1 Kings 11:41-12:17
by Daniel Harrell
I heard a joke recently about a castaway stranded on this proverbial desert island twenty years before his rescuers finally found him. Astonished by his capacity to survive, the rescuers had to know how he did it. The survivor gladly showed his rescuers his “village” he’d built, a clearing with three remarkably constructed buildings, all for himself. “What’s that first building,” his rescuers asked. “That’s my home,” the survivor replied, outfitted with everything I needed to live. “And the second building?” “That’s my church. I’m a religious man so I went there regularly to pray and read the Bible and worship. This kept me strong and gave me hope.” “And the third building?” “I’d prefer we not talk about that building,” the survivor replied sheepishly. “A lot of bad things happened there. That is not a good building.” Puzzled, the rescuers pressed. “Please tell us,” they said. “What could be so bad about that third building?” Finally the survivor relented. He said, “That’s the church I used to attend.”
OK, so some of us may chuckle a bit too nervously at this one. Like many jokes, it cuts close to truths we’d rather not address. We face a lot of troubles in life. What if we’re the problem? “Don’t you understand?” Jesus asked, “Nothing that enters into a person from the outside can defile them? It’s what comes from the inside of a person that ruins everything. For out of the heart come evil intentions, hatred, adultery, lust, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” Add false worship to the list and you’ve pretty much summed up the heart of King Solomon, whose life and times we finally finish this morning. For a man blessed with inordinate wisdom, Solomon made some extraordinarily dumb choices. And there were consequences: We read: “the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and who had commanded him not to follow other gods; but he did not observe what the LORD commanded.” Three strikes and you’re out. You can’t earn your blessings, but you sure can screw them up.
I had the privilege a few years back to preach at the church I used to attend in college, thirty years ago now. While there I encountered a number of long lost friends, people I hadn’t seen for so many years, all of whom, naturally, remarked how I hadn’t changed a lick, a testimonial to that Southern penchant for putting a hospitable slant on even the worst realities. Denial is a Dixie way of life. I enjoyed the re-acquaintances, however. You don’t often get a chance to have face-to-face conversations with your past. I was reminded of the choices I’d made that made me into the person I am—choices many of you have faced or [as graduates] will certainly face as you move on to colleges yourselves. At the same time, I also imagined how different my life would have been had I chosen differently; what might have happened had I picked door number two. Sometimes choices I considered trivial no-brainers ended up to be monumental once all the consequences played out.
For Solomon, the choice was how he would respond to God’s grace. Choosing to take that grace for granted, treating God’s blessing as due, Solomon erroneously regarded himself as the sufficient master of his own destiny and universe, an island unto himself. He piled up excessive wealth, power and liaisons—1000 foreign wives he loved who brought with them foreign, antagonistic religions—which gave Solomon license to govern his people unjustly. Religion works best when it affirms what we want to believe. The King made a mockery of God’s goodness, thinking it was all for himself, and this brought upon himself the just desserts of his bad choices. In one of the last recorded statements from the Lord directly to humans in the Old Testament, God said to Solomon: “Since I have seen your heart and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear your kingdom to pieces.” Mercifully, due to the faithfulness of Solomon’s father King David, Israel would not split on Solomon’s watch. This would await the disastrous reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. Rehoboam would get his own choices to make, only the deck would be stacked against him.
The ace in the hole was a valued official from Solomon’s court named Jeroboam. Jeroboam was busy at his government job one day when a prophet named Ahijah approached him on the road, took off his coat, and proceeded to rip it into twelve pieces. Jeroboam reached into his pocket to give the poor guy a quarter, but Ahijah announced, speaking for God, “Behold, I am about to similarly tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give the bulk of it to you.” OK then. When Solomon, who had heard the word of the Lord three times now, heard about this, he didn’t take any chances. He kicked Jeroboam out of the country and way out of the way, all the way to Egypt, setting the scene for this morning’s text.
“Solomon slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of his father David; and his son Rehoboam succeeded him.” The northern tribes of Israel had chafed under Solomon’s severe labor policies and wanted things changed. Like many rebellions do, they brought back a leader with justice on his mind, in this case Jeroboam from Egypt. Together they approached Rehoboam and dealt out their grievances: “Lighten the labor demands and the heavy taxes your father, Solomon, put on us and we will be your loyal subjects.” Rehoboam wanted a few days to think it over. Agreeing to terms with these tribes might be interpreted as weakness. It would certainly diminish the lavish status quo to which Solomon’s court had become accustomed. Rehoboam checked with the elder statesmen who tried to advise his father. They counseled Rehoboam to serve his people, be considerate of their needs and respond with compassion, work things out with them and they would be his loyal servants forever. The sage advice betokened what would later emerge from the lips of Jesus. “You know that in this world kings can be despots, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
But why be a servant when you can be a tyrant? Scorning the elders’ advice, Rehoboam turned to his buddies, the young turks who had grown up with him in Solomon’s opulent and perk-filled court. They told Rehoboam what he wanted to hear. “Dude, here’s what you say to those northern cry-babies. Say, ‘my little finger is thicker than my father’s loins,’” a more polite version of the crass locker room taunt that appears in the Hebrew. These peer advisors played to Rehoboam’s power and ego; they dared him to flex his muscle. What good is absolute power if you can’t have some fun? Rehoboam bought it: “You think Solomon’s yoke was heavy?” he replied to the tribes, “You ain’t seen heavy. Solomon flogged you with whips? I’ll beat you bloody with chains.”
