Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 16:29 - 17:7 Ahab's Wickedness

Things aren’t how they used to be. Morals are declining, and wickedness is increasing. The leaders of the nation are found to be as bad as each other, and probably getting worse. While you could say this about Northern Ireland in 2011, it is actually the description of life in Israel in the 9th Century BC (roughly 870 BC).

The Promised Land is in disarray, divided into two parts. After David and Solomon died, Solomon’s son Rehoboam was foolish, leading to a rebellion, so that his kingdom was divided into two kingdoms (and here’s where the confusion comes:) - Judah and Israel. Judah continues to have the son of David on the throne (God, having promised that David’s line would continue - see Matthew 1 and Jesus’ genealogy), while Israel has been in a real mess.

When Ahab takes the throne, he’s the seventh king in 36 years, in the fourth family dynasty. Very briefly, there was Jeroboam and his son Nadab, then a rebellion, Baasha and his son Elah, then a rebellion. Zimri, who reigned for seven days, then another rebellion, and Omri and his son Ahab. Our current royal family can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years, with the one family ruling throughout - there have been four different families within 36 years.

So there has been a lot of political intrigue, conspiracies, murders - a film maker could have a field day with these stories! But sadly, these kings aren’t any improvement on the previous dynasty. Rather than getting better, it appears they’re getting worse.

The first king of this new Israel, Jeroboam had set up shrines and altars in Dan and Bethel, so that the people of Israel wouldn’t go up to Jerusalem, to the temple (which was in Judah). It was an attempt to worship God, but not in the way God had provided. If that wasn’t bad enough, all the following kings used that as a foundation for their own wickedness. So of Baasha, the Bible says ‘He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to sin.’ (1 Kings 15:34).

Then we get to Ahab, the king in our passage tonight, and we find that he’s a first class sinner; top of the league of evil: ‘And Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him.’ What was it he did? How was he more wicked?

‘And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah.’ (31-33)

Ahab, the king of Israel, the leader of the people of Israel, the people of God, didn’t just continue to encourage people to offer false worship at the shrines in Israel (rather than going up to Jerusalem to the God-appointed temple), that was just a light thing for him. That was child’s play, very easy. He went so much further, marrying into the Sidonian royal family (of Tyre and Sidon, Israel’s close neighbours and enemies), and started to worship Baal, even building a temple for Baal in the middle of his capital city, and making an Asherah - a wooden pole set up beside the Baal altar dedicated to the ‘wife goddess’ of Baal.

Baal was the name of the Canaanite nature deity, the small g god who was supposedly responsible for weather. If you were planting crops, you would want to keep him on your good side so that those plants would succeed. Asherah was the goddess of fertility, again important for your crops.

We see the end result of Ahab’s actions in verse 33 - ‘Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.’ Ahab’s outstanding wickedness provokes the LORD to anger. Why was God angry? Well, did you notice how God was described there? The LORD, the God of Israel - the capital letter covenant Lord, the one who has sole ownership, and total rights over Israel his people. Yet Ahab is seeking to have God and Baal. But to add another god is to take away from God. It’s as if you’re hedging your bets rather than being totally committed to the Lord.

Ahab made room for Baal, for this false god, and gave him space in Samaria. You may never have been tempted to go off and worship Baal, or make an Asherah. Yet even if you’re a Christian, are there areas of your life that you make room for sin? Are there habits that are forming which will lead you away from the Lord? Are there things that you give your money or time to which will harm and hurt you rather than help you?

We can’t know for sure why Ahab pursued this wickedness. Perhaps it was to create an alliance with Sidon, to make himself more secure in case of war. Maybe he was promoting inter-faith participation (to keep everyone happy). He may even have been thinking to himself, well, we hear all this talk about God, but he isn’t doing anything.

Already we’ve seen in our passage that God, rather than not seeing or not caring, is still committed to his covenant people. Ahab was doing evil ‘in the sight of the LORD’ - God has been watching him; so that Ahab is provoking the LORD. The last verse of chapter 16 might look as if it’s a bit random, a bit out of place, but it reminds us again that God does keep his promises (of judgement as well as of blessing), no matter how long it takes to happen.

Back in Joshua 6, after Joshua had led the people into the promised land; and they had conquered Jericho by marching around the city and blowing the trumpets and shouting; after all that, Joshua had declared the curse on the rebuilding of the city. ‘Cursed before the LORD be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho. At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates.’ (Joshua 6:26)

Jericho had remained in ruins through the time of the Judges, and the kings until now, when God’s long ago promise and warning of judgement came to pass. We’re not told how they died, but both Abiram and Segub died when their father Hiel built up Jericho. God sees, and God brings judgement.

Often, we only think of God’s judgement coming at the end of time, on the day of judgement, but the Bible reminds us time and again that God can judge, rebuke, discipline before the end. We see it here, as the prophet Elijah comes and stands before king Ahab. Look at 17:1. ‘As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’

Quite a dramatic debut in the Bible, don’t you think? His first words, and they are explosive! Elijah is declaring that the Lord, the God of Israel (note again the full title!) is alive - that God is in charge. More than that, that Elijah is his servant, ‘before whom I stand’. To show this and prove this, it’s as if Elijah has turned off the taps of rain and dew, until he says so again. You might think Baal gives the rain - I know that God does, and so he won’t until I say!

We’ve seen problems with water supply over the last few days - either too much through burst pipes, or not enough with shortages and interruptions in service, but this has been for a week or so. There will be no more water until Elijah says so!

Immediately Elijah heads off into hiding, obeying God’s command to go to the brook Cherith, on the other side of the Jordan. There, God’s servant is provided with meals on wings - the ravens bring him meat and bread twice a day, and he drinks the water from the brook. Look at verse 5: Elijah ‘went and did according to the word of the Lord.’

Over the coming weeks we’ll see what happens, as the situation becomes more desperate, as Elijah confronts Ahab once more, and stands for God in the midst of opposition. But what can we take from tonight’s reading?

We’ve already thought about how God knows what is happening - God sees, and will act in his time. Perhaps you’re frustrated with how the country is going, and wish God would do something - he knows, he will act against the wicked. Or maybe you look at the Church of Ireland or Anglican Communion and wonder what is going on. God knows what wickedness is going on - judgement will come!

God is in control, yet he may be wanting you to stand out and stand up for him in some of these situations. Are there ways you can use your influence or position to stand for God’s truth? You may not be the one who is up front in a public way, and yet you can still stand for God and serve him faithfully.

Over in the New Testament, James is writing about prayer, and says ‘The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.’ To illustrate, he points to our passage tonight - ‘Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.’ (James 5:16-17)

Before Elijah stood in front of King Ahab and declared the rain would cease, he stood before the King of Kings in fervent prayer. When faced with many circumstances and problems and opposition, we’re likely to act first and pray later. With Elijah, it was pray, then act.

In praying, we please the Lord, praying according to his will. Let us pray that we will pray, and seek God’s glory, and not provoke the LORD to anger.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church on Sunday 2nd January 2011.

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