July 14, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Rivers are often used to define borders. In fact, of the 50 states in the United States, 43 of them have a border that is a river. Including Idaho. You know you aren’t in Idaho any more and it’s time to slow down when you cross the Snake River. Oregon would go broke without the revenue its state police bring in from westbound drivers who are still going 80.
Rivers work pretty well as borders except for the fact that the course of a river sometimes will change. On March 7, 1876, the Mississippi River suddenly changed its course. It took about 30 hours for this process to unfold. Now part of Tennessee was on the Arkansas side of the river. The two states fought over whether the town of Reverie, Tennessee should now be Reverie, Arkansas. The dispute made its way all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that since the river had changed its course suddenly, the original river channel was still the border. However, the Court also ruled that when rivers change their course gradually, the border moves with the river.
When a river suddenly changes its course, its called an avulsion. When a river gradually changes its course, it’s due to a process called erosion. Here’s how Webster defines erosion: “To eat into or to eat away by slow destruction of substance. The process whereby something is diminished or destroyed by degrees.”
As you’ve probably guessed, we aren’t here today to talk about rivers. We aren’t here to talk about the erosion of river banks. We are here to talk about the erosion of people. It’s been said that people like rivers go crooked when they follow the path of least resistance. Sometimes people experience an avulsion. Something sudden, loud, and obvious happens. More often people experience erosion. It’s a process. It takes time. It is slow, silent, and subtle. You might not even notice it’s happening until you’ve already become very crooked indeed.
Our case study today is King Solomon. Before he was king, he was a royal baby. Kind of like Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. How many know who I am talking about? You watch too much television. Solomon’s dad was the greatest of all the kings of Israel, King David. His mother was Bathsheba. If you remember the story of David and Bathsheba you will be reminded that the great King David experienced some erosion in his life as well.
The story of Solomon is told in the first eleven chapters of
I Kings. He was a man of extraordinary gifts. The wisdom of Solomon is legendary. He was also a genius as an architect. The first Temple was built under his direction. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. He was a strong leader and a skilled diplomat. Israel was at peace for his entire 40 year reign. It was a time of prosperity. Jerusalem was like a paradise on earth with trees and gardens and parks. He built lakes and an elaborate system to deliver water to where it was needed.
We read that Solomon’s “fame was known in all the surrounding nations . . . So Solomon became greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon” (I Kings 4:31, 10:23-24).
One who sought his presence was the queen of Sheba. She was skeptical of the reports she had heard. It had to be an exaggeration. She had to see for herself. So she traveled to Jerusalem and after her visit, as she left, she told King Solomon, “The report was true which I heard in my own land of your affairs and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it; and behold, the half was not told me; your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report which I heard” (10:6-7).
And more important than all these worldly accomplishments and popular fame was the inner character of the king. We’re told that King Solomon “loved the Lord” (I Kings 3:3). Pleasing God was his highest priority.
But the story of Solomon does not end well. We can’t be sure how it started to unravel. We can be pretty sure it was erosion, not an avulsion. It was a gradual decline, not a sudden fall.
One clue we have is one of the stranger books of the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes. The word means “the preacher”. It is thought to be Solomon as an old man preaching about what he had learned from his life. It does have that passage everyone loves that says “for everything there is a season” (3:1-8). Other than that, this is a gloomy, cynical, depressing book.
The passage we read begins by describing an experiment he conducted. He calls it “a test of pleasure” (2:1). He says, “whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them” (2:10). Remember, we said he loved God and wanted more than anything to please God? That obviously was no longer the case. He had turned into a hedonist. He loved himself and wanted more than anything to please himself.
And he concludes at the end of our passage: “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11). In other words, my experiment has taught me that pleasure is not a worthy purpose for one’s life. I learned this lesson, but I learned it too late.
When King Solomon died, he left a nation confused, in conflict, and soon to be fractured by civil war.
It was too late for him to learn, but it’s not too late for us. The lesson is this: Watch out for erosion. We can handle sudden misfortune. A sudden death. A divorce. An accident. A natural disaster. A financial reversal. There are a lot of bad things that can and do happen, and it’s amazing how resilient people can be. It’s almost like that old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
We can bounce back from a lot. But when it’s erosion and not an avulsion, we often don’t bounce back. Because it’s so gradual. It sneaks up on us. No warning bells go off. It’s kind of like that frog in the kettle. He didn’t jump out when he easily could have because the temperature went up just a little at a time!
Erosion is never sudden. It’s never loud. It’s never obvious. Erosion is always slow. Always silent. Always subtle. And that’s what makes it so dangerous! It happens without our even noticing it is happening. And even once we notice, we don’t feel any urgency to jump out of the hot water because it’s happening so slowly we tell ourselves we have plenty of time.
