Sunday July 17, 2016
Pentecost 9, The Story Week 14
The Kingdom Torn in Two
Many years ago I did a year-long leadership course that changed my whole outlook on leadership in the church. And I remember one thing in particular that made a huge difference to me. I was asked to draw a timeline of my life, highlighting the people and events who had a large influence on me. And what surprised me the most, as I spent time thinking about my life, was the number of people who were a bad influence on my life – and yet who played an important role in making me who I am today.
Well, as we continue our journey through THE STORY, we begin to hear stories in the Bible which are not so well known. Rehoboam and Jeroboam are not names that sound familiar to many Christians. Rehoboam was Solomon’s son. Jeroboam had worked for Solomon, but had to flee when Solomon tried to kill him.
So today we hear about civil war. And we know what that is like. The civil wars in North America and in Northern Ireland – with modern-day civil war in the Sudan, Congo, and in Syria, just to name a few – were and are great tragedies.
Solomon’s reign was spectacular for many reasons. We remember his wisdom and his wealth – not to mention his huge harem! It was Solomon’s desire to be the greatest king of all that led to his own downfall, and that was a significant contribution to the civil war among the Jews that followed his death. From the Upper Story – God’s story – Solomon was given every chance to be the king that would reflect the kind of king that the coming Messiah would be. But he blew it. And so it was God who decided to divide the one kingdom, both as discipline for disobedience, and as part of his plan to make the people more dependent on him. From the Lower Story – our story – the life of Solomon and the events after his death, show how easy it is for humans to stray from God’s plan for us. The Bible demonstrates just how sinful all people are, no matter how much God blesses them. But, as the Bible shows clearly, God’s grace is always the motivation for what he does.
Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, had a chance to strengthen the unity of the kingdom that David had won at great cost of human life, by dealing fairly with his subjects. Part of the reason Solomon had been so rich and was able to have such a huge building program was because he taxed his people heavily. But more than that, he forced his people into labour gangs, and so got really cheap labour . But after Solomon’s death the people came to Rehoboam, asking him to ease the burden on them.
Rehoboam first asked the older counsellors in his court for their advice, which was, “If you are willing to be a servant to these people today and give a favourable answer, they will always be your subjects.” But this king didn’t like that advice, so he sought advice from his peers, those his own age. And he liked what they said, so we read in 1 Kings 12, He followed the counsel of his younger advisers. He told the people, “My father laid heaven burdens on you, but I’m going to make them even heavier! My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions!”
As a result of his decision, Rehoboam caused the tribes of Israel to split. 10 tribes formed a new alliance in the north of the land and became known as Israel. The remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin formed the southern alliance and were known as Judah. This civil war lasted for over 200 years. Solomon’s legacy, his on-going influence, was not peace, but war – not wisdom and unity, but stupidity and division. As Jesus said in Mark 3:25, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
One of the truths I have learned in my life is this simple statement: Leadership is influence. If there is even one person that we have some influence over, then we are leaders, and either good or bad ones. One of the things we learn from the stories of Scripture is that leadership brings with it great responsibilities. We either influence unity or division – peace and harmony or strife and dissention. And that all depends on our attitude as followers of Jesus, who said, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” After all, that was what Jesus did for the world. He “came not to be serve but to serve others . . “. (Matt.20:26-28).
Leadership requires a servant heart. Today we have little respect and admiration for our politicians, whom we judge as often being self-serving. At the last election there was more concern about getting re-elected than about serving the people of our country. The apostle Paul said that we are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. When our concern is for what we can put into a relationship, rather than we can take out of it, then we are happiest when we serve others. Paul also told parents that they are to treat their children well, and not frustrate them or anger them by bad leadership. He could have been talking to grandparents too.
When a family, or a congregation, or any group experiences conflict, that does not have to lead to anger and division. It all depends on those who are the leaders within those groups. Often it is within our power to calm down or stir up people who are upset. We can either contribute to the problem or be part of the solution. We know that this is particularly true in the local congregation. Disunity can raise its head so quickly when people of influence do not take extra care in the advice they give, or become careless in what they say.
In the Upper Story – God’s story – he has a plan for us that is filled with blessings. He reassures us that through faith in Jesus our sins are forgiven, we are united with each other in the Spirit, we have the abundant life (to the full) and we have eternal life. He keeps telling us that doing things his way won’t always make us richer or happier, but it will bring us joy and contentment. God’s plan is to bring all things to completion when Jesus returns, and to bring us all into his eternal home.
In the Lower Story – our story – we know in our hearts that God’s way is the right way for us. But we often forget to apply his will to our situations, or we get stubborn and selfish and go our own way. Like Solomon we allow the wrong things to become important and that has an impact, not only on us, but on future generations. Like Rehoboam we forget that we are to have a servant heart if we are to have a good and wise influence over others. We ignore the wise advice and listen rather to those who agree with us.
The apostle Paul knew the struggles that we would have with unity and peace in our human relationships. There isn’t a family or a congregation who hasn’t experienced dissension and disunity. But there is always hope, even in the middle of serious trouble, because God promises us that we don’t have to create this unity. That is a gift of the Spirit. So our task is to keep in step with the Spirit, so that we stay within the will of God and serve with love and humility.
In Ephesians 4 Paul wrote: As a prisoner for the Lord, then, i urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
A house divided against itself cannot survive. War and division cannot restore relationships back to what they were before the trouble. A proud and arrogant person can never promote love, unity and peace. And disunity and division cannot bring glory to God, nor bless others.
Jesus demonstrated a servant heart that would rather suffer than cause suffering; love in the face of hate; and serve rather than be served. Each of us can strive to follow his example, so that instead of civil war among those we know and love, we reflect the unity of the church as the body of Jesus. Let us pray that our influence will always point others to Jesus and to the unity that only God’s Spirit can provide.