charms of power
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on October 27, 2019.
•1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29•
Well the hopefulness and unity of the kingdom of Israel glimpsed in last week’s readings are no more. The 70 years between our readings from last week and today have brought jealousy, greed, and selfishness through David’s household and among his descendants. There have been coups, rape, murders, and rebellions. The kingdom was a red-hot mess.
It was everything Samuel had predicted. The self-serving and oppressive royal policies of Saul, David and Solomon are exactly what the prophet had warned would happen when the people requested a human king like everyone else. The king has not lived into the idyllic picture the people had of delivering those in need, caring for the poor, and standing up for the oppressed.
Rather, the royal whims of these rulers have placed a heavy burden upon the citizens. King David and his son King Solomon implemented systems of forced labor, showed favoritism toward certain cities and tribal affiliations and developed international alliances through marriages to the daughters of foreign rulers that lead to trouble. Case in point, while Solomon oversaw the building of a magnificent temple in Jerusalem to house the ark of the covenant — he also built worship sites for the gods of all his foreign wives, and ended up following their led rather the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When Solomon died the kingdom was a mess as it prepared for the succession of power to his son Rehoboam highlighted in our reading today. It is interesting to me that after three kings having abused their royal power, the people go to the next one expecting something different. This scene is the textbook definition of insanity — attempting the same thing over and over again expecting different results. But alas that is what they did. The people come to the coronation and offer their service to Rehoboam, in response for his dealing kindly with them. Rehoboam seems to have wisdom as he asks for time to think before speaking. He begins by approaching the older men who had attended to his father and seeks counsel from their experience.
The older men advise Rehoboam to do what the people ask. They suggest he become a servant to the people to win them over with kindness and care. They suggest Rehoboam show concern for his people’s well-being and in doing so earn their trust and allegiance forever.
The end goal of the older men’s advice is what I imagine all kings would wish for: allegiance and trust. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be the means by which Rehoboam wishes to attain it. It might be hard for us to understand why Rehoboam so quickly dismisses the older advisors. But then again, anyone who has spent time on an elementary school playground perhaps understands Rehoboam’s lack of faith in their plan.
If the playground you played on was like mine, it wasn’t ruled by a servant. The playground was ruled by the strongest, the biggest, and the one with the loudest voice. The playground was ruled by fear, not service and humility.
And I would guess Rehoboam had similar qualms with the older adviser’s plan, after all he didn’t witness anything of servant leadership from his dad, Solomon, nor his granddad David. His learning had taught him the kingship is a position held through might, intimidation and power. Rehoboam has no imagination to see how one could rise to such a position and instead of having people serve you, you serve them. The idea had to be so foreign to him that it can be no surprise he dismisses the advice and goes looking for his schoolyard chums.
These pals of Rehoboam respond as we might expect. They respond to him in the bravado of suggesting that he show his new people what a real king looks like. In the crudeness of youth, they insult the size of his father’s manhood and suggest Rehoboam show these people what real leadership looks like by adding to their pain, suffering and oppression.
And in following their advice, Rehoboam offers us an illustration into the seduction of power. The seductive idea that suggests leadership is about seizing what you want and forcing your will on others. It is mode of operation that is about screaming instead of listening — taking rather than giving — domination rather than humility. It is a sad state of leadership and yet I wonder do we know anything different?
It feels like all we have are examples of people being seduced by the charms of power. Certainly we see have seen it in the political arena as candidates and politicians seem less likely to find common ground and more likely to exert the power of their position. It happens in our workplaces when someone newly promoted seeks to secure their new position by attacking those who might provide threat. It can even happen in our families between family members who seek to control one another’s actions and behaviors through fear and intimidation.
It is disheartening how easily we are seduced by the charms of power. Of course, some may argue that isn’t what is going on. The politician may suggest that it isn’t about power, but rather that they are right and if all would go along with them the world would be better. The boss may suggest that they are not attacking, but rather trying to get everyone on their page so that it will work better for everyone. The family member may suggest it isn’t about control, but rather they are helping out because they know the right way.
I suppose to be fair we must admit that might be the case, but that seems like an awfully big might. It seems more likely that Wendell Berry is correct when he says, “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. (And) we have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us.”[i]
What makes our reading today so disheartening is that Rehoboam was given good advice. He was given the key to good and faithful leadership. And I am not just saying that because it came from his elders. This story isn’t promoting the wisdom of old and chastising the foolishness of youth. No, what made the advice of serving others valuable, was that it was based in what was good for the world. And all Rehoboam was concerned with was what was good for him.
Now after making his ill-informed speech and promise about harder labor ahead, the people of Israel shout in frustration and anger: “What share do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, O David.”[ii] The 10 northern tribes leave Rehoboam and he shows his power was nothing but hot air as all his bravado is powerless to stop them.
The call to return to tents is reminiscent of the people’s escape from Egypt from the oppressive rule of the Pharaoh. The people turn to Jeroboam as their leader. Unfortunately, Jeroboam continues the Exodus narrative when out of fear he creates some golden calves and echoes Aaron’s words, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”[iii]
If we learn nothing else from this story it appears the learning is that when it comes to human kings there is no good answer for the people. Rehoboam’s weakness and insecurity with power causes him to hide behind oppressive actions that divide God’s kingdom rather than grow it. Jeroboam’s fear of losing what has just been given to him drives him to create new gods, further leading the people away from their faith.
One can only imagine the heartbreak God feels as the brokenness of God’s people is further revealed. Yet rather than leave them to themselves as we would expect a scorned lover to do — God continued to walk with them. In the midst of this dreadful situation God remains faithful. Through God’s grief, God still works in love for God’s people.
Two centuries later, the northern kingdom will fall to the Assyrians and dissolve. Judah will hang on until the Babylonian destructions of 586 B.C. We will see the lives of human kings played out in all sorts of negative ways through it all, but in the end we learn that regardless of the mistakes we make and our inability to follow, our story continues and God is present. God remains present in the midst of these two kingdoms marked by power, oppression and self-motivation.
And that is the Good News, because it doesn’t feel like a lot has changed in the last 3000 years… their world sounds an awful lot like ours. And the fact that God finds new ways to work through our dividing — through power hungry leadership — through our human brokenness — through our ridiculous desire to trust in human leadership — and even work through death — is Good News.
For as the story continues, one will come who embodies what the people ask for — a model in servant leadership — a model in care — a model in concern — and he will be killed by the very ones he came for — by the same ones who said this is what they wanted — yet in that death God will show the length, width and breadth of God’s love for God’s people. For in that moment God will remind us there is nothing we can do, nowhere we can go, not a thing we can say, that will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] found at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/129307-we-have-lived-our-lives-by-the-assumption-that-what on October 23, 2019.
[ii] 1 Kings 12:16 (nrsv)
[iii] 1 Kings 12:28 (nrsv)