Sunday, August 12, 2012

Standeth God within the shadows (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 12, 2012)

According to industrialist Henry Ford, “History is bunk.” And at times it is difficult to dispute Mr. Ford.

More eloquently, the English historian Edward Gibbon said that, “History is the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

The story of David and his family appears to give us more than enough evidence to prove that Gibbon and Ford were correct. It is a story more sordid and corrupt than anything that you could watch on HBO or in a summer blockbuster.

First, David overthrows King Saul. David, then, unites the quarreling tribes of Israel in a single kingdom; establishes peace; centralizes both Israel’s government and its religion in the capital of Jerusalem. David has arrived; he has it made. But at the summit of his power and success, in a move that makes Bill Clinton look like a choirboy, David takes Bathsheba as his concubine and arranges for the murder of her husband, Uriah, who is also one of his most loyal soldiers.

And when David is old and weak, his son Absalom leads a rebellion against his father. But while fleeing from his father, the handsome Absalom is undone by his long, flowing locks of hair, and while hanging from a tree, he is slain by David’s men.

“Avshalom, beni; Avshalom beni…” “Absalom, my son; Absalom, my son. Would that I had died instead of you…”

David’s lament is one of the most piercing and poignant in all of scripture. And it makes us question: Is there any point to history? Do all the “crimes, follies, and misfortunes” of the human race have any meaning, or was Henry Ford right when he declared it to be “bunk”?

I’m sure you can guess how I answer that question, but before I do, I want to share something that the columnist George Will said in Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary about Thomas Jefferson.

One of the most remarkable features of the life of Jefferson was his relationship with John Adams. The word “frenemies” could have been invented to describe their relationship. Adams and Jefferson became friends during the meetings of the Continental Congress. It was Adams who persuaded Jefferson that he was the right man to compose the Declaration of Independence, but their friendship soured and they became bitter enemies when Jefferson ran against Adams for presidence of the United States in 1800 and unseated him. Then some years after Jefferson left office, they became friends once again. The dozens of letters that they exchanged are one of the treasures of American history.

However, perhaps the most interesting fact about their friendship is that they died on the same day – July 4, 1826 –50 years to the day after the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence. John Adams last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

In Ken Burns’ documentary, George Will says, “There are many magic moments in American history that convince you that there is something miraculous about the American experience. And one of them is the simultaneous death 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.”

When we read the story of David and Absalom and when we look at the darker moments of America’s own history, it is tempting to believe that history is bunk, that it is nothing but a “register of follies, crimes, and misfortunes.” But I believe it is more than that.

David’s own history illustrates the point. One of the central convictions of the Bible is that David had a special relationship with God, that God chose David to accomplish an important task, or in the vocabulary of the Bible, that God established a covenant with David.

God chose David and established a covenant with David not because David was good and worthy. The story of David as recorded in the Bible makes it abundantly clear that David was as flawed and sinful as any person can be.

God chose David not because David was good but because God is good. God chose David like he chose Mary. The angel said to Mary, “Hail, O favored one…” What counts is God’s favor towards us, not our favor toward God.

The violent story we heard today of Absalom’s revolt, and the sordid stories we have heard the last two weeks of David and Bathsheba’s adultery and the murder of her husband Uriah, make us question God’s choice of David, to say the least. But history plays out on a large scale.

We can select many individual moments in history that make us wonder whether or not there is any direction or meaning in it – Absalom’s revolt; the Roman persecution of Christians; the torture of heretics by the Inquisition; the judicial murder of English Catholics by Elizabeth I; the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews; or Stalin’s policy of starving to death millions of his own countrymen. When I look at these events, I feel despair. Life and history  seem pointless.

But then I back up and look at the larger picture. The death of Absalom led to Solomon’s kingship; Solomon’s kingship led to the building of the first temple in Jerusalem. And eventually the line of David produces Jesus.

History is a vast mosaic. If we look at any individual tile in the mosaic, it is meaningless. Even if we look at 2 or 3 or a dozen of the tiles, they may appear to be a random collection of colors and shapes. But as the artist adds tiles, they began to take shape. Now a foot appears; then a hand. A face emerges from the chaos. Two figures emerge from the swirl, and then more. The story starts to take shape.

And so it is with history. To be sure, there are “follies, crimes, and misfortunes” but there is also courage and faith and leadership. A man trained as a surveyor becomes a soldier and rises through the ranks to become leader of the army assembled by the Continental Congress, and against all odds Washington defeats the world’s most powerful military. A country lawyer is elected president of the United States, and Lincoln brings together the divided states of the Union and brings and end to the buying and selling of human beings in this country. A journalist who has failed in politics becomes prime minister of Great Britain and Churchill and his country withstand the relentless assult of the Third Reich.

This is not the time or place to consider the meaning of American history, but I think there is something to George Will’s comment that there are enough “magic moments in American history to convince you that there is something miraculous about the American experience.” To be sure, America often gets it wrong, and slavery is only the most obvious example of that. And we must never believe that that our country needs no correction or criticism. But a remarkable pattern does seem to emerge from America’s short history.

Britain and Germany and Israel are countries founded upon nationality, upon a common language and culture and history and even religion. But America, as Lincoln said, is a country founded upon a proposition – “All men are created equal.” All too often we do not live up to that proposition, but it remains central to our history. And it may not be too much of a stretch to believe that America may, in some sense, have a divine commission to promote that proposition in human history.

But you may be wondering what meaning this has for you. It is all very well to say that history has meaning, but what about my life. Does my life have meaning or purpose? Does God have a plan for my life? Am I just a tile in the mosaic, a cog in the machinery of history? Or do I have some important role to play?

Just as history has meaning, just as God has a plan for David or Solomon or Mary, so I believe that God has a plan for each and everyone of us. Each of us has a role to play. Each of us is can be a hero or heroine in the drama of our lives.

Our role may not seem heroic, but I believe it is just as heroic and important to be a faithful husband or wife, mother or father. Sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is to be an honest businessman or woman.

In the midst of the Civil War, America’s darkest moment, poet James Lowell penned these words that used to be in our hymnal.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light..
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
Your life has meaning. You are important. God has a plan for your life. And when you doubt that, remember Lowell’s words: “Behind the dim unknown / Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”