Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 10B, August 12, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Has the roller-coaster ride we call life ever challenged your faith? Have you ever wondered if there really is a God in the midst of the tumultuous times of your life, much less whether God is in control of things? If you have, it seems you are not alone because our OT lesson today reminds us that no one, not even the Lord’s anointed king, is immune to the messiness and uncertainties of life. And so this morning I want us to look briefly at what we can learn from stories like these to help us grow in our faith and trust in God, even in the midst of chaos.
We can all relate to David’s situation in today’s OT lesson. We might not have suffered the extremes of combat but we’ve all weathered some of life’s hardest storms—the death of loved ones, sickness, broken relationships, infirmities, family disputes, uncertainty about our job or economic future. You name it. The list is virtually endless. And these trials and uncertainties of life can shake our faith to the core because they make us wonder if God really is in control, and if he is, why God allows such chaos into his beautiful and ordered creation. After all, didn’t Paul tell the Corinthians that God is a God of order, not chaos (cf. 1 Corinthians 14.33)?
And today’s OT story seems to confirm our worst fears about God’s inability to control things in his world. At first blush, the story is full of intrigue and uncertainty for many of the players involved, especially for David. Being the Lord’s anointed king, we would expect David’s life to be stable and to see him cruising right along, enjoying peace, happiness, and prosperity. But that is hardly the picture the author paints for us. First, we see David running for his life from his own son Absalom, who wants to usurp his father as king and who will surely kill him in the process. Think about that for a moment. How would you feel if your own flesh and blood wanted to take all that you have from you, all that you hold near and dear, including your life? I’m not talking about what it’s like when your kids are teenagers; I’m talking about the real thing here. That might be enough to make many of us pause and wonder if God really is in control of the events and people in our lives.
Then we see David’s trusted commander Joab take matters into his own hands and ultimately violate David’s orders to spare Absalom’s life, apparently because Joab had decided Absalom wasn’t the right horse to back when it came to being the king (cf. 2 Samuel 18.1-33; 1 Kings 1.1-8). David never found out about Joab’s treachery or that he helped kill Absalom. But if he had, we know instinctively how he would have felt because many of us have been betrayed by a trusted friend at some point in our lives and we know the hurt and anxiety it causes. This too can make us stop and wonder if God really is in charge of things.
Then, of course, there was Absalom. Put yourself in his shoes for a moment. You’ve got your father on the run and you are confident that victory is imminent. His throne is almost within your grasp! Then in the thick of battle, surely the most chaotic of all human situations, you are riding along on your donkey and your big old head of hair gets tangled up in some tree branches and you are left hanging in the air by your hair, which ultimately leads to your death. Not exactly a time for you to be singing the praises of God’s sovereignty.
And if that weren’t bad enough, we humans often expect God to behave in ways that are pleasing and understandable to us. We want God to conform to our will so that our world can be just the way we want it. We see this plainly illustrated in today’s gospel lesson where Jesus has to repeat for the crowd what kind of Messiah he is, the kind of Messiah they clearly do not want. (You will miss the repetition if you do not read the omitted verses 36-40 from today’s lesson.) But God is not at our beck and call. To the contrary, we are at his, whether willingly or not, and when we get all uppity and forget this inconvenient little fact, it only contributes to our perception that God is not sovereignly in charge of his creation and creatures.
And what is even more maddening, while the biblical writers describe for us all kinds of scenes of chaos and ambiguity, there are precious few explanations as to why God allows all this mayhem to take place in our lives. Sure, we can assume that part of the uncertainty, ambiguity, and messiness we experience is a result of human sin and folly and God’s curse on it (cf. Genesis 3.1-19). But surely there is more to it than that, as God implies in his response to Job’s complaints about the apparent injustices in his life (cf. Job 38.1-41.34). Yet we are not let in on the joke, which only serves to increase our anxiety and uncertainty.
But that isn’t why we have stories like the ones in today’s OT lesson. The biblical writers are far more sophisticated and good teachers than we sometimes give them credit, and they expect us to use both our heart and mind (i.e., our emotions and thinking), to engage the texts and the stories they present so that God can use them to build us up and help us grow to be mature Christians. That is why if we only read the Bible superficially, or worse yet, if we don’t read it at all and then allow others who are hostile to the Christian faith to parrot their poisoned interpretations to us so that our faith and thinking about God are shaped by them, we stand a good chance of losing our hope and trust in God’s sovereign power and love for us.
Getting back to our OT story, this is why it is essential for us to get past our initial impressions of it and remember it is part of a broader narrative. If we take today’s story out of context, there really isn’t much there to help build our faith and trust in God. But the story is not self-contained. We have to connect it to the ongoing narrative we have looked at over the past two weeks, where we have seen that David’s sordid affair with Bathsheba was a major turning point in his life, and not for the better. This knowledge helps us understand that we are seeing God’s involvement in the unfolding of history as we read these stories because clearly a good deal of time has passed between last week’s story and today’s. This, in turn, helps us realize the events we read about today are part of God’s solemn judgment on David’s behaviors that were pronounced through the prophet Nathan. When we keep this in mind, all of a sudden we realize that God is in charge of the affairs of his world, distasteful as we might find some of them. The chaos and uncertainty David is suffering occur precisely because God is firmly in control and God has willed it for David in this particular case as part of God’s judgment on David’s great sin. We need to be very careful not to overgeneralize here. But in this instance, clearly God is allowing David to experience the consequences of God’s judgment.
