Checkmate

Checkmate

1 Kings 1:38-53

by Daniel Harrell

If you grew up in church, then like me, you probably sat through hundreds of Sunday School lessons. I’m not sure I can remember two of them, but I say two because I do remember one. As a teenager, one Sunday School class featured the mayor of our city as the guest teacher. I paid extra attention since he was the Mayor, but all I remember was his main point amounting to little more than a lame rendering of Pascal’s famous wager (I learned about Pascal in seminary). Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and Christian philosopher, argued (in more erudite fashion) that if Christianity turned out to be a hoax, and he believed it, he would die a foolish man for having done so. However, if Christianity turned out to be true and he rejected it, then he would die a doomed man. Ergo risking foolishness, Pascal wagered on Jesus.

The Mayor’s wager bet that even if Christianity proved to be a hoax, doing what it says will still shape you into an good and responsible citizen.” Leave it to a politician to dilute Pascal’s profound apologetic into a civics lesson. What a dumb Sunday School lesson! I didn’t buy it. If Jesus didn’t die and rise from the dead and reckon to come back and blow me to bits on account of my wretchedness (which is how we understood things down south), then why waste even a minute of my life trying to behave? I was 15 with hormones. I didn’t want good citizenship. I wanted cute girls. I had no interest in being moral for the sake of civic pride. I wanted to be a moral young man because I was taught that if I wasn’t, I’d end up a charred young man treading flames in some lake of fire while weeping and gnashing my teeth. Sheer terror kept me on the straight and narrow through adolescence and all the way to seminary.

Some days I’m convinced God made me be a minister just to make sure I’d go to church. Clearly there’s a lot of latent and not-so-latent southern Sunday School fear and guilt prowling around my subconscious. Taught that the only sure way around guilt was obedience, I tried to obey everything the Bible commanded. But whenever I felt good about being obedient I was warned about being proud. Who did I think I was anyway?

The good news was that by reading my Bible, I soon realized its characters weren’t so obedient and upright themselves. Populating its pages are power-lusting politicians, wily prophets and hard core sinners of every stripe committing every sin in the book as well as those merely implied—and this just among God’s chosen people. Even more fascinating was how these very sinners were the ones through whom God was pleased to accomplish his purposes. There was hope for me yet. As Exhibit A over the next series of Sundays I present to you the life and times of King Solomon, the sagacious and ostentatious heir to King David’s throne and forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ. (You have to sound smart if you’re going to talk about Solomon).

The brief backstory on Solomon starts back to 2 Samuel, where Solomon’s father, the illustrious King David, was stuck in Jerusalem while his armies were off fighting a war. Restless as a tied up pit bull, David couldn’t sleep so he went up on his roof for a breath of fresh air. Glancing over to the adjoining rooftop, he spied a gorgeous woman taking a bath whose name, as we know, was Bathsheba. Notoriously unrestrained when it came to beautiful women, King David exercised executive privilege, sent soldiers to retrieve Bathsheba and deliver her to his bed whereupon he got her pregnant. Then in a drastic attempt to cover up the adulterous assault, David ordered Bathsheba’s warrior husband, Uriah, back from the war and into his wife’s bed hoping that human nature would take its course and get David off the hook. But Bathsheba’s husband refused any conjugal pleasure as long as his comrades-in-arms remained in the throes of battle.

So David ordered Uriah over to the palace for a few beers, got him drunk and sent him home again hoping the alcohol would dent his scruples, but it dented his consciousness instead. Uriah passed out. So David, desperate, ordered Uriah back to the front and into the line of fire. David then feigned the role of compassionate commander, mourned Uriah’s heroic death, then took his widowed and expectant Bathsheba into his care. Unfortunately for David’s scheme, Nathan the prophet (being a prophet) craftily confronted David, accused him and caused him to condemn himself. David’s punishment was the death of Bathsheba’s baby, which presents another set of sticky Biblical wickets, but also led to David honorably adding Bathsheba to his wifely entourage and giving birth to a second son named Solomon.

