Harrowing Of Hell
August 8, 2021


The Rev. Dr. Peter Strimer

In my life I have seen three versions of Michelangelo’s Statue of David. One is the original that before the pandemic millions visited each year in Florence at the Galleria dell’Accademia. The other is a stunning full-size bronze copy purchased by John Ringling to be the centerpiece of his art museum in Sarasota. It was forged from a mold of the original made in the 1800s by a famous Italian foundry. And then I saw a third one when my wife El and I took a trip to St. Augustine Florida. We stayed in a second floor B and B there and almost peeking in our window was a full-sized David replica on the grounds of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. It seems Italy had commissioned a copy for the New York World’s Fair in 1964. After the fair, Italy felt is was too expensive to ship it home so it was purchased by the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park California. Then Ripley’s Believe It or Not bought it for their St. Augustine museum. Believe it or not.

The one in Florence, the original, captures the human essence of King David down to the veins in his arms. The bronze in Sarasota is an idealized version of the original, an ode to an ode to King David. And the third one at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, while impressive, could be considered a little kitschy. Peeking through our window, there was King David, warts and all.

Three statues. Three Davids.

We also find three Davids in the Hebrew Scriptures. One, is the man himself. The other is the man’s shadow side. And the third is the idealized, iconic David that paved the way for Jesus to become the Messiah.

Some churches have heard all David all the time this summer. Our lectionary offers two tracks for Old Testament readings in year A. One has been reading right through the story of David week after week from the week after Pentecost until next week when we will hear the story of David’s death.

These summer stories have hit all the highlights of David’s life. We see him as a young man receiving the anointing of the Prophet Samuel marking him as the future king. We heard the tale of David in one-on-one mortal combat with the Philistine Giant Goliath. The next story is of the death of David’s predecessor Saul and his son Jonathon who many scholars claim was David’s truest love of his life. At his death, David cries out a lament that includes these words:

greatly beloved were you to me;

your love to me was wonderful,

passing the love of women. 

How the mighty have fallen,

and the weapons of war perished!

In the next week’s story we see David finally seated as king and watch as he begins to build the City of David, Jerusalem. We learn he will reign for 40 years, from the age of 30 until the age of 70.

If you caught my sermon on July 11 you’ll remember that David is quite the dancer.

It took the last two weeks before today’s lesson to tell the sordid story of David, Uriah, Bathsheba and Nathan, details of which I will go into in just a moment.

That brings us to today’s story of the death of David’s son Absalom followed by David’s own death in next week’s story. Like I said, for some churches, this summer has been all David all the time.

It is hard to search back through the layers of history and narrative laid on this historical figure who was born 3 thousand years ago. Like I said at the beginning, there are at least three Davids, if not more.

But one of them is David, the living, breathing, suffering celebrating human being. His human essence stills shines through the veil of myth and propaganda. You can see it in our story today when David mourns the death of his son Absalom.

I shared my favorite insight into David’s character back on July 11 when we told the story of David dancing half-naked before the Ark of the Covenant. It is my favorite insight into David’s capacity for joy.

Today’s story reveals his human capacity for grief.

Absalom was David’s most beloved son, but had chosen to lead a rebellion against his father. Nearly taking over Israel, Absalom is finally defeated in the Battle of Ephraim Wood as told in our story today. David had asked for him to be protected, but David’s general Joab would have none of that. Joab had hoped to cheer his king, but instead with the report of the death of his son Absalom, David’s heart is broken. There is no sadder, no more mournful lament in all of scripture than David crying out, ““O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 

This to me is such a human, honest portrait of the incredible passion and love of David for God for whom he dances and Absalom for whom he mourns. On one hand he could dance wildly half-naked in celebration of what God had done for him and Israel. On the other hand he was unafraid to display the absolute depths of his grief in the loss of his son.

But David had a shadow side, even a murderous one. He indiscriminately slaughtered thousands in battle. But it is the death of one man that shows his dark character. David sees Bathsheba bathing naked on her roof and has to have her. He takes her. Against her will. She is brought to him and he sleeps with her even though she is the wife of another man, a brave soldier named Uriah. To get rid of the husband Uriah David hands him a note to take to Joab his general back on the battlefield. The note says “send this man into battle with your troops but have everyone else draw back so he will be killed. And he was.

David slept with the man’s wife then gave him a note that was his death sentence to carry to his commander, his reluctant executioner.

Grisly. Despicable. Ungodly. Another side of David.

When his high priest Nathan presents him with a story whose metaphor centers on a poor man with but one lamb and a rich man with large flocks, David must confront his shadow side. David at first does not realize he is the rich man in the story and rages against the figure:

David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’

Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’

Would that we all had a Nathan to help us confront our shadow side.

The third side of David is probably the one we are most familiar with. The icon David that stands for all that is good in a king, the anointed one of God. It begins with David’s anointing by Samuel. That story told earlier in the book of Samuel says, “Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

The phrase “the Anointed One” in Hebrew is “Messiah” and in Greek, “Christ.” If we call Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, it is because we are remembering the greatness of King David.

In the Encyclopedia Britannica, the connection between the iconic king David and Jesus the Messiah is made clear:

“The concept of the Messiah is central to Christianity. Originally an earthly king ruling by divine appointment (“the anointed one”, as the title Messiah had it), the “son of David” became in the last two pre-Christian centuries the apocalyptic and heavenly one who would deliver Israel and usher in a new kingdom. This was the background to the concept of Messiahship in early Christianity, which interpreted the career of Jesus “by means of the titles and functions assigned to David who served as priest-king and mediator between God and man.”

The early Church had many allegories for Jesus and David. The life of David foreshadowed the life of Christ; Bethlehem is the birthplace of both; the shepherd life of David points to Christ, the Good Shepherd. Some early commentators went so far as to say that the five stones chosen to slay Goliath foreshadowed the five wounds of Christ. A leading title for  Jesus was “the Son of David” The icon of David is the multi-faceted window through which we can see Jesus as the Messiah.

Overtime, this idealized David overshadowed the human David and the shadow David in the life of the Church. But to know David you have to embrace all three – his human side, his shadow side, his iconic side.

All three are important in understanding who David is.

I am not just talking about David. In considering the dimensions that make up our portrait of David, we need to look within and consider that parts that make us who we are.

All of us, all of us, have all three elements within us just like David. Our human side, our shadow side, and what we stand for in the world as an icon of God in Christ. For each of us, there is the “Myth of Me” projected out into the world. We truly need to be honest about all three of these aspects in ourselves. And not just these three but all the selves that dwell within our psyche.

While I was rector at St. Andrew’s Church in the Green Lake neighborhood we had a pastoral counseling center as part of The Center at St. Andrew’s. Both our practitioners were trained in a method called Internal Family Systems.

This internal family systems (IFS) model was created by Richard Schwartz. The principles are that we all have parts within ourselves, sub-personalities like little people who have different goals and motivations; they have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom and pain. Some he labels. for instance Managers, the parts that protect us from being hurt by others and try to prevent painful or traumatic feelings. Or Exiles, the parts that are in pain, shame, fear, or trauma. And Fire Fighters, the parts that work over-time to suppress the Exiled selves within our true selves. In this method all the parts are welcomed and given voice at various times in therapy all with the goal of discovering an integrated self that is more than the sum of its parts.

We all consist of many selves, of many aspects, of many parts. We might approach them as the great Persian poet Rumi suggests:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond. (Rumi)

In the body of Christ, all our parts are welcome. All parts of you, every single aspect, is welcome here at Christ’s table where we can become our whole, true selves.