Baptism of Our Lord C
January 10, 2016
We’re back in the Old Testament this week, returning to the sequence of events we left behind to celebrate the stories of Christmas and Epiphany. In a few moments, we will remember Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by touching that same water and renewing our own baptismal covenant vows. But now, it is time to return to the Jerusalem of an earlier century. The great kings David and Solomon have died, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam has just taken the throne. He’s young and rash, and he’s eager to demonstrate his kingly power over the nation of Israel.
Maybe a little too eager. I get the idea as I read about Rehoboam that he’s trying to convince himself of his royal authority, as much as anyone else. Instead of showing mercy to his subjects, and gaining their gratitude and loyalty, Rehoboam acts tougher than he probably is. Instead of recognizing that his people have been overtaxed and overworked by Solomon, Rehoboam is only worried about appearing stronger than his father. So he threatens the people with even harsher conditions than they have already suffered.
It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the people rebel. 1 Kings 12: 16 tells us, “And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.”
It didn’t take long for the smirk on Rehoboam’s face turned to dismay, as he realized his mistake. He had to run for his life to escape being stoned to death. Instead of ruling the whole kingdom of Israel with an iron fist, he’s left with only two small tribes who remain loyal, as the other ten tribes head off to their own territories, following Jeroboam’s leadership. The kingdom is ripped in two, just as God told Solomon it would be.
It’s just at this point in the story that I have to wonder what God is up to here. After all, God had told Abraham he would make his descendants into a great nation, and it would be through God’s people, the nation of Israel, that God would bless the whole world. God had promised David that his descendants would rule over this great nation. But here we are, in the middle of a civil war, only two generations into David’s line. Instead of blessing the other nations of the world, Israel is torn in two, and chaos erupts. If we were to analyze the literary elements at work here, this would be the point in the story where “the plot thickens.”
On June 18, 1858, just about the time our church was being established here in the young city of New Ulm, a Republican candidate for US Senator stood up in the Illinois State Capitol to accept his party’s nomination. The speech he gave didn’t help him win that election to the Senate, but it did rally Republicans across the northern states around the issue of slavery, and it became one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches. Maybe you remember reading – or even memorizing – this passage from the beginning of that speech:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” 
Lincoln wasn’t the first to quote Jesus on this issue of division. Wikipedia, that source of infinite and undisputed knowledge, tells us that:
- “Saint Augustine, in his book Confessions (Book 8, Chapter 8) describes his conversion experience as being ‘a house divided against itself.’
- Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 Leviathan (Chapter 18), stated that, “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand.”
- In Thomas Paine’s 1776 Common Sense, he describes the composition of Monarchy as having, “all the distinctions of a house divided against itself.”
There’s a reason why all these famous people have borrowed these words from Jesus: they are true. So let’s take a moment to go to the source, Jesus himself, and learn from him directly.
“And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” – Mark 3:22-26
Last June, we looked at this passage in its context of the early stages of Jesus’ ministry. Now, we see it in the broader context of the whole story of God and his relationship with Israel. When the scribes accuse Jesus of casting out demons by being in league with the devil, Jesus comes back at them with a reference to Jewish history. He might as well have said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come… just look at what happened to Rehoboam and the nation of Israel!”
But the scribes don’t catch the history lesson, apparently. They only care about the way Jesus challenges their authority. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is a heretic. They accuse him of being possessed by demons, trying to discredit Jesus in front of the crowds around him. They oppose his purpose by questioning the source of his power. When the scribes accuse Jesus of working with Beelzebub, they don’t realize that they have given Jesus precisely the words he needs to prove his point.
The name Beelzebub comes from a Hebrew play on words. By the time the scribes use it, Beelzebub is just another name for the devil, and they may not have even known about its origins. But those origins go right back to the Old Testament.
