It was the worst of times - 1 Kings 16:29 - 17:1
How do you measure the mood and state of a nation? Having spent a little time in the United States and talking with folk there it would seem that the best selling book by William Strauss and Neil Howe called The Fourth Turning identifies matters pretty accurately; they say that the United States 'feels like it's unravelling.' The authors go on: Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within. Neither an epic victory over Communism nor an extended upswing of the business cycle can buoy our public spirit ... We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.'
Would it be that wide of the mark to say that that description pretty much fits Britain too? I guess that there are many social indicators you could look to in order to try and gauge the moral and social health of a society, but surely one which is profoundly significant is the state of our young people- after all they constitute the future adult citizens who will by and large shape what is to come. It is therefore deeply disturbing to read a report entitled 'Psychosocial Disorders in Young People' by Sir Michael Rutter, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in London and David Smith Professor of Criminology at Edinburgh who point out what common sense shows. The authors focus on disorders that are increasing in the teenage years: crime, suicide, suicidal behaviour, depression, anorexia and bulimia, alcohol and drug abuse. At the launch of the book, Sir Michael Rutter claimed that this is the first major study to highlight the upward trend in psychosocial disorders of youth since the Second World War across the most developed countries. It is striking that this increase in psychosocial disorders happened at a time when physical health was improving. David Smith added: It is also striking that a major increase in psychosocial disorders happened in the 'golden era' of low unemployment and rising living standards between 1950 and 1973. Increasing psychosocial disorders are not related to deprivation or to increasing affluence in any simple way.' What did they find? First, in Britain, the rate of recorded crime (mostly committed by young people) increased tenfold from 1950 to 1993; and over that period there were substantial increases in psychosocial disorders of young people. Secondly, in most countries alcohol consumption increased greatly among the young between 1950 and 1980, with deaths from cirrhosis of the liver increasing in a similar way, as did alcohol-related problem behaviours. Thirdly, there is suicide. In Europe, rates of suicide have increased over the whole of the twentieth century, but the most striking increase was among young males between 1970 and 1990. And fourthly, there has also been a substantial increase in the proportion of the population suffering from depressive disorders.
If that is not a description of a society unravelling then I didn't know what is. Now there are many causes for this state of affairs, family stress, sexual experimentation (according to Rutter and Davies), but underlying it all is a loss of fixed spiritual values. God has been dethroned, we are left to make up our own morality, so we end up with a myriad of conflicting moralities, usually based upon what is in it for me- driven by desires and hormones. And naturally people feel lost and so begin to do the unthinkable.
And for many people the question which is raised is- 'Where is God when a society or even the so called -supernatural society-the Church- appears to be unravelling?' Well, the answer to that is found in the first book of Kings and especially these amazing accounts of the prophet Elijah. For in many ways the northern Kingdom of Israel in 874 BC was not that different to ours, as we shall see. But what we discover is that God is doing what he is always doing- he is at work in judgement and salvation.
So let's turn to 1 Kings 16: 29ff and look at what is happening both then and now under three headings- a crisis in society, a contempt for Scripture and a complete surprise.
First of all - a crisis in society. Not that there seemed to be much of a crisis at all on the face of it. We are told in v29 that king Ahab reigned over Israel in the capital Samaria for '22 years.' At least that meant there was political stability -no bloody coups as had happened in vv 9-10 for instance. On the international scene things looked rosy too. A great royal wedding had taken place between Ahab and the stunning Jezebel, the Phoenician princess. That meant that the stock markets were buoyant because Israelite goods had access to the world market via Phoenician ships. Peace and prosperity then -what more could you want?
