There are a couple of points in the Old Testament at which people who are attempting to read the Bible straight through – from Genesis to Revelation – tend to get bogged down or start skimming. The first is Leviticus, home to all the laws in their glorious detail. And the next one comes when we hit the 1-2 cycle: The Samuels and then 1 and 2 Kings and their partners, 1 and 2 Chronicles.
The Kings and Chronicles cycle is reminiscent of Judges, in that there are some stories that stand out, some Kings whose stories get great attention. Saul is the first, followed of course by David, then Solomon. But when you get out beyond Rehoboam and Jeroboam, the two on whom we focus in today’s passage, there are two kingdoms to track, two sets of rulers and people, two sets of prophets… Pretty soon the names and misbehaviors begin to run together in a blur of calls to repent and turn back to the ways of the Lord.
The account of David’s anointing and his carrying the ark into Jerusalem last week offered us a challenge as worshippers – a challenge to show in our worship that we love God heart, soul, mind and strength.
Jody reminded us that part of loving God, honoring God – even here in a Presbyterian church- can and should engage our whole bodies in joyful and physical response to God’s grace and provision, God’s presence and activity in our lives. Clapping, swaying, moving are ok. Even dancing is ok.
In fact, David was dancing with such abandon in the streets that Michal, Saul’s daughter, was scandalized. When he finally returned to the palace after all the celebrating and getting the ark into its place… Michal berated David, saying
“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself this day! He has exposed himself today before his servants’ slave girls the way a vulgar fool might do!”
To which David responded –
“It was before the LORD! I was celebrating before the LORD, who chose me over your father and his entire family and appointed me as leader over the LORD’s people Israel. I am willing to shame and humiliate myself even more than this!”
Snarkiness aside, David’s point was this…
When we come before the Lord, the opinions of those around us are to be far from our thoughts. Our worship is not about you or me, it’s not about the music or the preaching or the flowers or the candles or the bulletins or anything else we bring… It’s not about wearing the right clothes or or knowing proper etiquette, or wearing the proper shoes or even getting all the words just right… so that others will approve.
We can be as undignified as David and even more-so, as long as our words, actions and thoughts are offered to the only audience that matters: God.
In fact, that is why David brought the ark to Jerusalem to begin with. To re-center the spiritual life of the people of Israel around God. Not a king, not a great warrior, but God. You see, the ark represented the very presence of God, a physical reminder of the covenants of God with Abraham, Jacob and Isaac. Promises made to Moses and the people while they were in the wilderness.
The temple that David dreamed about and that Solomon eventually built was a place for the people to keep their part of that covenant, to be God’s people. It was built in a city meant to pull the people together. No longer 12 tribes but one people. One kingdom under the rule of one king who answered to one God.
Of course, even David, the man after God’s own heart, was imperfect. He struggled with the temptations that all humans do, and his story reminds us that when given power and authority, our weaknesses and brokenness become all the more obvious.
And now, just 2 generations later, the vision of a single kingdom under a single faith-filled ruler has already grown dim. It is as if the stories of the oppression the children of Israel experienced while captive in Egypt had somehow stopped being told…
How are the actions of Solomon any different from Pharaoh when he places a heavy burden on the people or when Rehoboam chooses to continue the oppression and make it even more painful? Rehoboam’s heart has grown hard, so hard that he has no compassion,no desire to pursue a path that offers the promise of loyalty from the people he is leading.
On the other hand, Jeroboam starts with the interest of the people at heart, but that is short-lived. His concern for the people lasts only until he considers the risk of the people going to worship in Jerusalem. Their worship becomes a threat to his position of power, as God might turn their favor back toward Rehoboam. And so he commissions not one but two golden calves to be the center of the people’s worship.
And so here we are. A kingdom divided.
People separated from one another.
People becoming separated from God.
You might be asking yourself the question that I asked this week… more than once in fact. Where’s the good news in that? And if there is no GOOD news, where is the Word of God for the People of God in this passage?
To be fair, there isn’t a lot of good news there. There is a fair bit of truth, though.
Truth about the nature of power and leadership.
Truth about the nature of humans that continues from well before David’s or Solomon’s times. We humans are good at placing burdens on others, especially the vulnerable who will feel them keenly
In fact, elections around the world since the markets tanked globally in 2008, have been largely about what kind of economic yoke would be placed on the people. The austerity measures in place in Greece in particular come to mind, but we could look to Spain or several other European nations to see similar issues.
Greek banks have been relying on emergency loans from the European Central Bank since Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was elected in January. He ran on the promise of ending the austerity measures imposed on his country by the previous leaders to appease the European Union.
About the middle of last month, however, Greek lawmakers approved a package of economic changes and additional austerity measures. The legislation covered some of the economic changes sought by the country’s international creditors, which include raising the retirement age, cutting pensions, liberalizing the energy market, opening up protected professions, expanding a property tax that Greeks already hated, and pushing forward a stalled program to privatize assets currently owned by the government.
