The Price of Victory

This is the sermon I just preached at my new internship site. The final revisions aren’t there because I was nervously making them just before I started preaching.

It was an interesting experience – I could have easily preached a different sermon with a very different message and still felt like I was telling the truth. I think that is perhaps the genius of scripture – that it can contain and ellicit contradictory things and still remain whole, the way two love poems might contradict each other but still be true to the experience of love. The problem is treating scripture like a philosophical treatise or a literal record. Its much more than that, to me at least. Why treat it like a spreadsheet when it is clearly a magnificent work of art? Why treat it like it points to answers when instead it points to God? Isn’t God much more desirable than answers?

The readings for this sermon were the Presbyterian lectionary for today

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The Price of Victory

2 Samuel 18
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

I’d like to take a moment to thank you all for the hospitality you’ve already shown me. Even before we were seriously considering an internship here, I thought that this was a very welcoming place to worship. So thank you again for the opportunity to preach this morning.

Please join me in prayer: Immutable God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts glorify you and edify each other. Amen.

The story of David and Absalom is a great Old Testament tragedy. It has inspires many works of art, as well as a novel by William Faulkner which, like all novels by Faulkner, I don’t understand. The story is archetypal, however. Absalom is betrayed by his older brother, David’s heir. His rage turns to insurrection when David refuses to defend him and lets the betrayal stand. Absalom becomes the leader of an uprising against David, and is anointed king by his followers – prematurely, because he still has to face his father.

The final image our reading from 2 Samuel leaves us with is one of the most vivid ones in all of scripture – it is the very real, wrenching grief of David over the death of his son Absalom. It is perhaps the most vivid image of sorrow and loss in all of scripture. David cries out, wishing he had died instead of his son.

This is a very moving, and very complicated, scene. David the father is grieving, but David the king has won a great victory. Absalom had been the leader of a violent rebellion against David’s rule. This was the final battle between David and those who wanted to kill him and replace him with a new king. They had anointed Absalom to be their ruler. If David had not won, he would almost surely be dead.

At the cost of this terrible grief, David wins, destroying a powerful enemy. Was it worth it? David’s line would rule a united kingdom for a mere two generations before the kingdom breaks apart, and the House of David is relegated to a backwater of a backwater called Judah. It’s the place just down the road from Nowhere, and his house would never rule anything greater than this. Was it worth his son?

The story describes the death of twenty thousand men that day. Though this is certainly an inflated number, it is clear that the slaughter was incredible in the forests of Ephraim. These nameless men who died are immediately forgotten, little more than a flurry of notches in David’s belt. They are like an afterthought, and do not really figure in this famous story at all. The battle, as the story comes to be told, is between David and Joab on one side and Absalom on the other.

I think of our world when I read things like this, stories of human sacrifice and grief as the powerful grasp for more power and the poor and the weak pay the price for it. Don’t they always?

On July 12, Hezbullah attacked Jewish settlers across the border in Israel. Now, there are no unprovoked attacks in the Middle East. No one there needs to look far to find a reason to hate. Everyone has lost family, homes, friends. In Israel’s response, guided missiles slammed into mosques and apartment buildings, schools and hospitals and homes. Hezbullah responds with more rockets, destroying synagogues and apartment buildings, schools and hospitals and homes. And so it goes. Each side seeks the destruction of the other. Each side says it is fighting for the people, for the oppressed, for the victims, but each side continues to oppress and victimize.

I think of our own War on Terror. It is another in a long series of senseless, unwinnable wars. The War on Drugs and the War on Poverty were staggering failures, so why should the War on Terror be different? You can’t have the UN level sanctions against Terror. You can’t go find Terror and arrest it and put it on trial. So now we have a new war, more expensive than the previous ones, and tens of thousands of people have died. Millions have been displaced. Tens of millions live in constant fear of attack, or of simply dying in a refugee camp without adequate food or water.

