Sunday, August 14, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Lord Raised"

1 Kings 11:14-25

14 So the Lord raised up an opponent for Solomon: Hadad the Edomite from the royal line of Edom. 15 When David was fighting against Edom, Joab the general had gone up to bury the Israelite dead, and he had killed every male in Edom. 16 Joab and all the Israelites stayed there six months, until he had finished off every male in Edom. 17 While still a youth, Hadad escaped to Egypt along with his father’s Edomite officials. 18 They set out from Midian and went to Paran. They took men with them from Paran and came to Egypt and to Pharaoh its king. Pharaoh assigned him a home, food, and land. 

19 Pharaoh was so delighted with Hadad that he gave him one of his wife’s sisters for marriage, a sister of Queen Tahpenes. 20 This sister of Tahpenes bore Hadad a son, Genubath. Tahpenes weaned him in Pharaoh’s house. So it was that Genubath was raised in Pharaoh’s house, among Pharaoh’s children. 21 While in Egypt, Hadad heard that David had lain down with his ancestors and that Joab the general was also dead. Hadad said to Pharaoh, “Let me go to my homeland.” 22 Pharaoh said to him, “What do you lack here with me that would make you want to go back to your homeland?” Hadad said, “Nothing, but please let me go!”

23 God raised up another opponent for Solomon: Rezon, Eliada’s son, who had escaped from Zobah’s King Hadadezer. 24 Rezon recruited men and became leader of a band when David was killing them. They went to Damascus, stayed there, and ruled it. 25 Throughout Solomon’s lifetime, Rezon was Israel’s opponent and added to the problems caused by Hadad. Rezon hated Israel while he ruled as king of Aram. (Common English Bible)

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

You may think that my generation, the millennials, is the worst. After all, we text too much, we listen to terrible music, and we singlehandedly killed off penmanship. We’re basically one Woodstock away from being utterly beyond help.

But consider this: down in Rio de Janeiro, five millennial American women just turned in perhaps the most dominant team performance in gymnastics in Olympic history. Another American millennial just won his 20th Olympic gold medal. Still yet another just shattered the world record by so far that her opponents couldn't even be seen on-screen when she won. And one of those annoying, horrible things we use our phones constantly for—the taking of selfies—is actually giving the world a glimmer of hope in one of the most fraught conflicts of our time.

A 17-year-old South Korean gymnast, Lee Eun-ju, smiled and flashed the universal two-fingered peace sign alongside one of her North Korean gymnast counterparts, Hong Un-jong, who leaned in and smiled next to an athletic representative of a country that hers is technically still at war with, stretching all the way back to 1950.

Even as international politics remain tense between the two Koreas—and despite claims from the belligerent, despotic North that they do indeed still want reunification—two young women were presented with a choice to make as to how to approach their historic rival. They could have chosen civility, apathy, or even outright hostility. But they chose joy, and celebration of one another in a memento that will be, I can well imagine, treasured for a long time by them, and that has already been treasured by millions on social media.

How we react when presented with a potential rival, it says a lot about who we are, and about the fundamental nature of our character. God raised up rivals for Solomon as a result of the Israelite king’s straying from the path and covenant of God, and how we might react to such rivals ourselves is the question that we face today—and that athletes from various warring nations are as well in Rio.  

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 have once more taken on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative has been 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, which represented in many ways the absolute pinnacle for Solomon and his reign, to today’s story just one chapter later, in which we continue to see how the seeds of Solomon’s spiritual and political downfall were sown after last week’s story of God telling Solomon basically as such, except that here, the theology seems almost retconned into the rivalries.

By that I mean: Solomon is at this point in the narrative an old man, but the two rivals described here—Hadad and Rezon—seem to have been set against Solomon for quite some time now, as the text says, “Throughout Solomon’s lifetime, Rezon was Israel’s opponent.” This creates two key distinctions between the opposition of Jeroboam, who we’ll see next week, and the opposition of Hadad and Rezon: the latter two represent foreign threats to Solomon’s power, while Jeroboam represents a domestic threat. And second, Jeroboam used to work for Solomon as, basically, Solomon’s chief slave overseer, so this conflict with Jeroboam was likely much newer than the conflicts with Hadad and Rezon, even though these two only come into the Scriptures now.

