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What Would You Ask For?

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on August 19, 2012.

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14

 

Make no mistake about this, no matter who you are whether you’re the King of Israel or the Queen of Sheba … when you die, someone will rise up (quickly) and take your place. Likely they’ve been dreaming of just this moment for some time now and there’s little conflict about the fact that you must go in order for this to happen.

All summer we’ve been soaking in the stories of the man the Bible describes as “a man after God’s own heart.” David has died and the obituary is painfully short for a man historians agree reigned at the height of Israel’s success. No expressions of grief, no poetic psalms written in his honor. No state funeral … just the simple note that “David rested with his ancestors and was buried.”

The Old Testament wisdom writer said a truthful thing about life, about living and dying, “For everything there is a season … a time to live and a time to die.” The simplicity of that line is what gives it power. We are born, we learn and grow, and hopefully along the way we find meaning in life living across the arc of life until our time to leave this world arrives and we die. Eugene Peterson once observed, “No life is complete until there’s a death. Death sets limits. To be human is to die. By dying, we attest to our humanity. Death doesn’t so much terminate our humanity as prove it.”[1]

I

Our reading from Scripture is the end of one life and the beginning of the reign of the next king. “Long live the king!” may be a life-wish for our king, but it is not in the cards (a long reign that is) for death comes for us unbidden whether we’re the king or not. “It is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). No matter how powerful our rulers might be in the end they all succumb to death and no matter how much we lived denying life’s universal truth, death marches on and new rulers will come to take their place.

Forty years prior to the passing of power, David responded to the death of Saul and Jonathan in a magnificent fashion by howling painfully and poetically unto God about the beauty of them that was lost in their violent deaths. But notice there no lament was uttered when David died. The mighty king of Israel died in the midst of a long-held and public family squabble and people were tired of it all.

The Bible records his last words but we did not read them earlier because they’re filled with ugly rancor and are unbefitting how his reign is generally regarded as the man God loved. Betrayed by his sons and army generals, his last bitter words are of revenge. Naming names, he ends his rant with instructions about what to do with Shimei, the son of Gera, the Benjamite, of whom he says, “you will know what you ought to do to him, and you must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol” (I Kings 2:9).

 

What happened? What bitterness over growing old caused him to turn to revenge and spite? One of the signs of aging we don’t speak much about is elder anger and bitterness. Some are so consumed with it, their faces turn from smiles to permanent frowns and they unknowingly wear the “mask of old age” not understanding how angry they look.

How did David, such an extraordinary figure in Hebrew history, become so bitter in the end? He had traveled so far in a life that took him from the fields of his father’s sheep to the highest heights as Israel’s king, where by sheer force of will he was able to bring together the independent tribes of Israel into a powerful political and military force in the Middle East?

Israel was at the zenith of their history, wielding power and sustaining themselves as mighty in battle and worthy to rule their own fate and yet there is this meager word of King David’s death as though the king’s historian had nothing else to say.

After 40 years of ruling over Israel, David died and it was time to finally select his successor. Recall this was why his children (and even his wives) were trying to get David’s blessing to succeed him in power. Two sons, Solomon and Adonijah both aggressively sought David’s throne when the time of David’s death came. In the end, it was Solomon who prevailed.

II

In preparing to preach this summer series on King David, along with other books I have on David, I reread Joseph Heller’s colorful novel titled, God Knows.[2] You may better remember Joseph Heller as the author of Catch 22, the 1960’s novel that offered a cynical look at the futility of war. God Knows is a “flesh on the bone” novelist’s telling of David’s life and loves and of his great genius and his very visible human failures. Admittedly, it’s more of a historical caricature than a historical novel. But it’s what Heller does with Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba, that’s striking. In Heller’s novel, Solomon, the man known throughout history for his great wisdom, is depicted as a foolish simpleton, one who goes about in life with clay tablets under his arm so he can write down all the colloquial wisdom he overhears in everyday conversations.

Some people collect sports memorabilia. Some collect salt and pepper shakers. Solomon collected wisdom … everyday pearls of wisdom from every corner of the world as simple words intended to make life rich and meaningful. He was a librarian of the wisdom he overheard and scratched down on the clay tablets he carried around with him. Most of us have only viewed Solomon as wise beyond his years, but Heller portrayed him as a simpleton who collected wisdom but couldn’t seem to learn from it.

