Whoa … It has been an absolutely crazy day. I have a lot to say right now, but my brain isn’t functioning. So here is my sermon (and if you listen to it, ignore the fact that I was so tongue-tied today!) …
1 Kings 3:5-12
Weak Servants, Strong Servanthood
I want to start off this morning’s sermon by thanking everyone for joining me for worship this morning. I was working on my sermon this past Friday, the heat index was a stifling 107 degrees Fahrenheit and it occurred to me that most people could probably find a cooler activity to partake in on a Sunday morning than sitting in an un-air conditioned sanctuary.
So thank you for being here – and I promise not to be long-winded. Which, to be quite honest, may prove to be difficult because the passage that we just read from in the first book of King is kind of peculiar.
Let me set the stage for you. We are in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel has been in crisis – floods, wars and exiles – and now is entering a time of significant social transformation.
Have you all heard of the Albert Einstein quote that, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Well, Israel was trying something drastically different: They were going from a people of the land, a people of covenant and a people with religious reverence to God – who they called Yahweh – to a period of kingship.
So take yourself back – we are approximately in the year 961 BCE. The era of the kingship – or the United Monarchy as it was called – really started around the year 1020 BCE with the reign of King Saul. Saul’s reign was, what my Old Testament professor referred to as, a “shaky transitional rule” – not the greatest start to Israel’s kingship. In fact, the chapter on Saul in one of my Old Testament books is called, “Saul: The Threat, the Promise, and the Tragedy of Kingship.”
But King David came along in the year 1000 BCE after Saul died and had a much more stable rule, he really put the word “United” in “United Monarchy”. David’s chapter was called, “David: The Man After God’s Own Heart.” David died in 961 BCE and his son – Solomon – took the throne. Solomon’s chapter was titled, “Solomon: Empire and Fracture” – and you can read about the beginning of his reign at beginning of the first book of Kings.
The most peculiar part of this passage is Solomon himself. Immediately, upon taking the throne, Solomon emerges as a violent character. One of my theological guides to the Old Testament says the following about the beginning of Solomon’s reign:
When David names Solomon as his successor and dies, Solomon consolidates his power with a ruthless purge of his opposition. He has his half brother and rival Adonijah killed, along with his influential supporters, including David’s general, Joab. David’s priest Abiathar is banished.
So in very simple terms, we just had the following happen: King David had a solid, unifying reign. Right before he died, he named his son Solomon to be his successor.
And when Solomon rose to the throne, he consolidated his power by killing and/or banishing any of his rivals and their supporters.
Not a great start to his reign.
That being said, by the time we get to this morning’s passage, just one verse later, we are seeing a completely different side of Solomon. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked what God should give to him and Solomon first showed great appreciation for all that God gave to Solomon’s father, King David. “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father, David,” said Solomon, “because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.”
Then Solomon continues his response to God by showing humility in asking for what he wanted and needed. “Although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” Part of me wonders if Solomon took the throne after his father died, acted out in this initial state of violence to claim some sort of authority because he thought, “well, how hard could this be?” and then immediately became overwhelmed by all that there was to do.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever taken on a task that you thought would be really easy and that you thought you had complete under control and then – after diving in headfirst – realized you were completely overwhelmed? Have you ever gone looking for perfection and ended up receiving a large batch of humility? It happens to me all the time.
What I love so much about this passage is what happens after Solomon saw how great of a people, how numerous a number of people, he has been chosen to lead. He doesn’t charge forward with more violence, he doesn’t try to lead on his own and he doesn’t allow his arrogance and overconfidence to lead Israel. Rather, he asks God for guidance. “Give your servant therefore,” said Solomon, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
Solomon does not ask to be the perfect leader, he does not ask for God to get the people of Israel together, he does not ask for God to work everything out for him on the ground. He asks God for an understanding mind and for the ability to discern what is right. He is humble as leader in front of God in that one moment so that his leadership can be strong in the years to come. He allows himself to be weak as a servant in order to have a strong servanthood.
There is something about our society that makes us think that we have to be perfect. Diet campaigns promise quick results, photoshopped models make consumers think they need to have flawless features, new computer and social networking programs are designed daily to supposedly make our lives our easier and the speed of production and expected productivity gets faster and faster every day. There is something in the media and in our culture and even in our churches that tells us that we have to quickly get bigger, faster and better.
And yet – this plea to God from King Solomon shows us that we are allowed to be weak, that we are allowed to have imperfections and that perfection should not even be the goal. This plea to God from King Solomon shows us that we should walk humbly, that we should embrace our weaknesses and we should ask God every day to give us strength.
The passage just gets better after this. “Is pleased the Lord,” the scripture says, “that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word.’”
God wants to be let into our lives. God wants us to be humble and ask for guidance in our lives, in our work, in our families, in our friendships, in our churches, in our communities and in our leadership. It pleases God. And God is good to us when we open up that door in our lives.
A few years ago, I was at General Synod, the biennial national meeting of the United Church of Christ and I was sitting in a meeting about a resolution that was going to come before the delegates the next day. The resolution was about depleted uranium in weapons, something equally over my head, and yet at one point an argument erupted in the room and the debate was getting heated. And the moderator calmly brought the room to order and paused for a prayer. By the time she said “Amen,” the anxiety level in the room had dropped. Because in those moments of prayer we asked God to enter into our conversation and to help us discern; because in those moments of prayer, we remembered that the work we are doing as a church needs to have more to do with God than it does with us; and because in those moments of prayer, God was present. It was in that moment that we paused long enough to realize that we did not have to have the answers. It was in that moment that we paused long enough to realize that we did not have to reconcile this resolution on our own. It was in that moment that we realized that it was okay to admit to God our shortcomings and ask for strength and guidance.
It is okay to be a weak servant. Being a weak servant does not mean that you will have a weak servanthood. In fact, based on how God responded to Solomon, I think that being a weak servant, being humble and admitting imperfection only makes our servanthood – as a whole – stronger.
I paired this passage from First Kings this morning with this week’s epistle lectionary text from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, the Book of Romans, chapter eight, verses 26 through 39. I’m not going to go in depth into this passage, but I am going to highlight the beginning of it for you once again, after hearing my sermon and thinking about what Solomon did after beginning his reign. Paul said:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
So I said that the passage from Kings was peculiar. Solomon jumped onto the throne with violence and then paused with humility to ask God for help. And if it ended there, it would be a great story to tell. Unfortunately, Solomon was not that humble throughout the entirety of his reign. His violent side came back. But I do not think that his inconsistency as a character that we read about, as a King and as a person should diminish what he did that day in his dream. Because none of us will have that one moment where we humble ourselves, seek out God’s help and then never once fall back.
Life is a journey, one where we wake up every day and have to decide how we want to live our lives. Some days we will be humble and seemingly do all the right things and God will be right there. But there will be days when we forge ahead on our own. And so on those days we need to pause, take a deep breath and invite God in once again. It is not about finding perfection and setting up camp there; it is about allowing ourselves to be weak along the journey.
But like Paul said, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Amen.