Living wisely

Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing 19th Aug 2018 Revd. Sue McCoan 

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

Ephesians 5:15-20

The wisdom of Solomon is legendary. It was legendary even in his own lifetime – the Queen of Sheba paid him a visit to see it with her own eyes. There is a book in the Apocrypha called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. And it is significant that the first thing that Solomon asks God for, when he becomes king, is wisdom. What a good start to a term of office.

In fact Solomon had good reason to seek wisdom. The words near the beginning of our reading – ‘David rested with his forefathers… and Solomon succeeded his father David as king’ – rather belie the messiness of the succession. David had at least six other sons (by six different women, some of whom he was married to); all six were older than Solomon, so he was far from being the obvious heir to the throne. Solomon was the son of Bathsheba, whom David married after he had seduced her and despatched her husband. That’s another story, but it does suggest that Bathsheba was more of a love match, which gave Solomon a special place in David’s affection.

David was great at winning battles, but he was pretty rubbish at building family loyalty. Absalom, the oldest son, couldn’t even wait for his father to die and had staged an attempted coup some years earier; he was killed by David’s men. The others at least waited until David was old and obviously close to death. But when it did get to that stage, Adonijah, the second oldest son, assumed he was the heir and arranged a party to celebrate his accession. He was a little premature. Not only was his father still alive, but word got through to Bathsheba that Adonijah was claiming the throne. Bathsheba was straight round to David – you can’t let this happen. You promised me that Solomon would succeed you.  And so, as the anthem goes, with David’s agreement, Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, anointed Solomon king.

You can see that this is not a secure position. On top of which, David has left Solomon with a list of old scores to settle. In between the 2 parts of our reading – between Solomon being crowned and him asking God for wisdom – Solomon has deposed from office Abiathar the priest, and has ordered the deaths of Adonijah, his half-brother and rival; Joab the army captain; and Shimei son of Gera who had cursed David. All those people had their supporters; and now Solomon needs to bring them all on board and lead the country forward.

No wonder, then, that he asks for wisdom. He needs all the wisdom he can get.

Let’s look, then, at what Solomon means by wisdom. He asks, specifically, for ‘a heart with skills to listen, so that he may govern your people justly and distinguish good from evil’. Let’s unpack that.

‘A heart with skills to listen’. That’s quite a start. A good leader listens to the people – and not just to the loudest voices, or to the people who agree with him. A new king, a new President, a new Prime Minister, can’t possibly know everything about the country in an instant. They need to surround themselves with people who have experience, and who are not afraid to tell them when they are wrong.

‘So that he may govern your people justly’. That’s God’s people. Solomon recognises the responsibility of being king over God’s chosen people; he needs to express God’s justice in the way he deals with the day-to-day matters of state. Governing justly sets an example; it also means that the people will know they can trust him.

‘And distinguish good from evil’. Again, that’s where the wise advisers come in. It must be so tempting for a leader to do something popular but unethical; to make alliances with unsavoury regimes because they have money to invest. Solomon asks for the insight to discern the authentic alliances and deals from the false bargains.

It’s maybe not surprising that God says, because you have asked for these things, and not wealth or power, I will give you all of it – wisdom, wealth and power. You would hope that a leader who was operating with such integrity would be highly regarded, would have other leaders wanting to make mutually beneficial alliances. And so it goes for Solomon – he does really well. At least to begin with.

Now. Most of us will not become national leaders. I doubt that many of us expect to inherit a throne. But we are all capable of seeking wisdom, and maybe we can apply the three elements of Solomon’s wisdom to our daily lives.

‘A heart with skills to listen’. One of the most remarkable things about Jesus was the way he listened to people – hearing not just the question or issue that they presented with, but the underlying hurt or need behind it. And he listened to the Pharisees and the Scribes, letting them put their case before giving a reasoned and thoughtful answer. One of the ways we can live out our discipleship is by being present to people, listening to what they have to say… listening too to what they are not saying, and to the people who are not speaking at all. Another way is by listening to people whose views we might profoundly disagree with – because even if we are not swayed, we might better understand our own position.

I heard a radio programme recently, I think the first of a series on the radio, in which   they are bringing together two people who have very different ideas on a particular issue. They got them to outline their own position; then they asked them to move places, and to take it in turns to get to know more about the other person, including teasing out how they came to the viewpoint they had. Then they asked each person to outline what they understood to be the other person’s view. And then they were able to see that, oh, they could agree on this bit… and they were less sure about that bit… they didn’t come to full agreement, but they understood a whole lot more.

‘So that he may govern your people justly’. Well, we might not be governing. But we all make decisions that affect the lives of others, whether we think about it or not. When we shop; when we recycle our rubbish or otherwise; when we use our cars; when we give to charity; when we vote; when we sign petitions; we affect other people, we affect the planet. And we are all aware of the huge gap between our affluent and comfortable lifestyle in the west and the poverty of many people in the world; we do well to reflect on how we will react to that. Do we go along with the voices saying, we must keep these other people out and preserve what we have? Or do we look for ways to share things more equally?

Which brings us to the third part, distinguishing good from evil. Sometimes it’s really obvious – it’s better to be a nurse than an axe-murderer. But sometimes it’s more subtle. What about the things we do that are not harmful in themselves, but can become a distraction if done to excess? I like to do Sudoku puzzles – nothing wrong with that. And often, after lunch, if I’m not rushing off anywhere, I will sit down with a cup of tea and do a puzzle. But then, if I finish that and start on another puzzle – our newspaper has started printing several on the same page – and then I start rootling through back copies to see if I can find another sudoku… it can fritter away an hour, no trouble. It’s not harming anybody else, but there are better things I could be doing with that time. In our second reading, from Ephesians, we’re warned to act sensibly and not be foolish, to use the present opportunity to the full. The example given here is of drinking – one drink not a problem for most people, if you’re not driving, but it can lead to another, and another, and again, it’s a waste of precious time and energy. Better to use that time, and that energy, to encourage one another. Maybe next time we’re fed up and looking for a distraction, we could stop and think, I wonder if anyone else might like a phone call?

Living wisely means being attentive, caring for justice, and discerning good from evil. And all that, as Solomon knew, as the writer of Ephesians knew, is to do the will of God, and to share in God’s wisdom. It’s all part fo living as disciples in our everyday lives.

The reading from Ephesians ends with an encouragement to ‘speak to one another in psalms, hymns and songs’. So let’s end this sermon by doing that now, using out next hymn as a reflection on living wisely and living with God.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind