Power Problems and the Call to Service

Rehoboam traveled to Shechem where all Israel had gathered to inaugurate him as king. Jeroboam had been in Egypt, where he had taken asylum from King Solomon; when he got the report of Solomon’s death he had come back.

Rehoboam assembled Jeroboam and all the people. They said to Rehoboam, “Your father made life hard for us—worked our fingers to the bone. Give us a break; lighten up on us and we’ll willingly serve you.”

“Give me three days to think it over, then come back,” Rehoboam said.

King Rehoboam talked it over with the elders who had advised his father when he was alive: “What’s your counsel? How do you suggest that I answer the people?”

They said, “If you will be a servant to this people, be considerate of their needs and respond with compassion, work things out with them, they’ll end up doing anything for you.”

But he rejected the counsel of the elders and asked the young men he’d grown up with who were now currying his favor, “What do you think? What should I say to these people who are saying, ‘Give us a break from your father’s harsh ways—lighten up on us’?”

The young turks he’d grown up with said, “These people who complain, ‘Your father was too hard on us; lighten up’—well, tell them this: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!’”

Three days later Jeroboam and the people showed up, just as Rehoboam had directed when he said, “Give me three days to think it over, then come back.” The king’s answer was harsh and rude. He spurned the counsel of the elders and went with the advice of the younger set, “If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!”

Rehoboam turned a deaf ear to the people. God was behind all this, confirming the message that he had given to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah of Shiloh.

When all Israel realized that the king hadn’t listened to a word they’d said, they stood up to him and said,

Get lost, David!
We’ve had it with you, son of Jesse!
Let’s get out of here, Israel, and fast!
From now on, David, mind your own business.

And with that, they left. But Rehoboam continued to rule those who lived in the towns of Judah. 

1 Kings 12:1-17

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45

This year our church has been following the narrative lectionary.   And so, like the Bible, we began at the beginning. Along the way, we have heard from Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Ruth. We have considered the ten commandments, and were reintroduced to the great King of Israel, David himself.

But this week, for the first time, we reenter the story of the Bible through a cast of characters that are almost certainly less familiar: Rehoboam and Jeroboam. So I think perhaps it would be wise to do a little remembering together.

Rehoboam's finger is bigger than his father's waist...or so he says.
Rehoboam’s finger is bigger than his father’s waist…or so he says.

Before king David dies, he anoints his son Solomon as king over the people. Solomon, you may remember, is the wise king, and he is also a prosperous king. Solomon builds the temple his father had dreamed up as a house for God. He also spends considerable time and money building up his roster of eligible young women. His appreciation for the female form gets him into some trouble, especially when he begins to construct temples for his foreign wives to worship the gods of their ancestors.

But there is another problem. I bigger one. Solomon may have built a beautiful temple, but does so on the backs of many poor, powerless people. One of these people is Jeroboam, who during Solomon’s reign served as an overseer of building projects in Jerusalem. He became aware of widespread discontent amongst the people, and began to organize a resistance within ten of the tribes of Israel. Solomon uncovers this treasonous act, which prompts Jeroboam and his supporters to flee to Egypt.

After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam succeeds him and inherits a wealthy but socially fractured kingdom. And when Jeroboam returns from Egypt, he has one question for the new king: will you treat the people more fairly than your father?

This question may seem innocent, but Jeroboam has allies. Ten tribes worth, in fact. So there is a threat beneath this question. “Will you meet our demands and give us rest, or will you be like your father?”

What an opportunity Rehoboam has been given: to consider, what kind of king will he be? What will be his legacy?

It is the sort of question that falls into that “non-urgent, but important” category. How often do we take the time to reflect and discern our higher goals, our priorities and our ethics?

Last week I had the opportunity to do just that when I spent a week at the Presbyterian Pension Program’s CREDO retreat. I spent a week surrounded by natural, spiritual, and communal beauty. And during that time, I was faced with important, defining questions. Questions like: What kind of person do you believe God has called you to be? And how might your finances, your family life, your work practices and rest practices help or hinder you in living out God’s call for you?

getOne of the greatest blessings of CREDO was that I didn’t wrestle with these questions alone. Instead, 
I was gathered with other pastors and with mentors who encouraged and supported one another in this deep soul work. We listened, offered our experience, and helped one another to keep our eyes on the important.

i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-13In Rehoboam’s case, he does something similar: when faced with the big questions, he turns to trusted mentors and to friends. But in his case, the advice they give him conflicts. The older and wiser amongst him counsel that a legacy of servant-leadership will bind the people to him. The elders counsel that “The way to gain the hearts of others is to show them that you live for them, not for yourself. Then people will follow you, will obey, love, and even defend you. A good king has no self-interest.” His contemporaries, on the other hand, encourage him to flex his kingly muscles, to lead by strength, and if necessary, fear. Don’t bend for anyone, they cry. Good kings don’t give in to unimportant people.

What to do, when we are given different advice? How to proceed?

In his desire to be respected, Rehoboam forgets the wisdom of those who have governed before. He rejects the wise counsel of those who know better and he doesn’t even bother turning to God for advice. He doesn’t pray or consult scripture or speak with a priest. Instead, he falls into the trap of peer pressure. He worries that if he doesn’t appear strong, his own friends will think he is weak. He believes that, for a king, weakness is unacceptable.

But there is a price to be paid. Rehoboam’s show of strength divides a weakened nation and throws Israel and Judah into a civil war that will claim hundreds of thousands of lives.   For the rest of his 22 years as king he is at war. There is constant fighting and dying over the boundaries of the kingdoms, over what belongs to who and where.

The price of Rehoboam’s show of force is peace, unity, and mercy for the needy. And it is paid on the backs of the poor, the helpless, those sent to war and never to return.

quote-the-chief-enemy-of-peace-is-the-spirit-of-unreason-itself-an-inability-to-conceive-alternatives-lewis-mumford-316415All of this leads me back to wondering: what ARE we supposed to do when we are faced with big questions? With situations that will test and define our legacy?

Do we make a Pro/Con list? Prayer? Scripture study? Ask trusted friends for advice? Write a blog post or paint a picture? Mow the lawn? What helps you make big decisions? Perhaps one thing we learn today is that it can be helpful to ask from guidance from the very people whom we wish to be like. And for us, there is no one who fits that description more readily than Jesus himself.

And what does Jesus say? We who wish to serve God must become like servants to one another:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many?

Jesus points the way forward by reminding us that it is our calling to use all that we are to serve God. Our time, our gifts, our resources—they are given by God so that we may live to give glory TO God with them.

When we take time, to remember our priorities, it can bring us to a place of great spiritual clarity. Perhaps we recognize that we find peace in God in the quiet. Perhaps, with perspective, we see our slowing schedules not as a sign of age, but as an opportunity to rest in and delight with God. To take Sabbath, and take it joyfully. Or perhaps we find ourselves yearning to make a difference in the world, to follow Jesus out into a community that is broken and crying out for Christ.

Whatever it is that helps your soul rejoice in God, I invite you to pay attention.   Take the time, seek out neighbors and fellow disciples whom you trust, and start a conversation: how might we follow Jesus together? How might we honor the God who made us? I promise you, it will be worth it.

The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word endures forever. Amen.

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