Prayer and Wisdom

In 1 Kings 2 we meet Solomon for the first time, famous now for his wealth and glory (“surely Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed …”), for his 700 wives, for his meeting with the Queen of Sheba and for building the first temple to God.  But he is renowned most for his wisdom.  He is the second son born to David and Bathsheba, and the first born in wedlock.  He has just become King on the death of David.

God appears to the young King in a dream and says: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”  If God appeared to us in this way, how would we respond?  We are used to asking God for many things in our prayers, but with confidence that he will lovingly sift our supplications and grant only what is truly beneficial.  This seems like quite a different proposition, and one that needs careful thought.

Solomon is thankfully free of the hubris of youth and deeply aware of the daunting job he has inherited, so he asks for wisdom and discernment so that he will govern well.  God is so pleased with this answer that he also grants Solomon what he did not ask for – wealth and honour.

Wisdom is not just intelligence or knowledge.  We all know many clever people who are not wise.  Wisdom is not a quality we seem to value any more in our culture, so it is not surprising that it seems in short supply.  If we look back through the world leaders we have known, are there any we could call wise?  Abraham Lincoln perhaps.

The paradox of this story is that Solomon must have been wise enough already, in order to ask God for the gift of wisdom.

Faith, Bread and Wine

Christians have never enjoyed a happy relationship with the material world. Influenced by Greek views that matter was negative, sexuality and the physical world, including daily life, were viewed in a negative light. The world of ideas and the mind were elevated and valued above  the materiality of this world. As Westerners, we live with the residual influence of this position. Yet we are people who use everyday material things, bread, wine and water, in worship to convey something of God himself to the person receiving it. Jesus himself says: ‘I am the bread of life . . .’

Anglicans have tended to make two responses to Holy Communion. (I run the risk of oversimplifying this view, but hear me out.) The first, by the Anglo-Catholic, tends to elevate the liturgy and sacrament, above the simple encounter with the risen Christ given in the bread and wine. Evangelicals, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with Holy Communion, not wanting too much fuss made and tending to consider it of less importance than the ministry of the word. Both views engage with the question of how does our faith relate to what is symbolised in the materiality of bread and wine? For the Evangelical, it is faith in God’s Word and faith in Christ particularly, without the prop of other things, which is important.  That’s good Reformational teaching, I agree. But something is lost and not necessarily reclaimed with a simple view that Christ’s life, presence and love are given in the sacrament. And how does this occur? Merely saying it is a metaphor or sign leaves much unsaid and leaves us poorer for entering into this profound gift by Christ to his Church, his body.

Telling Truth to Power

How do you tell the king that he is guilty of adultery, murder, the theft of another man’s wife and has sinned against the LORD – without losing your life? This is the dilemma which Nathan the prophet faced when sent by the LORD to confront king David. In contrast to Nathan, when John the Baptist told king Herod something similar (Herod had taken his brother’s wife as his own), he lost his head (Mark 6:17-29).

Nathan the prophet took a bold, courageous, but more tactful approach. He told king David a story, or more accurately, a parable. Everyone likes a story, especially kings. You might remember it. Rich man, lots of flocks and sheep is contrasted with a poor man who owns just one little ewe lamb. It is the family pet. The rich man steals poor man’s sheep to feed a dinner guest he is entertaining. Hearing the story, David is outraged at the theft of the poor man’s sheep. David can see the injustice and angrily calls for the legal restitution of what was stolen and that it is to be fourfold (Ex 22:1). Additionally, the rich man’s punishment is to be death. But Nathan now has David’s attention. With Nathan’s charge: ‘You are the man’, David is able to see himself as the very man of the parable who has acted unjustly. The parable has created the moment of recognition for David as he has himself rendered judgement on the injustice of privileged ‘taking’ what rightfully belongs to another. Parables like Nathan’s, and like Jesus’, interrogate us and help us to see ourselves as God sees us. It is why Jesus warns us about being quick to judge others (Matt 7:1-5; John 8:7).