And there are dozens of other stories in the Bible like our OT story, stories full of ambiguity and chaos. Take the book of Esther for example. Nowhere in the entire book is God’s name mentioned, but in the narrative we see unlikely and unexpected events and people conspire, and not always intentionally, to prevent the destruction of God’s people. The writer wants us to understand that God’s hand, invisible to our physical eyes but seen clearly through the eyes of faith, is firmly in the midst of history and in control, even in all the messiness of life.
Likewise with the story of Ruth. As a foreigner, Ruth comes to Israel because of personal tragedy in her life. Her husband has died and she is a widow, which means she will be consigned to a life of hardship and helplessness in a society that cared little about the plight of widows. But then she just happens to meet Boaz, a wealthy and influential man, who ends up going the extra mile to marry her so that her life is redeemed. Again, God is not ostensibly mentioned in the story but he is there and lives are changed and redeemed. O yes, from Ruth and Boaz’s line eventually comes King David, and through David’s line, King Jesus.
Then, of course, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, we are given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, who reminds us about the truth about Jesus, who died for us so that we might live. In doing so, the Spirit testifies to us about God’s sovereignty and Presence in his world because God raised Jesus from the dead and therefore has conquered even sin and death, surely the most ambiguous and terrifying things in all God’s creation! Hence, we ignore the Spirit’s Presence and testimony at our own peril because the Spirit can give us the much-needed certainty we all crave when life’s uncertainties besiege us.
Let me share with you a quick story that I hope will illustrate all that I have been trying to say. There is a godly Anglican archbishop in Nigeria named Ben Kwashi. He and his family live among Muslims and some of them are quite militant and deadly. Nigeria is on the brink of civil war and Christians are in constant danger of being persecuted and killed because the government is apparently powerless to protect them. One day, armed men broke into ++Ben’s home and dragged ++Ben and his family outside. He thought he was going to die that day. There is very little in life that is more uncertain, chaotic, and terrifying than that. (And let’s be clear. Surely this was not God’s judgment on such a godly man and his family.) The situation is enough to strike terror and uncertainty into anyone’s heart and to make us lose faith in God’s sovereignty, let alone his love for us. Do you know what ++Ben did? He told us that while he certainly felt fear, he felt God’s peace and presence far more strongly and was prepared to be martyred for his Lord. He felt this peace because he took the Spirit’s Presence seriously and let the Spirit guide, inform, and comfort him. He let the Spirit remind him of all the Bible has to say about God’s sovereignty and love for him (and all people) in Jesus Christ. This is a mature faith and we don’t get it overnight. But it is a faith that is attainable in the power of the Spirit and it is the only remedy that will ever help us live our lives with power, hope, and certainty, even in the midst of darkness, uncertainty, and hopelessness. It is a hope based not on ourselves or God’s world, but in the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The gunmen did not kill ++Ben and his family that day. Circumstance? Not if you learn the lesson of today’s OT story! But even if they had, ++Ben knew Whose he was and that not even death could separate him from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord (cf. Romans 8.38-39).
So if you don’t have this kind of power in your life and want it, here is what you can take from what we have said today. First, read the Bible, both together and as individuals. Learn its overarching narrative and the stories that remind you of God’s sovereign Presence in his world and its people and events. Read these stories often and talk about them with each other. We are a forgetful and distracted people who need to be reminded constantly about the reality of God’s love and power in our lives and what that really looks like on the ground. Wrestle with the stories despite the ambiguities you might encounter in them and help each other gain understanding. Grab a good commentary like N.T. Wright’s For Everyone series to help you better understand the purposes of these stories. Suffice it to say, from what we have seen, if you are not in a Bible study group you are robbing yourself of power to live life with faith, hope, and certainty.
Second, and related to the first point, have a trusted Christian friend(s) that God can use to help you weather life’s storms. God has blessed me with many such friends in my life, including my wife and many of you here this morning, and you really are a godsend to me. Don’t try to be a rugged individualist when it comes to living your life with all its uncertainties and sorrows. One of the most poignant scenes in all the OT is in 1 Samuel 23.14-18. David is fleeing for his life from king Saul and Jonathan, Saul’s own son, meets him in the wilderness where David is hiding to help him “find strength in God.” If you don’t have that kind of a friend, do what you need to do to reach out to people and ask God in prayer to help you find those whom God will use as a tangible sign of his love for you, even in the midst of life’s chaos and uncertainties.
Last, as our Lord himself tells us to do in today’s gospel lesson, munch on Jesus every week in Holy Communion. I use the verb munch because the Greek verb used to translate eat in the passage literally means to munch or chomp. When we feed on our Lord Jesus Christ every week, we literally take him into our body and soul where he will do what he needs to do to remind us of his Presence in our our lives and to help keep us faithful to him so that he can use us to be his signs of new creation and people of hope to a world that so desperately needs it.
Of course, none of this assures us that our lives will be peaceful, prosperous, and tranquil. In fact, we can expect just the opposite if the biblical narrative about the lives of other saints is any indication. David didn’t always have it. Neither did Job or Paul. Certainly Jesus didn’t enjoy a hassle-free life. But what they all had was a real relationship with God, which led them to develop a faith and power that transcended all the ambiguities, chaos, and sorrows of life. And when by God’s grace we experience God’s love and forgiveness in Christ in the same way so that we know the reality of his sovereign and saving love for us, even in the midst of our darkest and deepest valleys, we will also know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.