Last week we heard a story from the life of Israel's great King David, a story both disturbing and redemptive, about how King David and Queen Bathsheba came to be married. This morning we hear the story of their second son, King Solomon. Solomon is the end of the golden age of ancient Israel. After he dies, the kingdom splits into north and south and descends into chaos and infighting and eventually both kingdoms are invaded and conquered, and the people carried into exile. This didn't happen for no reason. It happened because human actions have consequences, both natural and obvious and also deeper and subtle. Sometimes Bible stories come across a little flat to us because they don't contain a lot of description. But the characters in these stories are as complicated as we are. Solomon, like David, can't be put in a neat box. He doesn't fit squarely into only one category. In direct contradiction to God's directives, he heavily taxes his people, forces people to work for him, and forms alliances with other countries. He forms these alliances by marrying multiple foreign wives, and in addition to that, just like his father David, he brings hundreds of other women into his household to be his sexual partners. But, he also builds a temple for God, and is remembered as Israel's wisest king, and that's the story we hear this morning.
Scripture Reading 1 Kings 3 (NIV)
Narrator: Solomon went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, for that was the most important high place, and he offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream.
God: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
Solomon: “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day. Now, my God, you have made me king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”
God: Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”
Narrator: Then Solomon awoke—and he realized it had been a dream.
Narrator: Solomon returned to Jerusalem, stood before the ark of the covenant and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then he gave a feast for all his court. ... Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.
Woman 1: “Pardon me, my lord. This woman and I live in the same house, and I had a baby while she was there with me. The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
“During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”
Woman 2: “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”
Woman 1: “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.”
Solomon: Bring me a sword! Now cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”
Narrator: The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son.
Woman 1: “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”
Woman 2: “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”
Solomon: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”
Narrator: When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
As I said at the beginning of the service, this is Reformation Sunday. Five hundred and one years ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Last week we talked about the power of perspective when we tell a story so here's a little perspective on Luther: he probably wasn't the only guy to nail theses to the door that day. What he did was the 16th century equivalent of pinning an academic flyer to the middle of an already crowded college billboard. It's what people did to advertise their ideas and desire to discuss them. I don't tell you this to diminish his action, but to point out that our seemingly-small choices can have huge consequences and can be remembered in ways we never anticipated.
And then sometimes, we make choices and we know they are a big deal. Life is a series of choices, some of which we recognize as significant and some of which we don't. I wonder which type of choice Solomon thought he was making in this story. What we know for sure is that, like Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door, history remembers Solomon's choice as being significant. This is his defining moment, a choice that marks him as the wisest king of Israel.
I'm gonna give you a moment to imagine this. In the moment of silence during prayers of the people, or in reflection after the sermon, you hear the voice of God saying, "Ask me for what you want." What would you ask for? Most of us have a silly flippant answer ready, sometime to do with money or beauty. Maybe your answer would be a little more serious, like asking for healing for a loved one or yourself.
In this story, Solomon asks for wisdom. Not wealth. Not good looks. Not long life. Not victory over his enemies. He's not even asking to be the most intelligent guy in the room. The literal translation of what he asks for is a listening heart to judge God's people, able to discern between good and evil.
Here's what stands out to me as we read this story in the context of beginning a stewardship program: Solomon knew what to ask for because he knew what he was up against. He knew his family history. He was on the throne not because he was the oldest of his siblings, but after a series of political intrigues and murders. He was not necessarily the people's choice. He was tasked with ruling over a tumultuous and diverse kingdom, surrounded by enemies. Solomon felt the weight of the responsibility of leading the people of God. In his own power he was not adequate to the task. Solomon knew what he was up against. And so what he asked for was the ability to be a good steward of what had been entrusted to him. He had the wisdom to ask for wisdom.
This morning I think we are in a position not unlike Solomon's. We know we have entered into a new phase of life as a congregation. We have never been these people in this place and time before. We can look back and see what has led us to this point, both the good and the bad. We have a sense of what we are up against. The rates of addiction and domestic violence continue to rise. People call here almost every day looking for the money to buy food and pay for utilities. Despite all our digital connections, people feel lonelier and more isolated then ever. Our culture is becoming more polarized and we are getting worse and worse at having civil conversations with those who believe differently.
And here's what else we know: the gathered people of God can do something about every single one of those issues. Maybe not all at once, but there are opportunities right in front of us. God is inviting us to do something.
As we begin our stewardship program, we have to ask ourselves what we really want. What do we really think will make a difference in the world? This story is so challenging because it reveals that the answer to that question is not necessarily "More money!" Could we do more things with more resources? Yes of course. But the point is that money is not the answer. Money is not going to fix all of our problems. The deepest needs of the human heart, the things plaguing our communities will not be fixed by throwing money at them.
What we need, what Solomon reminds us to ask for is a listening heart. We are called to pay attention to what's happening around us. We are called to notice each other. And as I pray for us almost every week, once we see the need, we need wisdom to know how to address it. We need the ability to discern between right and wrong, between a helpful response and a hurtful response. We could have all the money in the world, but if we are going to be effective for the Kingdom, we need the wisdom of God.
In the story, Solomon knows what to ask for. And because he has proven that he can be a good steward, God also promises him great wealth. Because Solomon had demonstrated that he would use that wealth wisely, he gets the wealth. He just gets it with the right perspective and in the right order.
So as we begin our stewardship program, the question for each of us is not only, "How much am I going to give?" The question is, "What am I going to do with what has been given to me?" This is the question for us as individuals and as a community. What has God given you and what are you going to do with it? What has given us and what are we going to do with it? How are you going to share your blessings with the community? How are we going to share our blessings with the world?
As I told you earlier, Solomon was not perfect. He was human. He was good at judging the situations of other people, but he made some bad choices for himself. And yet he's the guy God chose to use. God entrusted the leadership of God's precious people to this deeply flawed individual. And God continues to entrust the good news of redemption to some deeply flawed people. To turn the blessing of the world over to us is God's own radical act of stewardship. Amen.