Sunday, August 19, 2012

Just One Thing

I Kings 3: 1-15
August 19, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

I Kings 3: 1-15
1 Solomon became the son-in-law of Pharaoh, Egypt's king, when he married Pharaoh's daughter. He brought her to David's City until he finished building his royal palace, the LORD's temple, and the wall around Jerusalem. 2 Unfortunately, the people were sacrificing at the shrines because a temple hadn't yet been built for the LORD's name in those days. 3 Now Solomon loved to walk in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines. 4 The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar.

5 The LORD appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, "Ask whatever you wish, and I'll give it to you."

6 Solomon responded, "You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You've kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. 7 And now, LORD my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David's place. But I'm young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. 8 But I'm here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can't be numbered or counted due to its vast size. 9 Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help."

10 It pleased the LORD that Solomon had made this request. 11 God said to him, "Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment— 12 I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. 13 I now also give you what you didn't ask for: wealth and fame. There won't be a king like you as long as you live. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life."

15 Solomon awoke and realized it was a dream. He went to Jerusalem and stood before the chest containing the LORD's covenant. Then he offered entirely burned offerings and well-being sacrifices, and held a celebration for all his servants.

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what you would answer if God came to you in a dream and said, “What would you like to have from me?” I wonder if you’ve ever thought about how you would answer that. It’s akin to being asked what superpower you would like to have. Maybe the Midas touch, to turn things into gold (but not everything) or being able to see the future. A while back there was an informal survey on NPR, asking which superpower people would choose: invisibility or the ability to fly. One commenter suggested that heroes choose flight, and sneaks choose invisibility. Another said that choosing invisibility was a reflection of low self-esteem, and that choosing the ability to fly would indicate a stronger self-image! (Harumph! I think invisibility would be a cool super power!)

In those superpower surveys, however, nobody ever chooses wisdom.
It isn’t even on the list of choices, not like its
a. invisibility
b. flight
c. x-ray vision
d. wisdom.
There isn’t a superhero called “Wisdom-man” or “Wisdom Woman.”

We talked a lot about wisdom in adult Bible study this past Tuesday, and it sounds like it isn’t the sort of thing you just get, like a superpower. Mostly wisdom is something you acquire over time. Wisdom, for most people seems to correlate positively with age. Many of us, when we thought about wise people, thought of parents and grandparents. There were, though, examples of children wise beyond their years, or folks who didn’t have much sense, but every now and then spoke words of great wisdom, almost as if by accident.

There’s a popular saying that “Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.” You could paraphrase that and say “Wisdom comes from experience, and often, experience results from a lack of wisdom.” It is certainly true that much of our wisdom is learned as a result of mistakes, or failures, or challenges.

Not so, apparently, with King Solomon. Here he was, a young king, the son of the great King David. David’s firstborn, Amnon, you’ll recall, was murdered by David’s son Absalom, as revenge for the rape of their sister Tamar. David’s son Absalom then raised a rebellion against him, in an attempt to dethrone David and make Absalom the ruler of all Israel. In the process of putting down the rebellion, David’s general Joab pursued Absalom until Absalom was cornered. Absalom was known for his thick and beautiful hair, and in a twist of narrative irony, the mule he was riding ran under a tree, and Absalom’s hair caught in the branches. As Absalom hung suspended by his hair, Joab ran him through with a spear. Three times.

The next eldest son of David, Adonijah, then mounted his own campaign. David was old and sick by then, on his deathbed. Adonijah enlisted the support of Joab, and had the people shouting, “Long live King Adonijah!” But it would not be that easy.

You may recall that among David’s many wives was the lovely Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. David had taken a stroll on his balcony one night and had seen her bathing. He liked what he saw and proceeded to take her for his own. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David  tried to finagle Uriah into staying home – long enough that it might be possible for Uriah to be the father. But even the orders of the king couldn’t get Uriah back into bed with his own wife, so David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle, then married Bathsheba. The first child died, but not before the prophet Nathan had confronted David with the evil of his actions. David and Bathsheba’s second son was Solomon.

Now, with Adonijah attempting to overthrow David, the situation at the palace is tense, and complicated (Just as a side note, when people talk about Biblical family values, presumably they don’t mean the ancestors of Jesus.) Before, Nathan the prophet went to the king about Bathsheba. Now, Nathan holds counsel with Bathsheba about the king.

“Didn’t the king promise you that your boy Solomon would be king after him?”
Well, yes, yes he did.
So Nathan instructed her: “You need to go talk to him, Bathsheba, and confirm that promise. Then ask him, ‘Why then is Adonijah the king?’”
So Bathsheba went to David and reminded him of his promise, then told him about Adonijah’s attempted coup. Her request was unequivocal:
“As for you, my master the king, the eyes of all Israel are upon you to tell them who will follow you on the throne.” (I Kings 1:20)

As pre-arranged, enter Nathan, to confirm the story and remind the king of his promise.
David ordered the immediate coronation of Solomon, complete with the ceremonial ride into the city on the king’s own donkey, an anointing with oil by the prophet, the blowing of the ram’s horn and a public announcement: “He will enter and sit on my throne, and so he will succeed me as king.” Whereupon Adonijah’s men, like soldiers in a Monty Python skit, said to each other, “run away, run away!”

Called to his father’s death bed, Solomon received his instruction:
David said, "I'm following the path that the whole earth takes. Be strong and be a man. Guard what is owed to the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his laws, his commands, his judgments, and his testimonies, just as it is written in the Instruction from Moses. In this way you will succeed in whatever you do and wherever you go.” Then David proceeded to instruct Solomon whom to execute in order to clean the place up and consolidate his power, and Solomon claimed the throne of Israel in short order after David’s death.

