12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Before we dig into our second reading let’s review King David’s story. Starting from the beginning, what are some important events in King David’s life?
-Rise to power
-conflict with Saul
-Amnon and Tamar
-Absalom and Amnon
-Absalom’s exile and return
The text never tells us why, but soon after his return to Jerusalem Absalom started thinking a lot about his own power. It started small, but certainly not harmlessly. Absalom recruited an entourage to show he was important. Then he started spending time at the city gate, which is where the elders of the city and other people went to talk about important things. In many ways that was the court in those days. People went to the gate to settle contracts and to seek justice when they were having trouble.
Absalom didn’t go to the city gates to help his father or to find out how things were going. Instead, when someone came to Jerusalem with a problem Absalom would tell them that their complaint was right, but that there wasn’t anyone in David’s administration who would listen to it. Then he would go on to say how much he wanted to help people get justice. Little by little, Absalom built up a following, all the while keeping the problems from ever making their way to David’s ears.
Finally, when he felt he had enough people following him, he went to Hebron, where David had first been crowned, and had himself declared king. Surprisingly, David panicked and abandoned Jerusalem with his leaders. Many others followed him as well.
Absalom took over the city of Jerusalem and plotted his next move. Meanwhile, David and his followers mourned and worried. Then they got ready for the battle. David was not going to give up the throne, so they needed to fight. David split his forces into three groups, each led by trusted leaders. Joab, David’s chief general led one group. David’s commanders convinced David not to go into battle himself and he sent them out begging them to be kind to Absalom.
Of course, battle is a hard place to be kind. I’m not a parent, but the biggest flaw David has shown so far in his parenting is not stepping in when his kids are doing the wrong thing. He didn’t do anything when Amnon raped Tamar, so Absalom felt like he had to be the one to execute justice. Then, as Absalom was building his power base, David ignored that problem too. At this point in the story, I think it’s too late to be kind.
Joab thinks so too. Joab is a favorite character of mine in the story of King David. He is fiercely loyal to King David. He is a brilliant strategist and ruthless realist. He is also ruthless about looking after his own interests. At two other points in the story David tries to appoint another commander in chief of the army and both times Joab kills them. I’m not going to hold Joab up as a moral example in any way, but he is loyal to David.
In this case, even though he has heard the King’s command to be gentle with Absalom, Joab does what he think needs to be done. One of his men discovers Absalom hanging from a tree by his hair. Joab and his closest followers kill him and bury him in a pile of rocks. Then Joab blows the trumpet to signal that the battle is over and sends a runner to bring the good news to King David.
The runner announces to David that the battle is won, but all David wants to know is whether Absalom is safe. The messenger says, “May the Lord grant that all the enemies of my lord the king be like that young man.” David leaves the command post to go to his room weeping for the life of his son. That’s where our story for today picks up:
1 Kings 19:1-8
It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” 2So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” 3The troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. 4The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
5Then Joab came into the house to the king, and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, 6for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.
7So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.” 8Then the king got up and took his seat in the gate. The troops were all told, “See, the king is sitting in the gate”; and all the troops came before the king. Meanwhile, all the Israelites had fled to their homes.
I think we can identify with David’s grief. Too many parents know the pain of a child’s death. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if that child died in battle against the parent. David has lost his son. In the terrible tension of waiting for the battle to be over he must have thought about the possibilities. He must have tortured himself with the should haves and would haves, with reexamining his actions and imagining what he could have done differently to avoid the horrible situation he’s in now.
David was a great battle commander himself, so the logical part of his mind knows that this can really only end two ways. His troops can lose the battle and Absalom will be king or his troops can win and Absalom will probably die. He knows that, but in his heart he still holds out hope that everything can miraculously turn out right. Maybe somehow he can win without Absalom dying. Maybe somehow he and his son can be reconciled and their mistakes won’t have to be the end of their story together.
Kings are human, and they feel grief like anyone else. But kings and other leaders often have to put their feelings aside. One of the hardest thing about power is that when it is used right it is much more obligation than privilege. David’s first duty here is to his soldiers and followers, to those who have stayed loyal to him in the hardship of rebellion and flight. David is usually a natural leader with an instinct for doing the right thing. In this case, his grief and guilt make him forget his duty. All he can think about is his dead son.