The simplest way to approach this is to suppose that this conflict had existed for many years, and was retroactively given divine dimensions once Solomon began to stray from God. And if your agenda is to paint a picture, as the author of 1 Kings has done, of Solomon as an extraordinary king prior to his fall, then including just how fierce his foreign rivals were wouldn’t quite be the way to do it if the king had seemingly failed to completely contain those rivals.

It suggests that whatever steps Solomon may have taken to address Hadad and Rezon—we do not know what they are, as the author does not tell us—simply were not enough, or not the right steps to take. Which would represent quite an error for a king who was praised earlier, via the stories of King Hiram of Tyre and the Queen of Sheba, as well as having seven hundred wives mostly sealed through various alliances, for being an exceptionally talented diplomat.

Perhaps that should be no fault of Solomon’s—after all, Hadad is a refugee from what was basically a genocide in Edom under David’s disgraced army commander, Joab, and Rezon also seems irretrievably antagonistic towards Solomon’s Israel—but even towards an enemy, what you choose to do, or not do, and say, or not say, matters. If you think it doesn’t, just look at the joyous reception that the selfie of two Korean gymnasts has received all around a world that is battered to the point of breaking by hatred and violence.

Those are the responses towards a rival that we need, and that God wants, of us. If the Lord has raised a rival for us, that isn’t to mean that God is somehow so much of a micromanager that God wants to see if we’ll pass the test, no.

God already knows that we are capable of passing the test of how we treat our opponents. God doesn’t need to see if we are or not. This isn’t about God testing us simply because God can. God isn’t so needy and emotionally vindictive for that.

No, this is about how we test ourselves, and how we respond. God may raise rivals for us, but it is up to us whether those rivalries are re-entrenched or not, become stronger or not, or even become more violent or not. All of those outcomes are entirely up to us, whether we choose to admit that we have that sort of capacity or not. What we cannot do is simply chalk it all up to “God’s plan,” as though God’s master to-do list somehow absolves us of responsibility. No, God may have raised up Hadad and Rezon as rivals, but whether they stayed rivals was up to Solomon, and Solomon alone.

You may not have rivals on the global scale that ancient kings or modern gymnasts do, but the lack of breadth in a rivalry should not be mistaken for a lack of depth. You may well have someone who you do see as opposing you, whether in work or in your personal relationships, someone who simply seems to not want what you have to bring to the table.

I’m not saying that God put that person there for you. But I am saying that God will know how you choose to respond to that person, for good or for bad. Do you go for the jugular because that’s all you know from the evil within you and within the world, and it’s awfully tempting and temporarily satisfying to do (trust me, I know—it’s one of my peccadilloes too)?

That is what another athlete at the Rio Olympics did—an Egyptian competitor in judo who refused to shake his opponent’s hand because his opponent was Israeli. The lack of sportsmanship prompted boos and widespread criticism, and understandably so.

So you could reach for that sort of stick-it-to-them intractability. Or do you reach for another one of those awful things my generation has given humanity—the selfie stick—and make an image that can inspire literally millions of people?

Those are two pretty drastic outcomes from one decision. But that’s about the size of things when we are talking about spiritual goodness.

Because God expects good and great things from us. In our worst moments, perhaps it feels as though God ought to lower the proverbial bar, but in truth, ever since Adam and Eve decided to take from God that which was originally solely divine—the knowledge of good and evil—the bar was already plenty low. That bar needs to be raised anew.

It is why Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and to bless those who persecute us, for if we love only those who love us, what credit is that to us? Do not even other sinners do likewise?

Jesus is trying to set the bar higher for us than was the case for Adam and Eve. The real measure of your faith, and of your life, will be not simply do you obey God and love those who love you, but also whether and how you love your rivals.

Maybe, just maybe, you can start by inviting them to take a selfie with you?

Hey, I don’t know, I’m just a millennial.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 14, 2016

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