On Thursday we had an on-line quiz night, which as great fun – thanks Beatrice and Janet for all your hard work and all those who were able to take part for making it such fun. In one of the rounds we all had to tell three stories from our past; two had to be true and one false. The challenge for everyone else was to work out which one was untrue. In preparing for this, I found myself with literally dozens of different ideas and just couldn’t decide which ones to choose. Selecting two true and one untrue happening proved to be remarkably challenging from what has clearly been an eventful and perhaps mis-spent life.
As I stared blankly at the list of readings for today, I was faced with much the same problem. Do we go with Solomon asking God for wisdom rather than riches, or do we go with the verses from Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans which are so familiar at funerals or do we go with five parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in quick succession like automatic gunfire?
King Solomon looks pretty straight-forward, with a good solid moral message. After all a passage with the line “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” is something we could all wish for in our leaders. But remember, this is the Bible and 1 Kings 3, as in life, is more complicated. In order to do justice to this chapter, we have to understand the ambiguities and complexities associated with this passage, so bang goes that chance of sermon occupying less than half a page.
To get some context, we would have to read the few verses before and after our passage to get a fuller picture. They point us to the good the bad and the ugly of Solomon: Our passage ignores the verses that refer to Solomon also receiving riches and a long life in addition to the wisdom that he asks God for. Why? Because a link between prosperity and obedience whilst very much at the heart of some Biblical writings is not a simple cause and effect and if I started down that line, you’d be lucky if we were done in 50 pages.
Immediately preceding Solomon’s dream in verses. 5-12, there are allusions that hint at some of the negative aspects of Solomon’s reign, namely his tendency to worship other gods and that foreign wives were responsible for leading the Solomon and many other kings astray. It does of course serve to remind us that the leaders described in the Bible, as in life, more often than not are a mix of complex motives. So, we should be careful not to romanticise politicians and recognise that any leader has the potential to be corrupt and to abuse power.
Subsequent chapters of the Solomon story are available now, at a Bible near you. In them you’ll find that King Solomon might be remembered as the one who built the temple for God, but … this act of piety is accompanied by the reality that he used forced labour to do it. There’s nothing new in the idea that numerous innocent people might be harmed in political leaders’ attempts at greatness!!
So what do we get from all of this? That people are generally a mix of good and bad motives or intentions and that people have the potential to do good, but also harm.
In the unresolved tensions of the story of Solomon we see that it’s in the messiness of life that God acts, popping up when we least expect and turning our expectations upside-down. It’s significant that it’s God who approaches Solomon and grants him a wish, regardless of his failures and frailties as a human being, so there’s hope for us as well. Hope for us as we open ourselves up to God in prayer amid the messiness of our own lives.
Prayer of course isn’t really about words, in spite of all the books of words entitled ‘Prayers’, but I suppose that words do help to stop our minds wandering. Teach us how to pray, the disciples ask Jesus and in response he gives them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. So this difficulty is nothing new, in our second reading. Paul has some quite helpful words for the Christians in Rome:
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
“Sighs too deep for words”, that just about sums it up. The problem is however not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As James Dunn puts it, we “do not on our behalf know what to want,” let alone how to ask for it.
These last few months in ‘lock-down’, have been, to say the least, rather unusual, perhaps even strange. I don’t know about you but for me, as we start to emerge from the restrictions, that’s even more strange. In the midst of our disorientating confusion, it’s the Spirit that comes to the rescue and on our behalf, aligns what we want deep down to pray about, to God’s will for us and for our world. But we do have to make the space, to give the Spirit a chance and so allow God to come into our lives, and suffer alongside us. He won’t shield us from all suffering, but He will save us from suffering alone.
When I feel a sense of helplessness with much of what is happening in the world, when on our behalf, the politicians and the diplomats seem unable to get to grips with very real problems. When there is so much going on where on the face of it God seems to be absent, I find that it helps to remember what Paul goes on tell the Romans in words so familiar at funerals:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God’s love is with you and with me. God’s there to be present for us in our lives. So when things seem bad and we seem powerless to do anything about it, then there’s always the option of turning to God in prayer as opposed to despairing.
The American monk, mystic, poet and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton speaks about this when he writes:
“If I have this divine life in me, what do the accidents of pain and pleasure, hope and fear, joy and sorrow matter to me? They are not my life and they have little to do with it. Why should I fear anything that cannot rob me of God, and why should I desire anything that cannot give me possession of Him?
Exterior things come and go, but why should they disturb me? Why should joy excite me or sorrow cast me down, achievement delight me or failure depress me, life attract or death repel me if I live only in the Life that is within me by God’s gift?”
Prayer is central to a Christian life and prayer is about being attentive to God’s presence with us, so why not spend a minute or two being attentive to God’s presence with you just now; remembering that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, it might just grow into a sizeable plant with birds nesting in its branches. That faith might just multiply like yeast cells and leak out beyond our walls and leaven the world around us as it emerges from ‘lock-down’ and needs hope that there is indeed a bright future.
This is hope in the sense that Paul is talking about. It’s also what Jesus is describing in today’s parables, the hope that comes from God’s love, a hope that defies rationality. In that sense there remains cause for hope even when it’s difficult to see where we are going. Keep cheerful, support one another and I hope that I’ll be able to see you all very soon. In the meantime, call to mind some of the wonderful stories of incidents and encounters that have made up your life and you’ll see what I mean about it being difficult to choose just one or two.