A red letter day? - 1 Chronicles 21:4-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Have you ever received a letter out of the blue which stops you short in your tracks, causing uncertainty worry and doubt? - perhaps from the hospital asking you to come in for further tests when you thought everything was OK, or from the bank with a final demand for money you don't have, or perhaps like a spoof letter some of us at work sent to a colleague a few years ago.
This guy was a good citizen, a member of Rotary, pretty right wing, not quite a member of British National Party, but not far off. So around April 1st one year we wrote thanking him for all the good work he did in the community and letting him know that he had been specially selected to house a family of East African Asian refugees. Well the following morning the phone went in the office, and his wife read out to him this letter over phone with a 'Jim what are going to do?' The air went blue - we collapsed on the floor in heaps and he just avoided a heart attack.
The letter from the prophet Elijah should have been a real shock to the king Jehoram's system, it should have been a real wake up call - let's see what happened in practice:
But first some historical background without which we'll lose the plot:
After the reign of Israel's greatest king David and his son Solomon the nation divided into two - the 10 Northern tribes 'Israel' separated from the Southern tribe of 'Judah' with Jerusalem as capital. Civil war broke out and the nation declined in influence and godliness.
Then followed a period of cooperation between the two nations, political alliances were formed underpinned by intermarriage between the ruling families. This helped them resist enemy attacks from their neighbours, neighbours that God had instructed them to deal with when they first entered the promised land, instructions that were only partly carried out.
Remember these people had known first hand the guidance and protection of God in the Exodus from Egypt, He had given them clear instruction in the 10 commandments and other laws. He had consolidated their land under David & Solomon and given peace and stability.
Yet despite all this the people and their leaders ignored God's direction and sorted things out for themselves - culminating in Northern King Ahab taking a Sidonian wife whose name has become synonymous with wickedness and treachery - Jezebel.
There was the great confrontation at Mount Carmel when God's prophet Elijah took on all Jezebels prophets and won! Elijah then retired burnt out to the wilderness leaving Jezebel hopping mad and baying for his blood. Down in Judah we then have a series of kings who with some outstanding exceptions were generally bad. Even the good ones failed to completely clean up and in meantime the land was under constant harassment from neighbouring tribes
Today we are looking at a particularly bad example: King Jehoram of Judah.
His father Jehoshaphat made significant efforts to lead well, he brought some stability to land, got rid of some cult shrines and his heart was in the right place - but the Throne he handed to Jehoram who by any measure was bad news. Jehoram was married to one of Ahab's daughters so you might at least presume a period of peace, of economic growth and stability, but no - his first significant act as king was to get rid of any potential competition - so he had all his brothers killed together with the other influential nobility,
Then out of the blue came a letter, no ordinary letter, no email, no royal mail, this was from prophet Elijah and it was a scorcher!
There is considerable discussion in academic circles on the authorship of this letter - partly because we don't know exact dates of accession (often a prince in waiting ruled alongside father for a few years) and we don't know exactly when the mantle passed from Elijah to Elisha. Suffice it to say that we will take the text 'as is' and note that Jehorams father Jehoshaphat may also have had the added sadness of watching the first part of this wicked sons reign and being unable to do anything about it! We can assume however that this letter came late in Eliijahs ministry.
We might therefore subtitle this section 'There's life in the old dog yet!'
Our society is so youth oriented that I want to digress here for a while to consider Christian service in mid life.
Many of us - perhaps converted in childhood or as a student, made significant steps of faith in our early years - we were involved heavily in Christian service - maybe nothing as wow as Carmel with huge battles against the forces of evil - and the marathon which Elijah ran straight afterwards, but nevertheless we saw God at work! and it was real and it was precious, but now perhaps we feel a bit past it, especially with increasing responsibilities of work, home, and family.
At the other end scale many Christian institutions, this church included, are held together by the faithful and unsung voluntary work of pensioners and we respect and value that contribution.
However there is a disturbing trend these days which many UK charities have noted: The volunteer culture is waning - it is increasingly difficult to find volunteers, for a variety of reasons - people expect more, most couples need to have both partners at work to maintain their chosen standard of living. Yet people are living longer and many more in middle years (40 -65) have significant resource potential for the Lord's work in both time and money and yet there is a tendency to consider Christian Service a sort of gap year option for the young to be seen like a rite of passage.
Friends this is nonsense, we are called to love God with all our heart, with all our our minds and with all our strength -. as long as we have them In other words for a lifetime - there is no retirement age from Christian Service
Since I've been working more closely with WEC (an international church planting mission) I have been humbled by the example of folk willing to make sacrifice for Him in their middle years - and yet must confess a certain envy as they regularly testify to the great joy of serving Him! Of knowing that they are in the right place.
Let me give you some real examples
1. A couple from N Yorkshire in their late 40's worked for a spell in a Middle East Hospital. She is a midwife - he a handyman. There are no known National believers in that land. It's hot, there have been all sorts of challenges bringing their obstetric practice up to date and working in a multicultural team - they are now on their way back for a full term.
2. Our Headquarters is a hive of activity - preparing folk for overseas work, providing a stepping stone for people returning from abroad, teaching English to new recruits. There is a constant flow of people to and from Heathrow as well as the daily children's school run etc. A van driver recently left his job and joined the Mission to act as HQ driver - and his wife helps on the catering and accommodation side.
3. A manager from across the river, made redundant at 55 took a TEFOL course and returns tomorrow for her 2nd year in China at a Christian English school. Her testimony? 'It would be easier if I had the language but God has provided for me and is using me'. What more could she ask?
