We have been viewers for the past three weeks or so of an action-packed mini-series about King David, his rise from simple shepherd to King, his attraction to Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, and how the prophet Nathan rebuked him in the Lord’s name. David acknowledges his sin, and the Lord forgives him, but leaves him to live with the consequences of his actions. The Lord says, “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.” But this is a forgiving God, not a vindictive God; David’s own actions result in his distress. Today’s reading gives us a heartbreaking example of the trouble within David’s house.
With about five wives and ten concubines, David also had many children who were brothers and sisters to one another – or half-brothers and half-sisters. And what happens when there are many heirs and just one crown? The sons kill one another, jockey for right of inheritance and, in Absalom’s case, start a bloody civil war to take the crown for himself. David’s family is just another seriously dysfunctional family.
David loved his third son Absalom. He named him Avshalóm, meaning leader of peace. David saw him grow into the most handsome man in the kingdom. If they could have stopped action right there, the men might have enjoyed a happily-ever-after story. Instead, Absalom hilled his half-brother Amnon and, four-years later, began the civil war against his father.
Perhaps only parents can understand the combination of anguish and devotion David felt for his son. Perhaps only parents can understand why David would order his commanders to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom,” despite fratricide, betrayal, and war. Perhaps only parents still want to hold their children to their hearts, despite themselves. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son.”
It is David’s devotion, his outpouring of love that helps me understand both God’s forgiveness of David and God’s ever-open arms for our returns. David is surely no God; but he forgives and forgives the son who fought against him for everything David had.
Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a father in Spain and his rebellious son. Their relationship stretched until it shattered, and the boy left home. His father searched for him over a long and difficult period. In desperation, the exhausted man placed an ad in a Madrid newspaper. It said, simply,
Please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven.
Paco is a common Spanish name. Even so, Hemingway writes, the father was shocked to find 800 Pacos, all seeking forgiveness from their father.
3If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
4But there is forgiveness with you
7O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
The God of Psalm 130 is the God Jesus wants us to know; the God of forgiveness and steadfast love. We hear God’s call to our yearning hearts, then we forget, suddenly, distracted by a temporary pleasure, by an old anger, by the pursuit of what looks as if it is permanent and glittering – until the market fails, the house prices fall, the job disappears. Ken Andersen says in his book Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America “This is the end of the world as we’ve known it, but it isn’t the end of the world.” Instead, this is an opportunity to listen again with an open heart to the steadfast love of God. This is our chance to read the brief ad in a Madrid newspaper that is Jesus. More than a few words and stories, Jesus is our newspaper ad, our conduit directly taking us to God and to a peace beyond our understanding.
How so? Jesus has done miraculous things for a crowd of people who believe everything he says as long is someone is healed or raised from dead, or when 5000 of them are fed with a few loaves and fish and they have leftovers to take home in doggie bags. But Jesus loses his audience when he replaces the miraculous actions with a few statements. Curing the ill and feeding thousands? Yes, I can buy that, they say. But his being living bread? Forget it. He’s being ridiculous. What on earth does he mean, anyway?
Let’s face it, there’s something extremely unsettling about the idea of eating the living flesh of Jesus Christ. It makes me squeamish. I want to say, “No, he must have meant something else—anything else” I hear someone say, “You don’t take that literally, do you? No one actually took him up on the offer, did they?” No, but there were rumors among the Romans that Christians practiced cannibalism. This passage has been a problem for a long, long time.
Maybe Jesus is saying that when God seems unbelievably far away and unreachable, Jesus is here among us as the gateway that makes God near and makes sense of God. Maybe Jesus is saying he is among us to fill our most basic needs: that what we make complicated and extravagant is as simple as bread. Keep it simple. Maybe Jesus is saying that he wants us to make him part of our very natures with the same enthusiasm a shark has for a 400 pound yellowfin tuna. Maybe it is all of these. I believe that the living bread is our constant contact with Jesus and with God, that we welcome everyone to this table to share a simple but extraordinary gift. I believe that I may never understand what Jesus meant, exactly, when he told us to eat his flesh. But I also know, through experience, that sharing not only the bread but the struggles and joys of our lives, as one body, brings me closer to God. And I know, through experience, that I need not wait until eternity, but can have the gifts of God’s forgiveness and steadfast love today if I just hold out my hand and ask for it.
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