Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1–17
The pattern of monarchy in Scripture is clear:
1. God and/or God’s prophet says that the people don’t need a king, because God is their king.
2. The people insist that they really, really need a king because all their friends have kings and how could you be so mean to not let us have the same things our friends have? Why do you hate us so much?
3. God slumps God’s shoulders and sighs, and says “OK. Here’s a king. I’ve picked out the best option out there. Don’t mess it up.”
4. There is a window of time in which God’s anointed doesn’t totally screw everything up. Sometimes it’s several years. Sometimes it’s five minutes. But just about every time, the end result is the same: The king messes it up.
5. So the people complain to God because this king is just the worst and how could you pick a king that is so mean and does all this bad stuff to us? Why do you hate us so much?
6. God slumps God’s shoulders and sighs…..and the pattern continues.
This pattern happens with Saul, who starts with promise and begins to unite the 12 Tribes. But then he ignores God, so God finds a replacement in the person of David.
It happens with David, who does a lot of things right, more or less uniting the 12 Tribes with a tenuous unity. But then ends up breaking most of the Ten Commandments in spectacular fashion, and his family turns into a Game of Thrones episode.
It happens with Solomon, David’s son, who builds the Temple and the palace and does several building projects to honor God. But he does it on the backs of basically slave labor, and ends up looking a lot like Pharaoh in the process; but God has promised him success and a long reign on the throne, so instead of taking it out on Solomon, God says that he will take it out on his son Rehoboam, and give his power instead to one of his supervisors of the building project, a man named Jeroboam.
So as today’s passage opens, we already know what the end result is going to be. In the pattern of the monarchy, you know that whatever good things that Rehoboam does, it isn’t going to last. It hasn’t lasted yet, in three attempts at monarchy. Plus, in this case, God has literally said that Rehoboam isn’t going to last, that he will take the sins of the father out on the son. We are just here to see how it all falls apart this time.
And fall apart, it does. Rehoboam is continuing his father’s pattern of forced labor of the people. So some of the people, specifically some of the northern tribes, come to him on his coronation day with a request. Basically, they ask if he can kind of take it a little easy on the whole forced labor thing. They don’t even ask him to stop the whole program, but just lighten up a little bit. And here is Rehoboam’s window of not messing things up. He tells them, “give me three days.” He doesn’t get mad that they have messed up his big party on his coronation day, but graciously decides to consider their request. This is Rehoboam’s window…
…and it lasts about five minutes. I’d like to say that this is where Rehoboam goes to seek counsel from one of the prophets of God. He does not. I’d like to say that Rehoboam asks the scribe to read him the Torah again, where it reminds the people to care for the weak and the vulnerable, to give them rest unlike they were given in Egypt. He does not. I’d like to say that Rehoboam enters into a season of prayer, asking God for wisdom, like his father Solomon did, or asking God for forgiveness, like his grandfather David did. He does not. Now, I will say that he does ask advice of some of his wise elders, who suggest that he should listen to the men. If he lightens up, he may just be able to hold together this tenuous unity that his father and grandfather have created between the northern tribes and Judah in the south. Their advice isn’t necessarily based on prayer, nor the Torah, nor the wise words of the prophet. But it is at least good sound political advice that Rehoboam would do well to listen to.
He does not. Instead of listening to these wise advisors, he goes to his buddies. Last week was Back to the Future Day…in the Back to the Future movies, the character Marty McFly goes back in time to October 21, which means that every October 21, fans of the movie watch it again and get all excited about it. Which is why when I read this passage, the first person I thought of was Biff Tannen, the character played by Thomas F. Wilson. Biff is the meathead bully who picks on the McFly family for several generations. And he has a bunch of goofy, meathead bully sidekicks. They are his “yes” men, and are only around because they are dumber than Biff. They are always encouraging Biff to beat people up and making crude jokes. This is who Rehoboam listens to. I can just imagine that all of them got stuck in the Delorean at some point and got shipped back to Rehoboam’s time. The text says that these folks are “those who became great with him.” They were the yes-men who rode Rehoboam’s coattails to power. They were the meatheads who encouraged him to beat people up, and always had a clichéd, crude response. “Hey boss, you know what you should tell them…tell them that your old man beat them with whips, but you’ll beat them with scorpions. Ha! Yeah…scorpions. Tell them that your little finger is bigger than your old man’s…member. Ha! Tell them that.” I am not making this stuff up. The monarchy of God’s people is at the mercy of these guys making penis jokes. It’s like the nation is being run by middle schoolers (no offense to middle schoolers…I am sure you would do a much better job running the country than these guys.) They give him the worst possible advice, because they are his meathead yes-men, and that’s what meathead yes-men do. The worst thing that Rehoboam could do is listen to these morons….
