Toorak Uniting Church

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What to depend on

1 Kings 12: 25 – 13: 10   Mark 4: 26 – 29
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
2 May 2010

This morning we meet the recently crowned King Jeroboam. The assembly of the people have asked him to be king instead of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, who didn’t want to soften the yoke with which his father had ruled in the last years of his reign.

'The Lord had closed the hearts of the people against Rehoboam’ it says, and thus Jeroboam becomes King because God has ordained it. Jeroboam has known for a long time that this would happen. Some years before the prophet Elisha came while he was at work in the fields and gave him 10 of 12 pieces of his coat.

A signal that after the death of Salomon the kingdom would be taken away from the house of David to be divided in two parts.

Ten parts, ten tribes for Jeroboam and two for the son of Salomon, Rehoboam.
The Lord continues with his people under the rule of two kings. Two kings to lead his people in the service of that one God who liberated them from the hardship and slavery of Egypt and now once more shows that the tyranny and idolatry which marked the last years of Salomon’s rule, do not hold out in the end. Two gardeners planted in creation entrusted a commission to tend the covenant between God and his people and make it flourish and bear fruit.

Jeroboam is off to a good start; He has God and the people behind him; what else could a King wish for himself? Unfortunately Jeroboam doesn’t let this positive foundation direct his thoughts and actions.

He starts with fortifying his cities; On his north and south borders he builds strongholds and cordons off his new realm. He doesn’t start with the Lord who has started with him; he doesn’t put his trust in the Power who has given him his power. Even before there is any threat he begins the preparations for war. But that isn’t the worst of it. The worst is that Jeroboam, guided by fear, starts to lead his people away from God. He not only clearly defines the physical borders around his realm but also tries to put spiritual borders in place. Because he is afraid his people will cross the border to worship in the temple in Jerusalem and may be tempted to change their allegiance to King Rehoboam after all, he provides them with an alternative. Jeroboam creates 2 holy places in his own realm, inspired by the fear to lose his people to the God who gave him his power in the first place. And he erects two golden bulls as symbols of his God.

Jeroboam should have known that God and a gold bull are not compatible. God explicitly prohibited the making of idols. And on top of that Jeroboam should know the story of Aaron who, in the wilderness, when Moses was on the mountain spending time with God and the people became impatient, also made them a golden bull. And that the people had been severely punished for that.

Jeroboam repeats the words of Aaron nearly literally: It is too much for you, these are your gods, O Israel, who led you out of Egypt! Jeroboam has not learned anything from history. A lie, a doubling up of the sin committed in the wilderness, is what he comes up with.

This brought you out of Egypt, O Israel. Two gold bulls, symbols of youth, power and fertility, of virility and brute violence. Gods who stand for the worshipping of muscle, the survival of the fittest, of pushing aside and trampling under foot by those who have the power to do so, of fertility and growth, of assertive aggression.

They are gods people like; visible, tangible and marked by strength and powerfulness.

Two popular gods to bind Jeroboam’s people to him.

Next he appoints priests from all layers of the population creating commitment between his people, the new religion and himself. He changes the dates of the festivals in an attempt to mould God’s times to his will. He builds a new identity for the 10 tribes he has been given to look after and turns his back on God, abusing the power he has been given.

He sows the seed of this new religion with the clear intention to smother the seed of the covenant between God and his people. He fails to remember that although there are now two kingdoms there is still one people of God.

And then, when Jeroboam stands ready to light celebratory incense for his new gods, a man of God walks onto the stage, a prophet. The newly installed borders of Jeroboam don’t keep him from coming down from Judah, the country of the two tribes, to tell Jeroboam that although there are two kingdoms there still is only one God. A God who made a covenant with their forefathers and mothers and has sown the seed of his Kingdom in them.
The one who has created humanity in his image and not the shiny golden bull Jeroboam is about to worship. The one who has brought them out of Egypt all those years ago. The one who gave both kings their power. The one who wants to be worshipped for what he is: a liberator from slavery. The one who takes away the kingdom from kings who don’t honour the godly image they are commissioned to live up to, of the shepherd and liberator of their people in their conduct. The one who is not compatible with the anything the imagery of a young bull evokes.

Any notion that this new religion has anything to do with the God who brought them out of Egypt and wants to be their God has to be removed.

First the prophet comes and preaches against the altar. The visible symbol of the new religion. Initially the new king is left in peace and given time to repent. The altar is condemned for what it is; not an altar in the service of the liberator and king of peace, but an altar that evokes violence, the sacrifice of people, consequences of a cult marked by reverence for what the bull stands for.