Well, as we know the political measure of society is not the only measure. Material well being can easily mask spiritual disintegration as the report of Rutter and Davies make plain. Now what this passage does is to present not so much a political perspective but a prophetic one. This is a matter of seeing things as God sees them-and in the light of eternity that is the only perspective which ultimately matters. And what God sees simply makes his retch- v 30 'Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.' Earlier on in v25 Ahab's Father, Omri, had just been given the dubious title of the most evil King ever- as far as Israel was concerned. But no sooner is the prize given than his son snatched it away-he is far far worse. And as if to underscore the point the writer adds in v 33 'Ahab ... did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.' Now why? What was it that caused God to seethe with rage at what he was doing? Was he fiddling the books at the Exchequer? Was he drinking himself into a stupor in the pub when he was meant to be ruling in the palace? No. Look at v 31- ' He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole.' It was Baal worship. That's what did it. That is the sin which is hammered home relentlessly in this passage. The term first appears in the name of Jezebel's father- 'Ethbaal'- maybe he was the king-priest of Baal- the chief mufti of the cult. And then we are told of Ahab's worship of Baal, his altar to Baal and the temple of Baal. Jeroboam worshipped a bull, Ahab worshipped Baal. Now had Ahab been around today in all probability he would have been applauded for his enlightened approach to the value of other religions. He would no doubt be on 'Desert island Discs', interviewed with tremendous respect by the BBC and Guardian and congratulated for moving on from being defender of 'The faith' to be the defender of 'faith'. After all, Baal was more widely worshipped than Yahweh, and it was a religion that had been around a lot longer than that of the Jews. It was native to Canaan for a start. The title Baal, simply means 'Lord', 'Master' - so who were the Jews to claim that they had a monopoly on the term- Yahweh, also meaning Lord? What is more it was a bit more personal wasn't it? You could think of this god as your 'husband'- another legitimate rendering of the term Baal. Also it was a religion which was a bit more practical, concerned as it was with fertility-not pie is the sky when you die, but stake on the plate while you wait. This was a tribal society and as such depended upon kinship to thrive- therefore you needed lots of children. Who knows had Abraham worshipped this god he and Sarah may not have had the problems of infertility they did have. Also this was an agrarian society, a good harvest was vital for the well being of society. So why not back an obvious winner- Baal- after all the Phoenicians hadn't done that bad. It was more fun too. None of that stuffy holiness business of them with its puritanical rituals. This religion was more 'with it', it allowed free expression, it celebrated sexuality with its temple prostitutes. It was a little less sexist too. After all who said that god had to be male- that sounds like misogyny- get in touch with the feminine side of the divine they said- hence the Asherah poles which symbolised the goddess. So what that it was hormone and ideologically driven? So what that child sacrifice was also practised, sometimes you do have to make hard decisions don't you? That is why Ahab was considered a sinner and while today he would be hailed as a saint.
And just in case you think that this is all a matter of a preachers license, let me bring you up to date. As I said, Baal worship was essentially a fertility religion which gradually began to encroach upon Israelite worship until it eventually became formalised under Ahab. And this eroticization of religion is exactly what is happening today. In fact there is a serious theological journal given over to this called 'Theology and Sexuality.'. One such article in the journal is entitled 'A celebration of the work of Joe Kramer, founder of the EroSpirit Research Institute and instructor of thousands of men in the practice of erotic spirituality'. The author argues that 'he is engaged in healing practice which constructs an 'eschatological sexuality' that dares to reach towards forms of sexual praxis located in a transformed future.' In other words he gets men together for homosexual orgies and this is called spiritual. The priests of Baal would have gone with that. The move towards blessing homosexual partnerships too falls within this trend. In a recent report one vicar said: 'On average, I tend to perform about four same-sex blessings a year. Sometimes it seems like I do more homosexual blessings than ordinary church weddings.' A colleague in south-east London said his church had an open policy of blessing same-sex unions and even announced blessings in the parish notices. The Bishop of Lincoln John Saxbee has gone on record as saying that teachings which rule out gay relationships need to be 'reinterpreted' in the light of modern society- 'The fundamental issue here is to do with our interpretation of the scriptures. The Bible emerged out of a particular culture and reveals to us timeless truths which none the less have to be interpreted in the light of changing times.' I am quite sure Jezebel would have used the same argument as no doubt she would have approved of or even written the lyrics of the song sung in Manchester Cathedral a few years ago in which a crucifix with a female Christ was paraded and which ran 'God who is everywhere present on earth, no one can picture completely; yet to the eyes of the faithful she comes and shows herself always uniquely.' This is our world friends.
And we must not think that God is indifferent to these things, for he knows that ultimately those who will give themselves over to false views of God will eventually end up hurting themselves and others, and he loves us far to much to ignore that. The medical problems associated with sexual immorality are horrendous enough without such activity being sanctioned in the name of God.
But what it boils down to is captured by the Bishop of Lincoln - a denial of God's Word. Of course it is rarely an open denial, more of a 'well it is all a matter of reinterpretation'- but the result is the same. What God may have said then is not what he says now. And so we come to our second point- a contempt for Scripture which is encapsulated for us in that little recorded incident in v34 'In Ahab's time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the LORD spoken by Joshua son of Nun.'
