Alexander the Great; Genghis Khan; Emperor Constantine. These three famous world leaders share something. Well, actually, they share a lot of things. They were all great military leaders, they were all emperors of the three largest kingdoms in history, and they were all very powerful politically and militarily. But beyond that, even though they lived in different times and places, they share something odd. That is this: they all died. Well, their dying isn’t the odd part. What’s odd is that, when they died, each of these men chose to split his kingdom among his sons.
This made sense to them, and maybe to us, too. See, it tends to be the case that, when only one son inherits a kingdom, the other sons fight amongst themselves. That’s not always true, but it does happen. So some fathers (and I use male language here because, let’s face it: it’s always been fathers and sons; maybe if it were mothers and daughters, things would be different) think they’re keeping the peace by splitting things up. But you know what happens to these empires, 100% of the time? They crumble without the strong, central leader they had.
David was a strong, central king for Israel. Even while he was alive, his sons fought for the right to inherit his throne. Solomon, the son of David’s third wife, Bathsheba (whom we heard about last week) is the one chosen to inherit. And it is, frankly, an inspired choice. Last week, I mentioned that David was “perhaps” the greatest king in Israel’s history. Well, if he wasn’t #1, Solomon is a good choice for that spot. Israel’s military was never stronger, its riches never greater, and its king was never wiser than when Solomon sat on the throne. He is the one who built the Temple in Jerusalem, a monument to God’s eternal presence. He is the one who helped keep peace with the much more powerful Egyptians. But he was truly known for his wisdom.
The Bible teaches us about how Solomon solved a dispute between two women, both claiming that a boy was theirs. Each one claimed to be the true mother of the child. Solomon, seeing that there was no way to solve the debate, ordered the baby cut in half. The first woman thought this was fine; it was better than letting that other woman have the baby. But second woman screamed at Solomon to let the other woman have the child, because that would be better than seeing him killed. Solomon gave the second woman the baby, reasoning that no true mother would ever let her child be sawn in half; a true mother would rather see her child raised by her enemy than watch that child die. It was a clever trick on Solomon’s part.
Anyway, Solomon the wise king got old and died, as everyone does, and there came a time to determine what was to happen to the kingdom. Now, there are two characters here with very similar names, so I’m going to change them for the purposes of retelling the story. Solomon’s son Rehoboam, I’m going to call “Rex.” The other important character is Solomon’s most trusted general, named Jeroboam, whom I’m going to call “Jerry.” Now, Rex, Solomon’s son, was the obvious successor, so he took over. But Jerry, the trusted general, had a little different perspective on things.
See Jerry grew up in the North. Jerusalem, the capital, is pretty far in the south. You know how people in South Dakota, particularly West River folks, complain when they perceive that too many things are in Sioux Falls? Picture that, only in a day when you couldn’t just drive somewhere. Long, long walking trips (like weeks) were needed to get to Jerusalem. Not to mention, it seemed like no matter how successful Israel was during Solomon’s reign, the farmers and laborers seemed to do most of the additional work, but the people in Jerusalem seemed to be the ones getting most of the benefits. So Jerry decides that he’s going to reason with Rex, the new king.
Jerry approaches him with an offer. He says, “We’re pretty fed up with the hard work. Ease up on us; don’t be so harsh like your father, and we’ll serve you forever.” Rex, wanting to be wise like his father, says to Jerry, “Come back in three days.” During those three days, Rex consults his advisors. He first talks to the older advisors, the ones who had worked with his father. They say to him that it’s in his interest to be a servant to his people for a little while; serve them a little now, and they’ll serve you forever.
Thing is, Rex doesn’t like this advice. He feels like his dad never got pushed around this way. So he asks some of his younger advisors – the ones who grew up with him. They end up, unsurprisingly, being the “yes” men, and they agree with Rex. They say, “Tell those fools up in the north that you’re even harsher than your father; if they thought they had it bad before, watch wait ‘til they see what you do!”
He takes the advice of the young men. Instead of being careful, measured, and wise like his father, he just does what makes him feel good. He tries to put Jerry in his place. Jerry goes back home to the northern part of Israel, where they decide something: obviously, Jerusalem doesn’t care about them, so they don’t care about Jerusalem. They decide to go on their own. They say, “We have no share in David.” In other words, “We’re obviously not considered a part of David’s house, so let’s go it alone.”
They set up with Jerry as king. It makes sense; he’s an experienced ruler, he’s been their political champion, and he’s sort of the rallying person for their movement. And when he becomes king, he realizes something: there’s still just the one Temple to make sacrifices to God in, and it’s still in Jerusalem. In other words, to properly worship, his people in the north are still going to have to go down to their rivals’ territory. And when they do, Jerry fears that they might find themselves aligning with David’s ancestor again, and forgetting all about him.