Be-el-ze-vuv sounds an awful lot like Be-el-ze-vul, which means “Ba-al the exalted.” It’s what the Canaanites called their god, Baal, back in First and Second Kings, and you will read more about Baal and his prophets next week in Chapter 15 of The Story. While Be-el-ze-vuv sounds a lot like Be-el-ze-vul, it means something completely different. It means “lord of the flies.” And we all know where flies like to congregate. Around dead, smelly things.
Beelzebub is the lord of death, and his defeat is in division. Jesus names the blasphemy of the scribes for what it is: defiance against God. Claiming that God’s saving grace is the work of demons puts the scribes in opposition to the One who saves. Just as Rehoboam’s arrogance cost him the chance to rule over the entire nation of Israel, the scribes miss an opportunity to align themselves with God’s purpose in Jesus. A house divided cannot stand.
This is the point in the story where we come in. Just like Rehoboam, we are given a choice, and the decision we make will determine whether we find unity with God in Christ Jesus, or falter and tumble under our own arrogance. Our choice will either unite us with God or against God.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Lincoln was not so much afraid that the United States would be torn apart, the way Israel was, but that it would be unified around the wrong ideal: slavery instead of freedom.
We face the same dilemma in our own lives. Will we follow Jesus in full obedience, even as Jesus was obedient in his own baptism, ministry, and death on the cross? Or will we follow Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, who leads us only to eternal death and separation from God?
Our spiritual integrity is at stake. If Rehoboam’s folly teaches us anything, it is that breaking apart what belongs together is much easier than restoring what is broken. Jesus came to earth in human form for that very reason – to heal our brokenness, mend our divisions, and restore us to unity with God.
Long before Abraham Lincoln gave his “house divided” speech and this congregation was founded in New Ulm, Charles Wesley wrote a hymn called, “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love.” The words go like this:
Blest be the dear uniting love that will not let us part;
Our bodies may far off remove, we still are one in heart.
Joined in one spirit to our Head, where he appoints we go,
And still in Jesus’ footsteps tread, and do his work below.
O may we ever walk in him, and nothing know beside
Nothing desire, nothing esteem, but Jesus crucified!
We all are one who him receive, and each with each agree,
In him the One, the Truth we live, blest point of unity!
Partakers of the Savior’s grace, the same in mind and heart,
Nor joy, nor grief, nor time, nor place, nor life, nor death can part.
The psalmist writes, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name” (Ps 86:11).
This is what it means to follow Jesus with an undivided heart. It means giving ourselves completely to him, so that he can fill us completely with his love and grace. Each of us was created with a space in our souls that only God can fill. We can try to fill that space with other things, just as Rehoboam tried to fill it with his desire for power, but nothing can fill the emptiness inside us except God. Everything else we try will only separate us from God, and tear us up on the inside.
You’ve probably experienced this in your own life. Maybe you’ve tried to fill that place inside you with things that promised to give you pleasure, only to experience pain and emptiness. Maybe you’ve tried to fill that place with doing good deeds, so others would think highly of you, or working long hours, or accumulating material goods. None of these things will satisfy the longing you have for God. Maybe you have given up, and decided that the hole in your heart can never be filled, so you’ve dumped bitterness and envy and disappointment into it, hoping that these things will get swallowed up like dying stars in a black hole in outer space.
Only one thing can fill that place in your life. Only one thing can satisfy your longing. It is Jesus, who came to earth as a tiny human child, and grew in favor with God and people, who taught that God’s radical love is available to all who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus, who died in our place, so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be restored to the God who created us for just this purpose: to be loved so completely that our only desire is to love God back with all of our being.
If you have never accepted this precious gift of God’s grace, I invite you to do it now as we pray A Covenant Prayer together. If you have been letting other things try to fill the God-sized hole in your life, I invite you to surrender them to Christ right now, as we pray this prayer. You can be made whole. You can be united to Christ by giving your life completely to him. God wants you back. Let us pray.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition (UMH #607)
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
 The Annals of America, vol. 9, 1. Source document: Political Speeches and Debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas 1854-1861, Alonzo T. Jones, ed., 52-74.