As we enter the story in 1 Kings 21, we find that King Ahab is pouting from the events in chapter 20: Ahab led Israel into battle against the kingdom of Aram, and although Israel beat Aram, Elijah came and criticized Ahab for making a treaty that God did not approve of. So — in the last verse of chapter twenty — “the king of Israel set out toward home, resentful and sullen, and came to Samaria.”
Resting and pouting in his palace, King Ahab looks out and sees the beautiful, rolling, fruitful hills of a vineyard owned by Naboth from the town of Jezreel. Immediately, Ahab wants the vineyard; this is the only thing that can satisfy him after the latest reprimand from Elijah.
(knock, knock) “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 you prefer, I will give you its value in money. A new vineyard, or cash. Either way, I’m the king, I have the right to whatever I want, and everything has its price. So I fully expect, good citizen Naboth, that you will concede to my superior plan for how to use your land.”
Naboth reacts so strongly that he swears an oath to God in front of the king: “The LORD forbid it!” (Today we would say, “I’ll be damned if I ever allow that to happen!”) He says to Ahab, “I will never give you my ancestral inheritance. This is the land of my father and of his father and of our ancestral fathers before that. This is the inheritance of my sons. It is the livelihood of our family, the daily sustenance for my wife and children. This is my piece of God’s promise to Abraham that the people of Israel would someday have their own land. From Abraham, that promise was passed to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and from Jacob to the twelve sons who are the twelve tribes of Israel. This land is my piece of God’s promise and it is the life of my family. The rules of our culture require that land can only be passed within families, from father to son in each generation. The LORD forbid that I should break that rule, and treat this land — this vineyard — as a bartering tool for wealth, rather than as a blessing from God.”
Ahab returns to his palace, stares out the window at the tantalizingly unavailable vineyard, and resumes his pout. Because what good is being king if you cannot get what you want when you want it? What good is money if you cannot buy quick-and-easy happiness? What good is power if you cannot use it to persuade and convince and lobby your way into getting the rules changed just for you? How dare Naboth quote the rules of Israel to the king, when Ahab has the power to pay a scribe to accidentally omit that rule from the scriptures while copying a new set of scrolls?!
So Ahab takes the advice of Queen Jezebel to start a smear campaign against Naboth, convincing the elders and the nobles to falsely accuse Naboth. The elders whisper, “Naboth cursed God,” while the nobles spread a rumor, “Naboth cursed the king.” A public outcry against Naboth is crafted so that only two “scoundrels” (21:10) are obviously involved as false witnesses and therefore can be linked to his death. Only two scoundrels directly responsible, while a whole cast of conspirators is behind the plot! In fact, so many people have washed their hands clean of the mess — nobles and elders, legislators and religious leaders, heads of state and business CEOs, plus crowds of citizens who buy into the lies — that when all is said and done,
no one knows just quite how the rumors got started
or how a man came to be stoned to death;
no one seems to know how the explosion of violence first happened
or how a plan wasn’t in place to prevent such a disaster;
just like nobody knows how many hundreds of thousands of gallons
of oil are being poured into the waters and wetlands,
or just who should take the blame for it,
because everybody has scrubbed their hands raw to get them clean of the whole mess. And all that we are left knowing is that there’s too much blood and oil staining the ground all around us.
But what good is power if you cannot persuade the public that you are not responsible? So no one claims responsibility for Naboth’s death. And the stones are left to cry out as Ahab takes possession of the vineyard.
What good is power?
The LORD sends Elijah to King Ahab to implicate Ahab in this death and to warn of the gory consequences that will come to him: “In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood. Disaster will come upon you, Ahab, and upon your son, because you sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD.”
Yes, there is Ahab’s power. Yes, there is the power of kings and governments and religious authorities and business executives. Yes, there is the power of money to buy public opinion, and to buy new rules, and to buy a way out of lawsuits, and to buy enough soap to wash oil off of birds and fish and microscopic sea life and plants that are dying…and then tell people that you’ve done all you can.
There is Ahab’s power.
And then, there is God’s power.
Even if we don’t particularly like the image here of God promising that Ahab’s blood will be spilled and licked up by the dogs; even if we shy away from contemplating that God has the authority to sit in judgment as well as in mercy; even if we get mad and rail against God for the state of the world or the state of the environment or the state of our lives…even so, there is God’s power.
And what good is God’s power if it is not used (in part) to compel Elijah to name evil and to accuse evil and to resist evil? What good is God’s power if it cannot persuade you and me to participate with Elijah in calling out evil and actively working to make a change for the better? What good is God’s power if it does not move us to work for justice & healing in the very places where blood and oil have been spilled?
What good is the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit in you and in me and in this congregation and in our sister churches and among Christians around the world if the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit only means that we live nice & polite lives?
What good is the beautiful, life-giving, powerful, stunning nearness of God if we only renew our strength just enough to live our own lives, and we don’t also take the courage to be bold in mounting up with wings like eagles, running without growing weary, walking without growing faint?
What good is listening to God in our daily devotions if we still settle into the rejected and complacent belief that men and money have more power than God to impact the world?
What good is power?
God’s power. Not our power — we should be careful to keep that clear in our minds. God’s power! Thine is the kingdom and the power, forever. “Great is the LORD and mighty in power; God’s understanding is infinite:
who lifts up the downtrodden,
who heals the brokenhearted,
who casts the wicked to the ground,
who determines the number of the stars
and gives them all their names.” (from Psalm 147)
Who else has such power?! Who else has the power to give you strength for making it through the worst of your days, and then surprises you with a moment of laughter or sudden beauty? Who else knows that you lie awake at 2am, and still challenges you & nips at your heels to incite you to fully engage in life when the day dawns? By whose Spirit is your spirit stirred with restlessness and anger when you see images of wars and blockades and oil-covered birds and town-destroying floods?
And I don’t know who you blame for all the messes that we could name — that’s a conversation for another time — but the more important question is whether you and I think that power means evil going unchecked…or if, just possibly, power means evil being resisted for the sake of God’s love for all the earth.
Howard Thurman wrote: “There is no need to fear evil. There is every need to understand what it does, how it operates in the world, what it draws upon to sustain itself. We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil… It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained. Birds still sing; the stars continue to cast their gentle gleam, and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed… To drink in the beauty that is within reach, to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness, to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God — this is, as always, the ultimate answer.” (excerpt of “Life Goes On” in Meditations of the Heart; from Beacon Press, 1953)
What good is the power of God if we fear evil and shy away from responding to it?
What good is the power of Jesus standing up to the temple authorities, or Elijah standing up to government authority, if we do not join their protest?
What good is the power and presence of the Holy Spirit if you, if I, if we remain convinced that situations are hopeless and war is inevitable and power is intrinsically corrupt, and we cannot claim the Spirited power — the Spirit-full power — to do the “little graces” as Howard Thurman calls them; to do the everyday graces and to see the everyday beauties and to rejoice over the everyday miracles and to resist the everyday evils in such a way
that God’s power might multiply
What good is the power of God in you or in me?
Perhaps we should find out.
(My sermon from 6/13/10 at Grace United Church of Christ.)