The Ponte Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy was opened to traffic in 1967. That’s a long time ago, but bridges are built to last a long time. Routine inspections and maintenance were happening, right on schedule. By the 1990s the bridge had shown signs of weaknesses. Material support was added. In 2013 fears were expressed that the bridge was in danger of collapse. This was dismissed by authorities as a “fairy tale.”
What was happening was gradual and difficult to detect. Subtle changes were happening deep within the structure of that bridge. Erosion. Nothing obvious. Nothing dramatic. Until August 14, 2018. Forty-three people died. Sixteen were injured. It makes you wonder how safe the bridges we drive over all the time are.
Watch out for erosion! Even a sudden collapse is often not as sudden as it appears to be. Slowly, silently, subtly there have been changes underway. There has been an eating away of critical support structures. Even the experts miss it. They see it, but they don’t see it. They don’t see how serious it is. Looking back they see what they missed. Hindsight is 20-20. But it’s too late.
The falls from grace of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and all the other famous people whose reputations have been ruined appeared to be sudden. They weren’t. These men didn’t make one huge decision that was clearly criminal. They made many small decisions over a span of many years, each one justifiable. At least to them. And they each had lots of friends doing their best to cover for them..
I never miss baseball’s All-Star game. It was last Tuesday. Two New York Yankees were among the best in baseball for many years. Alex Rodriguez played in 12 All-Star games. Mariano Rivera played in 9. Two great players. One big difference. The general consensus is that Alex Rodriguez will never make it into the Hall of Fame. Earlier this year, Mariano Rivera became the first player ever to receive a unanimous election into the Hall of Fame. Alex Rodriguez had some of the best stats in baseball history but they will always be tainted by his use of performance enhancing drugs. Mariano Rivera faced the same temptations, but he did not give in. I have heard nobody ever say anything negative about Mariano Rivera. By all accounts, he is not only one of the best but also one of the classiest athletes of modern times.
What makes the difference? What makes the difference between a King David and a King Solomon? David’s life was going in the wrong direction, but he recovered, with God’s help. We remember him as a great man of God. Everything was going right in Solomon’s life. Then little by little it fell apart. We remember him not so much for the greatness of his glory days but for the way it all ended. We remember him for the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, including that verse that comes shortly after we stopped reading:
“I hated life” (2:17).
What makes the difference? Planning on erosion. Taking into account erosion. Actively taking steps to control it and combat it. Refusing to follow the path of least resistance. Refusing to follow the path that makes rivers and people crooked.
What we are today will be worse tomorrow if we forget about erosion. So don’t forget about erosion. Don’t let yourself just drift through life. Don’t be passive. Don’t let life happen to you. Don’t wonder after it happened what just happened. Do take care how you live. “Be on your guard, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”
That last sentence, by the way, isn’t mine. It’s a Bible verse. It’s our memory verse for the week. I Corinthians 16:13. It’s a good one to repeat several times each day as you’re tempted to walk down that path of least resistance. “Be on your guard, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”
Erosion control is a constant concern for farmers and for those who care for the land God has given us. It’s a constant battle. You give up the battle and erosion wins. Every time. So too in our spiritual lives. It’s a constant battle. So “be on your guard, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”
Here are some questions I want to leave with you. These are questions I want you to take home with you. We printed them in the bulletin to make that more convenient. I want you to spend some time this week pondering these questions. They are questions designed help you see how you need to address erosion in your life.
- What takes most of your time?
- With whom do you spend your free time?
- When do you take time to evaluate?
- Why do you say “yes” so often?
Solomon learned about erosion too late to help himself but not too late to help us. He wrote that book about all he had done wrong. About all the dead ends he had pursued. About how cynical and pessimistic he had become. About how he hated life.
I encourage you to read Ecclesiastes. It’s not the most upbeat book in the Bible. But it really is fascinating to read. It’s a how-to book about how-not-to-do life. And when you read it, read it clear
to the end. It’s not a long book. It’s 7 pages in my Bible. So read
clear to the end, where King Solomon, gives us some parting wisdom. This wisest man who ever lived, who didn’t always make
the wisest choices while he lived, left to us these words of wisdom: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep God’s commandments. For this is the whole duty of every man and every woman” (12:13).
Dear God, we confess that we have meandered in our
lives. We have not followed your way, your best way for
our lives, and we have been enticed to take attractive
detours that appeared good at the time but that led us
down some paths that took us further away from you.
We thank you that it’s not too late today to turn around.
To come back to you. To accept your forgiveness and
your gift of a new beginning. Help us God to do what the
Bible tells us to do: to be on guard, to stand firm in our faith,
to be courageous, to be strong. All to your glory. All to
make our lives count for you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.