Saturday, 22 June 2013

Speaking truth

1 Kings 21:1-21
Naboth’s Vineyard
Later the following events took place:Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard. ’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king. ’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
Elijah Pronounces God’s Sentence
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord:Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord:In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

What a story we read in 1 Kings today. A real howler.
Another episode in the saga that is the ministry of Elijah.
He really doesn't have it easy as a prophet. (None of them do)
He has more than his fair share of poop to scoop.
And that message he has to give the king at the end of our reading today is the kind of utterance that has resulted in death for countless prophets through the ages.
Just as well Elijah was dealing with such a wimp as King Ahab.
A powerful wimp.
A dangerous wimp.
But a wimp nonetheless.
A king with no backbone who could hear such searing words from Elijah and....
But, as I read through the passage, I couldn't help but feel a sneaking sympathy for King Ahab.
He doesn't have much going for him in life.
He IS king.
But his wife Jezebel calls the shots.
And Ahab does not even try to stand up to her.
Indeed it seems he doesn't even want to.
He is happy to be drawn into her evil and corrupt ways, to let her fight his battles and to let her influence totally desecrate the kingdom.
It's easy to picture this weak, spineless man, king on paper, but totally at the mercy of his strong and vicious wife.
I began to feel just a little sympathy for him - not too much but just a little.
With Jezebel to deal with on the one hand - and Elijah on the other.
Not a good place to be.
Lets look at the story again:
King Ahab has a lovely palace in Jezreel.
And right beside his palace is a vineyard.
King Ahab would like a garden in which to plant vegetables.
I suspect it was probably somewhere he thought he might be able to escape from his wife for a while!
But it makes sense to buy this vineyard, right next to his property and have it cultivated for his purposes.
Except that the said vineyard is owned by Naboth.
And has been in Naboth's family for generations.
And, apart from it being a good vineyard, well established over many years, the land holds sentimental value for Naboth.
It is part of his inheritance, part of his link with previous generations of his family.
He wants it to remain that way.
Why would Naboth sacrifice a part of his inheritance on the whim of a king?
And that is what he tells Ahab.
And Ahab, the warrior that he is, takes to his bed in sorrow over Naboth's knock back.
Enter bad Queen Jezebel.
She wants to know what has upset her dear husband so.
And, on hearing that it was a small matter of desiring a vineyard that belongs to someone else, Jezebel sets about putting things right.
She uses her queenly authority, writes letters and, before you know it, Naboth is dead and his vineyard belongs to the king.
Jezebel's grateful husband makes his way to Jezreel to take possession of his newly acquired land.
Enter the prophet Elijah.
Bringing with him a cheerful message from God. Not.
“Thus says the Lord:Have you killed, and also taken possession?:In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
It was at that point in the story that my sympathies switched from Ahab to Elijah.
Imagine having to deliver such a line to a king?
And, while Ahab would probably just stand there with his mouth open, he would, eventually, repeat the conversation to his wife.
And then Elijah's troubles would begin.
Or continue.
Because Elijah is already on Queen Jezebel's wanted list.
Elijah could have lived a quiet life.
He could have chosen to remain under the radar.
But he felt compelled to speak God's word - a word that might comfort or heal.
But a word that could also challenge and confront and condemn.
No such thing as a quiet life for a prophet of God.
I wonder if we've all but lost that sense of call to prophecy today?
That call to speak out and to speak up.
How often have we heard folk, or found ourselves saying: What's the point in speaking up?
What difference will it make?
And even in those of us who tend to put ourselves in the firing line, who have spoken up on occasion, there comes a point where we become worn down, where we experience futility - and we decide not to waste our energy when it seems that no one is listening.
We become resigned to watching from the sidelines and living on the margins.
The story of the prophet Elijah is a story of a man called by God, to live on the margins speaking out and shaking up corruption and injustice.
In Elijah's time, Gods people were oppressed.
Their rulers had wandered far from God.
Because the people felt that they were outnumbered, because they felt their voices held no sway, they retreated to the safety of obscurity.
A temptation that assails us and that we succumb to today.
But history has shown that it is often on the margins that folk can be at their most creative.
In times of austerity that we can bring forth ingenuity.
As a church on the margins today, I believe that we are being called to be prophetic.
To recover our ability to rise to the challenge - to speak up for communities around us today or, better still, to encourage then to find their own voices and then learn from what they say.
To challenge authority and bring the harsh light of truth to shine on policies that maintain and expand poverty or increase the vulnerability of those already living hand to mouth while the policy makers continue to prosper.
We may be a minority.
We may be marginalised.
But we are not exempt from speaking truth that comes from God.
3 characters in our story today:
Ahab, who turned his face to the wall.
Jezebel who ground people underfoot.
Elijah, who spoke the truth of God.
Which will we be?
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