By the first chapter of 1 Kings, David was a decrepit shell of his former self; unable to fight off the chills, even with extra blankets. His servants proposed they find a young woman to lie beside the king to keep him warm, though to be frank, “lie beside” is a euphemistic; otherwise the Bible wouldn’t go to the trouble of mentioning how “the king did not know her sexually.” This subsequent report of royal impotency caused grave concern and created opportunity. For a king like David, impotency signaled an inability to govern. Those waiting in the wings to seize power took notice.

Among the observant was Adonijah—the fourth and eldest of David’s six living sons born to six different wives. We read Adonijah “exalted himself,” which is always a big Biblical no-no as “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled.” The same Nathan-the-prophet observed Adonijah’s pomposity and warned Bathsheba  that Solomon would be sunk if Adonijah succeeded David as king. Nathan then concocted a scheme to secure Solomon’s political future. He instructed Bathsheba to inform the feeble and confused King David that he’d pledged the throne to Solomon, though such a pledge on David’s part is never recorded anywhere. Nathan would then enter, stage right, and corroborate Bathsheba’s contention, wondering aloud why Adonijah was allowed to run roughshod over the royal bloodline. It would be a 1-2 punch: Bathsheba would ping David’s conscience over Solomon, Nathan would take pot shots at his honor. And the plan worked. King David responded with a solemn oath to Solomon, after which Solomon mounted David’s personal mule, was taken to the town spring and coronated king. Trumpets blew and the citizenry celebrated the news with such exuberance that the “earth quaked at their noise.”

The shaking shook Adonijah who was in the middle of what he thought to be he own coronation banquet. At first he presumed the cheers to be for him, until a messenger arrived with the bad news: his father had named his stepbrother as heir. Knowing he’d overreached anyway, and now scared for his life, Adonijah sought sanctuary by grabbing hold of the horns of the altar, extended corners to which sacrificial animals were tied (not an altogether inappropriate image). Adonijah pled for Solomon to spare his life, whereupon Solomon finally speaks and says: “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” Just like they taught us in Sunday School. Adonijah submissively bowed before the new king and Solomon sent him home. Thus ends this morning’s passage.

So Solomon ascends to power through the machinations of a wily prophet, who offered no word from the Lord but connived a decidedly human scheme instead. Had old King David in fact promised the throne to Solomon? If so, then why make reminding him sound so much like a trick? The pompous Adonijah’s claim to the throne was legitimate. We read earlier that David “never disciplined Adonijah,” even by asking, “Why are you doing what you’re doing, parading around like some uppity usurper?” Was David was clueless or benignly supportive? Did Bathsheba carry a grudge regarding her son given his history which Nathan exploited since Adonijah had snubbed him? The whole thing smells like closing two lanes of a bridge to New York and snarling traffic for hours to get even with an opposing politician—only worse.

Given we’re talking the throne of David here, the royal line of the Messiah, you’d imagine the Lord Almighty descending to settle matters. But God seems content to let human nature take its course, no matter how seamy it seems. We expect better of the Bible. As Word of God it should be neater and tidier with clean lines and firm categories of right and wrong without the fifty shades of gray. Double-dealing political power grabs as here in 1 Kings offend and confuse because they come off as so petty, so banal, too human, too common and conniving, not holy enough to qualify for inspired scripture or even inspirational reading. It’s a little embarrassing that the Lord would allow such a sordid mess to transpire—not to mention allow it as the means whereby Israel’s monarchy succeeds. Our image of God as righteous and good loses luster already in the pages of the daily news, do we really need the pages of Scripture to tarnish his image too?

We do if our image is a false idol instead of a true portrait. From the beginning, Scripture insists that human beings best reflect the character of God and what he is like, it is we who bear his image. Yet such a burden has historically proven too heavy to bear; we’re intimidated by the power and prospect—who are we to play God?—and resentful of those who try—who do you think you are? We settle for keeping the Lord at arms reach, making God an impersonal an unapproachable ideal, an inaccessible construct that defies human comprehension and comparison. While some of this may be warranted, to be like God is not to be God; but Christianity claims tat God is manifest best in human life, nowhere better than in the human life of Jesus our Lord, the celebrated descendent of David no less, who both shows us what a good life is like and gives us the power to live it.

