Sunday, October 23, 2016

Men of God: Just Like Everyone Else

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it. (I Kings 21:1–16 NRSV)
I know, on the surface, this looks like a pretty straightforward story. In fact, it appears to be a story we know all too well. The rich and powerful use their riches and power to take advantage of someone poor and powerless. Have you seen this story in the Bible before? Joseph’s brothers use their size and numbers to throw their younger and smaller brother into a pit. Tamar’s brother, Amnon, used his strength to rape his sister and then threw her away. David used his power as King to have Uriah killed so he could have Uriah’s wife for himself. The pages of the Bible are littered with stories just like this one. But we don’t have to go to the pages of the Bible to see how true this familiar plot is, do we? Corporations in our world use their power to squeeze out the little guy. Poor individuals in our country are far less likely to get fair representation in court. And even within the church, our world has learned in recent years how the powerful Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church abused children for years, and got away with it. The story of the rich abusing the poor, the story of the powerful abusing the powerless, we’ve all heard and seen that story before. John Dalberg-Acton’s words from the 19th century are certainly true:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Lord John Dalberg-Acton, 1887)
That message is loud and clear in this text. And with that message is this promise: God will bring justice! God has shown time and again that God will deal swiftly and harshly with those who arrogantly use their power to harm others. This text is about God’s judgment on powerful people who misuse their power.

However, there is actually much more happening in this text than we might first notice.

Those of you who love good literature need to mark I Kings 21 in your Bibles and read it several times. The biblical writers do not get the accolades they deserve for providing us really good literature. Yes, the Bible provides for us the Words of God. But the writers of each book and letter, they also bring to us their gifts of writing. And some of the biblical authors are extremely gifted writers. For example, consider the many literary devices used in this chapter alone to add depth and nuance to this story.

First, notice how this author makes tremendous use of irony. The only perfectly righteous person in this story is Naboth. Staying true to God’s command not to allow ancestral land to pass from one tribe to the other, Naboth refuses to sell his land to King Ahab, even for a good price. Yet, in spite of his refusal to break the law, Naboth, in this story, is cast as the lawbreaker. In fact, he is brought up on charges for blaspheming God! Now compare him to everyone else in the story. Ahab ignores God’s command about ancestral land and tries to buy Naboth’s vineyard. Jezebel orchestrates a plan to have Naboth killed. The scoundrels in this story bear false witness, lying in court about Naboth. And most interestingly, their plan makes it look like they are following God’s law to its letter. Two liars were produced because that is what the law demanded. They stoned him outside the city because that is what the law demanded. They killed Naboth because they said he cursed God because that is what the law demanded. You see, in an ironic turn of events, the only person who follows God’s law in this story is punished as a lawbreaker. And the many folks who break the law are respected for their strict adherence to the law. The writer adds depth to this story with irony!

This story also employs the use of metaphor. Throughout Scripture, Israel is often referred to as a “vineyard.” In Psalm 80, for example, the psalmist refers to Israel as a “vine” God brought out of Egypt. The writer of that psalm encourages God to “attend to the vine,” this “root” that You planted with Your strong hand. Listen to these words from Isaiah:
Let me sing for my loved one
    a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it,
    cleared away its stones,
    planted it with excellent vines,
    built a tower inside it,
    and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes—
    but it grew rotten grapes.
So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
    that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
    why did it grow rotten grapes?
Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
    so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
    so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
    it won’t be pruned or hoed,
    and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.
The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isaiah 5:1–7 CEB)
Israel has often been referred to as God’s vineyard. To this metaphor we could add another: Deuteronomy 11 refers to Egypt as a vegetable garden! Now listen: The fact that Ahab wants to take this vineyard and transform it into a vegetable garden should not go unnoticed! I assure you it did not go unnoticed by the first readers of this text. Yes, at a plot level, this story is plain and clear. Ahab used his power in ungodly ways. The king used his royal power to steal Naboth’s property for himself. But at a deeper, metaphorical level, Ahab’s actions symbolize the sins of many former and future kings of Israel. The kings of Israel were the earthly representatives of God. Sometimes they were called “sons of God”! And God entrusted them to attend to His vineyard, Israel. But instead of attending to the vineyard, they transformed it into a vegetable garden, Not unlike the pagan nation (Egypt) from which God had delivered them. I’m telling you, if you love good literature, this is the chapter for you—but there is more!

