The Power of Forgiveness – 1 Kings 21.1-21

June 16, 2013 – 4th Sunday after Pentecost

We are on our third of five stories about the prophet Elijah. Three of the five involve Ahab, who was the worst king of Israel. What leads him to this designation is his marriage to a woman who was not an Israelite, worshiping the Canaanite god Baal and turning away from the covenant with the God of Israel.
Two notes will be helpful as you hear this story. King Ahab wants the vineyard that is next to his palace to turn it into a vegetable garden. But the vineyard belongs to a man named Naboth who refuses to sell or trade it to the king. He says he will not give it up because it is his ancestral inheritance. This land ultimately belongs to God and is given in trust to the Israelites. They were not to sell it to others because the land was to stay within the community of Israel. Furthermore, they were to keep the land within their family or clan so that no one in Israel would be destitute. The land gave them a place to live and a means to provide for their family. Preserving the land within families prevented the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer. Part of who it was to be God’s people was to revere the land and for the land to be part of each family’s wealth, a gift from God.
Second, in the Bible, vineyards are often viewed as a sign of God’s blessing. Israel is sometimes spoken of as a vineyard. The only other place in the Bible where we heard about a vegetable garden is in Egypt–the land of oppression and enslavement.1 For the king to announce his intention to convert a vineyard to a vegetable garden is bad news. You might as well cue the shark music from the movie “Jaws” because something ominous is on its way.

[Read 1 Kings 21.1-21]
v. 15: [Now don’t you think Ahab might have asked what happened or wondered at such a coincidence? Nope.]

Perhaps you are looking at the sermon title printed in the bulletin, “The Power of Forgiveness” and you are thinking, “I did not hear a shred of forgiveness in this story.” And you would be right. There is none. As I read this text in preparation for preaching, I thought about how often this story repeats itself throughout history and how life might be different if forgiveness was part of the narrative. But as the text is written there is none. Ahab covets his neighbor’s property and then is peeved that the guy won’t give on his religious convictions. Jezebel plots a murder to give her husband what he wants. Naboth is murdered on the evidence of lies. Ahab takes possession of the land without a shred of curiosity or remorse about what happened to the former owner.
And it’s here in many political systems that might makes right. If you’re big enough or have enough favors to call in or enough money to sway people to your point of view, you can get just about whatever you want. We’ve seen that in countries the world over throughout history, including our own. And sometimes people get caught and sometimes they don’t.
In this story Naboth’s murder is seen by God and God sends the prophet to bear witness against Ahab. Elijah names the evil that has been done and relays the dreadful consequences Ahab and Jezebel will suffer because of their terrible actions.

[Read 1 Kings 21.21b-25]
v. 22: [Jeroboam (1 Kings 14.7-11) – did evil, worshiped other gods.
Baasha (1 Kings 16.1-4) – walked in the way of Jeroboam, caused Israel to sin against God.
v. 24: [dogs shall eat; birds of the air shall eat – corpse is left unburied; treated without dignity.]

So perhaps there is some justice. A man is murdered because of greed and lies and even in death he is abused. The one who plotted his murder and the one who benefitted are treated in a similar manner. Disaster comes upon them and their bodies, too, are left for the wild dogs and the predator birds.
But where does that get you at the end of the day? Maybe an eye for an eye? “You did this wrong to me. I’ll make sure this wrong gets done to you.” You remember Mahatma Gandhi who said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
We want justice when people do wrong. When others abuse their power and hurt those who are weak. When someone takes what does not belong to them. When a person engages in acts of violence. When someone is hurt by another’s negligence or willful action. We want an admission that a transgression was made. We want restitution. We want someone to pay for the wrong that has been done.
In every human wrought tragedy that has affected our country since 9/11, the President or some other official has always said, “We will find out who did this and bring them to justice.” It’s probably been said before 9/11 as well, I’m just particularly aware of it in this more recent history.
Justice is important. Without it, we have a community of lawlessness and everyone makes up their own rules and enforces them in their own way. But justice–the administration of due consequences for one’s bad actions–isn’t enough.
Ahab and Jezebel are promised disaster in return for their murder of Naboth. But what good is that to Naboth’s family? That isn’t to say there shouldn’t be severe consequences for Ahab and Jezebel but even when they die an ignoble death, that doesn’t bring back Naboth. Even a slow, torturous, exceedingly painful death for Ahab and Jezebel doesn’t change the reality of Naboth’s murder and all the painful ways his death changed the lives of the people he loved. What does Naboth’s family really want? They want the one thing justice can’t bring about–which is to “restore the life of Naboth himself.”2
What if it’s you that’s injured or your child who is killed or someone in your family who is assaulted? Yes, there should be significant consequences for the people who wronged you but does it heal your now forever changed circumstances? Does a financial settlement make your heart sing again? Does the death penalty or life in prison bring back the person you most long to see again? The priest of St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish in London, writing on this story about Naboth and Ahab says, “Justice can identify the transgression, justice can pass sentence, justice can ensure punishment, justice can stop the wrongdoing; yet justice can’t heal, can’t restore, can’t reconcile, can’t genuinely make anything better.”3

