Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, September 10

This is the sermon preached this past Sunday at Exton Community Baptist Church. The text was 1 Kings 3:3-14: Solomon's dream and prayer for wisdom.

This week we begin a series on Solomon. Throughout this series, we will read some stories from Solomon’s life, and some of Solomon’s writings that appear in the Bible. You may wonder, “Why Solomon?” Well, for me, the key reason is that Solomon’s claim to fame in history was his wisdom. We need wise people today, don't we? I remember well 5 years ago this Sunday, the Sunday after Sept. 11, when I heard a very wise preacher say "I don't know what I'm supposed to tell you today." HE didn't pretend like it had never happened, he didn't pretend he had all the answers. Instead, he was honest; he wisely said, "I don't know."

The world needs wise people like that today; we don't need more people with their heads in the sand or more people shouting about how much they know. They need wise people.

Solomon was known around the world in his time for being a wise king; to this day, people still remember Solomon for his wisdom. During this time of year, when kids are going back to school, and Sunday School is getting ready to start up again, it seemed good to focus in on wisdom. We are not all called to pursue education, but we are all called to pursue wisdom. So Solomon seemed like a good person to sit with for a few Sundays and learn from.

Now, David, Solomon’s father, was a great king of Israel, a legendary figure in its history. For years after his death, people looked forward to the restoration of David’s line to the throne. It was the mighty David who defeated Goliath; it was the warrior David who led Israel through a series of wars that expanded their borders; it was the king David who walked after God’s ways and became known as a man after God’s own heart.

So David was a tough act to follow. He chose his son Solomon to succeed him; Solomon was the son of Bathsheba. (You may remember Bathsheba; she was the one who David saw bathing and had an affair with. Their first child, also a son, died as an infant. Solomon was her second son, and as such, one of David’s favorites.)

Solomon came to the throne at about age 20, a young man. He had many older brothers who also laid claim to the throne, but David picked Solomon to be the next king. Solomon’s older brothers were not particularly happy about this, because at least two of them had their own schemes about how to get into power. David’s son Absalom conspired to overthrow his father and take the throne, but he was defeated in a bloody civil war. Another son, Adonijah, waited until David was very old and he conspired to take the throne after his father passed away. But key prophets and priests and powerful people did not side with him, and so Adonijah also was thwarted.

But on the contrary, we don’t really see this in Solomon. Don’t get me wrong, Solomon was a political animal, and once Solomon became king, he ruthlessly moved to consolidate his rule and he dealt swiftly and harshly with his enemies. But we do not see him scheming to become the king, or indeed any hint that Solomon wanted to be king at all. It is true that he did not refuse the throne, but beyond that, Solomon didn’t pursue power at all.

Solomon took power reluctantly, and that is most clearly seen in this story from the beginning of his reign. This is perhaps the most famous story about Solomon: his prayer for wisdom. Solomon has a choice about what he should ask God for, given just one wish, and he chooses to ask for wisdom. This prayer is going to be the focus of this sermon today. We are going to see what lessons we could take for ourselves from this important passage.

Solomon has just taken over a nation that at that time was a world power, a premier nation in the world. Israel was at that time still a united kingdom, all twelve tribes knowing a prosperity and power like they had never known before. And so it was a restless Solomon laying his head on the pillow at night, trying to get some sleep but worried over the amazing power that had just dropped into his lap and all the responsibility that came with that power. So he tossed and turned and eventually fell asleep and God came to him in his dreams, saying things I’ve never heard God say to me. God said to Solomon, “Ask what I should give you.”

Out of all the times we see God in the Bible, this is maybe the closest thing to being a genie. “Ask what I should give you.” The implication seems to be, “And I’ll grant you what you desire.” Now God doesn’t say that to Solomon, and we don’t know whether or not God would have given him anything he wanted, but it seems like God is not placing limits on Solomon here. Choose whatever you want, he seems to say.

