After a bit of jumping back and forth in chapters eighteen and seventeen these last three weeks, we get to jump ahead a bit into chapter 21 of 1 Kings this week. If you have been gone or if you are new, you have missed some really good stories. We have read of the Battle of the priests or gods, where Elijah does battle with 450 priests of Baal. We have read of God raising the widow’s son to life, at the intercession of Elijah. During those discussions, I have reminded us that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, although they are titled like history books, are not history books in the way that we want or expect. The books tell the story of the difficulty of finding a king after God’s own heart. We might say they are a theological commentary on the monarchy. Unfortunately, most of that commentary is negative.
With the exceptions of Josiah and Hezekiah, each king does worse than his ancestors. The further we get from David, the further from God each generation tends to drift. It makes sense to us, right? Many of us are the descendants of immigrants. Some of us here at Advent are within the first couple generations of immigration. How well do we retain the cultures of our origin? How well do our children retain and respect the cultures of our origins. Over time, much of what made us “us” is lost, and we become whatever we are. As each king drifts further and further from God, it makes sense that their sons become less and less men who obey and teach God. It is a tad ironic, is it not? The king’s primary responsibility is to study the torah and teach it to the people. As each succeeding generation rejects the torah, the further and further the royal family drifts, and the further the people of Israel drift, from God.
How far have they drifted? Chapter 21 ought to shock us, but we are 21st Century Americans. It is hard for us to grasp what Ahab is trying to do. We might be shocked at Jezebel’s scheming and plotting, though maybe our politics insulates us against that. What really ought to sock us, though, is the king’s effort to take the hereditary land from a faithful citizen of Israel.
We have a few high Anglo-Catholics among us, but I don’t know that many of us would really be threatened by the loss of Communion. I often think we are Protestant enough that most of us would shrug off ex-Communication and promptly head to another church. NBD. But really it is. It is a cutting off, a declaration that the one ex-communicated is outside the covenant, outside the people of God, excluded from fellowship, no longer part of the Body of Christ. If we understood communion and threat of ex-Communication well, we would better understand what is happening in this passage and the reason for the critique.
Israel is outward sign of the spiritual and inward grace, to use our Prayer Book language, is possession of the Land. How do they know God is in charge? Because they are in their Land? How do they know God cares for them? Because God keeps the family in the Land? If you can make that jump between real estate and communion, you can begin to understand the importance of the hereditary land claims of Israel. That’s why the Exile was so tough. Being dispossessed of their Land made them worry whether Yahweh had lost in the celestial battles or whether He had simply given up on them for their unrighteous behavior. It gives us understanding about their inheritance practices and economic practices.
We might look upon levirate marriage as barbaric or nuts, but the Jews looked upon it as keeping the family alive and in possession of the family inheritance. If a family died out, clearly there was a problem, right? Surely it signified God’s displeasure with that family, right? You can imagine the discussions. Plus, who gets the land? If the land belonged to the Smith’s, should it transfer to their neighbors, the Jones’ or the Martin’s? Can you imagine the fights over good pieces of land? Economically, the people of Israel were forced to redistribute the wealth, to a limited degree, every seventh year. If I was doing a bad job of running the farm or winery or business on my west forty, I could sell myself and my land to Hunter or Gregg or someone else as an indentured servant. Whoever was buying me really was only buying my time—you and I would call it renting. The next year of the Jubilee, which occurred every seven years, my land would revert to me, and I would be freed of my debt. Perhaps you are beginning to understand why moving a field marker, a boundary line, was a subject of the torah. It was not to be done. Now, maybe, you understand why Naboth refused to part with his land. Perhaps you get an idea as to how Israel should have heard this story. It is not merely a theft of property; it is an attempt to cut a family off from its inheritance from God!
