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Sermon: Healthy, Wealthy and Wise

August 14, 2009

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Near the conclusion of my birthday dinner this week, my daughter brought out a piece of cake with a single candle in it.  I have now had 41 birthdays, so I know what to do with birthday cake.  With one quick puff, I blew out the candle.

My other daughter said, “What did you wish for?”

I had blown it.  I forgot to make a wish before I blew out the candle on my birthday cake.  When you get older and stop writing letters to Santa Claus, your birthday is the one time in the whole year that you get to wish for anything you want.  And I forgot.  Imagine what I could have had if I had only remembered to wish for it.  A new car perhaps?  Maybe a big pile of money?  A Mediterranean cruise?

If you could have anything you want—anything at all—what would it be?

Solomon, the son of King David, had the chance to ask for anything.  God came to him in a dream and said, “Ask what I should give you.”  Now Solomon already had quite a lot.  He was now the new king.  His father had died, and after Solomon silenced his enemies, the throne was his, free and clear.

One of his first acts after elevating himself was to make sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.  Solomon went up to one of the hills where the people worshipped God, and he sacrificed a thousand animals.  He put their bodies on the altar, and the pleasant smoke of the roasting meat wafted up to heaven.  It was Solomon’s way of saying “thank you.”  He also wanted to be sure that God would continue to support him and the people of Israel and Judah.

That very night, the dream came to him.  “What shall I give you?” God asked.

Solomon began by reciting all the good favor that God had shown to David.  “You were faithful to my father, and you have allowed his son to sit on the throne.  But I am not very old, and I am not very wise.  The people that I am to govern are numerous.  This is a big job.  God, give me an understanding mind to rule properly.  Help me to discern between good and evil.  For how else could I govern your chosen nation?”

If this was a test, Solomon had given the right answer.  God was pleased.  Solomon did not ask for an army powerful enough to crush his enemies.  He did not ask for an endless wagon train of gold and jewels and fine silk.  Solomon did not ask for a long life to enjoy his new power and luxury.  Instead, he asked for wisdom.  God was impressed.

So God decided to give Solomon what he requested, and on top of that, just because he didn’t ask for all those other things, Solomon would get that, as well—riches and honor.  And, if Solomon continued to follow God’s commandments, God would also give him a long life.  So now that you have heard Solomon’s answer to the question “If you could have anything you want, what would it be?” would you change your answer?

Solomon’s answer was actually rather wise.  He was aware that he was not fully equipped for the task of ruling the people.  He knew that he did not have enough experience.  It is said that one measure of wisdom is the awareness of how much you don’t really know.  Solomon knew he had a lot to learn.

Solomon’s answer was also selfless.  The purpose of his asking was so that he could be a good king for God’s people.  He wanted to accomplish God’s purposes as he filled the role of king.  And seeing as how we have just finished telling the story of David, who spent much of his time on the throne concerned about his own good pleasure at the expense of the welfare of the people, Solomon’s attitude is rather refreshing.

*     *     *     *     *

I have been on a jury only one time, and that was about 15 years ago.  It was a criminal case.  A woman had become angry with her ex-husband and chased him out of her apartment.  The husband had her arrested and charged with assault because she allegedly tried to hit him with a golf club before throwing it at him.  The woman said she felt threatened, and acted out of self defense.

We heard only short arguments from the lawyers, and there were very few witnesses.  After about a day and a half, we were in the jury room to deliberate.  There wasn’t much evidence other than the testimony of the man, the woman and the officers who came on the scene.  We had a diagram of the apartment and the front sidewalk, but that wasn’t much help.  Nevertheless, we were very thorough in our examination of the facts and our deliberations.  Eventually, though, we had to make a final decision.

Not one of us on that jury felt good about our verdict.  Though we believed that the ex-husband provoked his wife and we all thought he was a jerk, we decided that the evidence showed that the woman had acted out of anger rather than self-defense.  We were not happy about reaching that conclusion.  I still occasionally think about that minor case from years ago and wonder if we made the right decision, if I made the right decision.  It still bothers me.  Discerning between good and evil, as Solomon suspected, is not always simple.

We are all called upon to discern between good and evil in our lives.  Kings and politicians and policemen and anybody else in authority clearly must make such choices, but even you and I—mothers and fathers, teachers and retired folks, librarians and grocery clerks—we all must discern between good and evil.  Solomon saw that it wasn’t an easy thing to do.  He may have known enough about his father’s history to recognize that sometimes his father chose evil over good, and Solomon didn’t want to make the same mistakes, because it isn’t always easy.

Sometimes the choices are so difficult, that we are paralyzed, unable to choose.  Families who have made end-of-life decisions for their loved ones understand the truth of this.  Those of us who vote know that the choices aren’t always simple.  Lifestyle choices can have moral elements to them.  Do I choose a vehicle that I can afford, but will pollute our shared environment, or do I choose a vehicle that pollutes less, but will cause my family to go deeper into debt?  We are confronted with choosing between good and evil far more often than we realize.  How do we make life giving choices that honor God?

The easiest way is to make the right choices is for God come to you in a dream and ask what gift you would like.  Then you simply ask for wisdom, and the rest of your life is easy.  But most of us don’t get that option.  Instead, we must work out for ourselves some helpful criteria to help us discern the difference between good and evil.  I have some suggestions to propose.  These criteria may help us to have the wisdom, like Solomon, to choose the good and reject the evil.  All three criteria are related to each other.

The most important criterion is the motive of love.  The first and best commandment is to love God with your whole being, and the second is like it.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The Apostle Paul wrote that without this love, everything we do is worthless, empty (1 Corinthians 13).  A helpful biblical definition is that love is a deep concern for the best interest of the other.  Love is concern that is other-centered rather than self-centered.  As you discern between good and evil, ask whether the motive behind the action is love.  Is its primary concern the well being of the other?

Another criterion might be humility.  Do those involved display humility?  Jesus asked for us to have the faith of a little child.  Jesus the King was born in a stable.  Jesus submitted himself to injustice and the cross even though he deserved so much better.  As we discern the between good and evil, examine whether those involved are acting with a sense of humility.  Humility is a mark of Jesus Christ.  Pride, on the other hand, leads us to a false sense of entitlement.  Where there is great pride, there is an absence of love, because the focus is on the self rather than the other.

Along with love and humility, a third criterion is reliance on the grace of God.  The opposite of this is complete reliance on the self, on my own human strength and wisdom to accomplish what must be done.  There is a sense of humility in our reliance upon God’s grace.  We must recognize that we are not perfect and that our understanding is never complete.  That is why we need God’s grace.  When we recognize our need for God, we leave room for our own doubt and the possibility that someone else may be right.  I recognize that I am not perfect.  Yet absolute certainty is a sign that I rely only on myself.  I know what is best, so I do not need God’s wisdom.

Whenever we need to discern the right choice or the best option, whenever we need to decide between good and evil, these three concepts can help us choose wisely: the motive of love (which first considers the best interest of the other), humility (which understands that I am not the most important person in the Universe) and reliance on God’s grace (which trusts that God’s understanding and abilities far outstrip my own).

The book of Proverbs is said to have been written by Solomon.  Wisdom is the central theme of the book.  In chapter two, wisdom personified speaks to us.

If you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding…then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; prudence will watch over you; and understanding will guard you.  It will save you from the way of evil (Proverbs 2:1-2, 9-12).

God offers wisdom to us.  Listen carefully, and “you will understand righteousness and justice and…every good path.”

Let us pray…

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