Now what is that all about? Well, it is not some trivia about working conditions on some 9th century BC Wimpy' s building site. It is an incident which sums up the whole of Ahab's reign and attitude. The opening phrase, 'In Ahab's time' seems to imply that Hiel had undertaken this building project under the express orders of the king. It was not so much a matter of rebuilding Jericho as such, which you will remember had walls which came a tumbling down under Joshua, but re-fortifying it. And that is the point, because going back to when the city had been destroyed in Joshua 6: 26 we read these words: 'At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: 'Cursed before the LORD is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: 'At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates.' So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.' Do you see what has happened? Ahab knew about that inspired word from Joshua but he decided to ignore it and push ahead with a his fortification project. And once it was re-fortified, as a monument to Ahab's military prowess, there were two other monuments just outside, two graves, as monuments to God's judgement. But that was Ahab and his reign- who cares what God has said ? Let us do what we want regardless of the consequences. But someone eventually picks up the tab for such defiance don't they? It is all right for politicians and even church leaders pontificating about alternative families, gay sex, or an outmoded bible ethic- but they are not often the ones having to counsel broken lives, take the funerals or deal with the psychological and medical problems which come in their wake. This, you see is the age of Ahab we are living in, where the Word of the Lord doesn't count for very much.
But why is the author trying to rub our noses into all this dirt- telling us how bad things were? Well, it is in order to give God's people a healthy dose of realism. How often do God's people look at their situation- falling church attendance, a hostile media, a corrupt society, a church bent on spiritual compromise and say. 'Well, it couldn't get much worse'. The writer here says, 'Oh yes they can.' We thought it was bad in Jeroboam's time and that we had reached the pits with Omri, but boy things really took a nose dive when it came to Ahab. And we may feel the same. But the golden nugget we are to see in all of this is that even in the midst of the most dire times, God is still there and God still cares. Even at this stage he did not abandon his people- and he will never ultimately abandon his people -as Paul says, 'Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ'- no matter how bad things get. He knows exactly what is going on and he is concerned with what is going on-hence this passage- far better that God is incensed than that he is indifferent. And the fact that this book is preserved for us in itself shows that evil does not have the last say, God does. His Word can never be silenced. Which brings us to our final encouraging point which is a complete surprise- 17:1. Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.'
Now where did he come from? You feel like asking ' Who was that masked man?' Suddenly here he is-no introduction, no CV- just the man and his message. And the appearance of both is highly significant.
Let's take the message first. What is Elijah doing? Well, he is simply declaring to Israel that God, unlike them, keeps his promises. Back in Dt 11:16, he warned that if the nation wandered off after other god's then he would fire a warning shot across their bow in that he would 'shut up the heavens so that there would be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit.' This was a predictive prophecy- given ahead of time. You see if Elijah had turned up and declared God's judgement during a drought, folk could have said, 'Yes you would say that, you are second guessing--but it isn't significant it is just one of those things- or even that Baal is giving them a rough time.' But this way no one can say that. It is Yahweh who is predicting this and controlling it. It is he ,not Baal that controls the weather and crop productivity-so wise up! And even this message of judgement also contains mercy. Implicit in it, as the context of Deuteronomy makes clear, is that if the people repent, God will relent. Now how many signs of judgement does God have to give before we as a nation and as a church wake up and realise how foolish we have been? But the purpose in view is always the same- to get people into a right relationship with himself. God's judgement is restorative as much as it is retributive.
But then we have the man-Elijah whose name means ' My God is Yahweh'. And as we shall see, that is the choice people are being forced to make-who is your God? Is it Baal- fantasy or is it Yahweh- reality? But Elijah's dramatic and unexpected arrival on the scene makes another point which one writer puts like this: ' For to see him (Elijah) appear thus reminds us that we need not despair when we see great movements of evil achieving spectacular success on this earth, for we may be sure that God, in unexpected places, has already secretly prepared his countermovement. God has always His ways of working underground to undermine the stability of evil. God can raise men for his service from nowhere.. Therefore the situation is never hopeless where God is concerned. Wherever evil flourishes, it is always a superficial flourish, for at the height of the triumph of evil God will be there, ready with his man and his movement and his plans to ensure his own cause will never fail.' Do you believe that? You should because we can now think of another man who suddenly appeared out of nowhere- according to Mark- God's man with God's message- Jesus- 'Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.' And at the height of the powers of evil in his life- at the cross-God was not absent, but was bringing about his greatest triumph- the defeat of evil and our redemption.
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