A sermon preached June 19, 2016, based on 1 Kings 21.
"A Story About Grace" by Rev. Michael Precht
We are so accustomed to talking about “the nation of Israel” that we often obscure the fact that for most of their history, God’s people were separated into two nations. That division earlier in the book of 1 Kings, when 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes revolted and chose a new king for themselves. These tribes ruled in the north and called themselves the true nation of Israel. The tribe of Judah, and a portion of the tribe of Benjamin decided to stick with king that had been anointed to follow Solomon. Judah and Benjamin were in the south, and their nation included Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, all the official holy and political centers of the nation. So, when we talk about “the Israelites,” we need to figure out whether we mean all Hebrew people, or only those that lived in the north.
Fortunately, you know how to sort this all out. Many of you routinely pray for the prosperity of Florida, while also cheering against Florida every fall during football season. And every week we confess that we belong to the "catholic Church," while none of us here are members of the "Catholic church." See, you have a genius for this sort of thing.
So, by the time we get to Ahab today, it’s been about 60 years since the great crackup of the nation of Israel, and Ahab is the king of “Israel,” those ten tribes in the north. In those 60 years, Israel has had 7 kings, one of whom only lasted 7 days. And if you’ve forgotten their names or stories, I bet you have at least got an idea of how things are going. Badly. For 60 years, Israel is ruled by one after another in a line of lying, scheming, statue-worshipping murderers who keep starting wars with their relatives to distract from their 1st-grade level understanding of economic policy. There have been some good entertainments in all this, though.
And now we get King Ahab. He is one of the most infamous kings of Israel, and if you know any of the stories about him, you know why the passage today says that there was never such a scumbag as this guy. Already, Ahab has brought 400 idol-worshipping priests to pray against the prophet Elijah, only to see those priests humiliated and destroyed. Already, Ahab has married a woman who despises the God of Israel. Already, Ahab has won a battle by God’s miraculous intervention, only to make a treaty with the very enemies he was crowned to overthrow. None of these decisions have worked out well for Ahab or for the country. You might think that these decisions would humble Ahab. You might think that after a while the monotony of continual failure would get to him, and that Ahab might try something like faithfulness to God, just to get a change of pace. Maybe that’s exactly how everything starts in this story.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Here I’ve been talking about Ahab – and of course we’ll talk about Jezebel - but this story isn’t fundamentally about them, is it? One of the tricks to reading the Bible is to understand that all stories are about God, and that God is gracious. Grace is the power of God, freely given to transform us, and in the midst of all these wicked kings and idols, we believe that God is stil at work, offering the power to transform this broken, dysfunctional nation into the people of God. A story like this tests our faith. A king like Ahab, who reigned for 22 years, makes us question the reality of grace. Where is grace in a story like this?
A man named Naboth could see grace, every time he walked out his door. Naboth grew up on the family farm – a vineyard – in the Jezreel Valley. That name – Jezreel – speaks of grace. Jezreel means “God sows” – Naboth grew up in the broad valley that God planted. Today, as in Naboth’s day, Jezreel is the most productive land in all of Israel. The ground is flat and less rocky, so Naboth could work in it easily, and never had to worry with terraces. The mountains on either side funnel the rain water so that Naboth’s family wouldn’t have needed elaborate irrigation systems like those in Egypt. The fruit of Jezreel came from the power of God in creation. It was a gift.
As was the land itself. When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, the whole territory was divided up among the tribes, and the tribes divided their portions among the particular households. To an Israelite, land was not a property that you owned as you would a pot or a farm animal. The land was a gift, owned by God. The Israelites were stewards, caretakers, each with their own portion, and if they cared for that portion, it would care for them, and they could pass it down as an inheritance. A man like Naboth, raised in the family vineyard, living on the fruit watered and nourished by the power God, understood that he was serving his inheritance as much as it was serving him. His inheritance was grace. It was the power of God to transform Naboth; it shaped his work and his time. It defined his neighbors and his role in the world. Naboth’s inheritance was a living manifestation of the power of God, given to Naboth so that Naboth might find his place in God’s story. So when Ahab comes to Naboth and says “Why don’t you cash in? Move on – let me find you a little bit bigger place, something with a river view.” Naboth’s kicks the offer away like a snake coiling round his boot. “God, no!” Naboth yells, and he’s not taking the Lord’s name in vain – he’s praying.
And to his credit, Ahab doesn’t force the issue. He walks away. He pouts. He accepts that God’s gift to Naboth is not God’s gift to Ahab. Ahab kinda sorta understands. Jezebel does not.
You’ve heard of Jezebel, of course. It’s a little odd that her name has come down to us as a way to give a biblical gloss on slut-shaming. The culture that gave us Ruth and Esther as heroes was, as a whole, probably less concerned with Jezebel’s feminine charms than with the number of people she murdered. Maybe these stories come from Ahab’s mother, because above all, the text keeps suggesting that everything might have been ok if only Ahab had married a nice Jewish girl. Jezebel was, as the text reminds us constantly, a foreigner and the daughter of a Phoenecian king, a king who almost certainly controlled more military power and more trade than her husband. She has not learned to see the world around her as a gift of God’s power for her own formation. Her role is defined, not by grace but by status and by her rights. “Why even bother being a king” she demands, “if not to make yourself happy?” Her definition of a king is indistinguishable from the description of a Honey Badger. The King takes what he wants.