And Solomon says, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David...” Still a young man, missing his dad, Solomon’s first instinct is to remember his father and how close a relationship with God David had. And then he says, “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”

I love this phrase: Solomon is lots of things, but he is not a little child. But this is how he sees himself; he sees himself as completely unequal to the tasks that are before him. He feels like a four-year-old sitting in front of a calculus book who’s told that the test’s on Friday; he feels like a seven-year-old looking at a rock who’s expected to sculpt a figure. He feels completely inadequate for the job he has been made to do. I don’t know how to run a kingdom, I don’t know how to manage people or administer a government.

You know, I think there is something incredibly healthy about the way Solomon views himself. Now our society as a whole might not agree with me. We might say, “Well, Solomon just has horrible self-esteem. He just needs to begin to view himself in a more positive light. Of course he can lead the kingdom; he has all the resources within him to succeed, if he is willing to learn and work hard and do his best.”

I grew up in a self-esteem generation. Most of you didn’t grow up in a time where self-esteem was drilled into you from the beginning, but I did. I went to school in an era when it was almost mandatory to have good self-esteem. We heard a lot of things in those days: “Believe in yourself and there’s nothing you can’t do.” “You can do anything you want if you put your minds to it.” “You have what it takes to fulfill your dreams; just follow your heart.”

Now, of course, it is good to have a healthy self-esteem. I hope that each of you knows how beautiful you are. Why? Because all human life is beautiful. When God created human beings, he looked at us and said that human life was very good. Humans are special because we are created in God’s image, and God looks at humans and sees the pinnacle of creation. So every human life is of sacred worth to God, and you should know about how valuable you are for just being you.

But it’s a far leap from there to say that you can do anything you want if you just believe in yourself. That’s not self-esteem, that’s self-worship. That’s to say something of yourself that is only true of God. Can I do anything I want if I put my mind to it? No. Can God? Yes.

As the self-worship generation has grown up, believing that we could bend the world to our will, something funny has happened to my generation. We have found that there is a difference between what we always heard in school and the real world. We have found out that you can’t do anything you want just by putting our minds to it. Now matter how hard I tried, I could not have a career as an architect. Why? Well, I can’t draw a straight line. Nobody should pay me to design a building for them. I’m just not wired that way. We can’t just believe in ourselves and make something happen. My generation learned other lessons, too. We found out that following our hearts is dangerous because sometimes our hearts tug is in an unhealthy way. We found out that fulfilling our dreams was not as rewarding as we thought because sometimes our dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

And what happens when the things you hear and always have believed to be true turn out to be lies? You get depressed, because you want to hold onto those lessons from childhood but those lessons are not reliable. You drift, like my generation drifts, waiting for our dreams to fulfill themselves, still believing in ourselves, still following our hearts, but kind of aimlessly wandering, angry at anything and everything that reminds us that we didn’t get everything we wanted.

My generation needs to hear the prophetic word of Solomon. Because Solomon knew that the way to begin to pursue wisdom, the way to truly grow up in the Lord, is to first become like a child. It is to acknowledge, “God, I can’t do this on my own. I simply can’t. I don’t have it in me. I’m a little child here, inadequate to the tasks to which I have been called.” Of course, it was not only Solomon who thought this way. A thousand years or so later, Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Whoever doesn’t start by acknowledging their own inadequacy will never enter the God-centered life. Whoever pretends that they’re big enough and strong enough to do it on their own can never know the joy of being truly intimate with God because to be truly intimate with God you have to become dependent on him.

So to live a wise life, we must first start by acknowledging our limitations, our inadequacies. Now look at what Solomon does next. He says, “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.” After he talks about his own inadequacy, Solomon then talks about the enormity of the task in front of him. He says that leadership is a great burden, that to lead such a great nation with so many people is a task that would be almost impossible for anyone to do.

You know, the people of Israel couldn’t hear Solomon praying. But I bet that if they could hear his prayer, they would have been relieved and happy. What if they had heard him praying, “Lord, I’m not a great leader...but this king stuff can’t be all that hard. Give me fancy cars and riches because, you know, I’m sure I can handle this king stuff OK on my own.” The people would not have liked to hear that at all, because they would like a king who has a sober awareness of the task before them. Solomon was keenly aware of how difficult a calling he had in life, how hard it would be to fulfill that calling faithfully.

