2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25—5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
We like to think we know what God wants. We like to think we have God all figured out. We read the Scriptures and we are sure we know how to interpret them. But it’s never a good idea to be so sure of what we believe that we fail to leave room for God to act, to do something new.
King David was not that great a king, as kings go, nor such a great father, as fathers go. In the text we read today, David’s son Absalom has rebelled so much against his father he has gathered an army. He has spread propaganda about his father, and turned many of the people against him.
When David is confronted with Absalom’s army, he and his household withdraw to a place of safety. He charges his generals with regaining control, but asks them to deal kindly with Absalom. David can’t forget that the enemy trying to kill him is his son.
The generals have no such conflict. One day, Absalom is riding a donkey through the woods and gets his head caught between overhanging branches. The donkey keeps going, and Absalom is stuck, and killed like the enemy combatant he is. When David is told about his death, he cries out his grief like any parent would when a child dies.
What on earth is God doing, we wonder? If David is such a terrible leader and father, why does God keep saving him? Why doesn’t God choose someone else? There are no good answers to those questions. We can simply give thanks for God’s faithfulness and patience with all of us. And we can watch to see what God is doing with each generation, with each situation.
... The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time thought they knew what God wanted. They were sure God wanted absolute obedience to the religious rules. They were sure Jesus was speaking blasphemy, and that he knew nothing about what God was doing. How could he know anything about God?! He’s only the son of Mary and Joseph the Galilean carpenter.
Jesus makes several claims in this section of the story, and each one of them makes the Jewish leaders angry. He speaks about God:
God is the Father (a radical name for God in that time!)
The Father draws people to Godself
Only those drawn by the Father may come to God
(but, doesn’t God want all to come?)
People come to the Father through Jesus
Jesus speaks about himself:
I am the bread of life
I have come down from heaven
Only I have seen the Father
The Father sent me
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry or thirsty
Whoever believes in me has eternal life
I will raise up believers on the last day
I will give my life for the sake of the world
Jesus speaks about life and bread:
The bread of life is different from manna
Manna feeds you for a day while the bread of life feeds you forever
Whoever eats the bread of life will not die, but have eternal life
Eternal life is different from the life you now have
Jesus was certainly speaking about God in a way the Jewish leaders had never considered. Of course he was wrong. He had to be wrong. God would be very angry at what he was saying. So many people were following him, and for the sake of the whole people of Israel, they needed to get rid of him. The leaders knew what God wanted, and Jesus certainly wasn’t it!
We who believe in Jesus as the Son of God, as the Bread of Life, don’t think of ourselves as wrong. We know that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that when we believe in him we also believe in God. We believe that eternal life is not just life with God after we die, but life in relationship with God now.
... In the centuries since Jesus, the Church has struggled with the interpretation of the commandments and with Jesus’ ministry and his words. The Nicene Creed developed out of the struggle to determine who Jesus is and what his presence on earth means.
Over the centuries, the way of doing and being church has changed, too. In the earliest days, worship was held in homes, women were just as likely as men to lead the prayers for Holy Communion, and slaves were the equal of free persons in the church. Over time, slaves became people of less value in the church, and women were pushed out into secondary positions. For many centuries, priests could marry and have children, but over time, for political and economic reasons, they were required to be celibate.
For unity in the Church, the mass was always spoken in the common language, Latin; after a time, too many people could not understand the Latin, and the local language was preferred. At first, everyone received both bread and wine, then for a long time only the bread, and then both elements were offered again.
In the early days of the church, the Prayer which includes the Words of Institution (“in the night in which he was betrayed ...”) was made up by the local leader, then the words we use today were established as the “right way.” For a time, the prayer was considered so holy it was whispered – and bells were rung so the people would know when to look up; and now the words are spoken out loud and facing the congregation.
In my lifetime, the Lutheran Church has struggled with the ordination of women; with the leadership of people of color; with the acceptance of praying in tongues; with the addition of folk, rock, and praise music in worship; with the change from suits and dresses to polos and jeans on both men and women; with common cup, pouring chalice, individual glasses, and intinction as all acceptable ways of serving the wine; and with the addition of juice and gluten-free wafers to include more people at the table.
We continue to struggle with the acceptance of people who are different from us sexually; with people who choose to never have children or who have a lot of children; with stay-at-home fathers and working mothers.
In each case, over the centuries, the move to accept change has been a challenge for both sides – for and against the change. Each side believes it has God’s purposes in mind, and that the other side is wrong and contrary to what God wants.
... In David’s time, it was sometimes easy, but more often very hard, to figure out what God wanted, and what God was doing. David’s job was to remain faithful and to stay alive long enough to unite the kingdom for the sake of God’s people.
Jesus’ job was more complex, and more important than David’s, but it, too, is for the sake of God’s people. Jesus wants us to realize that it is not obedience to the rules that matters, but that a relationship with God is what counts.
It’s not using the liturgically correct words that matters, but it’s about taking the time to pray at all.
It’s not how the candles are lit, and what songs we sing, and what worship leaders wear, but it’s that we gather to worship and pray together that matters.
What matters is not what we are called by God to do, but that we use our God-given gifts to answer God’s call on our lives.
What matters to God is not that we are correct in judging others as in or out of favor with God, but that we are, in Paul’s words, kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, as God in Christ has forgiven us.
God works in surprising ways, in our lives as individuals and in our communities and in the world. It’s right to take our guidance from Scripture and long-standing tradition, but we must be careful to not limit God’s plans to do new things. Let’s seek always to be imitators of Christ and live in love, as Christ has first loved us and given himself for us.
Please pray with me: Surprising God, it can be hard for us humans to figure out that you are doing. Help us to trust that you have a greater plan and purpose in mind for all of us. Be present with us as we attempt to manage the many changes we experience in our personal lives, in our community, and in the world. Teach us to love as you love, to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving. Amen