We are told that this is worthwhile, that it is making us safer. What in history might make us believe that? I have no idea. But like when Absalom’s twenty thousand followers paid the price for David’s victory, and thousands of civillians will pay the price for Israel’s or Hezbullah’s victory, we too outsource our violence. We fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here. We make them pay for our victory. We don’t even know what victory looks like, but we’ll kill for it.

Recently, Condoleeza Rice went to Beirut, Lebanon, for a visit. She held a press conference, and she said that what we were seeing, the violence and the mayhem and the grief, was just the “birth pangs of a new Middle-East.” And the journalists and others who were listening took a moment to wonder what planet she was from. What news channel is she watching? Well, I guess we all know she watches Fox News, but even they can’t make the situation overseas look that good.

We can see that David’s victory, even though he has been remembered for it for three thousand years, was more than a little empty. It was a lot of sacrifice for almost no gain. Anyone can see that the middle-east conflict, whether American sticks its head in or not, boils down to an endless cycle of retaliation and a kind of galvanized, entrenched hatred that spans generations. And yet, it still goes on.

It’s so serious that I hear more and more people talking about the End Times, as in Armageddon. Not just the Left Behind fans, either. A guy I work with, Adonai, just got back from Nicaragua where he has an uncle who is a missionary. His uncle was talking about the Book of Revelations, and how the wars in the middle east are a sign of the End Times. Adonai asked me if I believed that, knowing I was in seminary, and I had to say no, that it always looks terrible when you are looking at a war, and people throughout history have thought ‘this time, things have gotten so bad, it must be the end of the world.’ I don’t know if he liked my answer.

It may not be Armageddon just yet, but no one would argue that everything is great, though. Something is clearly wrong, wrong on a cosmic scale, persistently wrong, generation after generation.

Its easy to follow this line of thinking, and get to feeling very self-righteous. That’s usually how I feel when I think about the horrific mess that exists in the world. I pretend that this is all unrecognizable, like it is all something someone else does. Political wars get attention because they are fought on a grand stage with vast resources. But we have our own petty conflicts as well. We want our own victories. This is all too human. Our own lives are a big mess as well, more often than not.

I may not always feel like I’m at war, but I respond to things like I am. Whenever I need to do something important, I feel anxiety. How will it turn out? What will happen? Will I be good enough? In social situations. Will people like me? Will they laugh when I crack jokes? When I preach a sermon. Will they get up out of their chairs? Will they shout, roll in the aisles? Will my words transform peoples’ lives forever? It feels like I’m in a fight for my life sometimes, as if with any misstep, disaster will ensue.

When I outdo someone else, I feel like I’ve won something. My first reaction isn’t to be gracious, or thankful. When something goes wrong, and thank God it isn’t my fault, I feel relief, because someone else has to deal with the consequences. I want to win, and I want someone else to pay for it. Any humility, any graciousness, only comes afterwards, once I get a hold of myself and remember that I’m supposed to be a good person, and good people don’t respond like that. Those are my sad little victories. Maybe you’ve felt some of the same.

This is why we compete. This is why we hoard. This is why we lust. This is why we envy. This is why we hate, why we fear. We’re afraid of losing. We’re afraid of defeat, of the final tally coming in, and our lives being accounted for, and finding out that we really are worthless. We aren’t good enough. The neighbor with the great car or the great job or the great abs did win, and we lost.

In our desperation, we sometimes mourn what is lost. The time we didn’t spend with loved ones. The energy we wasted being angry or spiteful. The years we dedicated to work that was unfulling, so we could buy more things we didn’t need. Like David mourning Absalom, his fallen son. But like David, we don’t learn. We have moments of clarity, but they are moments only. And who know what other damage we do, unnoticed, like the twenty thousand men who died because they sided with Absalom instead of David.

When I read the passage in 2 Samuel, my first reaction was to connect it to what I’m hearing on the news – war and grief and senseless violence. And then I thought, where does this come from? The answer was simple – it comes from me. It comes from us.