Throughout this chapter, the author also makes strong use of allusion. From beginning to end, this narrative urges the reader to recall the Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. First, as I’ve already mentioned, there is allusion to the laws given at the time of the Conquest. When God divided the land between the tribes, He gave them strict instructions. This land was to stay within each tribe. This ensured that every tribe would always have enough land of their own. Naboth’s response to Ahab’s offer is repeated twice for emphasis:

“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

The writer does not want us to miss this: This land was given to Naboth and his family during the Conquest! Second, when Jezebel tells her husband to take the land anyway, her word choice is especially important. She says, “Go and take possession of the land…” Does that sound familiar to anyone? This is a common refrain found again and again in the book of Joshua during the Conquest. God tells Israel, “Go take possession of the land.” And finally, the last allusion comes at the end. Just before the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses warned them. He said, “If you enter the land and do not kick all of the other nations out…If you choose instead to let them remain and if you marry them…” Moses said those actions would drive a wedge between Israel and God. Ahab’s life stands as a microcosm of Israel’s sin. And this particular story stands as a concrete fulfillment of that prophecy. In chapter 20 of I Kings, Ahab failed to destroy King Ben-hadad of Aram. Instead he spared his life and even established a covenant with him. Additionally, Ahab married a foreigner, Jezebel. As if those subtle allusions were not enough, the author says at the end of this section:
Ahab’s actions were deplorable. He followed after the worthless idols exactly like the Amorites had done—the very ones the LORD had removed before the Israelites. (I Kings 21:26 CEB)
In the end, the author of I Kings 21 uses all of these literary devices to tell us something very important. Israel had become just like everyone else. Rich and powerful, arrogant and greedy, more interested in everything this world has to offer and less interested in the One who created this world in the first place! It just so happens that this story was written while Israel was in exile. They were trying to make sense of how they ended up in Babylon. They were God’s chosen people! How is it possible that they were living as slaves and servants in a land hundreds of miles from home? One of the reasons all of these stories were written was to help God’s people understand. The reason you are here, the reason you are being punished, is because you walked away from God. God loved you. God gave you everything you could possible need. And you ended up loving the world more than its Creator. So, in the end, you became just like everyone else. But church, here’s the problem: We were not meant to be just like everyone else.

In fact, Paul calls us shining stars, and the word shine means to reflect. The scientific term is albedo (al-bee-dough). It's a measurement of how much sunlight a celestial body reflects. The planet Venus, for example, has the highest albedo at .65. In other words, 65 percent of the light that hits Venus is reflected. In comparison, our night-light, the moon, has an albedo of .07. Only seven percent of sunlight is reflected off of the moon. Why is it so important that we are not just like everyone else? Because, each of us has a spiritual albedo. And what is our goal? One-hundred-percent reflectivity. We are here to reflect the light of the Son!
We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord. (II Corinthians 3:18)
You cannot produce light, I don’t care how good you are! You can only reflect it, and that is why you are here. To reflect God’s light into a very dark world.

Our world is, indeed, very dark. In our world, racism dominates the headlines. In our world, people attack each other with words on the internet. In our world, people allow politics to divide them from each other. In our world, (like the days of Elijah), the rich exploit the poor. In our world, those with money care very little for those who are without. Our world is dominated by:
  • Arrogance
  • Sexual misconduct
  • Gossip
  • Suspicion
But, brother and sisters, you are not of this world! And do you know what can happen when you reflect God’s light to a dark world? At the very end of chapter 21, the most unexpected thing happens. Evil King Ahab repents!
When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes and put mourning clothes on his body. He fasted, even slept in mourning clothes, and walked around depressed. The LORD’s word then came to Elijah from Tishbe: Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done so, I won’t bring the evil during his lifetime. (I Kings 21:28–29 CEB)
I’ve often wondered what these words must have sounded like to the people of Israel sitting in captivity in Babylon. They were being punished for their arrogance and their sin. And here was a story of a king who was arrogant and caught in sin. Yet when he repented, God’s mercy showered down on him. I have to believe these words were especially comforting for Israel.

And they should be comforting for you too. The reflective light of God can have powerful effect! It can make a dark world light. And it can bring grace and mercy to the proud and arrogant. Even if that proud and arrogant person is you.

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