Rev. Teri Peterson
Take My Advice
1 Kings 12.1-17, 25-29
1 November 2015, All Saints, NL2-8, H2-3 (characters of faith: wisdom)
The Message (w/NiRV & NRSV in the quote at the end):
Rehoboam traveled to Shechem where all Israel had gathered to inaugurate him as king. Jeroboam had been in Egypt, where he had taken asylum from King Solomon; when he got the report of Solomon’s death he had come back.
Rehoboam assembled Jeroboam and all the people. They said to Rehoboam, “Your father made life hard for us—worked our fingers to the bone. Give us a break; lighten up on us and we’ll willingly serve you.”
“Give me three days to think it over, then come back,” Rehoboam said.
King Rehoboam talked it over with the elders who had advised his father when he was alive: “What’s your counsel? How do you suggest that I answer the people?”
They said, “If you will be a servant to this people, be considerate of their needs and respond with compassion, work things out with them, they’ll end up doing anything for you.”
But he rejected the counsel of the elders and asked the young men he’d grown up with who were now currying his favor, “What do you think? What should I say to these people who are saying, ‘Give us a break from your father’s harsh ways—lighten up on us’?”
The young guys he’d grown up with said, “These people who complain, ‘Your father was too hard on us; lighten up’—well, tell them this: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!’”
Three days later Jeroboam and the people showed up, just as Rehoboam had directed when he said, “Give me three days to think it over, then come back.” The king’s answer was harsh and rude. He spurned the counsel of the elders and went with the advice of the younger set, “If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!”
Rehoboam turned a deaf ear to the people. God was behind all this, confirming the message that he had given to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah of Shiloh.
When all Israel realized that the king hadn’t listened to a word they’d said, they stood up to him and said,
“We don’t have any share in David’s royal family.
We don’t have any share in Jesse’s son.
To your tents, O Israel!
Look now to your own house, O David.”
And with that, they left. But Rehoboam continued to rule those who lived in the towns of Judah.
Jeroboam made a fort at Shechem in the hills of Ephraim, and made that his headquarters. He also built a fort at Penuel.
But then Jeroboam thought, “It won’t be long before the kingdom is reunited under David. As soon as these people resume worship at The Temple of God in Jerusalem, they’ll start thinking of Rehoboam king of Judah as their ruler. They’ll then kill me and go back to King Rehoboam.”
So the king came up with a plan: He made two golden calves. Then he announced, “It’s too much trouble for you to go to Jerusalem to worship. Look at these—the gods who brought you out of Egypt!” He put one calf in Bethel; the other he placed in Dan.
It’s been a long time since last Sunday. Just a week ago we heard the story of David leading the people in dancing and praising God while bringing the ark, which held the tablets of the commandments, into Jerusalem, uniting the nation into one kingdom…and today it is 70 years later. David’s son Solomon ruled the kingdom for around 40 of those years, and while he was famed for wisdom, he was also a flawed human being. He forced the people to labor on the temple he wanted to build, and he loved his many wives so much that in his later years they found it easy to persuade him to follow their religions along with his own. Because of this, God decreed that his descendants would only get one piece of the kingdom—Judah, in the south, where Jerusalem was located—while the 10 northern tribes would become their own kingdom again. The man God chose for this big task of being king in the north was Jeroboam, who was the overseer of Solomon’s laborforce. A prophet told him that he would one day become responsible for shepherding the majority of God’s people…and when Solomon heard it, Jeroboam was forced to run away to Egypt, fleeing Solomon’s reach.
Which brings us to today: Solomon has died, and his son Rehoboam is the king over the whole land. Jeroboam has heard of this transition in power, and returned to his land to see if he can help his people. He’s the one who goes to the king, with the whole nation standing behind him, and asks for mercy—for a lightening of the load, an end to the slave-conditions, for compassion from the shepherd for the sheep, so they might live peacefully and productively in the land God gave them.
Rehoboam then does what we hope any good political leader does: he convenes advisors to talk about his options. First he asks the men who have seen first hand how a relationship between a king and his people can grow or die. They’ve been around the block, seen Solomon’s triumphs and mis-steps, spent their lives thinking and praying about the leadership of this people. Their advice is for Rehoboam to act like a servant leader: to listen carefully, to lead by example, and to take care of the people, lightening the load and ensuring their well-being. If he takes care of them now, they will be loyal and hardworking and will take care of him and the nation in the future.