Passing that package paved the way for Greece to receive the first 2 billion euros (about $2.3 billion) from the bailout program. But all of these measures are coming at a time when many Greeks are already struggling to put food on the table, to stay in their homes, to find or keep jobs. Prime Minister Tsipras represents the people each time he goes to the EU, to ask for a lighter burden, a lighter yoke. There may come a time their loyalty to the group ends and they seek to leave.
Thousands upon thousands of refugees from war-torn areas in the middle east and northern Africa are streaming into Europe, seeking relief and safety, asking for the burden of war and destruction be lifted, asking for the yoke of despair for the future – for themselves and their children – be made lighter.
In times like these, leaders are required to make decisions not unlike those Rehoboam and Jeroboam faced.
Do I serve the people, even if it means I may lose power or authority or income?
Do I seek the good of the whole, even if that means I upset people who are currently comfortable and currently support me?
We see this same power dynamic at play in every human organization where decisions are made that affect other people – especially decisions about resources like money and influence.
This is the dynamic that leads us to the axiom that power corrupts and ultimate power, corrupts ultimately. Or as Peter Parker learned as he became Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility.
The tendency is for all people, and Christ-followers are not exempt here, to gather and hold onto as much power as they can. The structures in our culture that privilege, that give advantage to some over others, generally based on gender, age, wealth, and race, were set up and have been maintained so that those who have power can retain that power. So that those who are most like them will be their successors.
This means that there will always be some people who benefit much more from our cultural, political and economic structures. And there will be others for whom those structures are a terrible yoke, creating obstacles that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome. With each election cycle, they cry out for justice.
With each Rehoboam who listens to advisors encouraging more austerity, stricter laws, tighter restrictions on access to food, healthcare, housing support, I begin to wonder… Do these leaders value human lives as much as they value their position of power?
So Yeah… I’m still not finding much good news in this passage.
Except maybe this…
God is not absent from the children of Israel.
God is right smack in the middle of this mess.
God has a plan for the transformation of his people:
Prophets who can speak truth to power will be sent to king after king after king.
Signs and wonders will make clear that the God of Abraham is still the God above all Gods.
And when the kings and the people won’t listen they will be scattered. They will learn again how to gather in small numbers, how to tell the stories of God’s faithfulness, how to listen for God’s assurances.
And when the time is right, in the fullness of time as the gospel writers say, there will come a new deliverer. A new Moses. A rabbi who will offer a new way to read and live the law, a new way of taking up the yoke of God. And even after he has taught them for months or years, those closest to Jesus will need to relearn what it means to lead others in God’s way.
The tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel, gives us a glimpse. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
I always imagine Jesus taking a deep breath at this point… and asking with a raised eyebrow, “What do you want me to do for you?”
They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.
Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
You see, Jesus knew – and I suspect still knows – it is in our nature to seek out positions of power and influence, so that we might do things of significance, even if not always just for ourselves. But to truly follow Christ, to truly understand the law given first to us by Moses, we must become servants of all, not in bitterness or false humility, but in honest gratitude for God’s grace and God’s faithfulness
There is good news in the fact that our God, in the person of Jesus Christ, was willing to model what it means to be a servant leader.
There is good news in the fact that our God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, indwells and enables us to serve others as leaders and to lead others as servants.
Next week, during the congregational meeting, we will vote on a new slate of officers. These men and women will join our current officers as the spiritual leaders of this congregation. Your session members and trustees will be making decisions related to the budget and finances. They are tasked with assuring that church rolls and session minutes and other documents are properly kept and accounted for. They will lead committees and determine what to do with all the crazy ideas your pastor comes up with.
The Deacons will make plans for visiting and checking on those who are not able to attend church functions. The nominating committee will again be seeking the best possible candidates for the next class of officers. They all have a lot to do… this just scratches the surface, really.
It is easy for congregational leaders to slip into business mode. By that, I mean, there are many decisions and discussions that parallel the work that happens in a business or corporation. Efforts to be more efficient, more logical, more economical. It is easy to lose sight of the model that Jesus offers us, the model of the servant leader.
This is why, as Presbyterians, we understand the work of elders and deacons and even Ministers of Word and Sacrament as “ordered ministry.” Women and men are called by God and the church, and they are expected to serve the congregation and the greater church. Not by lording it over others. Not placing burdens upon others, but placing the needs of the whole and the will of God as discerned by the body ahead of any agenda they might be holding dear as individuals.
I ask that even now, you would be praying for your current elders and deacons who will continue to serve, for those who will complete their service in January, and for those who will join their work at the start of the new year. And I ask you to pray for me, as I walk alongside these leaders and you.
Pray that we would see this church and the community we serve through the lens of what God would have us do, what the life and ministry of Jesus teaches us to do, and what the rule of love compels us to do… for one another, for our neighbors, for the sake of the gospel, and for the good of the world. Amen.