Sometimes, I come to a passage and I wonder where it will take me, I wonder how I can possibly preach it. Any of you who have followed my “Sermon Sketches” know that I always look for where Jesus fits in the picture, and I have to admit that on my first reading of this passage, I was a bit stumped. But—as is true for many of you—I have wrestled with this passage over the last few days, and there may be something here that both brings us to Jesus and speaks to our world.
As we look at this passage together, let us remember why we are following these ancient stories—stories that began with Creation, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; stories about Moses, Ruth, and David. We are following the story of God’s people; we are following our story. The moment we were baptized into the Church, the day we confirmed the faith, the occasion we decided to say ‘Yes!’ to Jesus and follow him, we entered this very story of life and faith. In that moment, the men and women I’ve just named became our ancestors—every bit as real as those folks named on your family tree. Your family tree follows our blood-line; the Bible gives us our faith-line.
So, today we come to that chaotic time in the history of Israel just after King Solomon has died. Solomon was the son of David…who was the son of Jesse…who was the son of Boaz and Ruth. Yes, the connections are all there…and we’ll keep connecting the dots of this story until we arrive at the birth of Christ’s Church. Just stay with us!
David, as you may recall, was the one who was able to unite the tribes and form the first ‘united kingdom.’ His reign was one of peace, and war, and trade, and more. His son, Solomon, came after David’s death, and we are told that his reign was spectacular. Israel shined like a beacon under his rule. The kingdom is rich. The borders are fairly secure. And then he died. Enter Rehoboam, son of Solomon…eager to ascend his father’s throne. Also enter Jeroboam, returning from his Egyptian exile, a former public servant of Solomon who had to flee the kingdom when he decided to ‘go for the gold.’
As we hear in this reading, Rehoboam places his confidence in his young friends, his comrades…rather than listening to the words of his elders. He has the whole kingdom before him, and they are gathered either to give him their loyalty…or walk away. He has the chance to shine to like his father. He has the opportunity to solidify and strengthen what has been passed on to him. All he has to do is listen to the right voices. And he doesn’t. Then the kingdom falls apart.
Jeroboam returns from exile just in time to benefit from Rehoboam’s foolishness. He gratefully steps in to lead the northern tribes who are having nothing to do with Rehoboam. And then he makes a smart move—he moves the center of faith and religious life to the Northern Kingdom. This will solidify the Northern alliance, and further separate them from the Southern Kingdom of Rehoboam. While this may be a divisive act, destructive to Israel, for his own purposes, this a politically shrewd.
Jesus tells us two parables in Luke that speak to these kings and their issues. When Jesus tells his disciples about the “cost” of following him (Lk.14:25-33), he uses the example of the king preparing for battle—" Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able…?” Rehoboam doesn’t sit down, doesn’t count the cost. He ignores the words of wisdom of his ‘elders’ and listens instead to the untested thoughts of his peers. He rejects wisdom.
Jeroboam—sort of the ‘bad guy’ in the story, the usurper, the king-wanna-be—is the one who actually acts wisely. Jesus tells that troubling story of the “shrewd manager” (LK. 16:1-9), called the parable of the “Unjust Servant” in some places, but Jesus holds this fellow up at exemplary: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (v.8) Jeroboam proves to be this kind of fellow—smart for moving the centers of worship out of Jerusalem. Obviously, he ignores the commandment concerning idols, but for the consolidation and strengthening of the Northern Kingdom, he is shrewd in deed.
This passage is a passage about the rejection and embrace of wisdom. Wisdom. It’s one of those soothing words like ‘peace.’ And, like peace, it’s one of those things our world sorely needs. We have information unlike any generation in history—we can access information, data, charts, graphs, history and more through our smartphones and devices. But wisdom…ah, that’s the thing we don’t have, don’t see, and have a hard time teaching in our schools and universities. How do we make good use of our information? What information is worth having or using? What do we do with the kingdoms we’ve been given (perhaps the small kingdoms of our home or job or our own bodies)?
The call today underlying this reading is a call to seek wisdom, to listen to words of experience, to take counsel…and Proverbs reminds us:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7)
“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound warning, so do not forsake my teaching. For I too was a son to my father, still tender, and cherished by my mother. Then he taught me, and he said to me, ‘Take hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands, and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you….’ (Prov. 4:1-6).
Rehoboam provides us a negative example—who not to live like. Jeroboam provides us a positive example—shrewd and wise. Perhaps it's time to revisit the book of Proverbs--just a chapter each day for a month. Perhaps there we'll begin to find the wisdom we and our world craves.
May we learn from the story of our spiritual ancestors and embrace the gift of wisdom that God offers to us.