by David Baer, October 26, 2014
Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
It seems like technology touches every part of our lives. Even the way we pray. A mother was teaching her three-year-old girl to pray the Lord’s Prayer. The little girl was doing a great job, right up until she said, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us some e-mail.”
God is amused, I think, rather than offended at these innocent stumbles over our words. The words we use when we pray are important, but they are a means to an end. Prayer is a gift that God has given us, and its purpose is to provide a way for us to draw near to God, to be heard, and to have our relationship with God restored. God might have chosen instead not to offer us this gift. God might have left us alone to wonder or plead or rage at the silent heavens. But as it is, God does want to be approached by us and to hear us. Whenever we pray, then, whether or not we receive anything else, we are already benefiting from a gracious gift. We may not recognize that God is there with us, and we may not hear God’s voice. But when we pray we have taken God up on an invitation to come close with everything we would ask.
Prayer involves asking. It may be that we are asking for events to turn out a certain way, asking for guidance, or simply asking to be listened to, but when we pray, we are asking for something, or else it is not prayer. The word “pray” itself comes from a Latin word, precari, which describes a lesser person making a request of a more powerful person. Prayer is asking something of someone greater than ourselves, someone who loves us deeply and irrepressibly, someone who wants to hear us and answer us, but someone who, by the very nature of Godhood, can never be a peer or an equal. Prayer renews our relationship with God because when we pray we recognize how deeply, inescapably we need the blessings that only God can give.
Our experience tells us that we do not receive everything we ask for. Not even Jesus was spared from the cup he asked to be taken away. We know that God answers some of our prayers with an unalterable “No.” But Jesus also is our guide for how to receive God’s negative answers—“not my will, but yours be done.” His faith allows him to trust that whatever suffering awaits him, God’s will is good, God’s will prevails, and it can bring shining life out of darkest death. It pleased God to allow God’s Son to suffer so that Jesus can be for us the friend, witness, comforter we need when our prayers go unanswered. He keeps watch with us in our dark nights of the soul when everyone else has fallen asleep. He’s been there. He knows.
But the scriptures give us other models too. King Solomon prayed. He asked God for wisdom, and God gave him what he asked for and more. This lesson shows that sometimes our prayers are not simply heard, but are also pleasing to God. What was it about Solomon’s prayer that pleased God? What is there that we can take from it to our own prayers?
Let me give you some of the background story to what brought Solomon to pray at Gibeon. Last week we talked about King David, and how God held him to account when he abused his authority. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba—not the one who died, but another child born later. He became king after his father had died, and he was immediately thrust into the dog-eat-dog world of domestic and international politics, and his first steps were shaky and uncertain. Solomon ruled over a loose confederation of twelve tribes, two of which supported him wholeheartedly, and the other ten somewhat grudgingly. Now, these tribes worshiped God in many different regional sanctuaries, and most of the time they could agree that they were all worshiping the same God, although these sanctuaries, the so-called “high places,” competed for prestige. The Bible clucks disapprovingly about these high places, because the editors of this history believed strongly in having only one temple in Jerusalem to represent the unity of God and the unity of the people who worship that God. Reading between the lines in this story, you sense an impatience with Solomon, who is supposed to be building the temple, but who instead goes out to worship at one of these inferior shrines. “Solomon loved the Lord,” the scripture says, “walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” So that’s one strike.
There’s a second strike against him, too. Solomon’s kingdom was surrounded on all sides by great powers, notably Egypt in the south, so it’s not surprising that, as the Bible tells us, he made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh. The trouble with kings marrying foreigners, though, is that it almost inevitably leads them to worship foreign gods. Making this marriage alliance before the temple is finished, before the walls of Jerusalem are finished may make good sense politically, but in the eyes of the biblical historians, this is strike two against Solomon. His reign is starting out on shaky ground.
So Solomon has a moment. You’ve had moments like this, I’m sure. I had a moment like this when I realized I was going to be a father and no one had checked my qualifications. You stop and say to yourself, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.” Maybe you’ve experienced this sense of disorientation when you started a new job or moved to a new place. Maybe you’ve experienced it in a time of crisis, like taking care of a parent who can no longer live independently. Maybe you took a few shaky steps like Solomon did, before you realized you were in way over your head.
Maybe that’s what led him to worship at Gibeon. We don’t know why he went there, because the story doesn’t tell us. But while Solomon was at Gibeon, God appeared to him in a dream. Now, this isn’t yet prayer. This is a vision. This is God showing up uninvited and unannounced. But it turns out that God has shown up to prod Solomon to do what he probably should have done at the start—pray. “Ask what I should give you,” God says. It’s an invitation to come near God and ask for something he needs. Isn’t that what we said prayer was? “Ask what I should give you.” God doesn’t say that Solomon will get what he asks for. God simply says, “Try me. Ask away.”
So Solomon prays. He begins not by asking for anything, but simply telling the story of how God is already at work in his life. God, you took care of my father, Solomon says. You were faithful to him. When he died, you continued that faithfulness by putting his son on the throne—that would be me. So you’ve brought me here. You want me to rule Israel. But I am utterly incapable of doing it. Give me “an understanding mind to govern your people,” Solomon says, “… for who can govern this your great people?”
I have to confess something. When I heard this story in Sunday School I thought it meant that God valued intelligence above other gifts. I was a bright little kid, and I thought the story showed that if you asked for wisdom, God would be pleased, and God would give it to you, and if you lacked wisdom, it was a sign of moral failure on your part. I confess that I used this story to confirm my own prejudices, and I looked down on people who may have been plenty smart, but not clever in a way I was able to recognize.
“It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this,” says the text. And certainly Solomon asked for an understanding mind. But the understanding Solomon asked for had a particular purpose, a particular aim. He asked for understanding so that he could be the king God wanted him to be, to do the job that God had called him to do. His request of God is thoroughly grounded in his understanding of God’s purpose for him. In his prayer, he took the time to review his story, to consider how God was directing his path, and he asked only for what he needed to follow that path. This is what pleased God. It isn’t that wisdom is superior to other gifts—it’s that wisdom was the gift Solomon most needed in order to follow God’s call.
And immediately we hear a story about Solomon putting his newfound wisdom into action. He resolves a dispute between two mothers, not by hearing and weighing testimony in the way of an ordinary judge, but by introducing a crisis that provokes a revelation of the true mother of the living baby. God’s gift wisdom has taken hold in him, and all the text tells us that the people are in awe.
“Ask what I should give you,” God says. Maybe that’s how we pray when we’re in over our head. Like Jesus, like Solomon, we can start our prayers with the understanding that the God who faithfully loves us has called us for a particular purpose, a purpose that will fulfill us like nothing else we can imagine. Like them, we can please God by offering ourselves, placing ourselves in God’s hands. Will you pray with me?
What should you give me, God? Who are you asking me to be, when I’m exhausted, when I’m overwhelmed, when I’m starting to make the wrong choices? I know I’m in over my head. Even if you don’t bring me to these places of hurt and confusion, you allow me to get here. I can’t get out, I can’t go where you want me to go, without your help. So show me, God. Help me see my own story in the right way. Help me see how you’ve guided my steps in the past, preparing me for what I’m going through. Then, only then, when you’ve shown me what it is you want from me, when I see the direction you’re asking me to go, when I know that I’m not up to the journey, then let me ask for what I need to be the whole, complete person you made me to be, fulfilling my purpose, loving you, loving others, and at peace. Amen.