But before we get too carried away, before we join with the scribes and the people in blaming this foreigner, this Gentile who spits on the basic assumptions of inherited grace, let’s remember who we were. “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength” (Eph 1:18-19). “All you who were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ... Now if you are Christ’s then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heir according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27, 29). We are the foreigners. We have been brought to live in a kingdom that is watered by baptism, a kingdom that feasts from fields and the vineyards. And so we, like Jezebel, know the temptation. We know how easily we can settle for demanding what we think we deserve. We know how easily we can find ourselves saying "why even bother with all this if it doesn't make me happy?" This is not the way of Jesus. Among us, only Jesus has any rights to claim - the right to our worship, our devotion - but instead he poured himself out, made himself nothing. Jesus, the true king, rules by giving a power that can transform us.
When Naboth refused Ahab, the king was sullen and angry. Even that could have been grace. Grace is the power of God to transform us, and transformation can be a painful thing. When I find myself challenged or defensive, I generally find that there is some truth there with which I need to wrestle. When we first suspect that we’ve done wrong, when we’ve loved badly or led selfishly, that we have been totally ignorant about something that had made us feel so wise, we are in the beginning stage of transformation. And I am likely to be scarred in the process. We are told that after Jacob wrestled with God, he limped the rest of his life. I think we are afraid to admit our own failings because we are terrified of the scars that remorse might leave on us. Of course, Jesus does a funny thing with scars. When he was resurrected, Christ did not hide his scars from his Thomas, but instead showed them as the definitive proof of a miracle. I bet we can imagine what Ahab might have become if he had a wrestled with his frustration, if he had gone to God. Ahab’s sullenness and anger might have been the death throes of his greed. Ahab might have discovered how to be a king without being a master and a tyrant. He might have realized how empty all his power plays had been. He might have learned how a king can give power rather than seizing it. If he had asked God, Ahab might have discovered a surprising answer Jezebel’s question “What is the good, what is the grace, in being a king?” But neither Ahab nor Jezebel went looking for God’s power; he was looking to exercise his own. And that will always short circuit grace. God’s power can transform anger; our power can only amplify it. It’s as if God is offering to cure some horrible itch and we say “no thanks, I’ll just scratch it bloody.”
The role of king could have been God’s grace shape Ahab in the way that Naboth’s vineyard had shaped him. But Jezebel had a different definition of royal power. She understood that King’s feelings ought to have complete, one way control over the people, the land, and even God. When she resolved to condemn Naboth, she did so on a religious pretext. She called a fast - a national day of repentance and self-examination (the very things that Ahab refused!). She brought Naboth into the compnay of the powerful and the self-righteous, and it was there that she had two men “confess” for the good of the people and the nation that Naboth was a blasphemer, that he was disloyal to God. Naboth! The one man in this whole story who had kept faith with what God had given him. Naboth who cried “God forbid!” when he was tempted to cash in on the gifts with which God had entrusted him.
Yet no one seems to have questioned it. Jezebel, after all, had done things so very by the book. She figured out the religious jargon, the fasting. Hebrew law required at least two witnesses for a conviction of blasphemy, and sure enough, there were the two. It was all dressed up so very nicely to look like justice. But justice that will not hear truth or keep faithful; justice that is reduced to a proper procedure, is not the grace of God, no matter how many times we drop God’s name. And so Naboth is killed. And Ahab is unchanged. He has learned nothing from his disappointment and anger except to run faster away from God.
And so, God announces that grace - the power to transform God’s people - will have to mean the Ahab’s end. In order to change the people, God must exchange its king. Elijah comes and announces this justice for everyone to hear. Ahab would not let grace kill his greed, and so Ahab himself must die, and all his own inheritance will pass to another king, another family. Even in this God, is gracious. God allows for transformation. Ahab dreses in sackcloth, and repents, and God responds by delaying the doom. But soon after Ahab will be back to his old ways, and his son, will be as bad or worse for the short time that he reigns.
This is not the sort of ending we expect, if all stories are about grace.
Where’s the grace for Naboth? Well clearly, if we didn’t have a story of resurrection, we wouldn’t be able to find it. Sometimes, grace takes a while. Sometimes Grace is on the other side, when you pass through death and discover Christ was with you, even there, even on the other side. That’s why the world needs a church that offers it signs of resurrection. Signs of grace that announce to everyone that God is always on the other side.
And what is God’s grace for Ahab? The very last word we would use for Ahab is “graceful.” Perhaps because all too often we have fallen prey to a lot of soft talk and soft focus images of grace. We reduce grace to forgiveness, and grace is forgiveness. It is that statement that all that you have done can be wiped away in God’s justice and economy. It is also repentance; it is turning around. It is not only being forgiven of the things that kill us and our souls, but it is the power to stop doing them.
Grace can be in regret, remorse. As painful and potentially scarring as it might seem, because the story that we hear from God is that they cannot kill you. They can only kill the sin that is within you. Maybe there is some sin within you that is so much a part of who you are that if you were to turn from it then you would cease to be who you are. And giving it up might feel like death. But here’s the good news, we have a God of resurrection that follows death, and God wants to make that possible, visible, in you right now.
We saw what Naboth did with the inheritance he received and we saw the sham that Ahab made of his own inheritance. God says to him “This is happening, why? Because you sold yourself, the one thing Naboth would not do. But there is still grace, and there is transformation. And the question for us all is what on earth are we going to do with our inheritance?