Sermon Series: God and Country
Pentecost XI (O. T. 19); August 9, 2015
II Samuel 15:13-29
Most of the time it is easy to be both a Christian and a citizen. But sometimes we face a conflict of loyalties between God and country. When we do face that conflict, how do we decide whom to follow? This is a story about loyalty, a dysfunctional family, and civil war.
King David's son Absalom was at odds with his family. He had killed his half-brother Amnon because of what Amnon had done to Absalom's sister Tamar, and so he fled the kingdom. David, however, loved him, and wanted him to come home. So he arranged for Absalom to return to Jerusalem. For reasons of state, though, David didn't let Absalom come to court, so the young man sat seething in his house until he hatched a plan.
Phase One: to arrange to get readmitted to court. Please don't try this yourselves. He sent word to General Joab – remember him from an earlier story? – that he wanted to talk to him, but Joab refused to go. Now Joab had a field of barley next to Absalom's field; Absalom sent some of his servants to set Joab's field on fire. Joab, furious, went to Absalom: "Why did you set my field on fire?" Absalom, in return, asked him why he had been left to cool his heels and never been readmitted to his father's presence. So Joab arranged for the son to see his father again, and all appeared to be well.
Phase Two: He started building himself a small army. He also got up early and positioned himself outside the gate to the capital city, and when someone would come, planning to take a case to the King for judgment, Absalom would say, "Oh, what a pity! The King has never appointed anyone to hear cases from your part of the country. I'm afraid there's nothing to be done. If only I were judge! Then everyone would have justice." And when a person would try to bow before the Prince, he would raise them up and kiss them as an equal. And so, as the Scriptures say, "Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel" (II Samuel 15:6b).
After four years of this, Absalom started Phase Three: he went to Hebron. This is the city where his father had originally been proclaimed King, and so it had tremendous symbolic value. He took key members of the Court along as guests; they didn't know what he was up to. And at a prearranged signal, the cry went throughout the land, "Absalom is king!" He and his friends and hired army – and everyone who knew where their bread was buttered – went with him to march on Jerusalem, the capital.
This is the backstory to today's reading. In it, David fled Jerusalem, taking his servants and others with him. In a crucial moment, he made a decision about the Ark of God, which is where the question of God and country comes in. The priests and Levites brought the Ark of God. They figured that the symbol of God's blessing belonged with the King. And David could make a good claim for that: God said he was the man after God's own heart, he was God's anointed, and God had made a covenant with him. But King David thought better of it; he said that the Ark belonged in the Holy City. He could not claim the Ark of God for himself; the Ark of God and the place of God and the will of God were bigger than the King.
The major issue here is piety, but I should not neglect to mention that David was no fool. He also planned to use the priests as spies, and their work in Jerusalem would turn out to be crucial when David won the civil war and returned to Jerusalem. But that's a story for another day.
It is not surprising that the priests would have wanted to go with David, and take the Ark to David. God had made him King, and they had a strong sense of the rightness of David's rule. We citizens of the United States, with a strong commitment to representative democracy, also tend to exhibit a strong sense of the divine right of those we elect, and our default position seems to be that loyalty to the nation is loyalty to God. I'm calling this series "God and Country," and most of our citizens seem to assume that the two naturally go together.
So much so that most Protestant churches in our country have U. S. flags in them. I noticed when you called me as your Pastor that you do not have flags in this sanctuary. I've heard stories about when the custom of putting the national flag in the sanctuary began, but could not find any documentation of it. In my reading, however, I came across a blog post that put the whole thing in perspective. A veteran wrote that he loved the nation he had served and he had fought for the flag, but when he came to church, he came to worship God and to praise his Lord Jesus Christ, not the United States of America. So he thought the flag should not be in the sanctuary.
This is one example. Deeper examples are when you and I need to choose between loyalty to God and loyalty to the nation in our actions. It is easy to be loyal to the nation: we face enormous social pressure and are accused of everything from lack of patriotism to heresy against the civil religion if we resist that pressure because of our loyalty to God. No one calls you names or attacks you for being loyal to the nation rather than to God.
As individuals we sometimes face conflicts in loyalty between the nation and God. Members of this Church this week gave me examples. Some are finding themselves conflicted over provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The invasion of Iraq created another conflict, akin to what some of us remember from the Vietnam War. Matters of civil rights and social justice can create a conflict. If you find yourself conflicted in loyalty, remember King David, who sent the Ark back to Jerusalem. The Ark of God did not belong to the King; the Ark belonged to God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church
Omaha, Nebraska You can read this story at II Samuel 13.