conflict happen out there; but that is only because they happen in here.

I think that David (during his more innocent years) was used to thinking that it all happened “out there”. Because of what he had done with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, when he realized that the evil happened “in here”, I think this paralyzed him. I think it made him afraid (warrior though he was), and unable to do justice and to love mercy; in his own family, and as his people’s king. (Micah 6:8)
When David and his followers left Jerusalem, to escape from the army of Absalom, they had no place to go except the desert, the wilderness. This concept of the desert, the wilderness, is very important in the Bible. The desert is the place where you find your life simplified, and boiled down to the basics; and you find it possible to reunite with the presence of the living God.

There is a special reason why the desert, or the wilderness, would be the effective place for David to be restored and renewed. The wilderness was the place where David began. It was where he herded sheep, when he was only the eighth son of a poor family and nothing but the spare boy. It was where David spent so many of the years of the prime his life, where so many years seemed to be wasted, when he was on the run from the insanity of King Saul who was trying to kill him.

All the trappings of success fell away. Everything he had worked for, everything that made him feel successful in life, everything that made him think he was smart or in control was gone.

David seemed to lose everything, even though he left the capital with a huge following of the people who were loyal to him. He was just, simply taking them all with him into the wilderness to die, unless God planned otherwise. But David didn’t know what to think about that.

All David knew was that he was right back where he started from, or worse, running away in the desert from those who were trying to destroy him. When you seem to find yourself back where you started from, as if you had never accomplished a single thing of lasting value; when you know that this is your fault, it is a very humbling thing. Some people call it “hitting bottom”.

A man named Shimei saw David walking away from Jerusalem. Shimei had heard the news of what had gone wrong, and he started taunting and cursing the king, and even throwing rocks at him (an insane thing to do).

One of David’s officers offered to take off Shimei’s head, if it would please the king. But the king would not let him. David said, “My own son seeks my life. Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him.” (2 Samuel 16:11)

When you go for years, as David did, in a kind of spiritual, emotional paralysis; when you let things pass, and let things pass, and do nothing, and do nothing, and say nothing, and say nothing; it becomes a sort of strange, involuntary pride. You become unable to say and do what you know is absolutely and desperately required of you.

But if you are given the grace of finding yourself all the way back to where you started from, as if you had accomplished absolutely nothing; if you are given the grace of hitting bottom, then you can face all kinds of things.

You can break the paralysis. You can say and do what you should have said and done long ago.

David began to be able to think about what the Lord might think about him. He remembered that he had had a relationship with God as his greatest friend. He had no idea what God would do with him now. He had no certainty that the Lord was for him, or if the Lord would give him another chance. But David was able to break the paralysis that had frozen his communication with God, the fear that had frozen the God-impacted life he had once enjoyed.

David began to understand what he had done to his children and he wanted to make up for it all to Absalom. David spoke these instructions in the hearing of the whole army, “Deal gently, for my sake, with the young man Absalom.” (2 Samuel 18:5)
Everything and everyone was against that plan of gentleness, but David was coming to life again. David was coming back to the God-impacted life.

Absalom died. He was brutally killed; and David wept and wailed words of agony, and compassion, and suffering; words not very different from the words that many sorrowing parents have also wept. But his words are not very different from another set of words of sorrow that Jesus spoke on the cross.

Jesus is God among us, God in the flesh. And on the cross the Lord has carried all the history of conflict, all the festering anger, and all the paralysis that isolates us and seems so much like pride. He has carried the long and complicated history of the sins, and evils, and losses of the world.

He carries on the cross the complicated histories of the patterns and actions that separate us from the people who should be closest and dearest to us. He carried the pain of the deepest cuts in the ties that bind. He felt them on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Jesus has given his life for us in order to give us this gift of knowing that he has carried this grief and pain on the cross, so that the new life he gives to us can give us freedom. His carrying of the world’s sins and evils can have the power of breaking our fear, our paralysis, and our pride, that breaks down our relationships with others.

In Christ, crucified for us, we hit our own bottom, and we have nothing to keep us from beginning a new life, born in the wilderness, born in the desert. Then we can live like David, like people after God’s own heart. We can become spiritually and emotionally alive to the people around us, and to the people who should be closest to us. Jesus makes this possible.

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