Something is terribly wrong. We’re fighting like it means something, globally and personally, even though it isn’t getting us anywhere, it isn’t making the world or our lives any better. If anything, the opposite is true.

And I got to thinking about victory, about what it costs, about what it means. And I realized that I was thinking about what victory means to me, what it means to us, when I should have been thinking about what it means to God.

I think we all affirm, in one way or another, that Christ is victorious. Otherwise, why are we here this morning? Christ is God’s victory. And what does this victory look like?

We all probably know the basic story, but here it is again in brief, because it always bears repeating. A young, unmarried woman has a promise from God. A child has a very auspicious birth. He is recognized by a few very strange people as someone very important. He is baptized by John the Baptist, who thinks highly of him. He is recognized by the Holy Spirit and the voice of God as God’s son. He then begins a career as an itinerant preacher and miracle-worker. He runs afoul of the authorities and loses his temper with the temple moneychangers. He eats with sinners and outcasts, drives out demons, performs more miracles. His following and fame grow. He is marked for death by those in authority. Incredibly, he travels to Jerusalem, the center of their power. He is betrayed, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The sentence is gruesomely carried out. Before followers and family, grieving, he dies. He is buried.

And in the silence of the tomb, three days later,

there is suddenly an intake of breath, a shuddering of cold limbs, a fluttering of eyelids. He stirs, rises, and walks out of the tomb, out into the world.

Jesus victory doesn’t come when we’d expect it. In life, he does everything perfect and true and good. He is absolutely obedient to God and peacefully disobedient to unjust authorities. He preaches obedience, peace, truth, and a radical love that knows no boundaries. What more perfect life could there be? What more excellent way, what more worthy person? And yet his life is snuffed out. Every good thing he did, every good thing he was in life, could not save him.

The victory comes, unobserved, in the darkness of the tomb. The perfect son of God, defeated, rises from the dead.

There is no lasting victory in being good, or in being brave, or in being truthful, or even in being perfect, because Christ was all of these things, moreso than we can ever hope to be. There is only one victory, and that victory is through God. I cannot possibly illustrate this better, or more vividly, than the story of Christ already has, so I will let it speak for me. There is no victory apart from God, because God is the victory. God is the victory.

We’re are like Japanese soldiers you read about in history books, years after World War II has ended, still bunkered on some remote Pacific island, still thinking they’re fighting a war. We’re talking strategy and tactics, rationing our supplies, reinforcing our position, but we’ve been left behind. We’re the lunatics who don’t get it. We cling to the feeling that we’re important, that what we do, what we accomplish, is crucial. We cling to the feeling that we are the center of the universe, that everything depends on whether we succeed of fail. We still believe that we’re in a fight grieving for, worth killing for.

Christ is God’s final response to our ideas of victory. And we need to pay attention. The world needs to pay attention.

There is one victory, and we are living after the fact. There is no accounting. There is no competition. There are no losers. And there is nothing worth fighting for that hasn’t already been won.

There is one victory, and we are all welcome to share it. We are part of the family of God by way of blood. We are in. It is finished. In Christ, we are victorious. The parade has passed on, and we are just sweeping up the confetti.

So what is left to us? We are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and we are to be imitators of God. God who came among us, lived as one of us, healed us and preached to us, broke bread with us, suffered and died, was buried, and rose again in glory. We have to empty ourselves. Like Christ, we must seek to live the perfect life, in goodness and in truth and in courage and in humility, not because we’ll win something, but because we know that God will meet us from the other side, no matter where we are. Because we know that God is with us, and we simply can’t contain ourselves.

Victory is no longer something we live to claim. It is something we claim, and then live. And the difference is everything.

In closing, I’d like for us all to join in prayer, after which we will have a time of silence, a time of listening. Let us pray.

