II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Readings for Proper 14 (19) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 14B/Ordinary 19B/Pentecost 13 August, 2006 Textweek

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The readings today could hardly be better chosen to give us a framework for reflection in the present reality of war, terrorism and the continuing efforts that seem to be there for generating fear. If we look to the Old Testament reading it’s easy to see that the forest of Ephraim so readily mirrors the towns of southern Lebanon, the streets of Gaza, the terminals at Heathrow and even the comfortable suburbia of Fremantle as we turn on the television news broadcasts. The cry that kicks off the psalm today, psalm 130, echoes the same cry of King David - the cry of King David is the true noise of war. It is the cry of grief, the cry of pain, the cry of suffering and the cry of loss, the cry so deep that it leaves one isolated and alone. And yet as we read that Old Testament lesson today we find that the cry of David is the cry of the victor. David, having assembled Joab, Abbishai and Ittai - the coalition of the willing - sends them into battle: verse 7, ‘the slaughter there was great on that day’; verse 8, ‘the battle spread over the face of all the country’. And then later, verse 31, we get the news broadcast from the battlefield: ‘Good tidings for my Lord the King’. It’s just worth noting how different, how opposite, those good tidings are from the good tidings brought by the angels to the shepherds - the shepherds, David’s people - at the birth of Christ. Quite different good tidings.

The power or the spirit of this Old Testament story is then captured in King David’s response to the news that he has won the war: ‘Is it well with the young man Absolom?’ And of course we already know before David that Absolom is dead. Absolom is both David’s son and David’s enemy on the battlefield. Once again David’s son creates another echo for us, for we know more fully who the son of David is. But if we hold onto the narrative for a bit longer we can glimpse and then realise Absolom, David’s son and David’s enemy is the name that is always and forever the name of our opponent in war. There is no enemy in the whole of creation that is not also as dear to our very being as our own children. Grasp this, and then we can realise why Jesus says, ‘Love thy enemy.’ We can’t just grasp it, we can begin to understand what was meant. It’s as if the whole process of war and conflict is described, mirrored and clarified in this short Old Testament narrative. Verses 9 to 15 describe the fate of Absolom, and also the cause of the hollow victory. Verse 9, ‘Absolom was left hanging between heaven and earth’: when we go to war, when we seek victory through the slaughter of our enemies, then our children, all children, our very future is left hanging between heaven and earth. Our future sits on that knife-edge and is balanced between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar. I don’t know whether it’s irony or it’s part of the process described, but it’s interesting that war has left thousands of travellers, particularly at Heathrow, stranded, hanging between heaven and earth.

The rest of the fate of Absolom is described in verse 15: ‘Joab’s armour-bearers surrounded Absolom and struck him and killed him’. The final blow that wins the war tolls the bell that heralds the hollow victory: the war is won but the future is lost. The enemy is destroyed and so is that relationship destroyed that is creative of our very being. How often in the modern world have we destroyed the very enemy that we created? How often has the winning blow changed forever our orientation towards the future? Just think about Hiroshima – that final fatal blow, the killing of Absolom, changed the future and the orientation of all; it made a difference to our children. Before we leave this short narrative, let’s just consider the final twist, verse 33: ‘The King was deeply moved’ – suddenly there is a realisation - ‘Would I had died instead of you, O Absolom’. And in this narrative that comes too late for King David, but if we look ahead to the gospel narratives of Christ, David echoes the very revelation we find in Christ. ‘Would I had died instead of you’, is the way toward divine realisation. In Christ we see we glimpse the potential for a victorious future that is not hollow, for Christ doesn’t leave Absolom hanging between heaven and earth, Christ doesn’t seek to kill Absolom, rather it is Christ and therefore we, that take the place of Absolom hanging on the tree.

Paul is always practical, providing clear instructions to the emerging church for the glimpse that he has of the divine revelation. Paul’s own experience of Christ and the rule of Christ, as opposed to the rule of Caesar, he neatly sums up in giving instructions to the church: ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another’. Paul sees that we do have a choice – we have a choice to create relationship or to undo relationship.

In the gospel reading today, following on from the feeding of the five thousand, which is a sharing of abundance, Jesus says, ‘I am’, he says ‘I am the bread of life, I am the bread that came down form heaven, I am the bread of life, I am the living bread that came down from heaven’. What a contrast with David! Like so many, David thinks that he is or has the answer; David thinks that he is the king and that the victory is in his hands. Like so many, David can’t see that he is part of the problem, not working towards the answer. ‘I am the bread of life’ - the one who sustains; ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’ – the divine orientation, that which will give you life; ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’ – a divine food that brings life.

In Centuries of Meditations, Thomas Traherne had this one line: ‘I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory, but by the gentle ways of peace and love’.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris