Sunday, July 31, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Ruakh"

1 Kings 10:1-10, 13

When the queen of Sheba heard reports about Solomon, due to the Lord’s name, she came to test him with riddles. 2 Accompanying her to Jerusalem was a huge entourage with camels carrying spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones. After she arrived, she told Solomon everything that was on her mind. 3 Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too difficult for him to answer. 4 When the queen of Sheba saw how wise Solomon was, the palace he had built, 5 the food on his table, the servants’ quarters, the function and dress of his attendants, his cupbearers, and the entirely burned offerings that he offered at the Lord’s temple, it took her breath away.

6 “The report I heard about your deeds and wisdom when I was still at home is true,” she said to the king. 7 “I didn’t believe it until I came and saw it with my own eyes. In fact, the half of it wasn’t even told to me! You have far more wisdom and wealth than I was told. 8 Your people and these servants who continually serve you and get to listen to your wisdom are truly happy! 9 Bless the Lord your God because he was pleased to place you on Israel’s throne. Because the Lord loved Israel with an eternal love, the Lord made you king to uphold justice and righteousness.”

10 The queen gave the king one hundred twenty kikkars of gold, a great quantity of spice, and precious stones. Never again has so much spice come to Israel as when the queen of Sheba gave this gift to King Solomon...13 King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba everything she wanted and all that she had asked for, in addition to what he had already given her from his own personal funds. Then she and her servants returned to her homeland. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel” Week Seven

I still remember the disturbingly vacant eyes looking up at me. Perhaps they should not have been so disturbing, since I knew it was a mannequin, but those blank stares that you sometimes see in mannequins, or dummies, or crash models…there is sometimes something haunting about them. Eyes are supposed to convey life, not the absence of it. Feeling, not a void of it. Soul, not a lack of it. 

Ironically, those same lifeless, soulless mannequins were meant to help us save lives. I was in the Portland chapter of the Red Cross taking my required annual CPR certification for my job of coaching speech and debate at a public high school, and in order to receive our certifications, each of us had to be able to perform CPR on one of those mannequins for several minutes at a time. Now, I don’t know if you know this or not, but performing CPR for more than a couple of minutes if you have never had to do it before…well, it’s exhausting.

And when you stop and consider, it really should be. Just like if you haven’t exercised a set of muscles for some weeks or months, there’s some atrophy in place that must be done away with if you are to do that work in peak condition. But at the time, I simply could not escape the irony that in trying to bring back breath for someone else, I was running out of breath myself.

And even more so than those eyes, breath to me connotes life on a fundamentally Biblical level. God gives life to Adam by breathing it into him. Jesus’s death is described as ‘breath(ing) His last.’ And John writes that Jesus’s disciples received the Holy Spirit by Jesus breathing it upon them.

There is a Hebrew word for ‘breath’ in that sort of way that conveys the vitality of the spirit: ‘ruakh.’ And it is the word that instantly sprung to mind for me as I read and re-read the story of the queen of Sheba here in 1 Kings 10, when the queen meets Solomon and sees his palace and temple, and it, in the words of the CEB translation, “takes her breath away.” It swept her spirit away, you might say, to really dig into the true meaning behind the text. And it is that sort of phenomenon that we will be talking about here today.

This is a summer sermon series in the mold of one that, stylistically, 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’ve gotten a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem after receiving divine wisdom from the Lord in the dream all the way up to today’s story of the visit from the queen of Sheba, a land that could have been in any number of locations, from modern day southern Arabia (the traditional view) to Egypt or Ethiopia or Sudan.

The truth is, we really do not know for sure. That also means that we really don’t know for sure who the queen is, or anything about her—her name, for how long she reigned, anything. What we do know is that she is in many ways the female equivalent to Solomon—that like Solomon, she is fabulously wealthy and wise enough to be able to put to him a series of profound questions that he is able to answer for her.

But—and herein lies the importance of that ruakh, of that breath that was taken away from her—she is still stunned at Solomon, at who he is, at the splendor of his lifestyle, and at the depth of his wisdom. She’s floored, her jaw has cartoonishly dropped like a Looney Toons character, that’s the size and scope of her sheer, utter shock at the existence of this Israelite king. This is a woman who, as a queen, has surely a great depth of life experience herself, and the fact that she herself arrives to represent her country speaks volumes about her own autonomy and security in her own authority in a profoundly anti-woman ancient Near East culture. Far from being some sort of traditionally stereotypical ingénue or naïve waif, this queen is a very strong woman with a great depth of material and emotional resources that she brings to bear in this diplomatic trip. So this is a great deal of life, of vitality, of ruakh, to be taken out of her breath by Solomon’s wonder and splendor.

And that is precisely what the author of 1 Kings is going for—this writer wants you to be wowed and awed by Solomon the way that the queen of Sheba was likewise wowed and awed by the son of David. The implicit message is that we, too, are supposed to be amazed by this Israelite king who, aside from his father, stands above the rest of his monarchical peers in Israel’s history.

And while in many ways Solomon did—in the building of the temple, in the dispensation of justice, in the incredibly eloquent and beautiful prayers he would make on behalf of his people—in many ways, he did not. He was an enthusiastic exploiter of slave labor. He sold entire towns of people to the king of Tyre in order to refashion his own Jerusalem as he wished. And towards the end, he abandoned God in favor of the idols his many wives brought to him from their own faiths. Is such a profoundly flawed, deeply complex ruler still worthy of our awe, of taking our breath, our ruakh, away? Maybe. I cannot say for sure that such a ruler is not. But I also cannot say with complete honesty that such a ruler is, either.

Your ruakh—your deeply-held sense of reverence, the source of God-given life within you, is a precious thing that does not rise to meet just any ruler, any wielder of power, but that rises to meet a true, genuine, authentic soul who abides by the love of God in every day of their lives. In that way, try to think of it as an extension of your soul, of that little piece of divine creation that God placed within you when you were born.

Because the truth is, we already have too many mannequins, too many crash models in our lives—too many people who are without that same sort of breath and life and vitality, who live their lives, well, lifelessly. You can see it, how the world has beaten them up, chewed them and spit them out, and they in turn do the same to others, creating this vicious and toxic cycle of destructiveness. We cannot be adding to that. But it is a contagious thing—someone who has given up on their own soul can tempt you mightily into giving up on the sources of life within your own world as well.

And that’s something that we quite simply cannot afford more of. We cannot afford to see more people giving up their breath, their soul, their ruakh to worldly riches, to gossip, to the most shallow of material and emotional pleasures that last about as long as a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The analogy I often use with people is to think of suddenly being able to buy your dream car--an older, refurbished muscle car, or a European sports car, or whatever it may be for you. You get your dream car...and then never drive it faster than 25 mph. That's the sort of shallowness we face, of being given a tremendous gift, and then never taking it into fourth or fifth gear to see what it actually can do, because we tell ourselves that we are satisfied with only a surface-level interaction with what we have so graciously been given.

Shallow pleasures, our soul was never made to seek. Depth is what are souls crave, because depth—the depth of God’s love—is from whence our souls were made. Out of the depths of my soul, I cry out to you O Lord, sings the Psalmist in a psalm longing for the depths of God’s understanding—of an understanding so deep, that it can only come from God.

Not from Solomon.

Not from the queen of Sheba.

But only from the God who made them both, called forth them both, and sent forth them both.

Praise and honor be to that God, forever and ever. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 31, 2016

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