So what is it that we need? We need forgiveness. Forgiveness is not instead of justice. Forgiveness is in addition to justice. In this story of Naboth and Ahab, chances are there will always be enmity between the two families. This isn’t the concern of the story was we have in the biblical text but it’s what I kept wondering about. Ahab will get what’s coming to him eventually but that doesn’t put any salve on the wounds of Naboth’s family. What could change that is forgiveness.
We often think of forgiveness as something we offer when the other person has repented, shown they are remorseful, asked for mercy. But many times that never happens. And if we wait for the other person to express their remorse, we may wait forever. And in the meantime, we miss out on giving and receiving love because our hearts have been poisoned by our resentment and anger. Presbyterian and author Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rats to die.”
The biblical model is that we are forgiven and in response to God’s forgiveness, we repent. Receiving such grace, we find ourselves drawn to become more as we have been beheld. It’s a little bit like the prayer, “God, may I be the person my dog thinks I am.” Being the recipient of undeserved forgiveness and love, we want to become more forgiving and loving.
Forgiveness does not bury the wrong under the rug. Theologian Miroslav Volf, who is from the former Yugoslavia and grew up in Croatia and Serbia, says the first part of forgiveness is to name the wrongdoing and condemn it.4 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu in South Africa after the end of apartheid required everyone who participated to take “proper and public responsibility for their mistakes…for the sake of truth and healing.”5
“Forgiveness is the justice of God” says one pastor. “Justice can’t make things right. Even forgiveness can’t make things right on its own–it takes repentance, it takes reconciliation, it takes making amends, it takes healing. But all these start with forgiveness.”6
There is no biblical record of the families of Ahab and Naboth ever meeting. No reconciliation. No forgiveness. Ahab dies in battle in chapter 22 of 1 Kings and the dogs lick up his spilled blood as Elijah said.
The concern of this story for the biblical writer is to highlight what an evil king Ahab was. And while most sermons reflect on what actually happened in the biblical story, sometimes we notice what is missing from the story. This morning I wonder what might have happened had there been a doorway open for forgiveness.
I doubt there is anyone here who has not been wronged by another and few among us who have not been the cause of another’s suffering and pain. I wonder what might happen if we open a door to forgiveness in our lives?

* * *
1 Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings” in New Interpreter’s Dictionary, vol. III, (Nashville, Abingdon, 1999), p155.
2 Samuel Wells, “Forgiving Ahab” in Christian Century, April 17, 2013, p32.
3 Ibid., p33.
4 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge – Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), p129.
5 Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, (Cincinnati, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), p 40.
6 Wells, p34.

Limping Between Two Opinions – 1 Kings 18.20-39 (also Psalm 96)

June 2, 2013 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Here’s some of the back story for this morning’s reading from 1 Kings: After the reign of King David and then his son Solomon, the kingdom of Israel is split into two. There are a series of kings who rule in each kingdom. Many of whom are bad. But King Ahab, who we hear about in today’s reading, is one of the worst. The story says he “did more to provoke the anger of the Holy God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16.33) Chief among his failings was his marriage to a woman who was a Baal worshiper and then Ahab’s own allegiance to the Canaanite god Baal rather than the God of Israel.
Elijah, the prophet of the God of Israel, tells King Ahab that there will be a drought. There will only be rain if the God of Israel calls it forth. The implication is that the drought is because of Ahab’s worship of the god Baal and his abandonment of the commandments of the God of Israel. The drought lasts for three years and with it comes widespread famine.
Toward the end of those three years, Elijah and Ahab meet up. They both blame the other for being the source of drought and famine in the land. Ahab blames Elijah because he has called out the drought. Elijah blames Ahab because he has broken the covenant relationship with the God of Israel.
So Elijah proposes a contest between their gods. 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the god Asherah are to meet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Each side prepares a sacrifice and then calls on their god to send fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice. The god that sends the fire will prevail.
This sort of competition between gods is typically not in our direct experience so let me say a few words about it. In a world where there are multiple gods, there’s always a tension of which god is the most powerful. We have multiple gods in our culture: status, money, power, family, beauty, things we accumulate; but they don’t typically have a face-off in this manner.
In the ancient world, each god had a particular responsibility or trait and there were frequently competitions between them. Baal is the god of fertility and life and storms. A drought would signal the powerlessness of Baal and some other god’s victory. When there is rain (which enables life because food can be grown), it would be presumed that Baal is alive and the other god is defeated.1
So the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab, “Let’s see whose god–yours or mine–is more powerful.”

