King Ahab

wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

1 ps

In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

3 ps

Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

4 ps

Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


driving, not leading

[special note: In a recent sermon, I spoke about the apostle Paul in Galatia, mentioning the difficulties he was having, some of them self-imposed. That’s especially true regarding the colorful language he uses about his detractors. In particular, I noted his bloody joke about those who demand circumcision, hoping for their self-castration. That, among other things, might raise questions about him: is he “driving or leading” the people?]

There’s a story from 1 Kings 21 about King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel, and in case you haven’t already figured out from the title, my supposition is that he’s “driving, not leading” the people.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com

What I would like to do is to use this story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and Naboth and his vineyard as a study of conflict. There are some crazy things going on!

Verse 1 begins, “Later the following events took place.” At the end of chapter 20, a prophet chastises Ahab for making peace with Ben-hadad, the Aramean king. It’s a peace that will not last. The final verse says much about his character. “The king of Israel set out toward home, resentful and sullen, and came to Samaria” (v. 43). Keep those words in mind: “resentful and sullen.”

So, in today’s story, Ahab has his eyes on a vineyard that belongs to Naboth. It’s adjacent to his land, so he makes a proposal. “Naboth, I would like to use your vineyard as a garden, so let me have it, and I’ll give you one that’s even better. If that doesn’t work, I’ll pay you for it.”

That sounds like a pretty good deal—better than anything you can find on Craigslist or Pinterest!

Imagine Ahab’s surprise when Naboth rejects his offer, doing so in no uncertain terms. “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (v. 3). For Naboth, the vineyard represents more than its usefulness or a financial transaction. He sees himself as the steward, the guardian, of what has been passed down to him by his ancestors. That’s a distinction that is lost on Ahab.

So what does Ahab do? He goes home, “resentful and sullen” (v. 4). And like the grown man he is, he curls up in bed and refuses to eat his dinner! The king decides to pout!

Enter Jezebel. We first meet her in chapter 16, where we learn that she is the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians. Ahab marries her, and alongside with Yahweh, he serves her god, Baal. The author of 1 Kings says that Ahab “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (v. 33). That doesn’t sound like somebody who was invited to the wedding!

Anyway, back to the current scripture. Try to imagine the scene. Jezebel asks him, “What’s your problem? Why aren’t you eating anything?” Ahab responds with his sob story. Jezebel must be looking at him and saying, “Are you the king or not? Get up. Go eat your dinner. I’ll take care of it.”

image from media1.annabrixthomsen.com

And the way she takes care of it is by rigging the legal system. A fast is proclaimed, elders are summoned, and a couple of unscrupulous fellows are hired to falsely accuse Naboth of a capital offense. He receives the death penalty, and Jezebel lets her husband know that the way is clear for him to take the vineyard.

There’s still one complicating factor, and it comes in the form of the prophet Elijah. The king and he have some history. Elijah has called out Ahab on his misdeeds before, and he does so again. The prophet tells the king that he has set himself on a course that is doomed. Everything will end in tears.

Refocusing on the idea I mentioned earlier, that is, using this story as a study of conflict, here’s my question: where does conflict appear in this story? It’s possible to see it in several places.

One place conflict appears is in the initial event, between Ahab and Naboth. They have conflicting plans over the disposal of the vineyard. Ahab fails in his God-ordained commission to protect the rights of his people. Naboth is affirming the tradition, going back to Leviticus 25 that land must remain within the possession of the family.

Without a doubt, there’s conflict between Ahab and Elijah. Elijah is remembered as possibly the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. He confronted the king of Israel in spectacular fashion. The showdown with the prophets of Baal in chapter 18 is truly a case of high drama.

There is also conflict within Ahab, within the man himself. Howard Wallace notes that Ahab gives his children names that a worshipper of Yahweh would select. He hasn’t abandoned his faith in the Lord, at least, not entirely. “Ahab personally bears the tension between worshipping Yahweh and worshipping Baal.”

Just before the showdown with the prophets of Baal, Elijah says to the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (18:21). Elijah’s talking to the crowd, but the person it fits better than anyone else is the king.