So now David’s soldiers who have stood by him feel abandoned. Instead of celebrating and giving thanks for a hard victory, they sneak back home ashamed. They have done everything right; they’ve stood by their king when it would have been easier to stay home, but when they see their king’s grief all they can do is feel bad about what they have done.
There aren’t many men who would dare to approach David in his grief. It’s easier to give him the space he so obviously wants. But Joab is a loyal commander and friend. He sees the danger in David’s situation and he goes to save him. Joab knows that the rebellion, the flight and the battle have been hard for the army as well as for David. He knows that they need praise and encouragement, that the men need to be reassured that their courage and sacrifice and suffering has not been for nothing. They need their king’s gratitude and support. The king has to put the duties of command, the duties of royalty ahead of his personal grief.
So Joab goes and he tells David the truth. He knows David doesn’t want to hear it. He knows David wants to be alone to wallow in his grief, but Joab knows what he needs to do. David needs to know the truth so he can live up to his calling even when he doesn’t want to. That’s what true friends do; they tell us the truth even when they don’t want to and even when they know we don’t want to hear it. They tell us the truth and they keep loving us.
Deep, faithful, challenging relationships are at the heart of what it means to be a church. Faith in Christ starts with knowing that we are sinners and we need to change our lives. It starts with knowing we can’t do it on our own, that we need Jesus to save us from our selfish ways.
Once we start the path of discipleship we still need help. We need a community to support us and build us up when we’re having a hard time. We also need the honest, loving accountability of people who care about us too much to watch us take the wrong path. To be the best disciples we can be, we need a community with the kind of hard, loving honesty that Joab gives David.
That’s what Paul means when he writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish each other in all wisdom…” Admonish each other. That means tell your brother when he’s doing the wrong thing. Warn your sister when she’s heading down the wrong path. Don’t just pray for your friend from a distance, let them know that you’re worried about the choices they are making.
Our culture is weak on relationships. Most of our relationships are very surface level and we have all but lost the art of constructive criticism. We’re great at blasting people from a distance. We excel at sarcastic digs behind people’s backs. We’re skilled at saying we’re fine or telling a coworker their work is good while silently steaming because we will have to redo it.
We’re too polite to say anything negative, too scared that our fragile relationships can’t take it. And it is a touchy area. Most of us aren’t fond of receiving criticism because so much of the criticism we have received in our lifetime tears down instead of builds up. Many of us have been told we aren’t good enough, so when anyone suggests something wrong with something we’ve done we jump straight to full defense mode.
Constructive criticism is an art. Loving admonition is a delicate balance, both giving and receiving admonition. The whole thing starts with love. We can’t give constructive criticism if the person we’re talking to doesn’t know we care about them. For our admonition to be effective, we have to make sure we’re doing it with the other person’s interests at heart. We have to examine our motivation and make sure we’re doing it to build them up. Then we have to choose our words carefully so they reflect the love we feel.
Loving admonition also has to be offered in a spirit of humility. No one likes a know it all. When people have the sense that we think we’re always right, that we always know best, they don’t really want to listen to us. We have to assume that we don’t know it all and that there might be more to a situation than we recognize. And we have to do that honestly, in our hearts, not just because we’re “supposed to” or in a passive aggressive way. It can’t be, “I’m only saying this because I care about you, and I could be wrong, but I really think you’re walking down the wrong path about…” We have to actually believe that we could be wrong, actually believe in our human limitations.
Admonishing each other is not about nitpicking or perfectionism. In many areas, we can choose to do things differently, and that’s OK. In other areas, we might feel like we have a better way of doing things than someone else, but they are the one doing it, and in the end it’s not a big deal. Unless they ask for suggestions it’s not usually helpful to tell them what we think they should do differently.
Admonition is for important things where someone’s choices are truly leading them in the wrong direction. We need to be humble and loving, and we need to be honest. If we want to create a climate of real spiritual growth, we need to be honest with each other. We need to be ready to hear the truth and we need to be ready to tell the truth. And we need to do it all with deep love for each other and for the community we serve together. Following Jesus is not always easy. We need God’s guidance and we need to help each other be our best together.
Thanks be to God.