Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1-17
Today is our last week – our final episode – of our summer sermon series Judges and Kings, so let’s take a moment to rewind and remember how we got to where we are in our story today.
We began in the book of Judges, just after the Israelites have settled in the Promised Land. At this point they are a nation without a state: twelve tribes, joined together by their shared history, but with little centralized leadership after the death of Joshua. Soon a pattern begins to emerge. The Israelites forget the God who led them into the land; they turn away and disobey and worship other gods; God allows them to feel the consequences of those choices in the form of other nearby nations who conquer them; the people cry out to God for help, and God raises up a judge, a military hero, to deliver them.
The first judges are pretty good, but as time goes on we realize that this pattern is less of a cycle and more of a downward spiral, with each judge less faithful and less competent than the last, until the curtain closes on the book of Judges with Israel in complete and total chaos.
Into this chaos, a prophet is born. His name is Samuel and he grows up in the holy sanctuary as an assistant to the priest Eli; and one day Samuel starts to hear from God for himself. Samuel provides good and faithful leadership to his people for a time, but as he grows old, the people begin to fear for their future. So the people tell Samuel that they want a king.
Samuel warns them that this is a terrible idea. A king? he says. A king will send your sons into the army and make you do forced labor for him and he’ll tax you heavily for his own gain. But the people want a king, and God tells Samuel to give the people what they want.
Enter Saul, a tall, handsome, unsuspecting young man from the tribe of Benjamin. Samuel intercepts him one day while he’s out looking for a lost donkey and, at God’s direction, anoints him as king. Saul gets off to a reasonable start, but soon we see him start to make hasty and selfish decisions instead of trusting or consulting God. So God says, yeah, never mind, and sends Samuel off to anoint a new king instead.
David, son of Jesse, a Bethlehemite from the tribe of Judah, is anointed king while he’s still a young boy taking care of his father’s sheep, and his rise to power is one for the books. He enters Saul’s inner circle as a court musician, marries Saul’s daughter, and gains fame as a warrior in Saul’s army. Saul’s not blind, of course. He can see David climbing in power and prestige, and he gets jealous. And then he gets angry. And then he kind of goes off the chain and tries to bump David off. David escapes Saul with the help of Saul’s son Jonathan, and begins a new life on the run. But make no mistake, he’s making alliances and forming his base the whole time.
When Saul is killed in battle with the neighboring Philistines, David takes his divinely appointed place on the throne, and he both centralizes the government and forges a national identity in a way Saul never did. David is the king, the iconic leader of Israel, to whom God promises an everlasting dynasty. But even David finally succumbs to his own weakness – first in the matter of Bathsheba, then in resulting implosion of his own family. Still, David withstands his own son’s armed rebellion and is restored to the throne a humbled man.
When David dies and his son Solomon becomes king, it might seem as though the glory days of Israel have arrived. Solomon famously prays for wisdom, and God is so pleased with this request that God promises him riches and honor and long life too. Solomon lives in grandeur and splendor; he builds Israel’s first Temple in Jerusalem; there’s peace on all sides; and, we read, “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.”
But maybe the whole picture is a little too perfect. Maybe this is the social media depiction of Solomon’s reign. And as we know, things aren’t always how they look on Instagram. Because we also learn that Solomon has been using work gangs for his building projects – and not just foreign work gangs, but Israelite work gangs. And all that grandeur and splendor had to come from somewhere – your Israelite tax dollars at work. And we learn that Solomon loved foreign women, and took a number of them as his wives, and they “turned his heart after other gods.”
Remember Samuel’s warning?
So maybe it’s not surprising when a leader of one of the work gangs, a man named Jeroboam, begins to plot rebellion. And maybe it’s not surprising when Jeroboam meets a prophet on the road who tears his shirt into twelve pieces and proclaims that the kingdom itself will one day be torn – not from Solomon himself, but from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.
That is all to say: maybe what happens next isn’t ALL Rehoboam’s fault.
When I was planning out this sermon series, I had a hard time choosing where to end it. Because of course, the story doesn’t end here.
But this is the end of the story of Israel as one kingdom. From here we enter into two parallel stories, one in the north and one in the south, each with their own colorful cast of royal characters. Both of those stories lead into exile. One of them leads back out.
When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam heads to his own coronation, where some people are eagerly awaiting to make him king. But remember that at the end of Solomon’s life, rebellion was beginning to bubble up. Jeroboam has been hiding in Egypt since that run-in with the prophet on the road, but as Rehoboam is about to be crowned, he returns and leads the people in making some demands. “Your father made our yoke heavy,” they say. “Tell us you’ll lighten our load, and we will serve you as king.”
Rehoboam has to think about it. He tells them to come back in three days.
Meanwhile, he consults some elders, men who had advised Solomon. They tell him to agree to the people’s demands, that it’s a good investment. These guys know where power and legitimacy come from, even in a monarchy.
But Rehoboam says nah, that doesn’t sound right. So he finds some other advisors, friends of his, and they tell him he’d better show these people who’s boss right from the get-go.
So when Jeroboam and the people come back three days later, Rehoboam tells them, “You think it was bad under my father? My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins!” (“Little finger” is a euphemism.)
