Complementary Text: Matthew 6:9-10
Preaching Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Today our preaching text centers on Solomon, the second and last king of the united monarchy of Israel and Judah. Next to his father, David, Solomon is one of the most celebrated figures in Scripture, and he is particularly noteworthy because of the reputation he had for exhibiting wisdom in the governance of his kingdom. In this morning’s reading we are reminded that Solomon’s wisdom was apparent from an early age; in fact, the request for wisdom that dominates the first half of today’s text is itself evidence that Solomon possessed wisdom beyond his years. In the second half of the reading, we then get to see that wisdom put to practice, as the king mediates a dispute between two women who both claim an infant as their own. While our modern sensibilities might be offended by the thought of that child’s life being used as a pawn in settling the dispute, Solomon does bring that argument to a conclusion swiftly (and safely) by forcing the issue and laying bare the hearts of both women involved. In short order, Solomon’s wisdom is described as being unparalleled, and the results of his wisdom plain to see: Israel and Judah’s influence in the Ancient Near East was never greater than it was during the reign of Solomon.
Yet, like all human endeavors, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Last week, Pr. Morrow mentioned God’s warning to the people of Israel, a warning about the abuse of power that was sure to follow when one person was elevated to a position of authority over another. It wasn’t long after Solomon was praised for his justice and wisdom that he succumbed to the temptation to use his authority for his own glory. Yes, Solomon built the first temple to the Lord in Jerusalem; at the same time, he built himself a huge palace that dwarfed the place where God’s name would dwell. Yes, Solomon created beautiful and important civic buildings and structures; he also built them on the backs of slave labor, a decision that revealed a stunning case of amnesia regarding where his people had come from. Yes, Solomon’s temple was considered a grand accomplishment that had lasting impact on the people of Israel and Judah; he also saw his own commitment to the Lord eroded through the many marriages and alliances that allowed idol worship to take root within his household. Like his father before him, the story of Solomon is a story of great achievement and devastating failure, but even more it is the story of God’s never-failing love for those that God has chosen. Though God allowed Solomon to suffer the consequences of his actions, God remained faithful to the promise that had been spoken to David and his descendants, and the house of David saw that promise of unending rule fulfilled centuries later in the person of Jesus Christ.
At first glance, this might seem an odd text for an occasion like Reformation Sunday. For years, we’ve been accustomed to hearing passages like Jeremiah 31, where the prophet proclaims God’s intention to renew the covenant and write it on the hearts of God’s people, and John 8, where Jesus declares that to know him is to know the truth and to receive the freedom offered by that truth. Those passages remind us of the gospel’s enduring power to change the lives of God’s people, and as Lutheran Christians who claim the heritage of the Reformation that message is not to be discounted. The benefit of reading Solomon’s story today is that it communicates an equally important truth to us: that even the most profound gifts and achievements can be compromised by our propensity for selfishness, greed, and arrogance. It is always a temptation for us to see Reformation Sunday as an opportunity to celebrate the Lutheran moment in the sun or to lionize Luther and the Reformers. But we do ourselves a disservice if we forget that one of Luther’s main contributions to Christianity is the understanding that we are simultaneously sinners and saints, that we are both gifted beyond measure and captive to our broken natures.
Like Solomon, Luther was gifted with a sharp mind, and he used that mind to pursue the truth. At the same time, Luther’s insight into the power of the gospel was hindered by his arrogance, prejudice, and intemperance toward people who disagreed with him. We rightly commemorate the wind of change that blew through the church of Luther’s day only if we also recognize the profound suffering wrought by the division and disunity that plagued Europe and the rest of the world for centuries after the Reformation first began.
Brothers and sisters, the story of Solomon reveals a truth that has played out in the lives of every person who has ever professed faith in God. The people of God have been the recipients of divine grace and mercy that we can scarcely fathom, and we have also been given gifts that we can share with those around us as we strive to extend God’s blessing to the world. We have also seen time and again how our best laid plans, our most sincere intentions, and our most promising endeavors have fallen short. Through it all, Scripture and history have revealed how God works through our failings and fears to accomplish God’s purposes for the world. Solomon, Luther, and each of us stand before God as sinners and saints, broken and blessed children who bear God’s image powerfully and imperfectly. On this Reformation Sunday, let us remember this truth about ourselves, not so that we would despair about our fallenness, but so that we might go out this week knowing that we have been freed by the gospel and intent on following Luther’s advice: Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.