And so we come to the third chapter of the book of First Kings, and we see the beginning of the legendary reign of King Solomon. The narrative is careful to point out to us, right at the outset, that Solomon is a person who goes often to make sacrifices at the altar of God.
However, he also makes offerings at the altars of other gods, at the high places, which will be an issue between him and God for the remainder of his rule. But for now, Solomon is a man of God’s favor, and God has asked of him – “What shall I grant you?”

Solomon asks for just one thing: wisdom. And because Solomon chose wisdom over wealth or fame or power, God granted him his request, and then also gave him wealth and fame and power. Solomon’s legendary wisdom is illustrated in the text that immediately follows this story: this tale of two people each claiming that a child belongs to them.

I Kings 3: 16-28
16 Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. 17 One of them said, "Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. 18 This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. 19 This woman's son died one night when she rolled over him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. 21 When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn't my son—not the baby I had birthed." 22 The other woman said, "No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one." But the first woman objected, "No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!" In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king. 23 The king said, "This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.' The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.' 24 Get me a sword!" They brought a sword to the king. 25 Then the king said, "Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman." 26 Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, "Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don't kill him," for she had great love for her son. But the other woman said, "If I can't have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half." 27 Then the king answered, "Give the first woman the living newborn. Don't kill him. She is his mother." 28 All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God's wisdom was in him so he could execute justice.

It appears in folktales the world round, and the wise judgment is dealt out by Buddha, or a medieval Italian King. In every case, the story is told as demonstration of wisdom and the validation of the wise judge. The story is so ubiquitous that the phrase “split the baby”
is used as a kind of legal shorthand for simple, compromise solutions that may or may not be all that helpful.

Clever on its surface, the story is fraught with peril. How does Solomon know that the real mother is the kind one? Couldn’t the merciful woman have been the impostor, but clever enough to see the sense in conceding in order to win? Why doesn’t he ask for witnesses?
Why doesn’t he ask more questions? Jewish scholars have solved this dilemma with a Midrash that concludes the two women are related, and the one who says “Split the baby” stands to gain from that if she cannot have the child as her own. Without benefit of Jewish sources, we Christians are simply left with the story. Solomon hears the testimony and makes the decision. But he makes the decision based on the insight and knowledge
granted to him by the God of Israel.

When he was offered just one thing to be granted from God, the gift that he named was well chosen. It would serve him well throughout his reign. Many of the proverbs, and the apocryphal book of Wisdom are attributed to him. His name is fairly synonymous with wisdom.

But that was a long time ago, and wisdom seems in short supply these days. You may be interested to know that the University of Chicago is in the midst of a two million dollar project studying wisdom. They say “it is difficult to imagine a subject more central to the human enterprise and whose exploration holds greater promise in shedding light and opening up creative possibilities for human flourishing.”[1] They’re discovering some interesting truths. They’ve looked for a correlation between maturity and wisdom – surprise!, there is one, and a strong one. They’ve examined the power of wisdom in old age, and report that those who have integrity, strong identity, and wisdom are less likely to have a sense of despair or hopelessness as they confront the challenges of aging.

They’ve held thoughtful discussions on the nature of wisdom, its sources and how people acquire it. One of the more interesting conversations concerns their agreement that for many, the gaining of wisdom involves some personal humility, experiences of setback or suffering, and the acknowledgement that we are not in control of the world.

Perhaps the most interesting findings were in a piece on politics and faith. In an article in the New York Times, anthropologist T. M. Luhrman posits that if secular Democrats want to understand evangelical conservatives, they should grasp that the evangelical conservatives
understand themselves as being called by God to improve themselves, to become better people, while secular Democrats are interested in improving the world -- making the world a better place.[2]

I confess that I struggle to place myself in this dichotomy. It seems to me to be about as useful as “splitting the baby.” It divides the world of politics in a way I don’t understand – as if Democrats are secular people who don’t care about God, and conservatives are all evangelicals who don’t care about others. In my observation, neither of those descriptions is true, and in fact, many faithful people across the political spectrum are committed to following the words of Jesus when he gave us the greatest commandment.

In the first chapter of the book of Wisdom, the writer, reputed to be Solomon, says:
“Wisdom is a spirit that wants only what is best for humans.” This builds on the same wisdom that King David gave to Solomon: Guard what is owed to the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his laws, his commands, his judgments, and his testimonies.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he responded in much the same way, with one important addition: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 26: 37-39 CEB)

Nobody I know is getting a dream visit from God inquiring what one thing is desired, but most people I know would appreciate a good dose of wisdom. And every one of us who is of voting age, which is most of us, is going to be faced with making some significant decisions when we go to mark our ballots this fall.

Of course no pastor in their right mind would tell you who to vote for, and I may be a little crazy, but it is a demonstration of my own wisdom that I won’t advise you which presidential candidate to support. But I will pray that each one of us will make a decision that emerges not from our self-interest, or from our biases, or fears, or anger, but from our deep desire to choose the path of wisdom.

If God came to us in a dream tonight and offered us just one thing, we wouldn’t ask to be able to fly, or for invisibility.
We might ask to be more faithful, or for greater compassion.
We might seek to know Christ more fully, in order that our lives would bring glory to God. And we might do well to ask for wisdom.

What is amazing, and wonderful and true
is that God is already granting us this even now,
always ready to teach us,
to strengthen our faith,
expand our love
and guide us in the way of wisdom.

With those gifts,
we can be the visible signs of invisible grace,
and with that kind of faith, our souls can fly.



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