The people respond, “That’s cool. Have fun being king over the people of Judah, your own tribe. The rest of us are going home, and you are no longer our king.” And the northern tribes of Israel crown Jeroboam.
We’ve now gone from the inception of a kingdom to its dissolution.
I have to ask here – what went wrong?? Anyone want to take a stab at summing that up?
Where do we start, right? God’s people worshiped other gods when they forgot what God had done for them. They wanted a king when they forgot who their first, real king was supposed to be. Those kings themselves forgot that being king didn’t make them invincible, that there was a power still greater than theirs. They forgot where their power came from; they wanted what was theirs and they forgot whose they ultimately were.
What went wrong is that they forgot: they forgot God’s mercy, they forgot God’s provision, they forgot God’s ultimate sovereignty, and they forgot their own places in God’s story.
And we can hardly blame them because we, too, are so prone to forget: God’s mercy, God’s love, the call of God on our lives.
It is a dangerous thing, to forget. And we do it all the time.
And yet the author of 1 Kings is adamant that God is somehow still at work in all of it. When Solomon lets his heart be turned away by his foreign wives and their foreign gods, God tells him that this means the end of a kingdom. When the prophet Ahijah tears his shirt and predicts that the kingdom will be torn away from Solomon’s son, it is God he speaks for. When the people make their demands to Rehoboam, we’re told that God hardens his heart, Pharoah-style, so that this prophecy will still come true, and yet when Rehoboam prepares to send his army after the tribes who have seceded, God tells him no, and Rehoboam listens.
In a time when anyone living might have sincerely questioned where God was in everything that was happening, the author wants to assure us: God is there. God isn’t asleep on the job. God is still, somehow, moving God’s story forward.
Has there ever been a time, for you, when everything seemed messed up, you couldn’t see God’s hand in any of it, but only later it became clear that God was still somehow at work?
I don’t necessarily mean, or believe, that God was orchestrating all of it so that each little thing was exactly according to God’s plan. Bad things happen in a broken world and sometimes we really do mess things up. Solomon didn’t have to be the kind of king Samuel had warned the people about. Rehoboam could have listened to his advisors. Just because God may want one thing doesn’t mean we can’t make our own decisions, good or bad, out of our own free will.
And yet God can always work with what we give.
I’m trying to keep this in mind these days as we stand at the precipice of an important moment in history for the United Methodist Church. Because we’ve gotten to a point in our denominational life where everything really does seem like a mess. As a denomination, we don’t agree on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed or whether LGBT people should be able to be ordained. Some people who feel our current rules against both are unjust have broken those rules, and other people have gotten mad about the rules being broken and the fact that the first people aren’t getting punished enough. You all hear about this from me from time to time – we’ll hear more in a couple weeks – but I know it might seem like just church politics, far away from our mission and ministry here.
Let me tell you from someone whose job it is to be in touch with the institutional side of things that it feels like a mess. And it’s sometimes hard to see in the midst of the maddening institutional politics how God is at work in any of it at all.
I don’t know what will happen at our General Conference in February which has been called to find a way forward through all of this. What I do know is this: the church has been in some messes before. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split in two, north and south, over the question of whether a bishop could be a slaveholder. The two churches (two kingdoms?) came back together in 1939, when slavery was safely out of the question, but as part of the deal, they created a separate jurisdiction for all the African-American churches in the denomination, with their own bishops and their own pastors and their own churches. The Central Jurisdiction was abolished in 1968 when we became the United Methodist Church, at a time when we as a wider culture were doing some reckoning with the idea of segregation. And, you all, I know we have a long way to go in addressing the sometimes more subtle racism that still persists in our culture and our churches, but we’re here, and we are a church of people of many different colors who come from many different places, with a bishop who is African-American, and through all of the mess we have undeniably made, God has been at work to bring us here. And God is still at work to bring us forward – maybe as a “united” United Methodist Church and maybe not, but always as God’s people living out God’s story.
It may be that we read the paper and look at our whole national political situation and all we can see is how messed up everything is, how we don’t do anything but fight with each other, and high-up people are being convicted of crimes, and students are going back to school worrying about mass shootings, and I am not saying that any of it is God’s will, that any of it is the way God wants things to be, but I do believe that God still has a hand in our story, and that God does not ever leave us alone.
For the people of Israel and Judah – the northern and southern kingdoms – the story will get worse before it gets better. Redemption doesn’t always come in a linear fashion. Both kingdoms will have kings who mess a lot of things up. And occasionally there will be a good one, and then the next king will go back to messing things up. And eventually, there will be exile, as those kings succumb to foreign powers who conquer the land and scatter the people. But there will also be return from exile. There will be restoration. And then God’s people will keep messing things up, and the story continues, but still God doesn’t stop being at work.
And when God decides something drastic is called for, when God decides to do something bold, and God takes on human form and joins God’s people here on earth, and offends the powers that be with the life of love and peace and sacrifice he calls us to, and they put him on a cross – even then, in the biggest mess ever made, God is still at work, and God will be victorious.
The good news is this: the Kingdom of God needs us, but it also can’t be stopped by us: by our pride, by our selfishness, by our mistakes, by our forgetting.
God’s story continues, and God will be victorious.