[Read: 1 Kings 18.20-39]

That’s the lectionary’s cut on this story but for those of you following along in the bible whose eyes might have wandered on to the next verse, which is actually the last verse of the story, here’s verse 40: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.”

In some ways this is a great story–lots of action, suspense and surprise. But toward what end? So that one god can be the victor and the loser god’s followers can be mocked and slaughtered? Doesn’t this reek of the centuries of religious wars that have been fought and the oppression and destruction that has been wrecked on the human community because some people worshiped the wrong god? And the “wrong god” being pretty closely related to whoever had the most power in the community to declare which was the “right god” to worship?
Now this story is in the Bible and that means we need to take it seriously but I have to say, in the scope of human history and the way that religion has been used as a cover for all kinds of evil, this story, first reading, offends my religious sensibilities.
And what do we do with a story that attributes weather–especially devastating weather–to the hand of God? The drought isn’t in this exact story but it precedes the Mt. Carmel competition and immediately afterward the rain returns to the land. But few of us these days see drought, tornadoes or hurricanes as punishment from God.
Additionally, we Presbyterians have a history of being part of ecumenical and interfaith endeavors and see ourselves as part of the larger work that God is doing in the world. We don’t see ourselves as the sole arbiters of truth but we are partners with others in uncovering the truth of God in the world. The constitution of the PC(USA) voices our commitment to conversation and understanding with other Christian groups and with non-Christian religious groups.2

So we have to think in a different way about this story. We can’t take it just at face value. We enter the world of this text with a very different worldview than those who compiled the stories in the book of Kings. Which doesn’t mean we can’t find truth and meaning here. But it does mean we will need to look deeper to find the meaning underneath the text as well as to look from a bigger view–almost like on an on-line map when you pull the view back to see more of the landscape, to see the bigger context, of your particular location–we’ll have to take those kinds of perspectives in order to sort out what the writers were trying to say.

Clearly, it seems to me, this story is about following God with singularity of heart. And the power of God above all other gods–which in this story is the reason to follow God with a single heart. Did you hear Elijah’s question to the people? “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” The Hebrew literally means “hobbling upon two branches” which could be the image of a bird going back and forth from one branch to the other. Our English idiom would be something like “sitting on the fence.”3 You’re not sure which side you want to commit to because you’re not sure which side has the greatest advantage. And in this story, Elijah says, “If the Holy One of Israel is God, then worship this one; if Baal if God, then worship Baal.” It’s similar to the story of Joshua who says to the Hebrew people, “Choose this day whom you will serve”4–the God who brought you out of Egypt or the god of the people who oppressed you. It’s the continual question all through the Bible. Whom will we serve?
And most of us, including the characters in the Bible, want to hedge our bets and serve a multitude of gods. But the Bible says there is one God who is to be served. Because there is only one God “who will have the final say when all is said and done.”5 That’s what Leong Seow, who teaches Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, says is the point of the Book of Kings in all the different ways the stories are told. And really, the point of the Bible: there is one God who will have the final say when all is said and done. And it is this God we are called to worship and serve. It is this God who made a covenant with the Hebrew people, who blessed Abraham and Sarah and their family that they might be a blessing to all the families of the world. It is this God who loves us even when we wander away and when we serve other gods. It is this God who calls to us through the voice of the prophets, who woos us with great love and mercy, who we meet in Jesus Christ–not in this story from Kings–but in stories to come. And in the life of Jesus who was born, who lived a truly human life, and who died and was raised from the dead, we encounter again the God who will have the final say when all is said and done. The One who takes the worst we can dish out and meets us with love and grace. Who transforms death into life and despair into hope and sorrow into joy.
And so we, too, can sing with the psalmist:
Sing to the Holy God, bless God’s name;
tell of God’s salvation from day to day.
Declare God’s glory among the nations,
God’s marvelous works among the peoples.
For great is the Holy God, and greatly to be praised;
to be revered above all gods.6

* * *
1 Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), p126.
2 The Book of Order, G-5.010 Ecumenicity: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels seeks to manifest more visibly the unity of the body of Christ and will be open to opportunities for conversation, cooperation, and action with other ecclesiastical groups. G-5.0102 Interfaith Relations: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels seeks new opportunities for conversation and understanding with non-Christian religious entities.
3 Seow, p135.
4 Joshua 24.15
5 Seow, p3.
6 This was the accompanying lectionary psalm: Psalm 96.2-4