Ahab, we are told, goes into a funk. He goes to bed and faces the wall. Jezebel walks in to see why he is pouting. Ahab explains his situation. Jezebel reminds him he is king and promises to take action on his behalf. We are given the important details of her plot. Naboth is lured to a dinner where two scoundrels testify that Naboth blasphemed both the king and the Lord. Here, of course, because it is to their advantage, the king and queen use the testimony of the scoundrels to have poor Naboth stoned. Ahab gets the plot of land. And everything seems normal to Americans living in the 21st Century, right? We are used to the powerful getting their way at the expense, and sometimes death, of those less fortunate themselves. We have prison companies that depend on institutionalized racism and social behavior of minorities to enrich themselves, don’t we? Were any of us really surprised at the news about Flint, MI? Are we ever surprised when the rich and powerful avoid justice?
Thankfully, God cares a great deal about justice. In fact, Scripture reveals to us that justice is one of the virtues to which He really pays attention. We can rightfully say that God is love, that God is holy, that God is just, that God is light, that God is mercy, and so on. God sends His prophet Elijah to the vineyard of Naboth to pronounce judgment on Elijah. Think about this for a second before we consider the message for us. Naboth is a nobody in the eyes of Ahab and Jezebel and all those who conspired to kill him. Yet God knows Naboth. More importantly, God knows what Ahab and Jezebel and the others have done. He commands Elijah to go and give a death sentence to the king. We have skipped over a bunch of the readings, but Ahab and Jezebel have plotted Elijah’s death on more than one occasion. They despise his voice. It gets so bad that Elijah goes into a snit over God’s unwillingness to punish them for their sins. He whines that he is the only one who is faithful and demands to see God face to face. In effect, Elijah wants to judge God.
Elijah’s encounters with God, of course, change him. Elijah walks through the mountain top experience of the battle of the gods and the slaying of 450 priests of Baal. Elijah has the privilege of calling a dead son back to life. Elijah even gets a personal theophany. But, much of his work is not so glorious. Much of his work is what you and I would call the daily grind of serving God. He is ridiculed. He is harangued. He is threatened. Worse, sometimes he is ignored. But his walk with God has taught him much about God. And now, in the face of certain death, he goes to the vineyard as commanded, trusting that God will redeem the situation.
Lest you feel sorry for Ahab, and we should a bit because he was descended from David and should have known better, look at how God’s king greets the prophet of God. “Have you found me, O my enemy?” If you had any doubts that Ahab knew what he was doing, this should satisfy you. If you worried that maybe he was being punished for the plot of Jezebel and plausibly deniably innocent, this should satisfy you. Ahab thinks the prophet of God, the voice of God, is his enemy.
Elijah’s judgment may not sound too harsh to our ears, so I will explain it a bit. Dogs were not well loved in the ANE, but they were avoided by the Jews. We have our Spots, and Fido, and Snoopy’s. The ANE knew them mostly as wild animals, ranging in packs. The big problem with dogs, of course, was their diet. Dogs would eat anything, including dead animals. Now I see it dawning in your expressions. Yes, dogs were considered unclean. If you petted Spot in Israel, you needed to be purified before you could worship again. Now, listen to Elijah’s pronouncement one more time. Ahab essentially tried to cut Naboth off from God. Ahab tried to take Naboth’s inheritance from him, signifying his apartness from God. God not only knows the intent of Ahab and Jezebel, but His punishment fits the crime. If life is in the blood, as we like to think, Ahab and Jezebel are cut off from God for ever. The punishment they devised in their scheming for Naboth is, instead, visited upon them. All of Ahab’s male family members will be cut off.
This story, where the wealthy and powerful take advantage of the poor who are simply trying to live their lives, ought to be a strong counter-voice to the siren song of today. The powerful ought not run roughshod over the weak. The rich ought not scorn the poor. The faithless ought to be careful in their dealings with the faithful. Those lessons, though good, are not the primary lesson of 1 Kings, and they ought not be the primary lesson we take away from today. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles recognizes there is a problem. Who will rule for God? In the beginning of Samuel, the people do not have a king because God is their king. But they nag God for a king. Samuel reminds them that kings take their money, their daughters, and their sons for their own purposes, but the people refuse to listen. So God gives them a king after their own heart: Saul. Once Saul is cut off for his refusal to listen to God, David becomes king. Now, for all his heart, David committed some terrible sins. He even allowed the consequences of his sins to be visited upon the innocent that he ruled. Unlike Saul, David repents of his sins. When corrected by the prophet, David recognizes his sin, names it, and asks God to forgive him. Those who follow in his footsteps, though, drift away from God. Even though God swears this incredible covenant with David, his sons and grandsons and great-grandsons and so on continue to depart from him. Josiah and Hezekiah stand out because they returned to the Lord in the midst of a family that forgot its roots, forgot God’s promises.