Making the decision to marry Jezebel has brought plenty of complications. And yes, there is definitely conflict—ongoing conflict—between the king and the queen. (That seems to be an age-old quality to married life!)

It might be helpful to look at Jezebel’s side of the story, which we don’t get in the Bible. As throughout history, this marriage was no doubt part of a political alliance. It’s quite possible that Jezebel knows that she has to look out for herself, being the foreigner in the equation.

Jezebel has her own sense of honor, as well as need for protection. She has her own set of expectations, based on her cultural background.

We’ve looked at some places in which conflict appears in the story. What can we learn from it? How do we deal with the conflict?

Something we should acknowledge up front is that conflict is not necessarily good or bad; it simply is. In fact, it is inevitable. Actually, it’s possible to say that conflict, in and of itself, is a good thing. It is a good thing, in the sense that it is necessary for life. Living things, by definition, engage in conflict. One of the easiest ways to see this is by looking at the food chain. There’s conflict between the eater and the eaten. Conflict among humans stimulates new ideas, new ways of doing things.

So maybe we can reframe this, and think of dealing with conflict in ways that are not destructive.

Certainly, it helps if there are preventive measures to head off problems before they blow up. It’s always easier to deal with conflict before it escalates into full-scale war. If there are clear guidelines in place, clear expectations, then that helps to prevent false impressions.

In the context of our story, Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel is shown to be ill-advised. It has reinforced whatever character flaws he already possessed. This marriage leads him to stray from the path of the faithful, the path of the wise and the just. Why is that? As we’ve seen, and as Nancy deClaissé-Walford reminds us, Ahab is a king “who, apparently, or largely, because of the influence of his wife Jezebel, is unwilling or unable to be fully faithful to Yahweh.”

With Ahab, the clear guidelines and expectations of a king of Israel do not exist. Instead, we have the mixed messages that come from trying to follow the Lord and Baal at the same time. To put it in less dramatic terms, it would be like trying to work with two contradictory job descriptions—or no job description at all. Misunderstanding will ensue.

As we see in the story, and as we see in our own lives and congregations, we don’t always have the pre-emptive measures that prevent conflict. We’re not always on the same page. We can think of that as literally not on the same page by thinking of confusion on policies and procedures. There can also be unspoken stories that drive how we behave—stories that go back for years, even decades.

In his book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke has a list of observations about congregations and conflict. I like the way he begins: “I have worked with troubled churches for 20 years. I never cease to learn from these experiences.” (113) This comes from someone who is frequently cited as an expert in the field. I find his sense of humility to be quite refreshing. He strikes me as one who works at leading, not driving, people.

One of his observations I found especially relevant when considering today’s scripture reading. Here’s verse 20: “Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you.’” Then the prophet continues by laying out the verdict on Ahab.

This is Steinke’s observation: “Secrets—that is, hidden agendas and invisible loyalties—in most cases need to be brought to light. What about sin and evil? Expect it; expose it. To expose the demonic, name it.” (115) He then cites the story of Jesus and the demon-possessed man in Mark 5.

 

image from www.sharpestpencil.com.au

What I take from this is that Steinke isn’t necessarily talking about demons, but he is addressing those hidden, unnamed powers that stir up conflict. Just as Elijah has identified Ahab—just as he has “found” him—we also need to find and name those things that bedevil us. Once we get a handle on something and drag it out into the open, its power begins to wither. We work in concert with the Spirit of Christ and allow that breeze to disperse the fetid, stagnant air.

I mentioned the sermon on the person of the apostle Paul as he deals with the Galatian church. In 1 Kings we get a look at the person of King Ahab as he deals with Naboth, Jezebel, and Elijah. Both men are embroiled in conflict, but only one has a grasp on how to deal with it.

Conflict within us, if left unaddressed, gets projected outward. It affects our relationships. It affects our communities, be it the people of Israel, Paul’s audience in Galatia, or our own congregations. It turns us into people, into groups, that are driven, not led.

So we need to ask ourselves, “How do we address the conflict within?” That’s something for consideration and meditation!

[originally posted on 16 June 2013]