We have two occasion recorded in scripture after Carmel when Elijah intervened in matters of state. Clearly he was not pensioned off! He was in touch with both the current political situation in both North and South - and clearly he was open to promptings from the Lord.
Of course it may well have been risky to stick his neck out and criticise kings - but he did - I guess he was old enough and wise enough to know that it was more risky NOT to obey God's promptings!
So now let's look at the content of the letter in more detail:
a)What was the nub of God's complaint? Basically they had broken the first Commandment: You shall have no other Gods before me
We read in v13 that Jehoram had followed ways of Ahab the king of Israel - and we learn from 1 Kings that the real issue with Ahab was the introduction of idol worship, other gods with a small 'g', initially through intermarriage with surrounding peoples - remember in this culture the marriage deal was much more than boy meets girl and being happy ever after - it was about the joining together of two clans, it was arranged for political expediency to secure borders, to facilitate trade and ensure wealth. So in this partnership the wife brought with her the custom and practice of her people which meant idol worship and a host of practices so alien to Israel that God had completely banned such intermarriage. They ignored His guidance and we find the land full of temples and shrines coexisting with Judaism. In fact Jehoram had even married one of Ahab's daughters, we don't know if his mother in law was Jezebel herself but certainly it set the tone for court life.
This has so many parallels with our country today. We now live in a multi faith society with a declining Christian influence - the presenting issue is no longer marriage, perhaps now it has more to do with global inequality and oil, nevertheless it brings a considerable challenge to the true Christian! Of course we need to show respect, care and compassion to folks of other faiths or of none - but without compromising our basic Christian view that those other 'faiths' are intrinsically wrong. It may not be PC to say so, it may be that we will lose some of the established privileges of the church (like charitable status) by making that stand as secular politicians define what is acceptable behaviour for 'faith' groups. So be it, let us be God pleaser's rather than men pleaser's!! These accelerating changes make me uneasy Where are the Christian leaders, the Eliijahs of today who will make a stand for truth - even if it brings unpopularity with it ? We somehow seem bent in this country on overturning Christian principles won at great cost over centuries.
b)Then there was the issue of Personal Responsibility
Twice in v 11, 13 we read that Jehoram actually led people into unfaithfulness, he wasn't just complicit, he wasn't just a passive observer watching his people go astray - he actually set the example. In contrast despite a number of mistakes both Jehorams father and Grandfather made a stand and destroyed idols, Jehoram must have been aware of history - God's dealings with David, The miraculous escape from Egypt and the law given through Moses - Why then ignore all this just for political expediency and personal gain?
Scripture is clear that with privilege comes responsibility, that leaders are responsible for their people and will be judged accordingly - and that goes for us too: Whether leading in family, in church or in our secular employment our example counts!
Just look for a moment at Jehorams legacy! In v20. we read that 'he departed with no ones regret'. His funeral was a miserable occasion, there was no state holiday, he wasn't buried in the Jerusalem equivalent of Westminster Abbey The people were simply glad that he had gone!
What a contrast to a good Christian funeral when an older saint goes to be with the Lord and we can reflect with thankfulness on a life affecting many for good.
and take a little time out to ask ourselves 'what will I leave behind?' 'whom have I influenced for the saviour?' and' what will folk remember me for??
c)Then there were his past crimes
Perhaps the die was cast early on for Jehoram's reign by the brutal murder of his brothers which we read about in v4, and 13 ( note that Elijah cuttingly points out that his brothers were better than he!) His father Jehoshophat had made sure that all his sons were well provided for, but left the kingdom to the eldest Jehoram, perhaps that shows some weakness on fathers part - instead of consulting God and making the right but difficult choice he attempted to please everyone - and of course scheming Jehoram took advantage. Now he may well have thought that he could get away with it, that God wouldn't call him to account, but God is God - He never 'forgets', He is basically just and that means we must carry responsibility for our actions We may have conveniently forgotten events in our past life but God does not forget and he will call all to account one day - just as He did through this letter. Eliijahs words go straight to the heart of the matter: 'You killed them - you will pay for this' and he did - his personal family and fortune were stolen by invaders and he died in agony. Nothing can be hidden from God.
So when we are tempted to make unfair or unkind choices that will benefit us and disadvantage others - let's remember that pleasing God in the long term is far more important than looking after our own interests. Doing the right thing may appear to cost us dearly but could well cost much much more if we go against God's clear revealed will.
3. The Response
So why was this letter sent at all? what was the point ( apart from instructing us?)
I mentioned earlier that scripture records two situations in which Elijah intervened in his latter years with heads of state, both were in response to wickedness in general, and murder in specific. We have looked at one in some detail - the other was when Elijah challenged wicked king Ahab over the murder of Naboth and the theft of his vineyard. - King Ahab when confronted by his old enemy Elijah pleaded with God for mercy - and God's judgement was postponed! Sadly we see no such response from Jehoram!
God calls all men to repent - this was Jehorams opportunity and it turned out to be an opportunity rejected, did he deserve that opportunity? - no way
This simply emphasises that God is rich in mercy and abundant in grace, it gives hope for people like us today - that despite our past if we honestly and humbly turn to God, He will in Jesus forgive, He will lift the punishment we deserve however many bad things there are hidden in our past.
That is the glorious message of Christianity a forgiven past and hope for the future.
A message we trusty that each one here will make their own.
If you 'd like to talk or pray about any issues raised tonight do have a word with us as you leave or over a coffee
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