This is a manuscript of the sermon I preached earlier tonight. As I said in an earlier post, one of my great challenges in sermon writing has been seeing the sermon as more of a conversation than an essay. With this goal in mind, most of my sermons have ended up being perhaps too colloquial in order to break away from the routine of essay recital. While I don’t want to tout this sermon as a wonderful example of homiletics, I do feel like it represents the best balance between the colloquial and the reverent that I have yet come up with.
Let me know what you think.
First Scripture Reading:
Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”
But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’ ”
Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.”
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ ”
Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”
“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. …’”
I Kings 21:1-21a (NIV)
Second Scripture Reading:
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.
The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'”
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the LORD, the son born to you will die.”
After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.
II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 12:13-15 (NIV)
A Tale of Two Kings
We all love heroes. As children, our heroes are always the clear good guys — Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. We look to our heroes to see what we like best about ourselves. Our fictional heroes often personify this goodness. When we see them on the streets fighting the good fight, living honest lives and helping others, it makes us feel better about ourselves because we see a little bit of our own desire in them.
From time to time, though, even the strongest heroes stumble. Every other movie or so, Spiderman seems to stray off the straight and narrow path for a bit, only to recognize he’s not really himself unless he’s there, fighting on the side of good. Every now and then the egotistical, slightly conceited Bruce Wayne leaks through into Batman’s persona.
We turn a blind eye to these flaws in our childhood heroes. Maybe it’s because we’re still so pleased with the overwhelming number of good things they do that we let them off the hook. Or maybe it’s because we see ourselves in their failures too; we understand what it’s like to be human.
Of all the shining heroes of the Bible, perhaps David is the brightest.
David, Israel’s best king, established the temple at Jerusalem, led the people to live within God’s law and brought prosperity to the nation. He would forever be known as “A man after God’s own heart.”
In contrast, Ahab, Israel’s worst king, disregarded the Lord and condoned the worship of Canaanite gods. Ahab ignored the law Yahweh had given to the people of Israel and oppressed the nation. “Indeed,” scripture says, “there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
At first glance, David and Ahab are polar opposites. Yet both of these men have committed grave sins — conspiracy to murder and steal
David’s story is a familiar Sunday school lesson. He has fallen into a trap of ever-increasing sin, beginning with his lust for Bathsheba and ending with the conspiracy to murder her husband, one of David’s own top warriors. The prophet Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who takes something that doesn’t belong to him. David regains his moral compass, his sense of what is right and what is wrong. He repents, and God forgives his sins. There are still consequences to his actions, but David’s humble confession allows the Lord’s grace to move into his life, washing away the sin. He will go on to be Israel’s greatest king.
Ahab’s plot to steal Naboth’s vineyard is the final episode in a long series of bad decisions and sinful acts. Honoring God was never a priority for Ahab. At the beginning of his reign, Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of a rival king. He built temples and altars to honor Baal, the god of Jezebel’s homeland, while neglecting the altar of Yahweh. He oppressed his people. Ahab valued building projects more than the lives of his citizens. At the request of the queen, he had the prophets of God murdered. Even when the Lord continued to bless Ahab, giving him a military victory in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, Ahab disregards God’s instructions about dealing with the enemy king in order to gain a little praise and flattery for himself. We have no trouble understanding how this corrupt king could stoop so low as to plot against an innocent man for a few acres of choice farmland — land the king doesn’t really need at all. It’s simply in his nature. He’s that kind of guy, and Elijah is ready to give him what he deserves.
In “The Message” Eugene Peterson provides a little bit of color in the dialogue between the corrupt king and faithful prophet. Ahab’s “greeting” — if it can be called that — is characteristic of his relationship with the prophet. “My enemy! So, you’ve run me down!” “Yes, I’ve found you out,” said Elijah. “And because you’ve bought into the business of evil, defying God. ‘I will most certainly bring doom upon you, make mincemeat of your descendants, kill off every sorry male wretch who’s even remotely connected with the name Ahab. And I’ll bring down on you the same fate that fell on Jeroboam and Baasha — you’ve made me that angry by making Israel sin.’”
Confronted with the harsh reality of his sin, of what his life has become, David says “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Ahab says “So you have found me, my enemy!”
David confesses his sins because he comes to recognize them as evil.
Ahab admits his sins because he knows he has been caught.
Without hesitation, Nathan offers history’s great king a word straight from heaven: “Your sins are forgiven. The Lord has taken them away.”
“Your sins are forgiven.” Is it really that easy? For God it is. For Nathan it was. For David, it had to be.
Elijah’s answer to Ahab’s confession is just as quick, but not quite as comforting. “’I will destroy you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring disaster on you. I will consume you.’”
