Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Boneheads

2nd Samuel 2:1-7 and 3:22-39
          For David, the long years of being hunted by Saul are finally over. Saul is dead, and it seems that David has finally lived into God’s promise to become the next king. Well, sort of.
          After Saul’s death, David consults God and is given the answer that he should go back to the city of Hebron in the tribal lands of Judah. There he is crowned king, but for now just king of one tribe.
          The idea of Israel as a nation had not yet fully taken hold in people’s minds. They still thought of themselves first and foremost as members of a tribe. In a way it’s not so different from the history of our own nation. Before the Civil War, Americans identified more with their state than their nation. Today, United States of America is the name of our country. But early on, United States of America was a description. People thought of themselves first as Pennsylvanians or Virginians, and their state as part of a union of states. 
          So for now, David is just king of Judah. Judah was the largest of the 12 tribes. David’s capital was in Hebron, the largest city in Judah. The elders of the town of Bethlehem, his birthplace, knew of God’s anointing at the hands of the prophet Samuel that he would be king, and the rest of the tribe agrees that he should be. 
          One of David’s first acts as king was to reach out to the men of Jabesh-Gilead who had given Saul a proper burial, first to thank them for their unselfish devotion, but also to seek out their support for him as king as well. But it doesn’t work, because there is a rival king in the rest of Israel. Saul’s fourth son, Ish-Bosheth, was not killed with the rest of them at Mt. Gilboa. And after the battle, the commander of Saul’s army, a man named Abner, takes it upon himself to proclaim Ish-Bosheth the new king. 
          Now Saul had ruled from Gibeon, a fairly central city, but Ish-Bosheth rules from Mahanaim in Gilead. Gilead was across the Jordan River from the rest of Israel. The reason is that the Philistines, having defeated Israel in the Valley of Jezreel, have taken control of much of the central portion of the land of Canaan. 
          So Ish-Bosheth is king, well sort of. He’s weak. Abner is the real power behind the throne in Israel. Whereas David consulted God and acted on God’s will, Abner just decided on his own who should be king. Especially when it’s someone he can control.
          But still, David is king, even if not yet over all of Israel. He is finally acting from a position of power and authority, after all those years of being powerless and hunted. Will he still trust God? Will he still seek God’s will as king? The answer seems to be yes. And these should have been good years for David. But instead, there are some who count themselves as David’s friends who make life difficult for David. 
          It begins with a confrontation at the Pool of Gibeon, Saul’s old capital. Abner and the army of Israel meet up against Joab, David’s commander, and the army of Judah. What’s going to happen? Who’s going to flinch? Who will throw the first punch?
          Abner suggests, “Let’s have a little entertainment while we’re all deciding what to do. You pick 12 men and we’ll pick 12 men and we’ll let ‘em fight a bit.” This was apparently not supposed to be a “real” fight, but an exhibition match. It doesn’t work. Tempers flare, everyone draws their swords, and in a few minutes, all 24 are dead. And then everyone else goes at it. 
          The men of Judah gain the advantage, and the men of Israel start running. Joab and his two younger brothers, Abishai and Asahel, were leading the men of Judah. These three were called the Sons of Zeruiah. They were David’s nephews. The youngest, Asahel, is bound and determined to bring down Abner single-handedly. He chases him, and Abner pleads with him twice, “Go after someone else. I don’t want to have to kill you.” But Asahel is rather arrogantly determined. Unfortunately for him, what Abner lacks in speed, he more than makes up for in skill. He kills Asahel. 
          The men of Israel regroup and the men of Judah give up the chase. But Joab and Abishai are bitter about their little brother’s death, even though it was in a time of war, and he pretty much brought it on himself with his arrogance.
          In time, Judah gains the advantage. Things are going poorly for Ish-Bosheth, and then they get worse. It seems Abner was having an affair with one of Saul’s concubines, a woman named Rizpah. Perhaps this was Abner making a claim on the throne. Often a usurper of the throne would take the wives and concubines of the previous king. Or maybe it was just a thing. Or maybe it didn’t even really happen. Regardless, Ish-Bosheth makes the mistake of confronting Abner. And Abner doesn’t take the accusation kindly. After all, he’s the real power behind the throne. 