Having heard this, Rehoboam then goes to his friends, the guys he’s played with and studied with and gotten into trouble with…the guys who now want to ensure their own place in his court. He’s comfortable with them, they’re familiar and had lots of shared experiences. They know how to push each others’ buttons and how to say what each other wanted to hear. They advise that Rehoboam take this opportunity to prove his macho manliness, to swagger out in crown and robes and proclaim that the people haven’t seen anything yet—he’s bigger and stronger and harsher and faster than his father. That’s the way to impress them, and to ensure their loyalty, his friends advise: make them afraid, and they’ll follow you anywhere.
I almost feel like Rehoboam is the kid who asks mom for something, and when he doesn’t get the answer he likes, he goes quick to ask Dad and see if maybe he can get what he wants before they talk to each other…but on a larger scale.
He asked for advice, and he got it—but the question with advice is always whether it is good or not. On the one hand, he has people he knows and who are like him. On the other hand are people he doesn’t know well, whose experience is different from his, and who have a variety of opinions and viewpoints.
Rehoboam almost immediately shows us that wisdom is not genetic. He chooses to surround himself with people who look, think, act, and speak like he does, rather than with people whose experiences, opinions, and worldviews differed from both his and from one another’s. Where he could have been surrounded by the kind of thoughtful back-and-forth that comes from a diversity of voices, he was instead surrounded by an echo chamber. And the consequences were devastating—not only for him, but for his people, for many generations to come.
Often we think about wisdom as something individuals have. Solomon was wise. Maybe our grandparents or parents have both learned and earned some wisdom over the years. Wisdom seems to be a characteristic of many of the people we look up to—both well known saints and our own personal saints.
But is wisdom truly an individual trait? Any person, no matter how wise, if surrounded only by people who echo their same desires, experiences, and thought process will find that their cast of characters is lacking. Wisdom seems to be one of those characters who shows up in a group, and mostly in groups of people who don’t all look, act, think, or talk the same. As people in the Reformed tradition, we believe that the Spirit speaks most clearly through the discernment of a community—not just one voice speaking to me, or through the friends I’ve carefully chosen to never disagree with me, but through all of us together, in our glorious God-given diversity, we can hear the Spirit best.
Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, in writing about America’s presidents, wrote that “Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.” This is what Rehoboam could not do—and because he chose instead to surround himself with those who amplified his own desires, he failed at his call to shepherd God’s people. He had been entrusted with the task of caring for and leading the people, and instead his actions not only divided the kingdom—this story is the end of the kingdom David had so carefully built—but also led generations of people away from God and sent them running for idols, despite their previous experience with golden calves.
It is a challenge to listen to and truly hear the voices of the other—more often we prefer to stick to homogenous groups, and then demonize the other. But Rehoboam’s story reminds us that we need each other—all of us, young and old, rich and poor, white and brown, gay and straight, women and men, conservative and progressive and everything in between—if we are going to truly know Wisdom. And not only does wisdom tolerate the voice and presence of the other, wisdom seeks out the other—going to the margins of society, to the people who are different, to the unexpected places, looking for a variety of perspectives, feelings, and thoughts. Paul writes that God’s wisdom is personified in Jesus, who we most often find sitting around a table with the very people that others ignored—the sick, the sinner, the woman, the child, the outcast, the immigrant. While the religious people, the politicians, and the well-off were busy labeling, ignoring, manipulating, and looking down on them, Jesus, the wisdom of God, was busy gathering them together and hearing their personal stories, their hopes and fears, their needs and their ideas. He chose to surround himself with an incredible array of people, who asked questions and disagreed at least as often as they emulated his way.
The letter to the Hebrews says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—all the saints who have gone before and who live now, and who are both known and unknown. And we are part of that cloud of witnesses for others, and for generations still to come. To truly get to know wisdom, and to allow her character a space in our story, we need to surround ourselves with all the saints, no matter how unlikely they seem to us. Their voices speak across thousands of years and thousands of miles: from peasants to kings, desert to coastland, black and brown and white, old and young; their voices whisper and shout and sing and cry and beg and teach and praise…will we take their advice?
May it be so—for our sake, and for those who come after us.
 Doris Kearns Goodwin, “The Secrets of America’s Great Presidents"