Abuse of Power

The #MeToo Movement spread rapidly in October 2017 on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment of women, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer. The movement has given women throughout the world a voice to accuse men who have sexually abused or harassed them. High profile actors and men in Australia have also been implicated. But when we turn to the well-known story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:1-27, what is noticeable is that Bathsheba has no voice. She is silenced, passive and without any power to refuse David’s approach. He initiates, then entraps her, then hatches a plan to hide her pregnancy (and his sin), and when that fails, he conspires to have her husband murdered. He completes his control over her by having her brought to him once her period of mourning for her husband is finished. She is a victim of David’s unrestrained power. But David is also a victim. He is a victim of his own success which deceived him into thinking he had a right and entitlement to do what he wanted as king. He is a victim of the political culture of the day which gave an absolute monarch power to live by a different set of rules from his subjects. David is a victim of his own failure to grasp his role. The king of Israel was not above the law of Moses; rather, he was to promote and guard that law (Deut ch 17). He was appointed to embody the standards of the Law as the earthly representative of God’s spiritual kingdom that was manifested in Israel. David’s behaviour is not only a moral failure, it is tragic display of a lack of self-awareness and forgetfulness of the role he had been entrusted with by the LORD.

Praying with Mixed Motives

David was an inspiring and capable leader and his list of achievements are impressive. But he was also an ambitious ruler. He had, for example, built himself a palace to complement his status as the ruler of Israel. Then he had consolidated the twin symbols of statehood by bringing the tabernacle in which God’s people worshipped, into Jerusalem. But when he looked out from his palace to the new centre of religious worship, the Holy of Holies remained housed in a tent. Compared with the other nations, the absence of a building made the worship of God seem cheapened. So David asked God if he could build a temple to house Israel’s worship. Initially, Nathan, the prophet agreed (2 Sam 7:1-5), but in a dream that night, Nathan was told that David could not proceed. The reason? David is a warrior and is tainted with the history of past battles. His feet have blood spilt on them (1 Ki 5:3; 1 Chron 22:8; 28:2-3).
The story exposes David’s mixed motives when he prays (a common aspect of our own prayers as well.). David wants the twin symbols of national power: a palace and a temple in his new capital. God will answer his prayer, but differently from his expectations. Despite his mixed motives, God will honour him (in fulfilment of Deut 12). God will build a house (a lineage) for David and appoint his son (who will be Solomon) to build the house of God. But there is more; God promises that this son and his successors will never be rejected; God’s love for him will be unconditional and enduring for ever. David didn’t receive what he wanted, but he was given something far better, and his lineage becomes the basis for Christ’s status as the ‘Son of David’.

Without holiness no one can see God

Worshipping God is not something to be entered into casually. To stand before him, or to encounter him in daily life, will give rise to an immediate awareness that God is holy. It is dangerous to think that God can be fooled or treated in an offhand way. In today’s reading from the Old Testament (2 Samuel 6:1-23), we are left with three disturbing images of people who have made various responses to God’s holiness.

The first is by Uzzah, who reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant which seems about to topple over on a cart. He is struck dead by the LORD. He has violated God’s holiness (similar to the Philistines in 1 Sam ch 6). The next image is of David exuberantly dancing semi-naked before The Ark as it is brought into Jerusalem. He is full of joy that God’s dwelling will now be in the new city he has founded. The third is the sour face of David’s wife, Michal (2 Sam 6:20). She despises David’s obvious love for God expressed enthusiastically in dance. As the daughter of Saul (2 Sam 6:16), she is bitter that her father was not the one doing what David has achieved and nurses deep resentment that she has been forcibly taken from her husband and given back to David who had won her as a trophy for getting 100 Philistine foreskins. She has been traded like war booty as a condition of his agreement to become king over Israel (2 Sam 3:13-16). The consequence of her bitterness was that she bore no children, probably because David refused to sleep with her, rather than as a sign that God’s blessing had been taken from her. “Without holiness,” writes the author of Hebrews, “. . . no one can see God.” (Heb 12:14. See also Matt 5:8).

Recognising God’s Call

The Australian composer of modern music, Peter Sculthorpe, always wanted to do one thing in life: it was to compose music. Not all agreed. At the age of seven, following his first piano lesson, he composed a little composition which he took to his second music lesson to show his teacher. His music teacher was not impressed and canned him. Peter persisted, but in secret. Another obstacle was his father. He didn’t understand the strange compositions his son was making and considered music unlikely to provide him with a living. He preferred he join his brother Roger in the family business which was a sports store in Launceston. Following his graduation from Melbourne University, Peter was broke and had to join his brother in the family store. On his 25th birthday, he sat on his parents’ bed, burst into tears, and announced “I’m a quarter of a century old, and I’ve done nothing!” (It is never wise to compare oneself
with Mozart who produced wonderful music at the age of 7.) At this point, his father gave up his expectation that he should continue to work in the family business.