On second thought, maybe Elijah’s judgment is just as comforting as Nathan’s. Don’t we want a God who delivers swift justice to the evil ones? Don’t we want a God who can look into the hearts of men and separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the rebellious, the penitent from the insolent? Don’t men like Ahab — men who let selfish ambition and reckless greed — need to get what they have coming to them? It’s only fair.
David understood this. He knew what was fair and what wasn’t. His strong sense of right and wrong is what ushered Israel into its greatest period of prosperity.
David also understood that he couldn’t do it alone. David’s relationship to Nathan is one of the best prophet-king partnerships in scripture. David appreciates having someone he can trust hold him accountable. He is always willing to listen to what Nathan has to say and considers his advice.
Ahab’s relationship with Elijah is likely the worst prophet-king relationship in Israel’s history. Elijah’s confrontations with Ahab get more and more heated as time goes on, to the point that Ahab seeks to have the prophet killed. Why is it so hard for some people to take good advice, or even to listen to someone who may come from a different perspective?
David also understood that he needed God. Hear the good king’s own words, recorded in Psalm 5:1-8:
Give ear to my words, O Lord;
Give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sounds of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
In the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
Evil will not sojourn with you.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty, and deceitful.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house,
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
We may say we want a god of justice; a god who punishes evil and destroys liars. It’s true that God hates evil. David told us “The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” But thank goodness he didn’t stop there. Our God is not a simple God.
In 1787, the Constitution of the United States marked the beginning of a new era in human society. It set a precedent for how government should be run and how justice should be administered. It has been replicated throughout the world and has withstood the test of time largely because of its revolutionary simplicity. For many people, justice and government, right and wrong, evil and righteousness, are simple things.
Fortunately for David, and for us, our God is not quite that simple. If he was, David would be right there with the worst of them. David’s sins put him in the same class as Ahab. Ahab conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his family farm. David conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his wife.
“The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”
“But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.”
History might record David as the great king, the righteous ruler of Israel, but David wasn’t quite so proud of himself. He knew that no matter how good he was, no matter how bad he was, it was ultimately God who had the power to save, and it was only through God that he, the king of Israel, could be redeemed.
From time to time, we may ask God for justice, but I for one am glad that what he offers is not justice, but grace; not judgment, but an abundance of steadfast love.
What, then, is to become of our friend King Ahab? How does he fit into God’s order of things? If there is a limit to this abundant love David spoke of, surely Ahab found it. Let’s go back and listen in a little more on this scene between Ahab and his “enemy,” the prophet Elijah. Elijah has pronounced his sentence on Ahab: total destruction. This is the justice man seeks. This is the justice Elijah cries out for with every ounce of mortal passion within him. This is the justice Ahab deserves.
“When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days, but in his son’s days I will bring disaster on his house.”
I Kings 21:27-29 (NRSV)
This business of the son being doomed for the father’s sin is confusing at first, but rest assured that Ahab’s son gets a fair chance as well. This line tells us more about how each person is responsible for their own choices before God, that is, each child has to seek out God’s grace on his own, not ride into heaven on the coattails of his parents. But that’s another sermon for another day.
What’s important here, is Ahab doesn’t get what he deserves any more than David got what he deserved. They are both helpless victims of God’s abundant, steadfast love. They are two of Israel’s most notorious kings — David is notorious for his general goodwill, his desire to serve his people and to please the Lord; Ahab is notorious for the way he oppressed his people and spent most of his life scorning Yahweh and all those who called on him. They are both great sinners. They are both helpless to save themselves, and, in the end, they both turn to the God of Creation, the God of Love, the God of Mercy, the God of Grace, to redeem them. And he does.
God is still able to redeem us today. He sent his son, Jesus Christ, to demonstrate his love for humanity. Confronted with this desperate need for salvation above and beyond the power of men, the world responded in much the same way Ahab responds to Elijah. “So, Jesus, you have found us out. “
Jesus was scorned, attacked and brutally murdered so that shameful men might not have to deal with their own shortcomings, with their own sins. Even this was not enough to test the limits of God’s abundant, steadfast love. To make his point once and for all, the Lord Jesus rose from the grave. He went back into the world of men — the world that had beaten him away in an effort to beat back it’s own sin. Jesus’ message to us is the same message Nathan took to David, the same message Elijah took to Ahab. “You can’t do it on your own. Admit it. Believe it. And then, once you’ve found your limit, believe in me. Believe in the God of all Creation. Believe in my power to save you. To wash away your sin and give you new life, abundant life, in me.”
This is the message everyone — humble fishermen, sun-burnt farmers toiling away at the family vineyard, and even the world’s mightiest kings — everyone, needs to understand.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes:
We ourselves are Jews by birth [you and I, we are already members of God’s family]¹ and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. … For through the law I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Galatians 2:15-16,19-21 (NRSV)
1. My interpretative addition.