Scripture labels Jesus “the image of the invisible God,” with the word for image being icon. If you know anything about icons, you know them mostly as those ornate, esoteric pictures of Biblical characters and scenes, painted with gold by monks and venerated in Eastern Orthodox churches worldwide.

IMG_2191Here’s a picture I took of an enormous one of Jesus painted (or written as the Orthodox like to say) on the ceiling of the Armenian Chapel in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Icons are considered to be “windows into heaven,” intended to be looked through rather than merely looked at. On the one hand, large, out of reach, gold-laden depictions of Jesus keep common folk at a distance to inspire awe and worship and remind us that we are not God. But on the other hand, Jesus as icon also raises us up and draws us close so we might see the redeemed and redemptive power that is now ours as the redeemed images of God ourselves. Icons as windows are also mirrors where the reflection we see is Christ in us.

In India recently, a government official and Christian from Chennai, instigated a sting and police raid of a brick manufacturing plant that had trafficked slaves to work its kilns. Local police freed the hundreds who had been enslaved there and imprisoned the kiln’s owner. The raid caused great celebration among the staff and friends of the International Justice Mission, which many of you know as a bastion of the Christian anti-trafficking movement, something like our Innové Protege, MATTOO.

In most retellings of this raid, the point would be to highlight the empowerment of the victims, freed at last from the injustice that oppressed them. But as Christian activist Tyler Wigg-Stevenson reports, to highlight the victims as victims misses the righteous exercise of rightful power executed by the government official and the police against the traffickers. The controlling narrative in our day has been that of power as essentially evil, violent, exploitive and oppressive—an idol burnished by those New Jersey political operatives this week involved in traffic of a different kind. To read the daily news is to read only about abuses of power, to the point that we brome suspicious of all power, concluding that naturally Nathan and Bathsheba used theirs to hoodwink rather than help King David.

But viewed through the icon of Jesus—human power used righteously and rightfully—Solomon’s ascent to power should be seen as a righteous and judicious check on Adonijah’s presumptuousness. Nathan and Bathsheba did the right thing.

Turn to the pages of Scripture, especially to the pages of Jesus, and you find plenty talk about power, but minimal interest in revolution, intrigue, political gain or revenge. The sights instead are set on a gain more glorious and of greater practical import than any political movement or machination. Rather than the idols of political power, Scripture turns to the icon of Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God, who shows up in the flesh after he was dead and buried to stress how God’s power remains accessible on earth by way of suffering and patience and faith to promote justice and goodness and righteousness now.

Author Andy Crouch asserts in his book Playing God (inspired in part by our own Janet Hagberg) our righteous exercise of rightful power is not based on the notion that the world will progress by its own merits to some kind of utopia, any more than proclaiming the good news of eternal life means that followers of Jesus never die. Christian hope is not for a gradually improving world any more than salvation is a fountain of youth. Christian hope confronts the forces of despair and decay in our world by focusing on a coming kingdom, looking through the window to a time when followers of Jesus will be raised to new life and where the glory of God will be light for the world. Hope for life beyond this life and a world of peace beyond this world of injustice fuels the work of justice and the extension of grace here and now. Amidst human trouble and tragedy and confusion and ambiguity, God does his work through people who bear his image.

Sure, we’d prefer a neater and tidier Bible and neater and tidier lives. We want firm categories and straight lines to delineate who’s right and what’s true. But to insist on such straight lines is to miss the crooked lines that form the shape of a cross. As the risen King of kings, Christ does not kowtow to the wiles and schemes of sinful people or to the politically powerful, nor does he ultimately tolerate human disobedience and blatant disregard for his Kingdom. The cross signals God’s firm and immovable determination to destroy evil—not by destroying us—but by redeeming us through the life of Jesus. By his grace we are made good and powerful for acts that rightly reflect the power and goodness of God. Jesus was hailed as the Son of David not because David was an inherently good man. He wasn’t. Jesus is hailed as the Son of David because God is a merciful God who redeemed David and redeems us too. On Christ we confidently and faithfully wager our lives.