Tuesday, October 29, 2019

God's Way of Leading: History Repeats

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. And they sent and called him; and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the older men who had attended his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” They answered him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he disregarded the advice that the older men gave him, and consulted with the young men who had grown up with him and now attended him. He said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” The young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus you should say to this people who spoke to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you must lighten it for us’; thus you should say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’”

So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had said, “Come to me again the third day.” The king answered the people harshly. He disregarded the advice that the older men had given him and spoke to them according to the advice of the young men, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” So the king did not listen to the people, because it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam son of Nebat.

When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king,

“What share do we have in David?
    We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.
To your tents, O Israel!
    Look now to your own house, O David.”

So Israel went away to their tents. But Rehoboam reigned over the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah.

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and resided there; he went out from there and built Penuel. Then Jeroboam said to himself, “Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David. If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.  --1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’d like to tell you the story of two judges: Judge Cohen and Judge Klein. Both Jewish. One older - Judge Cohen. One younger - Judge Klein. Judge Cohen sat on the bench for over 30 years. Judge Klein was new to the bench, having just been appointed as a judge. Both of them, served at different times as the judge overseeing complex litigation in all of Los Angeles County. The complex litigation court is one that hears and presides over the cream of the crop when it comes to caseloads. Not your typical personal injury or motor vehicle accident. But cases that involve large numbers of people. That have substantial impact. Cases like class actions. Or coordinated cases - cases that deal with national issues, such as those related to asbestos exposure, or breast implants, or huge fires. Or massive price-fixing cases. They are cases that bring in the brightest and most powerful attorneys from around, not only the United States, but across the world.

Having served as the judicial officer overseeing the complex litigation courtroom for 20 of his 30 years, Judge Cohen had been responsible for decisions affecting not only California, but the U. S. and even the law in other countries. 

One might have expected him, then, to be incredibly proud of this work. One might have even expected that he might have become somewhat arrogant. After all, by the time he retired, his name was on the majority of published opinions in complex litigation cases throughout our country.

But, this was not who he was. Judge Cohen was, by his very nature, a humble man. He carried massive legal briefs home each night in a brown paper shopping bag. He read every word. And, when the powerful attorneys had amassed in the courtroom for argument, with one quiet question, he would hone into the very heart of the matter before him, would give space for all the parties to make their responses, would listen respectfully and carefully to each argument, and would then make his decision, most of which would hold up on appeal. An example of a humble, gentle, public servant.

Judge Klein took Judge Cohen’s place after he retired. Now, Judge Klein was as brilliant, if not more so, than Judge Cohen. Perhaps it was his lack of experience. Perhaps it was his sense of insecurity at filling the very big shoes left by Judge Cohen. But, when Judge Klein took the bench it was as if he had something to prove. Berating attorneys. Mocking their arguments. Often failing to remain neutral in an argument, instead deliberately trying to provoke the parties. Even verbally abusive to his staff. The power of his position appearing to go to his head. Feeding his ego. Making him arrogant, thinking that everything was about him. A type of “me-ism” that often occurs as one gains power and wealth.

This story of two judges, Judge Cohen and Judge Klein, is analogous today to our story of two kings: Rehoboam and Jeroboam.

Rehoboam was the son of Solomon. Solomon, who was the son of David, who we heard about last week as he was anointed king over a unified kingdom of Israel - all twelve tribes together under one king, David. Who reigned for 40 years. 

David’s son, Solomon, succeeded him in the dynasty. We know Solomon for his wisdom and as a great builder, especially of the temple. We also know him for his hundreds of wives, many of whom were from foreign countries. Whose gods distracted him. So that, in addition to the God of Israel, Solomon began to worship their gods, as well. It was because of this - because of Solomon’s lack of fidelity to God - that God declared judgment - that God would dissolve the united kingdom and take the northern tribes from him and from the house of David. And that this would happen during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, one of our two kings in today’s story.

Solomon had another problem. Although he was a great builder, he did this on the backs of the people. By imposing huge taxes on them. And by conscripting them into forced labor. Into slavery. The man Solomon had placed as overseer of this enslaved workforce was none other than Jeroboam, the second in our tale today of two kings. While Jeroboam was in this role of overseer, God sent the prophet Ahijah to anoint as king over the northern tribes. And, as you can imagine, he quickly went into exile to preserve himself from the reach of Solomon’s power.

As today’s story opens, Solomon is now dead. Rehoboam has succeeded his father. The northern tribes now call Jeroboam out of exile to lead them to meet with the new king of the house of David. To seek from him a lightening of their load. A lifting of the heavy yoke his father has placed on them. That he might reduce the levels of slavery that they have suffered under Solomon’s reign. And, that, if he does, then they will serve him. Rehoboam sends them away for three days.

During these three days, he seeks counsel. First, he goes to the elders. Those who have served his father. To seek advice. They tell him to listen to the people. To reduce the load. To be a servant to them. That, if he does this, if he leads them in this way, then the people will serve him forever. 

But, Rehoboam is new to this position. Perhaps it's that he has something to prove. Or maybe he’s just immature. He seeks additional counsel from his own friends, his younger friends who now attend him. It is their advice he follows. So, when Jeroboam and the northern tribes return after the three days have passed, Rehoboam defaults to the immature, arrogant, young man he is. Mine is bigger than yours, he says to them. A response that is exactly how bullies and immature teenagers act. An understanding of power that is at its very worst. Rehoboam adds to the burden of the oppressed, rather than easing it. And the kingdom falls apart.

Today, we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Like the story of the two judges, this story of the two kings mirrors in some ways what was happening during the 16th century. The church had become a worldly, dominant power. Bishops sought and gained their seats through the wealth of their families. To finish the building of St. Peter’s in Rome, this great edifice to the glory of the church, it’s leaders sought to sell forgiveness in the form of indulgences. Those in power sought to lord it over the poor, trying to find more and more ways to extract wealth from them. It was this that Luther and others railed against. It was this that led to the split of the church, like the split of the kingdom. A difficult thing that we still live into today. 

In our story, Jeroboam was called to be a servant-leader. But, then, he, too, begins to create centers of worship away from Jerusalem to protect his own power and position. Eventually, putting up golden calves for the people to worship. Just as there was sin on both sides of the split of the united kingdom of Israel, so, too, there was sin on both sides of the Reformation. 

It is in our human nature, that, as we begin to amass privilege and power and control, we begin to move away from God. We begin to rely upon ourselves and those things in our lives that we set up as our own gods. Our intellect. Our money and profit. Our homes and our families. Even our religion. These things - these gods - that pull us away from God. This is the theology of glory that Luther wrote about in the Heidelberg Disputation. Where it is all about us. About me and mine. A pervasive “me-ism” that pulls us away from God.

Instead, we are called to follow Jesus, the true servant-leader. This is the heart of Luther’s theology of the cross. That, in Jesus, God comes to us. God meets us in our sin and in our suffering. When we recognize that we cannot do this on our own. God comes to us at great cost. A cost that most of us are unwilling to pay ourselves. A cost borne for us, who can do nothing to change who we are. But, a cost borne for us by God, who is the only one through whom we are changed. 

This is to be the shape of our Christian lives. Where we seek to follow the example of Jesus. We, who, in him, have become perfectly free, lord of all, subject to none. But, also, perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all. It is in this paradox where lordship finds its expression in service. And where the good news of Jesus Christ takes root in us to change us into the servant-leaders God calls us to be.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you, must be a slave of all.”

May God grant us a life fully claimed by Jesus, that we might fully serve others. Amen.

Preached October 27, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Reformation Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29; Mark 10:42-45; Psalm 46

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