If we wish to become truly wise, we also must recognize how enormous the task is that we have been called to. You and I have been called to imitate Christ. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples and when the Spirit came in its fullness at Pentecost, the message was clear; Christ’s mission is fulfilled and we are the ones now called to a mission. Empowered by the Spirit, we are now God’s people in the world, called to model godly living, called to show the love of Christ to others, called to call others into relationship with him, called to victory over the things it’s so tempted to be defeated by. We are called into congregations like this one, where people can encounter the God who offers both comfort and challenge.

Like Solomon, we have an enormous calling, a very difficult task. Now, God does nourish us for this task; we have a community, we have the Scriptures, we have the Lord’s Supper, all of which provide nourishment. Still, our calling requires a lot of us. Yet it is so very easy to pretend like this calling is less than it is. It is so easy to trivialize the faith, so easy to make Christianity about something it’s not. It is so easy to make it about getting my own needs met, or about following rules, or about finding a church where I am comfortable, or about feeling peaceful. All of those things, of course, are part of what happens, but they are not the heart of it. At the heart of it is an enormous calling, where we are dying to self and learning to live as new creations, in the same way that Christ died and lives again. True Christianity is nothing less than revolutionary to our lives, and if we dare push it to the margins, we will lose it. The calling which we have, like Solomon’s, is a great and heavy calling, one we cannot do on our own with our limited strength.

And so here is what Solomon asks of God: “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” I love how Solomon asks this. He asks for an understanding mind, one that can discern between good and evil. At first glance, this might seem a strange request if you want to lead a kingdom. We might say, “Lord, teach me political science so I can be an effective people manager,” or “Lord, teach me military strategy so I can conquer more land for this kingdom,” or even, “Lord, give me accounting skills so I can prepare a budget with ease and manage this country’s finances.” But this is not what Solomon asks. He asks to be able to discern between good and evil.

One of the more dangerous beliefs out there today is that people are able to intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. It assumes that something in our hearts will go off and warn us when we begin to do something wrong, but as long as we feel like we are right, then we are right; or as long as our intentions are good, we must be doing the right thing. We forget that our hearts have an incredible capacity for self-deception.

We all know people who have thought they were doing the right thing, following their hearts, when in fact it was exactly the wrong thing. There was a famous football play in 1964. A defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings named Jim Marshall scooped up a fumble and ran it into the end zone. The trouble was, he ran into the wrong end zone! He just had a brain freeze and started running the wrong way. And you could sense the passion and the excitement as he thought he was chasing a touchdown, but instead, he ended up scoring for the other team. He had all the sincerity, and all the passion, but if you’re running the wrong way, sincerity and passion won’t help–it’ll hurt.

This has happened to all of us. We all have had friends who have been in terrible dating relationships that turned into terrible marriages because they were simply unable to see the consequences of their own actions. They thought they were doing the right thing, when in reality they were doing the wrong things in their lives and it cost them terrible pain. We have known people who have thrown their life away doing foolish things that they thought would bring them joy.

That’s because the truest measure of whether something is wise or right or not is not internal, it’s not inside us–it’s external, it’s something outside of us which we must seek. And so this is why Solomon does what he does. He knows that he can’t know the difference between good and evil on his own; he can’t know the difference between right and wrong on his own; he has to seek that wisdom because it’s not inside him, it’s outside him and he has to find it. And so this is his life’s passion: it is the one thing he asks God for, because he knows it is the one thing he needs most. More than anything, he wants to know God’s ideas of right and wrong so he can pattern his life after them.

I think Solomon gives us a good pattern for growing in wisdom. To become truly wise, we start by recognizing our own inadequacy, our own fallenness; we also become aware of how big the task of following Christ is. And then we devote ourselves to seeking Christ, praying to understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and pursue that our whole lives long.