Weekly Preaching: August 19, 2018

August 13th, 2018

Preaching on Sunday’s Old Testament text, 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14, might feel like investing in a startup venture or flipping a house: high risk with the possibility of huge rewards. Solomon, for me, is a pastel, two-dimensional kind of figure in the Bible. You don’t get a sense of his heart like you do with David. What shocks me is that the Bible both reveals the dirt on Solomon and tries to paper over it so we don’t notice — but unsuccessfully. It’s always Solomon was great! But… 

Solomon is humble, but then arrogant. Solomon is wise, but then foolish. Or as 3:3 puts it, “Solomon loved the Lord… but he sacrificed at high places.” If the preacher wants to make this text into a lesson for how an individual leads the life of faith, I guess you could say we are all mixed like this. We love God; we fail God. We a holy; we are horrible. So the moral of such a sermon would be… what? Be like good Solomon, not bad Solomon?

Or is it young Solomon versus older Solomon? Perhaps the Solomon of our text, the Solomon of the dream, was humble and holy, or not yet jaded and corrupted by the world. Heather Murray Elkins articulates this approach wonderfully:

"This story may be a conscious attempt to remember what is lost and in the telling regain it... This story seeks to return a people to a trust in YHWH, God of creation and liberation. The outcome is determined by the memory of what was known to be true at the beginning and what is hoped for at the end of the struggle."

I like that. But I'm jaded, and I see primarily the corrupt Solomon. It’s truer to the text — and to reality, to God, and to our current situation — to detect what is clearly going on in this text. God makes an extraordinary offer to Solomon: ask what I should give you. Jesus suggested to the disciples that whatever they ask, he’d do it. But he did add “in my name,” which isn’t a magical formula but an invitation to be close to God’s heart in our asking.

I think of Thomas Aquinas on his deathbed. A voice from above said “Thomas, you have spoken well of me. What reward do you want for yourself?” Aquinas replied, “Nothing but your self, O Lord.”

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Good answer. Solomon gave the best answer ever. He began with immense humility: I am like a little child, I do not know what I am doing. 1 Kings says this “pleased the Lord.” My question is, was the Lord really fooled by this faked humility? Didn’t the Lord detect the BS? Or is the BS in the editor who passed along the story of Solomon to us? Solomon has for some time, and with a shockingly aggressive cruelty, been conniving to seize the throne. Immediately, his kingship was about accumulation, expansion, forced labor, massive taxation, as if he was bound and determined to prove Samuel right when he warned the people about why they should not want a king (1 Samuel 8).

God’s response to all this is lovely and something we might aspire to: “Because you have not asked for long life or riches, or the life of your enemies, I will give you a wise mind.” But then the editor, clearly propping up the absurdities of Solomon’s real reign, jams these additional words into God’s mouth: “I will also give you what you have not asked for — riches and honor.” Seriously?

I’ll never forget a short period of time in seminary when a huge light bulb popped in my head when I heard about “hermeneutics of suspicion.” We peek behind the official, sanctioned curtain of the text and ask what was going on that got hushed up. Our suspicion is that power trumped, that God got domesticated, that the story got tailored for public consumption to the advantage of the winners, the powerful, those who manipulated the system to their advantage.

I read Stefan Heym’s amazing The King David Report, a novel about Ethan, a court historian, who was instructed by Solomon to write “The One and Only True and Authoritative, Historically Correct and Officially Approved Report on the Amazing Rise, God-fearing Life, Heroic Deeds and Wonderful Achievements of David.” The deeper, cynical purpose of crafting such a slanted tale is to vindicate Solomon and justify his reign.

Clearly, 1 Kings is kin to Heym’s novel, and most good scholars (with Brueggemann leading the way, I suppose) see the vested regal interests dominating Solomon’s story. And yet the real story, the theologically sound angle on the story, wasn’t totally suppressed. There is a condemnation of all that is Solomon’s impressive but theologically troubled reign.

I will try to talk about this and about what goes on in our culture. The preacher must be equal-opportunity and bipartisan on this — which isn’t difficult. Politicians put forward their preferred story. They vainly mix their thin and usually faked piety into the official narrative, but we who know the heart of God are rightly suspicious. All the more reason to warn our people not to bow down to the great idolatry of our day, which is political ideology.

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The Epistle, Ephesians 5:15-20, is a fine text rich with preaching possibilities less controversial and risky than 1 Kings. Be wise. Good idea! You can explore wisdom in a world where people know people who are smart but aren’t sure if they know anyone who is wise.

“Make the most of the time” intrigues. The culture might say that and mean grab the gusto, cram your time full, stay busy, maximize your life… but making the most of the time might mean being still, ‘wasting’ time in prayer and worship, etc. The Greek, as spun by Frank Thielman, exgorazo implies buy, or buy up, or even buy something to gain its release from where it is.

We hear the phrase "buying time."

Thielman envisions the phrase implying “buy the time away from what has a grip on it.” What has its grip on time? Corporate life? The entertainment/diversions world? Fears and anxieties (which are entirely fixated on time)? Paul says “the days are evil,” well worth exploring in the context of how our time gets strangled and how it needs liberation.

Careful attention is required to parse “Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” It’s not, Don’t do this, but do this other thing. The two are interrelated. People drink to achieve what the Holy Spirit is supposed to provide, what only the Holy Spirit can provide: we seek joy, we want good company with others, we need recovery from a bad day, we want to celebrate a good day.

Alcohol plays an outsized role in life, and so much of it is destructive. For our purposes today, it’s not just destructive, but actually subs in and blocks our way to the Holy Spirit.

Our church tried a cool program a few years back. We asked people to give up alcohol for Lent, then take the money they would have spent on beer, wine, cocktails, and contribute it to the “Spirit fund” (get it?), which would then go to support recovery ministries. Huge wrestlings and great conversations ensued. I know of four people who went into treatment programs because we did what we did.

Finally, Paul urges us to sing to one another. This is not hard to explore in preaching; I’m reminded of a story Tom Long told in a sermon I was lucky enough to be present to see and hear. He told about visiting an older person in the hospital, fairly unresponsive, until his family gathered around the bedside and began singing old hymns. The man’s eyes flew open, he smiled, and sang along as best he was able; he died not long afterward. Tom said he left the hospital and phoned his non-church-going son and said, “You’ve got to learn these songs” — anticipating the day he would long to hear them in his own hospital bed.

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The Gospel, John 6, is covered in my blog treating the whole 5 week run through that chapter.

"What can we say come August 19? 13th after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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