When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people revolted, “What share do we have in David’s dynasty? We have no inheritance in this family. Look after your own kingdom. We are done with you.” An uprising eventually ensued, not unlike those we’ve watched of late in places like Egypt and Syria and Thailand and Ukraine, all fueled in reaction to abuses of political power. And just as the Lord ordained, Rehoboam was chased south as Israel divided in two. Turned out that his political power was only a little finger thick.
We live in a day where political power gets equated with the capacity for violence and military might. And yet Jesus offers another alternative. He exhibited power by submitting to violent force rather than wielding it. On the night he was betrayed, at his last supper with his disciples, he acknowledged that the Father “had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.” He was a king free to do whatever he wanted. And so he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” Even though he knew he was King of kings and Lord of all, the very Son of God Almighty, he lovingly stooped to his knees and served. “Whoever wants to become great and powerful among you must be your servant,” he said, “and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
It would be easy to interpret this move as an abdication of power, except that Jesus was hardly reserved when it came to displays of strength. He forgave notorious sin, healed disease and thwarted demons, he preached and taught radical ideas, he fed thousands with a box lunch and stopped storms with his words. Jesus was not hesitant when it came to flexing his muscles. What he would not do was accept any of the privilege or prominence that went with power. He healed disease, but ducked out of sight when the lights got bright. The thousands he fed wanted to make him a hero, so he slipped out of town. He didn’t need the applause. Crowds waved palm branches and hailed him as the long-awaited inheritor to King David’s throne when he trotted into Jerusalem, but Jesus refused to wear that crown—at least not the popular crown they wanted him to wear. He refused to accumulate privilege and so they gave him a crown of thorns. Jesus knew who he was, equal to God, but even at the end did not count his equality with God as power to grab. He showed no interest in status—no money, no house, no car, not even a good job or a good looking wife. He hung out with anybody who wanted to be with him, and some who didn’t, with no regard for social standing—prostitutes and preachers, government officials and criminals, the sick as well as the rich, enemies and fan base—and he treated them all the same, each as a child of God. Nobody was any better than anybody else.
It’s a point high schools and colleges unintentionally, and ironically, make each spring season as they march graduates en masse into commencement ceremonies all dressed in the same-colored, same shapeless, one-size-fits all frock, a flat board balanced on each head making for one big level playing field. Whether male or female, tall or short, rich or poor, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, everybody’s the same. Nobody’s special, nobody’s better than anybody else.
This isn’t the message we really want to hear. We want to hear how amazing we are. Jesus loves me this I know, shouldn’t everybody? We’re afraid of our own insignificance, of nobody noticing. We need something to post online for the world to admire, something to show, a trophy for the mantelpiece, something to shove us into the limelight and make us famous. Throwing on a towel and washing dirty feet ain’t gonna git her done.
And yet Jesus insists, “whoever wants to become great must be your servant, to be first you must be slave of all.” Note that Jesus doesn’t have a problem with greatness as much as with the way we think it should look. Power should come with prestige and position, what good is being strong if you can’t do what you want? We have choices. We can accumulate privilege and status and do whatever it takes to rack up as many accolades as possible. Or we can stop with trumpets and worrying about attention and do good unto others in secret, trusting Jesus who said that “your Father who sees what’s done in secret will reward you.” What kind of reward is that? Especially in a country where going viral is the virtue and nobody keeps quiet about much of anything they do. More is more and bigger is better. Refuse to play the game and accumulate could get socially crucified. It some countries it can get you killed.
In China this week, the government flexed its muscles by tearing down a recently built—and officially sanctioned—church building that overlooked the city of Wenzhou. The official explanation was that the church violated zoning regulations. Since March, at least a dozen other churches across the Province have been told to remove their crosses or have received demolition orders, a significant escalation in a party campaign to counter the influence of Christianity, China’s fastest-growing religion. The government’s particular concern, the political threat according to internal documents, is Christianity’s assertion of universal rights. The government is concerned with the Christian message of equality and humility. You can’t exert power like China’s government does if you believe everybody should be treated equally.
Rehoboam’s elder advisors told him as king that his people would be loyal if he treated them well, but coercion works too. Why be a servant when you can be a tyrant? Rehoboam’s folly, like his father’s before him, was that of misplaced allegiance to building his own worldly kingdom. Rehoboam refused to lessen the burdens of his people to the north and as a result, they revolted and rent the Davidic kingdom in two—a first step in the eventual flushing of the whole thing down the toilet. God actually designed this to happen: “The king did not listen to the people, it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD had spoken by Ahijah the prophet.” Rehoboam’s folly was stoked by God’s providence, that mysterious, decisive means whereby God provides for the ultimate good of his people and his creation. In the midst of selfish human choosing, another choosing is always at work. And despite the disastrous consequences we too often suffer in the meantime, the end still remains secure. “The kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he (and nobody else) shall reign forever and ever.”