Getting the King's attention - 1 Kings 16:29 - 17:1
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Back in the 1940’s when National Socialism, Communism and Western Materialism and the love of pleasure were at their height, the poet, T S Elliot penned these words: ‘But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before; though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where. Men have left God not for other gods, they say, but for no gods; and this has never happened before that both men deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason, and then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic. The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms upturned in an age which advances progressively backwards.’ With those words in mind one commentator reviewing our present sutuation writes: ‘We live in a new dark age. Having elevated the individual as the measure of all things, modern men and women are guided solely by their own dark passions; they have nothing above themselves to respect or obey, no principles to live or die for. Personal advancement, personal feeling, and personal autonomy are the only shrines at which they worship.’ (Colson, Against the Night, p108).
It might come as a bit of a surprise to you to discover that a similar situation existed in the northern Kingdom of Israel around 874 BC. If ever there was a dark age, here it was- and it was very dark. And I am sure that then, as now, God’s people who find themselves in a minority, being squeezed and pushed around by a new paganism, asked the questions we all tend to ask: where is God? Why doesn’t he do something? Well, in order to answer those kinds of questions, we could not do better than turning to the First book of Kings and chapters 16 and following. If you want to take a reality check and yet see behind that, the greater reality of God and his saving pruposes, then this is the book for you. And tonight we see the darkness of the spiritual night beginning to close in and yet at the same time, the first glimer of light of a new spiritual dawn.
First of all, let’s ask, what happens when paganism prospers? You see, from one point of view there was a great deal of prosperity around. We are told in v29 that king Ahab reigned over Israel 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 on the ‘up and up’ too. A great royal wedding had taken place between Ahab and the stunning Jezebel, the Phoenician princess. Forget the Mastrich treaty, this really did ensure international security. This also meant that the stock markets were buoyant because Israelite goods now had access to the world market via Phoenician ships. Peace and prosperity-what more could you want?
Well, the Bible is quite clear that material well-being can often run counter to spiritual well-being. You see, what this passage does is not present us with a political perspective (which may have been relatively good) but a prophetic perspective- which was dire. What really matters is not what the BBC political commentators think, but what God thinks. And to be frank what God sees here simply makes him sick- 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 it is snatched away by his own son -who is far, far worse can you believe? 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? We are told why in 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(v31), his altar to Baal(v32) and the temple of Baal (v32).Whereas Jeroboam worshipped a bull, Ahab worshipped Baal. One writer describes the contrast between Jeroboam and Ahab like this, he says, ‘Jeroboam’s state cult is like drinking polluted water; Ahab’s imported paganism is like sucking raw sewage.’ (Davies, p 199). If you drink water which is polluted then there is some chance of recovery. You may have stomach ache for a while but you might just get over it. But you suck in raw sewage and you are going to have a long, painful death indeed.
Now had Ahab been around today, I think that 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’,being interviewed with tremendous respect. The Independent newspaper’s editorial would have congratulated him for moving on from being defender of ‘The faith’ to defender of ‘faith’. After all, Baal was more widely worshipped than Yahweh and it had been around a lot longer. It was native to Canaan too-not some foreign import snuck in by the Jews. The title Baal, simply means ‘Lord’ - so who were the Jews to claim that they had a monopoly on the name- ‘Yahweh’, which also means Lord? What’s in a name? God is god is god isn’t he? What is more, it was a bit more personal for 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 ‘steak on the plate while you wait’. You see we are talking about a tribal society which depended upon kinship to thrive- therefore you needed lots of children- and this was the god who supplied them, so iot was thought. Also this was an agrarian society, a good harvest was vital for its economic prosperity- and this as the god who produced the crops. It was more fun too. None of that stuffy holiness business with its puritanical rituals. This religion was more ‘with it’, it allowed free expression, it celebrated sexuality with its temple prostitutes and the like- there would be no need to entice these folk to come to church, they would be queing up with what was on offer- not a pew but a bed. It was 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 Ashera poles which symbolised the goddess Asherah, the Queen of heaven. This was a hormone and economically driven religion. And this is why Ahab was considered by the Bible to be a sinner, 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 have already 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. You may not know that there is a serious theological journal given over to this called, ‘Theology and Sexuality’ .One 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.’ That is theological gobbledy gook for getting men together for homosexual orgies in church. I can tell you that the priests of Baal would have gone along with that. The move towards blessing homosexual partnerships and so called same-sex weddings are also part of this trajectory. Not too long ago a report was produced in which 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." The former 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 and would even have approved of the lyrics of a song sung in Manchester Cathedral a number of years ago in which a crucifix with a female Christ, Christa, 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.’ That is bad poetry let alone bad theology.