Therefore, Jerry sets up a couple of idols, one in a city called Dan and another in a city called Bethel. At each site, he made golden calves (most of you will, I’m sure, recognize that symbol), and told the people to worship them instead of God. Since the people were sick of being mistreated and their new worship sites were closer to home, many of them went along with it. And this new, official Northern Kingdom ruled by Jerry became known as Israel. The older Southern Kingdom became known as Judah; and with that, God’s people were divided, a wound that would not be healed for hundreds of years.
This is a little story in the Bible, in one of the Bible’s most difficult-to-read (aka “boring”) books, particularly if you don’t already know what’s going on. Many people, even those who have gone to church for many years, don’t know much (or even anything) about Israel being two separate kingdoms; yet, that is actually the status quo for nearly half of the written works preserved in the Old Testament.
To me, this is a passage about a lot of things. For one, it’s a passage about what it means to be a good ruler. We can see both of the rulers here caring more about themselves and their own status than they do about their people, and that’s a problem. But related to that, but even more generally, this is a story about pride.
Pride is defined as “a deep feeling of pleasure or satisfaction at one’s accomplishments, possessions, or friends.” Basically, we are proud when we do something good. But the problem is, pride is often unhealthy; it’s not usually about having a good or proportionate amount of good feeling at what we’ve done; it’s about going overboard. Pride is, so often, the thing that gets in the way of doing what’s right. Pride is what causes rifts in families and rifts in communities. Pride disrupts the kingship of both of these men, and it is so pernicious that it’s just as likely to hurt the one who’s expressing the pride as it is to hurt the one to whom they’re expressing it.
In this case, we see pride get in the way of God’s purposes. You see, God wanted there to be a Davidic King in Jerusalem for all time. In fact, God promised to deliver that. But the people who were supposed to be serving God actively rebelled. Solomon rebelled when he worked the northerners too hard; the northerners rebelled when they left Rex’s service; Rex rebelled when he cared more about his status relative to his father than he did about the good of his people; Jerry rebelled when he’s rather turn his back on God than risk losing power. All these men were too prideful to just put aside their own feelings for one second and consider the greater good.
This often plagues churches; in our worst moments, we get self-righteous about our beliefs, and we don’t care whom we hurt in the process. We don’t even care if we stop acting like Christians. We don’t care if we stop emulating Christ. What becomes most important for us is proving that we’re right, that everyone else is wrong, and that becomes more important to us than our commitment to Christ. It’s often our first reaction to respond to criticism with defensiveness, because our pride doesn’t allow us to see the legitimacy of someone else’s complaint against us.
And it’s not just church life that’s like this. How many of us react like Rex did, that when you’re criticized, you end up being worse, and actually making the other person’s complaints about you come true? How many of us have, like Jerry, cared so much about “protecting” what we perceive as being “ours” that we don’t stop to think of the consequences? These are nearly universal experiences, I think.
We heard a brief passage from the Gospel of Mark today, before we got into all this Old Testament tomfoolery with the hard-to-remember names. In it, Jesus said, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” You see, Jesus’ example for us is not one of pride, but of selfless giving. If anyone in human history had a right to be prideful, it was Jesus. Yet, he was the opposite.
Jesus could’ve lorded it over everyone, given his divine power, his eloquence with words, and his many followers. Yet, Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus spent his life as a servant. He served God by being among people. Even when he didn’t want to die, praying to God to be released from the responsibility of the cross, he was obedient and went to pain and death. He served people; he washed the feet of the disciples, he listened to children who were treated like dirt, he spoke with women whom others considered non-human property. Jesus made it his life’s work to live humbly, even as God on earth.
Brothers and sisters, we spend most of our lives as Jerrys and as Rexes. We spend more of our time worried about what’s best for us than we do worried about what God is asking us to do. It’s hard to put aside our pride and attend to God’s commands. But what we see here is people putting themselves first.
Always, God’s people will divide against one another; it’s human nature. We’re never going to be perfect. Yet, this story shows us what happens when no one gives in, when everyone cares only about themselves. When we do that, we actively struggle against what God is trying to do. God intends for good kingdoms to last forever, and we let our selfish pride tear down God’s good things. Our lives, you see, are best when we embrace what God is doing. So let us check our pride at the door. Let us be less concerned about being right, and more concerned about doing right. Let’s worry less about whether or not we’re on top, and more about whether we’re in right relationship with the true top, our Lord and Savior Jesus. Let us grow more like him every day. Amen.