Sunday, May 29, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "At Gibeon"

1 Kings 3:1-15

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 the Lord by walking 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. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, David and Bathsheba’s Son, King of Israel,” Week One

Where were you on May 18, 1980?

I couldn’t tell you—I was still negative-six or so years old.

But I bet at least some of you probably do know. Because that’s the day when our great big majestic neighbor to the northeast, Mt. St. Helens, famously erupted. Killing over fifty people and inflicting more than one billion dollars in damage, it was a watershed event for a nation that had not seen this sort of volcanic activity in sixty-five years and has not seen it since.

Many among the cast of characters who died were larger-than-life heroes: Robert Landsburg, a photojournalist covering the changes in the volcano, was on the mountain itself that morning and when he saw the ash cloud, he took as many photographs as he could, put the film back into his backpack, and then, knowing that he had been given a death sentence by the same fate and chance that happens to the swift and strong alike, laid his body down atop his backpack in the hopes of protecting its contents.

He died, but his film survived, was developed, and became evidence for geologists to study the eruption patterns of volcanoes for future such explosions.

One such geologist would have been David Johnston, a thirty-year-old volcanologist who was also just several miles from the summit when the explosion triggered a series of pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock traveling at near-supersonic speeds. At such pace, it took only seconds for those flows to reach Johnston, giving him just enough time to radio out that the explosion had indeed begun before he was snuffed out…all in the matter of a minute.

The writer Joan Didion, in the wake of the death of her husband John, began her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking with these words: Life happens fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends.

Life changes in the instant. If only for this simple yet profoundly hard truth we often fantasize about being able to control the warp and weft of time’s movement—we create movies, television shows, and science fiction novels about time travel, we read about wormholes and the theory of relativity.

Yet even in Scripture, there is a moment when time itself slowed, at a place called Gibeon, where in the book of Joshua, God hangs the sun in the sky in order to give the Israelites more time to defeat the Amorites. And now, several books and a few hundred years removed from the events of Joshua, Gibeon once again makes an appearance where time itself seems to slow in in the momentous, life-changing dream of a young king, so that he and God might have the first of what will become many conversations between the two.

This is a new sermon series for a new season in the church—spring is moving into summer, and just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946.

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall and even more, beginning today, with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous.

Solomon became king not by divine right, though—even though he was apparently favored by God, as evinced by this story of God appearing to him in a dream and saying, “Whatever you wish, I shall give to you” like he’s a magic genie with a lamp, smurf-like blue skin, and a Robin Williams accent.

No, Solomon had to take the throne at the tip of the sword, holding off the designs for power by his rival and half-brother, Adonijah, whom Solomon eventually has summarily executed by Benaiah, Solomon’s chief bodyguard. Adonijah’s primary supporter, David’s army commander Joab, meets a similar fate (and, scandalously, Joab was killed while actively seeking sanctuary before the Ark of the Covenant), and another supporter, the priest Abiathar, is sent into permanent exile.

So basically, Solomon’s reign begins less gloriously and divinely, and more Game of Thrones-y and coup d’etat-y (yes, those are words, no, don’t look them up).

Yet Solomon, 1 Kings says, still loved the Lord, walked in the Lord’s ways, and made sacrifices to the Lord. And when God does appear to Solomon in a dream, you can imagine the length at which this conversation between God and Solomon stretches out. Even though biologically, REM sleep (the time we spend dreaming) may only take place for several minutes at a time, our dreams often seem as though they stretch on and on—as though time itself has stood still for our minds to engage and indulge in that which our subconscious has placed before us.

It is so very appropriate, then, that this dream of Solomon’s does indeed take place at Gibeon, where God made time stand still to give His people more time to defeat their enemies. Not because we should see that as a particularly good thing today, no, in our day and age we rightly are repelled by gratuitous bloodshed.

But rather, it is the providence of God that is what Solomon can take away from this latest divine encounter at Gibeon. Like his father David, Solomon is a profoundly flawed, murderous individual. Yet somehow, he has found favor with God, and that occasion of finding favor is enough for Solomon to reach for his more virtuous side, his more humble side, and he remembers just how little he truly knows, how much more he has yet to learn, and just how much that wisdom which he might stand to learn might help him discharge his duties as king of Israel.

Time may have stood still in Solomon’s dream, but Solomon has no such static designs for himself.

He will go on to build the Jerusalem Temple, establish diplomatic alliances and relationships, and expand trade, but to do all of those things, he needs the wisdom and foresight for which he is famous—Solomon is, after all, traditionally held as the writer not only of the Song which bears his name in the Hebrew Bible, but also the author of Ecclesiastes and much of Proverbs as well.

Solomon knows what he needs to be an effective king. He also knows that, at present, he lacks it. He is humble enough to recognize that shortcoming and ask God for help in remedying it.

Can we really say that we are ourselves so humble before God and each other today? Can we truly be that honest about our foibles and our flaws, our inabilities and inhibitions? Can we be more like the tax collector of Jesus's parable in Luke, who stands in the corner and humbly looks down when he prays, rather than the Pharisee who stands in the very center of the sanctuary, using his prayer to brag on how just gosh-darn awesome he is?

I am not so sure we can anymore, not when we—and by we, I mean the church in general, including us—tend to make God in our image rather than the other way around, so that God is an idealized version of ourselves, replete with the exact same thoughts, views, opinions…and shortcomings.

Solomon, then, who may be politically savvy and street-smart (recall again just how brutally ruthless he was in consolidating his power), is not yet wise. Were his God simply a holier version of Solomon, that God might well have no such deep wisdom to give.

But God does. Because Solomon, for all his faults—and there will be many—does not simply treat God as an optimized extension of himself. Solomon comes to God not as creator, but as the created, the creation.

Our faith, then, like Solomon’s is about coming to God not as a creator of God and God’s image, but coming to God as God’s creation, created in God’s image, asking God for help in our shortcomings and aid in our mistakes.

On some days, on truly dramatic days, like that morning in May of 1980 when Mount St. Helens exploded, we are in even more dire need of God’s help than usual. But we are always in need of it.

I cannot promise you that the answer will always be like God’s answer to Solomon…in fact, considering that God’s answer to Solomon includes the giving of wealth and fame, the answer to us probably shouldn’t be the same answer God gave to Solomon.

But the God who remains faithful to Solomon in spite of Solomon’s many transgressions that will pile up over the course of this sermon series—just as God was faithful to Solomon’s father David despite David’s own varied and severe sins—that God who was faithful then remains faithful now.

Faithful to you who believe. You who also have faith. You who yearn to do good in God’s name.

And may that faith, like the sun in the sky at Gibeon, be forever and truly timeless.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 29, 2016

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