Maybe to understand Heller’s point we should ask of ourselves, “How else do you explain the foolishness of life all around us?” We spend more than we make. We live throwaway lives. We throw away perfectly good stuff every season only to go out and buy more stuff. We treat our friends like they were our enemies. We ignore our children and wonder why they grow up and despise us. We sit in church every week and live as if there is no God. Maybe Solomon the simpleton is Heller’s commentary on contemporary society. Maybe it could be said about us.

 

Despite Heller’s fictional story, there was a noble beauty about Solomon’s request in this passage. God asked him what he wanted and he responded that deep down in his heart he wanted wisdom. It was a beautiful request and God answered it. The Book of Kings chronicles a few anecdotes of Solomon’s wisdom such as what to do with the two women who both claimed to be the mother of a baby. When Solomon brashly pulled out his sword and offered to subdivide the baby giving each of them equal shares, the identity of the real mother became known. But after a few brief illustrations of his wise ruling, we are told he blew it.

Solomon brought great wealth into the kingdom and started an ambitious building program, but then he compromised Israel’s faith by making alliances through intermarriage and by introducing foreign deities to Israel. It was a peaceful pagan invasion the likes of which Israel had never seen and not at all a wise move on Solomon’s part. What’s more, his harsh policies and high taxes dressed the stage for his great kingdom to divide into two weak kingdoms shortly after his death.

Solomon’s reign marked the flowering of an artistic spirit. There was a cultural-intellectual revolution that took place during his reign. Solomon was a creative soul who put plans to many of the dreams conceived by his father. A great and wonderful temple was built for the worship of God. No expense was spared in bringing into reality one of the great marvels of the world. The people of Israel were put to work in one of the most aggressive building projects of their time, surpassed only by their memories of working for Pharaoh in Egypt.

But something was missing. There was a poverty of the soul that was startlingly absent from the opulence of Solomon’s life. In Solomon’s time, the greatness of David’s life still hung in the air as Israel enjoyed its finest days. There was peace in the land and the freedom they enjoyed is remembered until this day. But there was also foolishness stirring because while Solomon demonstrated that while he was bold in public works and building projects, he was weak in his relationship with God. He allowed the things of God to go lax. He forgot that the people needed a strong visible commitment to Yahweh as the one true God.

In Solomon’s time, he was known to have hundreds of wives, maybe even thousands. More than likely, Solomon’s marriages outside the faith were the daughters of political foes. Solomon demonstrated a great naïveté about dabbling with other gods that came to find a home in Solomon’s Israel. Read past the words and you realize Solomon forgot how to keep separate in his own heart the reign and rule that Yahweh demands of us in our allegiance of faith.

Solomon reminds me of a friend that I had in Houston who was caught up in the oil boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Those were heady days when the oil market had skyrocketed and independent wheeling and dealing could generate vast sums of money by negotiating large global oil deals. I walked into his garage one day and noticed six or seven full sets of golf clubs in large leather golf bags like the pros use lined up against the wall as if on display. They were all brand new and hardly scuffed at all and I asked him if he was opening a sporting goods store out of his garage. He laughed and said that he occasionally would be on the road and would stop in to visit with a client and they would go play golf and he wouldn’t have his clubs with him so he would just buy a set right on the spot even though he had several full sets at home.

It was a wild time and there was huge money for the entrepreneurs willing to play the game. My friend was just a “good old boy” from Oklahoma who had left his firefighter job back home to get into making oil deals and he had been amazingly successful. He was living a life beyond his wildest dreams. My lasting memory of him was the day I found him out by his pool talking furiously with “his people” about a deal he was trying to make on behalf of the nation of India for a few million barrels of oil out of the Gulf of Aqaba. Literally, his whole world was wrapped up in closing the deal and he was frantically trying to save himself. Ultimately he lost it all. He lost everything because he didn’t live by the wisdom Solomon could have shared with him.

In the end, not even Solomon’s wisdom could save him. Solomon spent his time and energies in acquisition and building. But he forgot to remember the simple things about God. For you see, God really asks very little from us:  Fidelity, a love that is unhindered and undistracted, and a joyous response to the grace that we find so freely offered.

Solomon had the unique and generous opportunity to ask anything of God.  With that unlimited possibility in front of him, he asked for a heart of wisdom.

If you were invited by God to ask for anything, and you knew God would grant it, what would you ask for?

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Co., 1997, 217

[2] Heller, Joseph, God Knows, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984