What Do You Want?

What Do You Want?

1 Kings 3:1-15

by Daniel Harrell

One of the biggest stickers in the Christian’s crawl is the dilemma of unanswered prayer. It consumed an entire sermon last fall during my series on doors in the Bible; or apropos to this dilemma, closed doors in the Bible. Jesus said “knock and the door will be opened,” as if a few taps would do it, but then went on to tell a parable in Luke’s gospel to suggest that getting anything from God may require some serious pounding. You need to borrow bread from a neighbor to feed an unexpected guest who just arrived late at night. Your knock on your neighbor’s door greatly annoys him and he yells for you to go back to bed. Desperate, you keep banging and banging and banging and banging and banging until finally, and furiously, your neighbor gets up and gives you what you need, not because you’re his friend, but because you’re driving him crazy. This is how it is with prayer, Jesus seems to be saying. You just have to keep at it.

And yet I’d venture that this parable is less about persistence than it is another one of those analogies Jesus used to compare something lesser for the sake of stressing something greater. We looked at one of these last week: If something is so in this little way, how much more so will it be in this greater way. If your neighbor angrily gives you what you need in the middle of the night if you pound on his door long enough, how much more will your heavenly Father give if you simply ask? Last Sunday’s analogy, also used by Jesus in the context of prayer, went like this: “If you who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask him?” Jesus concludes: “everyone who asks (from God) receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

If only.

Years ago I sat in a class on the psychology of healing and wholeness at Boston University. The class TA was named a paraplegic Carol. A parade of fascinating guest lecturers philosophized each week, mining the myriad of ways people dealt with the physical limitations on human life. One lecturer, a Christian faith-healer, preached God’s plan for wholeness to the class so passionately that a student interrupted to ask whether God could make Carol walk. Now. Carol—without the slightest hint of cynicism in her voice— insisted she would love to walk. So the preacher, practicing what he preached, knelt before Carol and gently placed his hands on her paralyzed limbs. He then let loose a beautiful and powerful prayer that made most of us weep, but also left Carol sadly in her wheelchair, appreciative for the effort, but not surprised by the outcome.

Christians, who believe in God despite disappointment, manage such outcomes by labeling our prayers “selfish,” or certainly outside the Lord’s will. The Almighty, we presume, must have other designs. There’s something to this. Hospital chaplain Linda Arnold, having seen her share and more of failed prayers for the sick added how, “Standing before a God who has experienced suffering through the life and death of Jesus, standing in the sight of Jesus himself—who has known human anguish and understands our pain completely—we can change the question from why to how: How am I to live with this? With Christ as our example, we can assume a new orientation centered on forgiveness, gratitude, and the treasuring of what we have been given throughout our lives.”

I like this, but I’d prefer that Jesus hadn’t gotten my hopes to begin with. Why promise I could have whatever I asked if that’s not how it works? In this morning’s installment of the life and times of King Solomon, the Lord offers to give Solomon whatever he asks for. Solomon was worshipping God atop a “high place” called Gibeon, where in the lingering ash of a thousand-fold sacrifice, the Lord appeared in a dream by night and said: “Ask what I should give you. What do you want and it’s yours?” Wow! Where do you start? I get all goose-bumpy just thinking about it.

Solomon started by recounting the faithfulness of the Lord, especially in keeping his covenant with King David by giving him a son to sit on his throne (though this happened with no small amount of help by Solomon himself). Still, Solomon prayed, “O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child (metaphorically speaking); and I cannot tell whether I am coming or going. I cannot count all of your chosen people in this kingdom; how am I supposed to govern them? What I need is an understanding mind, a heart that is able to discern between good and evil, so I might govern your people.”

Rather than rolling out the customary wish list—long life, wealth, power, celebrity, opportunity, a championship football team—Solomon asked for wisdom with which to do the right thing. Being King of God’s kingdom was a big responsibility and Solomon, who loved God, yearned to govern well. This delighted the Lord to no end. “Because you have asked for wisdom to govern my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies (besides, Solomon had pretty much killed all his enemies already), I will give you a wise and discerning heart like there never has been nor ever will be. I’m going to give you not only what you asked for; but everything you didn’t ask for too. I’m going to give you so much wealth and honor that in your lifetime you will have no equal. And if you’ll behave yourself, I’ll give you a long life with which to enjoy it all.”

What an amazing windfall! Was there a catch? Was this a test? King David did have huge shoes to fill. The destiny of God’s chosen people was at stake. Solomon’s technically legal ascent to the throne came at dubiously moral costs: his mother’s scheming, the execution of his older brother, his second cousin and other potential threats to his power. Solomon kicked off this chapter by striking an unholy alliance with Egypt (always an Old Testament no-no). He married the non-Jewish daughter of Pharaoh (intermarriage being a huge no-no too). We read Solomon “loved God by keeping the commandments of his father David” (so to speak), yet he further broke the commandments of God by worshipping the Lord at pagan “high places.” Nevertheless, Solomon, who was evil, succeeding in asking for what pleased the Lord and got what he needed along with everything else he ever wanted.

What’s the lesson for us? Love the Lord. Do what you have to do. And when push comes to shove, pray for the things that make God happy and you’ll get everything you want. Amen. Let us pr—

Wait a minute. That’s not right. Let’s back up and look at this again.

Kingdom language is paramount throughout Scripture. It’s all about who wields control. There were plenty of kings in the Old Testament, but up until fairly late in the game, the people of Israel had been without one—at least humanly speaking. Unlike other nations in the world, Israel’s king was Almighty God himself. Yet for reasons that had a lot to do with unmet expectations, disappointment and unanswered prayer; Israel rejected God as their king. They wanted a real live human rendition like the other nations had. God proved too unpredictable. Too unreliable. Too confusing. Too demanding. Too much.

