Grief and Glory

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Psalm 65

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

King David was the second and the greatest king of Israel. Roughly nine hundred years before the time of Jesus he conquered his enemies and united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He established Jerusalem as the capital city of his kingdom, and he ruled for forty years. He was so favored by God that it was promised to him that his descendents would rule over the house of Israel for all time. When Jesus was greeted by the crowds as he came into Jerusalem on the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday, they shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David ” (Mark 11: 9-10.)

David had glory and power beyond anyone who ever lived in Israel – but if you have been with us this summer, you have been hearing the stories of David week after week, and you know that for all his glory and power, David was a deeply tragic figure. As a young man he is forced into conflict with King Saul, who betrayed him and turned against him, and in this conflict with Saul, David’s dearest friend, Saul’s son Jonathan was killed. David weeps bitterly when he hears that Jonathan is dead.

David was known for his righteousness and wisdom as a king, but he could also be ruthless and immoral – the past two Sundays we have heard the story of how he abused Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Uriah. There were many moments of grief in David’s life, but the greatest grief came at the end of his life. His own son, Absalom, rebelled against him. Even though Absalom made war against his father, still David longed to be reconciled with him. But that was not to be. Absalom was killed by David’s soldiers, and again David was overcome with grief . We hear today the story of David grieving for his son Absalom.

II Samuel, chapter 18:

18:5] The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.
18:6] So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim.
18:7] The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men.
18:8] The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.
18:9] Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
18:15] And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
18:31] Then the Cushite came and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”
18:32] The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”
18:33] The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

When I saw that we would be reading the story of Absalom and David today, I remembered the Sunday a few months back when the Men’s Chorus of Asbury United Methodist Church did a rousing “a capella” rendition of the anthem, “David’s Lamentation,” and I lamented that the men were not all here today to sing it again! Then it occurred to me that thanks to the miracle of modern technology all we have to do is go to the website of Asbury United Methodist Church to hear the men’s chorus singing

“David’s Lamentation.”

“David, the king, was grieved and moved,
He went to his chamber and wept; And as he went he wept, and said:
‘O my son! O my son!
Would to God I had died
For thee, O Absolom, my son!’ ”

So right now I shall go to my wireless device, and for the first time ever from the pulpit of Asbury United Methodist Church, we will hear one of our choirs singing electronically through the Web for a Sunday service. [And so we did. If you missed this history making event – not to worry – go to our web site, asburycrestwood.net, where you can see and hear our choirs, including the men singing ‘David’s Lament.”]

That song goes right to the heart.
According to the Hebrew Scriptures David was not only a king and a general, and a man who knew great tragedy and enormous grief; he was a musician and a poet. We are leaving David today. Next week move on to David’s son Solomon. I want to end our time with David, not by focusing on his glory or his failings, or his terrible grief, but on a song of David in which he celebrates the glory of God the Creator.

“You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves
with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.”

Those are the words of Psalm number 65. According to the Bible these are the words of a song. If you look in your Bible at the Psalms, you will see that very often just before the words of the psalm itself there will be some kind of explanation or instruction. So in Psalm 65, at the beginning, it says: “To the leader. A Psalm of David. A Song.” That tells us a few things. It tells us that when we read from the book of Psalms we are reading from a book of liturgy. When it says “to the leader” it is speaking of the one who is leading the worship. And obviously when it says, “a song,” it is telling us that the Psalms were originally sung. So the Psalms are in part a book of liturgy and prayer and also a hymnal.

Unfortunately we do not have the tunes to these songs. Sometimes the introduction to the Psalm will tell us that it is to be sung with stringed instruments, but we do not know what melodies were played or what these songs sounded like when the Jewish people sang them in ancient times.

Most of the songs begin with a note telling us who wrote the words to the song. Most of the Psalms are attributed to King David. In this Psalm of David and in many of the Psalms there is the celebration of the earth.

“By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.”

The Psalms speak of the oceans and the mountains and the sense of awe that human beings feel in all of nature, but especially when we are near water and mountains.

Mary Ellen and I traveled a few weeks ago to Maine. In Maine the water is so cold that only a few crazy people like me get in and swim in the ocean. There are lots of people with boats sailing and paddling around. But of all the millions of people coming to the shoreline, the great majority never touch the water. Though they never touch the water, they need to be near it. The price of rental property goes up higher and higher the closer you get to the water. It is as if there is something in the molecules of our bodies that is pulled by some magnetic force toward the water. You can stay home and stand in the shower and cover yourself with water and save yourself a lot of money, but no, we have to pack up our gear and drive hundreds of miles in order to be near vast bodies of water. Or to be near the mountains.

We drove through the Presidential Range in New Hampshire on our way back from Maine. We took the ten mile drive up Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the eastern United States. People say we are drawn to the ocean because our bodies are primarily composed of water. But that does not explain why we are drawn to the mountains. What is this thing that draws us to the mountains? Why does it take our breath away to look at them?

What is it that comes over us when we stand at the top of a mountain looking out in every direction? Why is it that it is so hard to write a song about the glory of God without mentioning at least once or twice a mountain or a river or lake or the ocean? Why is our sense of holiness connected to water and mountains?

The short answer to that question is, I do not know. But I do know this: it is a very challenging thing to be a human being. We are subject to all the same dangers and diseases and physical struggles as the other creatures of this earth. At the same time, in every human being there is this vast inner world; a vast inner world of thoughts and dreams, a world of imagination and emotion – our inner world is full of as many dangers and troubles as our physical world – for every wound that the flesh is subject to, the heart and soul are subject to even more.

It is truly an awesome thing to be born on this earth. I was reminded of that last week when the mother of our newest church baby permitted me to hold her day-old son. It is indeed an awesome thing to be born on this planet as a human being.

As we go about the ordinary business of everyday life, we get distracted, and we forget what an extraordinary adventure life is, but when we are at the ocean or on a mountain, the awe returns. Oceans and mountains awaken in us the awareness that we are fragile creatures standing before great mysteries. There is something that is thrilling and comforting and terrifying about oceans and mountains – in these places we are experiencing the awesomeness of creation and the awesomeness of the Creator.

We have come to the end of David’s story for now. His personal story was tangled up with the history of his time and the personal struggles he had in his family and in his friendships. It is a story in which even the greatest of human beings must deal with all the uncertainties and troubles of life. There were times when David the king stepped back from the affairs of state and the complications of family, and stood in awe of God, the holy one of Israel, Creator of heaven and earth. And he would sing in long forgotten melody:

“By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples. Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”

A prayer:

“Creator God, we stumble and fumble through life; we are bewildered and challenged at every turn; we stand in wonder and awe at birth, and we are humbled and struck down by death. You are the Creator, the source of our being, and to you we entrust our lives, our fragile lives. We give you thanks and praise for every gift of creation. In the glories of this earth you reawaken our spirits and call forth our adoration and love. To you be honor and glory now and forever.”

Grace and peace to you.

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