Victorious God, in Christ you have shown us the way. Help us to let go of ourselves. Help us to live as victorious people, to speak the truth and to build up, to be generous to the needy, to be kind to one another, and always to seek to forgive. Help us to live in love. Amen.

4 thoughts on “The Price of Victory

  1. Thank you for sharing your sermon. I imagine it will definitely come back into my mind when I watch the news today.I thought your descriptive language of the resurrection was really great. I could visualize it, and I liked that you described it in a victorious yet human sort of way — particulary the fluttering of eyelids.I read this passage all last week, and I, like the author, glossed over the 20,000 others who died. It reminds me that the pain of war can be easily overlooked until it hits home as it does with David’s languished cries for Absalom.Again, thanks for sharing. Keep up the great blogging!

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  2. Hey Doug, Great sermon! I preached on this passage this week as well. I happened to be at a pretty conservative church (the same one I attended right before the fourth where we said the pledge and all) so I steered away from some of the themes that you handled quite adeptly, though those themes were screaming at me. I wonder if I should have gone more in the direction that you went. Ah well. You are a pretty incredible writer. I’m sure that translates into pretty incredible preaching as well. Very well done. I hope I get to hear you preach sometime soon.

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  3. My apologies is this ends up being a long comment, you know I’m an opinionated bastard.Doug, first of all, fine sermon and you preached it well. Everything I have to say is a reinforcement, not a negation of that point. I comment here, not because I think you need to fix anything, but because I know I appreciate and learn from other people’s insight and I thought I would offer you whatever I can to help you become the preacher you have the potential to be…You’ve chosen a good and interesting theme to unify the sermon and come to a really good conclusion that even includes a reversal – which is a really tough technique. Your reversal, “We don’t live to claim victory, but claim victory and then live it!” is really the key to the whole sermon and in that regard it could use some restructuring. I would put the reversal about 2/3 of the way through instead of right at the end and you need to phrase the question in such a way that it points to the answer the gospel is giving. In other words, your first 2/3 of the sermon need to be about what the gospel has to say about “living to claim victory” – which they loosely are, but it isn’t always clear that it is so and certain points lose the thread for me. It feels to me like you had 7-8 different good ideas from the passage and had trouble whittling it down to 1. Then, when you have asked the question for 2/3 of the sermon and delivered the gospel response, which is your reversal… THEN you need a good long time at the end just to open that response up and explore its implications. What does it look like to claim victory and then live it? You briefly touch on this idea by saying we need to be imitators of God, but you don’t really connect it well and your own language makes it seem like a contradictory point – you say that even being perfect doesn’t guarantee victory and we’re already victorious anyway so what’s the point of being perfect? I realize that the apparent contradiction here is misleading, your point is to be descriptive of what a victorious life looks like, but you don’t get there because you give yourself too little space.A couple side notes… In the beginning, you tell us that the story of David and Absalom is a very moving story. Generally speaking in a sermon it is better to show rather than tell.. don’t tell me it is moving… MOVE me. In my opinion, you’d be better to omit direct mention of the story at all and just tell us a story about a father losing his son (even retelling the scripture in your own words) in such a way that we can actually experience the father’s pain, rather than being asked to believe that the father felt pain.Second… brilliant move to retell the gospel story. It is almost never a bad move, but it was right in this case especially because it is all about SHOWING (not telling) what victory looks like. Well done, sir. I hope this helps.

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  4. don’t worry if its long, and i do appreciate the comments. you should have seen it before i rewrote it! i think that as i preach a little more regularly, i’ll avoid the problem of wanting to cram a half dozen ideas into each sermon. if nothing else, at that rate, i’ll probably run out of ideas.i seem to end up writing sermons where the emotional or cognitive arc (if there actually is one) tends to end after the sermon is over. at least that’s sort of what i have in mind whe i’m writing. it might be more effective to take your 2/3 and 1/3 method and try it. it really depdends on how much is going on in the parishoners and how much i have to active evoke, which i don’t know how to know

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