Remarkably, the Lord obliged and answered their prayer. He gave them just what they wanted—a flesh and blood monarch named Saul. But human nature being what it is, Saul didn’t work out so well. Yet God, being God, showed his people mercy. Though they rejected and despised him, the Lord gave them David, a king after God’s own heart. And while this was never as good as it could have been, it worked out well enough for God to promise David that his throne—which was actually God’s throne—would endure forever through David’s descendants. But David’s heirs, as we will see over and over, let power go to their heads; they deluded themselves into thinking they ruled by their own authority and ability rather than by God’s grace. Even Solomon, despite all his God-given wisdom, will end up screwing up everything. Consequently, Israel ended up beaten, conquered, captured and broken. Solomon would be the last king to whom God spoke directly. After Solomon, the Lord spoke only through prophets, and by the final chapter of the Old Testament, he’d stopped doing even that. It’s as if God gave up the whole kingdom enterprise including his promise to David.

But I say as if because God does keep his promises. And thus the New Testament turns a new chapter with the return of God’s voice and the return of the king, embodied in none other than the Son of David, Jesus Christ our Lord, God in human flesh. “The kingdom is near,” Jesus preached, “repent and believe the good news. … Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find it; knock, and it will be opened for you.” If you can remember back to last fall, you’ll remember that Jesus never actually says door in these verses. All Jesus says is “it will be opened to you.” For everyone who asks receives it, and everyone who searches finds it, and for everyone who knocks, it will be opened.” The “it” is the kingdom of God, the will of the Lord, which for Solomon meant the wisdom to know and do right. Solomon prayed for God’s kingdom. He prayed for righteousness. And God gave him everything else. Sound familiar? It should. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” Jesus said, “and all these things will be added to you.”

“Life is more than what you eat and your body more than what you wear,” Jesus famously said in the same breath. “Consider the birds of the air, they don’t sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you much more valuable to Him than they? And consider the lilies in the field. They neither labor nor spin yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If Solomon whose everything was nothing compared to the flowers—which are here today and gone tomorrow—how much more does God intend for you?” It’s another one of those analogies from the lesser to the greater: If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”

This phrasing comes from Matthew’s gospel. We easily take “good things” to mean whatever we want. The problem is that “we who are evil” aren’t always the best judges of goodness. So Jesus gets more specific in Luke’s version: “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children,” he says, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Jesus’ original audience would have been astounded by this. To get the Holy Spirit was to receive the Spirit of God himself, the very source of all the wisdom and power and righteousness the universe has to offer. Solomon’s request for wisdom was no humble prayer on his part: it was an audaciously bold ask for the right thing. It pleased the Lord to give it because it meant his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s kingdom is so near we should be able to taste it.

Violet and I are very glad Mom’s coming home tonight. Along with Brian Jones, Kristin Geer, and Bob Thomas, Dawn has spent these past weeks in Burundi, scouting out new international mission opportunities for our congregation. Burundi is the fourth poorest country on earth, wracked by genocide, chronically malnourished and impoverished despite humanitarian intervention from abroad. As has been the mission practice of churches for decades, money pours into the country yet fails to fix much of anything. This failure has led to books being published with titles such as “Toxic Charity” and “When Helping Hurts,” whose authors assert that piling on relief only lasts as long as the donations, leaving in its wake unhealthy dependencies that sap poor communities of the power and dignity of work. “The loss of work is deeply disturbing because we were designed for it. According to the Bible, we don’t merely need the income from work to survive; we need the work itself to survive and live fully human lives.” (Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor.)

“Feed a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” This is the conventional wisdom. But the authors rightly ask, what happens when the fish disappear from the lake due to pollution or overfishing? Here is where better wisdom is required: new strategies to stop the pollutants, plans to issue fishing licenses, the authority to enact wildlife management. teach a man to fish and you help a man, gain control of the lake and you change a whole community.

You’ll hear more about this from Brian and the others in coming weeks. You’ve experienced it already through our Innové approach to mission. It’s one thing to take $250,000 and donate it. It’s another thing to put to work starting entrepreneurial efforts that address needs in sustainable ways. Givers get involved beyond their bank accounts, tapping into their expertise and passion to help and teach others to help and teach others. In Burundi, a micro-finance effort empowers a church to fund community efforts at hunger alleviation by starting small businesses. Neighbors help neighbors generate income and build an economy that enables the whole community to eat. At a malnutrition center, Dawn encountered a mother and daughter in distress. She was able to direct the mother to this church, loving neighbors eager to assist her in efforts that would feed her family beyond just giving them lunch. This is wisdom.

If the Holy Spirit in us gives us anything it gives us the power of love. It is love that presses us to both want and to do the right thing for each other. It is love that pressed God to be our king and supply us with all that we need. “Seek first God’s kingdom and you’ll get everything else,” if not now then one day. Part of the Spirit’s purpose is as a downpayment on eternity. “You have been raised with Christ,” the apostle Paul confidently wrote as if it had happened already. “So set your sights on things above, where Christ sits enthroned at the right hand of God.”At the core of our creeds and of our prayers is the conviction that Jesus will finish what he started. And at the core of our hope is the conviction that what is coming far exceeds what now exists, even in its most glorious renderings. If birds and flowers which come and go exceed Solomon’s wealth and wisdom in all its glory, how much more will the coming glories transcend the petty worries for which we pile up our prayers now? This includes even healing and health. Being made well on earth only lasts a little while. Rising from the dead lasts forever. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus said, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”