We know, of course, that the Son of David who will rule for God will be Jesus. We live on this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb, so we recognize that Jesus is the Prophet, the Priest, and the King of God. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles focus on that last rule. Who will rule for God in a way that glorifies God? Who will not make the mistakes of David? Who will mete justice and mercy in a way that follows God’s heart? Our Lord Christ.
When we think of the different roles of Christ Jesus, particularly in America, I think there is an effort to de-politicize our Lord. I know. I know. Democrats and Republicans both want to claim that He would be a member of their party. But can you imagine the party elites, who struggled with a socialist and a television personality this election season, embracing the Son of God? But rather than chuckling at them, let us look at our own thoughts and ideas.
We might admit He was a good teacher. We might like to think He tapped into God’s wisdom. But how many of us treat Him as our King? By that I mean how many of us believe that what He taught He meant? Surely He did not mean we are to support widows and orphans? When He said to pray for our enemies, He could not have meant ISIS, could He? When He said to take a day off, He was only speaking to agrarians and not industrialized people, right? To accept Christ as Lord is as much a political statement as a theological statement, as much a declaration of economic revolution as a declaration of salvation. To accept that Christ is Lord is to accept the idea that He knows what is best for us, best for us economically, politically, salvifically, redemptively. But do we put that understanding into practice in our lives? More importantly, do we repent when we don’t? Are we more like David, or are we more like Ahab and Saul?
Do we run roughshod over the Naboth’s in our lives? Some of us are business owners; many of us our supervisors of one degree or another. How do we treat those over whom we have authority? Do we pay our employees living wages? Do we demand that they work unpaid hours to make up for our mistakes? Do we demand that their jobs come first in their lives? Do we rule as we would be ruled, with grace and mercy?
Do we ignore God’s voice in our lives? Do we think that God has command over us for sixty to ninety minutes on Sunday’s but that we know what is best for us in the workplace the other six days of the week? Are we quicker to consult friends or Dear Abby or Reddit when we have a problem than we are to seek Him and His guidance in prayer? Do we forgive others when they sin against us, or do we hold a grudge? I see the squirming. Maybe I should stop before I hit too close to home.
Brothers and sisters, who is Lord of your life? Who is the king seated upon your heart? Is it a figure the world admires, or is it the God-Man who died for you and who empowers you to do incredible work in His name? As you each know, Jesus was the solution to our problem. Who would rule us as God would have us ruled? To whom could we turn in trust, knowing that His King wanted only what was best for us? Who would make it possible for us to bridge that chasm that existed between us and God because of our sin? Why, given what we know about what He did for each one of us, are we slow to give Him the reigns to our life? Why are we still so stubborn and unwilling to grant Him the authority He so magnificently earned? Why don’t we trust the One who made sure we did not suffer the fate threatened to Naboth and earned by Ahab and Jezebel?
Perhaps, sitting here today, you have thought of those places where you do not trust God’s authority in your life. Perhaps, while listening to me blather on, you have heard the Holy Spirit speaking to you of matters close to your heart, of those places where you think you are in charge. Why not trust Him even in those difficult spots? Why not ask Him to help your own unbelief, that you might surrender your life to His Will, His promises, and His eternal hope! This King Jesus, after all, is as just as He is merciful; as loving as He is uncompromising; as powerful as He is humble. He, and only He, is fit to be King for God and in our lives. It is that King to whom we should be pointing all people, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our subordinates, and even those we do not see or would rather wish we did not have to be near.