And we must not think that God is indifferent to such things, for he knows that ultimately those who give themselves over to false gods will eventually end becoming like them, hurting themselves and other in the process, and he loves us far too 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 what we have seen in the quote from the former Bishop of Lincoln- a denial of God’s Word. Of course it is rarely an open denial, more of a ‘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- when Scripture is scrapped which is captured for us in that little incident mentioned 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.’
What is that all about? Well, it is not some trivia about working conditions on some 9th century BC Barret’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 at the express command of the king. It was not so much a matter of rebuilding Jericho but re-fortifying it that was the issue; 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." 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 anyway. And once it was re-fortified as a monument to Ahab’s military prowess, there were two other monuments lying just outside the town, two graves which were monuments to God’s judgement and Ahab’s conceit- the graves of two boys. But that was typical of Ahab and his reign- who cares what God has sai ? Let us do what we want regardless of the consequences. But someone eventually picks up the tab for such defiance. It is all right for politicians and even church leaders pontificating about alternative families, gay sex, or an outmoded biblical ethic- but they are not the ones left having to counsel broken lives, take the funerals or deal with the psychological and medical problems which come in their wake. Friends, we are living in the age of Ahab where the Word of the Lord doesn’t count for very much either inside or outside the church.
But you have to ask: why is the author rubbing our noses in all this dirt- telling us how bad things were? Why does he leave us standing with all this raw moral sewage swirling around our feet? Well, it is in order to give God’s people a strong dose of realism. How often do God’s people look at their situation- falling church attendance, a hostile media, a church bent on spiritual compromise and say. ‘Well, it couldn’t get much worse’? The writer here says, ‘Oh yes it can.’ We thought it was bad in Jeroboam’s time but boy things really took a nose dive when Ahab arrived on the scene. And we may feel the same -if we are honest. Can things get worse in our country? Of course they can.
But the darkest time is just before dawn. When things get dark and I mean really dark; when at last God’s people cry out to God to do something because they realise they can’t do much at all- that is when God acts if he is going to act.
Which brings us to our final and encouraging point - a surprising saviour, 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? Suddenly here he is-no introduction, no CV, no gradual build up- just- ‘puff’- he appears out of nowhere like a Geni from the magic lamp-the man and his message. And both are significant.
First, the message. What is Elijah saying? Well, he is simply declaring to Israel that God, unlike them, keeps his promise. Back in Dt 11:16, he promised that if the nation wandered off after other god’s then he would fire a warning shot across their bows for he would, ‘shut up the heavens so that there would be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit.’ Here in 1 Kings 17 we have a predictive prophecy given ahead of time. Think of it like this: if Elijah had turned up and declared God’s judgement during a drought, folk could have said, ‘Yes, you would say that wouldn’t you? But God has nothing to do with it, it’s just one of those things.’ In fact they might have said that it was Baal who was giving them a rough time, so we had better get on down to the temple for some cult sex. But you see, this way no one can say that. It is Yahweh who is predicting what is going to happen. It is he, not Baal, who controls the weather and crop productivity-so wise up! And even this message of judgement also contains mercy. Implicit in it is that if the people repent, God will relent. Let me ask: 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. This is designed to get the King’s attention- and his heart.
But then we have the man-Elijah whose name means ‘ My God is Yahweh’. And that is the choice people are being forced to make then and are being called to make now-who is your God going to be? Is it Baal- fantasy or Yahweh- reality? There can be a Christianised form of Baalism as well as a Jewish form.
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 counter movement. 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, its 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.’ (Ronald Wallace). Could I ask: Do you believe that? You should because we can now think of another man who suddenly appeared out of nowhere- according to Mark’s Gospel- God’s man with God’s message. The man was Jesus and his message was, ‘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. And this is the perspective we are to have. God is at work, God is raising up his people, there is a counter movement going on and our call is to get on with joining the revolution.
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