          So Abner decides to defect and go over to David and take the rest of Israel with him. He goes behind Ish-Bosheth’s back and enters into negotiations with the other leaders of Israel and David to hand the country over to him. The culmination of these negotiations is a meeting with David that ends with a feast, apparently a celebration of the agreement. Then David sends Abner safely home. That brings us to the second part of our Scripture.
(2nd Samuel 3:22-39)
          Joab won’t let the past go. Together with Abishai, he murders Abner. 
          David is not happy. He mourns the loss of Abner, and tells everyone else to do so as well. Abner was a skilled general. His murder threatened the peaceful transition of power from Ish-Bosheth to David.  And worst of all, the guilt of his murder falls on David. David guaranteed his safety and David’s own captain murdered him. In his distress, David lamented, “These sons of Zeruiah are too much for me to handle!”
          For Ish-Bosheth, the loss of Abner is the last straw. He was weak, and now he has no one strong on his side. He becomes paralyzed with fear, refusing to leave his own home. Along come two opportunistic fellows named Baanah and Recab. They murder Ish-Bosheth in his sleep, cut off his head, and bring it to David, thinking they’re doing him a favor. Well, David isn’t happy, so he executes them for murdering an innocent man in his sleep. 
          What we see is that these early years of David’s reign as king were plagued with other people, allegedly acting in David’s interest, but who just don’t “get it.” First there was the Amalekite who stripped the crown from Saul’s dead body and claimed to have killed him for David. Then there are the sons of Zeruiah. They seem to be ideologues, people so committed to an idea, “David is king,” that they won’t let anything stand in the way. They’ll kill for their idea. Then there’s Abner. Abner is a politicial conspirator who acts out of self-interest. When he thinks he can control things through Ish-Bosheth, he does. And when he sees the writing on the wall, he switches sides. For him, God is a political tool, something to be used to gain personal advantage. And finally, we have Baanah and Recab, who are again opportunists, thinking they can gain David’s good will by murdering his enemy. Each of these men act of out of self interest: To gain fame, to hold power, to get revenge. 
          Eugene Peterson, in his book Leap over a Wall, describes them all as “boneheads.” They just don’t get it. They’re wrapped up in the story of God and the life of faith, but they just don’t get it. They don’t get that it’s God’s story, not theirs. They don’t get that God will accomplish his purposes in his time. They’re always taking matters into their own hands. And most of all, they’re really in it for their own personal advancement. 
          They don’t get that methods matter and the ends do not justify the means. Exploitation and violence are no ways to accomplish God’s purposes. Here is David, trying to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, and those who think they are serving him keep murdering and back-stabbing. They keep messing up this kingdom of peace and justice. 
          We can’t escape these realities any more than David could. Some people have lamented over the years that there are so many stories in the Old Testament especially, but also in the New, about these boneheads that just don’t get it. Shouldn’t the Bible have more uplifting stories than these? But isn’t this the world we live in? Don’t we live in a world of violence and exploitation by people who just don’t get it? 
          In our story of faith, there will also be people who just don’t get it, people who are more concerned with building their own kingdom than building God’s kingdom. They will make life difficult. 
          But there is good news. The good news is that God’s purposes will still be accomplished. Other people might make the life of faith difficult, but they won’t destroy it. In spite of all the best efforts of all the boneheads in David’s story, he still becomes king. 
          And in spite of all the painful realities of living in a broken world, faithful leadership, while never easy, is still possible. Faithful leadership requires accountability. I think it’s debatable if David really enforced accountability. He may have lamented Joab murdering Abner, but he didn’t do anything about it, at least at this time. Joab did eventually die for his crime, but not for years to come. 
          The other necessary ingredient to integrity in leadership is that leaders must recognize that there is a source of hope and a source of authority beyond ourselves, and that source is God. In this, I think David was successful. He never lost sight of God, or at least not for long when he did. He was not naïve about the world, but he also never became cynical about the world. He always believed that by trusting God, there was a way through difficulty. And he pretty much always had his eyes on God, no matter what was happening around him. 
          There will be people in our story of faith who make life difficult. Don’t be naïve and think there won’t be. But also don’t be cynical. Trust in God. Keep your eyes on God. And believe that in spite of the best efforts of some, God can still do his work in and through your life. 

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