This story illustrates what obstacles Jesus faced in order to follow his own calling to do the will of his Father, our God. Jesus had made a name as a healer and a prophet; a rabbi of some note. But when visiting his hometown, his family and the townsfolk he was met with disbelief. They could not recognise him for who he was and his calling due to their lack of faith (Mark 6:1-6). Recognising God’s call in our own life will often be met with obstacles, but we must persist in order to respond to what we know deep down, is our calling: to accept his commission and to follow him.

Flawed Heroes

“How the mighty have fallen!” cried David when he lamented the death of king Saul. (2 Samuel 1 vss 19, 25, 27). Saul was not what we would consider a ‘success’. He had disobeyed God’s command to destroy Israel’s enemies, the Amalekites, turned to a medium in desperation and acted out of self preservation when pressured by his troops to save the best (1 Sam 15:7- 26). Every leader has spectacular failings. John F. Kennedy had affairs, as did Martin Luther King. Richard Nixon lied and conspired to pervert the course of justice. Recent findings by the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse have turned the spot light on many cases of abuse by leaders in positions of power in social and sporting clubs, churches and institutions with the responsibility to care for the disabled and vulnerable.

Saul did have some military successes. He had begun to bind the disjointed tribes of Israel together as a nation and he saved the city of Jabesh (1 Sam ch 11). David is magnanimous in his lament which is surprising given how Saul had hunted him in order to kill him. But even David had his faults – and they were equally as spectacular as Saul’s. In fact, almost every ‘hero’ of the Bible has faults exposed. There was one man, our Lord Jesus Christ, who although tempted and tested, did not fail in his obedience to God (Hebrews 5:8). The Bible gives an unvarnished account of heroes of the faith and their faults – to teach us wisdom. It is not book which we read, but a book which reads us and casts a light on our own moral weaknesses and temptations.

David and Goliath

1 Samuel 17 relates the encounter between David and Goliath and is perhaps the best known of all our Old Testament stories. Little guy beats big guy. It is often referenced that way in popular culture. But what does it mean for us today? What is the lesson to be gleaned for our own lives?

In Chapter 15 we read that Saul, the king, has disobeyed God’s commands and is out of favour with God. In Chapter 16 God tells the prophet Samuel to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse and still a stripling, as the future king.

Now the Philistine army is on the war path and they face the army of Israel, across a valley. But they are at a stalemate. 9 foot tall Goliath steps out as the champion of the Philistines and waits for the Israelites to respond. Saul doesn’t know what to do. David, who is still too young to be a warrior and only came to bring food for his brothers, does know what to do.

With God on his side and in his heart, David appreciates the situation perfectly, and understands precisely what he can do about it. He stands up and plays his part, and sees it through to the end: a victory for those who have placed themselves in God’s hands.

Do we always see accurately what is happening around us? Do we see the contribution we might make? Do we stand up when we can, and strike a blow for the kingdom of God? Can we face the fear and unpleasantness that we might have to go through? By putting all of his skills and experience in God’s service, David grows in stature, and proves himself a worthy future king of Israel

Obedience

Many a Christian has not progressed far in their spiritual life beyond the first base of believing and trusting in our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is simple. The first thing they must learn to go deeper with God and to enjoy the slow, but steady transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, is that obedience to God is not optional, but essential. Many a ‘would-be’ believer, has fallen by the wayside, because they have not understood this simple truth. You see, Jesus is called, ‘the Lord’ for good reason. He is the Lord over heaven and earth, which is confirmed by his resurrection, and he is the Lord over the lives of men and women. He holds the keys to death and Hades (Rev 1:18).

King Saul, who precedes King David, learnt the truth painfully that obedience to God takes priority over all other things. He failed God’s command to destroy the Amalekites completely (1 Sam 15:7-14). He withheld some of the cattle and sheep and did not kill Agag the Amalekite king. Perhaps he thought that kings deserved special treatment (1 Sam 15:15-20). Saul justified his actions by appealing to his intention to offer them to the Lord (vs 21). Samuel the prophet differs and accuses him of acting in self-interest. Saul has not understood the seriousness of disobedience. He has, as so many have thought, that by offering the right sacrifices and do the ‘right thing religious things’ (actions) for God, he will justify himself. It won’t. His actions are equated with rebellion and idolatry and have brought upon him God’s rejection. For the Christian today, we are to question ourselves: is our heart right and obedient toward God?