…which is exactly what he does. At the end of the three days, he completely ignores the advice of the wise counselors and says exactly what his meatheads tell him to say. And, to no one’s surprise, the leaders of the northern tribes tell Rehoboam that they have no more allegiance to him, nor to his grandfather David’s line, and they will go back north to follow Jeroboam, which is exactly what God said was going to happen. The unity between north and south that has lasted for a three generations is now broken, forever. The northern tribes go and swear allegiance to Jeroboam, who becomes a rival king, ordained by God in opposition of Rehoboam. And the pattern continues. The text here has some really serious undertones of Pharaoh and the Egyptian Empire. It is almost as if the authors are trying to make the point that in the generations after leaving Egypt, the people of God have slowly become…Egypt. Their kings have become like the Egyptian king. They oppress the people just like Pharaoh did. They follow the same rules of Empire, totally ignoring the Torah commandments of God. Rehoboam represents everything about Empire that God warned them against, and that I think God still warns us against.
George Orwell wrote a parable called Animal Farm, meant to refer to the ways that Russian leaders overthrew the czars, and then became just like them. It’s a story that repeats itself over and over again. Putin saved the people from the tattered remains of Communism… only to bring back a communist-style colonization in his dream to create a new Christian Soviet Union. In an example that is both ironic, given the lessons of this text, and also timely, given the events of the last month, 75 years ago, after centuries of diaspora, Israel finally was given a land…and have turned it into an opportunity to oppress the Palestinian people.
And in case I haven’t unsettled us enough, I think this story, and the overarching story of monarchy in Scripture, forces us as Americans to have to ask some hard questions about our history. Every Fourth of July, we celebrate the ways that we wrested power from the Empire that oppressed us. But ask the indigenous people who were on this land before we were. Ask the people of the Middle East who have suffered from our numerous wars and occupation there. Ask the people of Central and South America, after generations of U.S. meddling in their politics and picking who we want in power. Very likely, many of them would proclaim beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have become the United States of Egypt. That we have elected a string of Rehoboams, surrounded by meathead yes-men who only understand how to oppress and push people around. If we are going to point the finger at the unjust Empires of our world today, it is only fair that we take a hard look at the mirror as we do.
And that mirror isn’t just for our leaders, but for us as citizens. What are the ways that we embrace the arrogance of Rehoboam? How do we elbow our neighbors out of the way to get ahead? How do we out-cliché and out-meme one another with verbal and digital violence? How do we insist that our Empire is the best empire, and pledge our fullest allegiance to national and political power?
Members of the Baptist Joint Committee last week testified before Congress about the deepening danger of Christian nationalism. From our history as Baptists, once victims of violent religious nationalism and oppression, they argue that the only way to remain Christian is to reject Christian nationalism. Because the Biblical story does not blink on this point: from the Egyptian Empire, to Rehoboam’s Empire, to the Babylonian Empire, to the Roman Empire…to the Empires of today, every time that religion is used to further the goals of political power, it becomes a total disaster. Then…and now.
So where is the good news? Is there any good news?
David French wrote an article last year that has made me think over and again. He draws a comparison between the Lord of the Rings series of J.R.R. Tolkien, a Christian writer who used Christian themes in his fiction writing, and the stories of Game of Thrones, written by George R.R. Martin. Both stories are about war, and alliances, and political power. Now, to be fair, I have not seen any of the Game of Thrones shows nor read the books. My understanding is that they are wildly entertaining, and pretty popular. But French’s point is this: in GoT, the basic assumption of the story seems to be that there is no good news. There are no good guys. There are no heroes. Which is about like the Biblical story of monarchy, retold. Someone may do something decent and heroic for about five minutes, but the structure of Empire means it won’t last long.
But French compares these stories of GoT to Tolkien. In Lord of the Rings, there very clearly are heroes. Good guys who overcome the bad. Hope that overcomes evil. Tolkien doesn’t use this terminology, nor does French, but the way I would describe it, in a week in which we are left searching for good news in the stories of monarchy, is this: good overcomes evil when it refuses to play by its rules. Restoration comes when individuals or small groups of people refuse to live by the ways of Empire. Salvation arrives with a moment of sacrifice, not the clichéd verbal violence of the oppressor nor his yes-men meatheads. There is a reason why Jesus uses Kingdom language throughout his ministry. Because he is demanding that we pledge allegiance to a very different kingdom.
The good news in today’s story is that God doesn’t give up. Go back and look at that pattern from the beginning of the sermon. The people demand a king and every time, God gives them the best possible candidate at the moment. God has the eternal patience to try again. And again. And again. And again. Because perhaps God knows that there will one day be one who chooses peace in the land of a thousand violences. That there are some who choose to limit their own power, instead of demanding how unfair it is that they don’t have more. That there are those who are faithful to God’s Kingdom and not the ways of Empire. God knows that eventually, there will be a Hobbit in our Game of Thrones world. And God knows that in lifting up those Hobbits, those heroes, God can change the world.
So, today’s story might have a lot more Night Kings than Hobbits. But don’t forget that it also has, behind the scenes, a God who never falters nor fails. A God who knows there is a better way to live, and patiently invites us into that life. A God who might look to us as silent or powerless or even apathetic in the moment. But is instead actively, eternally, constantly working to make our world a better place. So watch Game of Thrones. Tune in for that Breaking News on your favorite cable channel. Pay attention to the world of Empires that surrounds us. But please, please, don’t ever think for a moment that that’s the end of the story.