"All the new priests will die when a new King will take over and the altar will be used for human sacrifice." is what the prophet says. This isn’t God’s doing. God doesn’t want human sacrifice. It happens because wherever youth, power and virility are worshipped, casualties are bound to happen.

As a sign that the prophet’s words aren’t empty threats, the altar splits through the middle, just like the realm of Salomon was split through the middle to show Jeroboam his gods and his religion are the work of human hands, a product of fear and not built on a genuine relationship with God.

And again Jeroboam makes a mistakes; he does not take the way to life, the escape that is offered to him. He only relies on his own power and not on God’s. He thinks he can defend himself and instead of turning away from his erroneous ways he turns on God’s prophet. He decides to ignore him as messenger of God and regard him as an unwanted foreigner who has come to spoil his day.

Take him!
His hand stiffens while he points the prophet out to his soldiers; there is no way he can move it. Even for the use of his hand the king proves to be dependent on God and his prophet. The prophet has to put in a good word for him before he can control his arm again. The altar cracks, the new King is made to look a total fool together with his new gods. They can’t even help him move his arm!

Then Jeroboam tries something else. Come and join me for a meal at the palace he says, perhaps we can do business there. He tries to buy the prophet. And again Jeroboam makes a mistake, again he proceeds down the wrong path because of his limited understanding of what is at stake and how things work in relation to God.
First of all he attributes more power to the prophet than he has. The prophet is no more than a messenger, a spokesperson for God and there is absolutely no point in trying to buy him because even if he succeeded it wouldn’t have bought God.
On top of that Jeroboam doesn’t take into account what drives the prophet. The prophet remains loyal to his God. He doesn’t let personal gain or fear for the king put him off balance. An example for the King!

The kings stays behind empty handed, but forewarned and with an example of proper conduct clearly set before him.

The prophet goes his way, back to where he’s come from. He doesn’t want to accept anything from this king, he doesn’t even want to go down the same road twice in this place that has turned its back on the Lord so quickly and so absolutely.

God refuses to be trifled with, doesn’t let anyone say: this is the God who brought you out of Egypt. God is invisible, intangible, but recognisable by what he does. And that’s why people need to keep their hands off his deeds.

Those deeds, those actions of liberation and redemption form a trail of the divine through history. The seed God sows for the world he longs will come about. The most definite shape that trail took we believe is in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, someone who showed what a person who is a true image of God looks like, who initiated a new covenant, sowed the seed of God’s love wider and further than ever before. Jesus and the bull, the difference could not be bigger.

Between the man that rides a donkey, sign of love, of commitment to nonviolence and peace, to show what the God he considers to be his father, stands for. And the bull, symbol of virility, of power, of rampant violence and strength.

Stubbornly God protects the seed of his covenant, the seed of love and justice, of peace and wholeness, against the worshipping of the bull, of the survival of the fittest. He comes to spoil the party when fear and high handedness take over and threaten to smother the seed of the covenant. He resist when people mould images of him that don’t match up with who he is.
We, as people, are the only image God created of himself. We have been created in his image, we are carriers and representatives of the divine, even where that image is distorted and hidden in brokenness. We as people of Christ have been sown in this world as images of God, to make God visible and tangible. To promote the growth of a new whole and healed humanity that will once again be one with God.

The trap Jeroboam fell into we regularly fall into ourselves when we rely on our own power and misjudge God’s.

God seems far away in our time, as in the time Israel wandered the wilderness, as at the time of Jeroboam’s kingdom. Golden bulls are being erected all around us. Even in the Church. We find it as hard as Jeroboam to trust that the God who has brought us here will carry us further. No matter what. We also get caught up in the ways and logic of the society around us in the way we conduct our business in the Church or in our lives. Let fear get the better of us, invest in the throwing up of bulwarks around ourselves, invent all sorts of stuff to make our religion popular and palatable because we are afraid that if we don’t we might lose out.

But God remains the same, sends his messengers, keeps turning up at our worship to spoil our fun when we have wandered off in the wrong direction with words about righteousness and love, peace and justice, wholeness and healing. At the most inconvenient moments he comes and the altars we erected for other gods start to show cracks where we desperately try to cover our tracks. Keeps sowing disturbing seeds in the fields smothered in the weeds of our allegiance to other, smaller gods.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2010

Just to show there is nothing new under the sun: this sermon was written and preached for the first time 22 years ago in June 1988.

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