1 Kings 21:1-21
There is an old saying that goes “Behind every great man is an even greater woman.” Or, perhaps better put, “Behind every great man is an even greater woman…rolling her eyes.”
In our Old Testament lesson today from the Book of Kings, it would appear that behind an evil king, is an even more evil queen (rolling heads).
For the past several weeks we have followed the Prophet Elijah through his showdown with the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, into exile in the middle of nowhere, and even to be taken care of by the poorest of the poor (the Widow of Zarephath).
Today, we get some sense of why Elijah has been on the run. Truth telling, you see, is risky business in the company of a corrupt king. As our scene opens, we get a sneak peek into the real estate dealings of King Ahab, and how his queen encourages what’s worst in him. She devises a plan to give the king exactly what he wants, no matter the cost.
Elijah has been on the run because he has refused to turn a blind eye to the actions of a king who misleads, manipulates, and oppresses God’s people. The consequences of King Ahab’s marriage to the Baal worshipping Jezebel have now gone to seed, and the result is slander, murder, and theft.
The word of the Lord, again, “happens” to Elijah, agitates him into action and the prophet goes down to confront King Ahab, who says, “Have you found me, O my enemy?”
You can almost imagine Elijah looking Ahab straight in the eye and responding, “Yes, 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.”
Now, I’m no expert in biblical Hebrew, but those sound like fightin’ words.
Disaster and dogs licking up blood. Scoundrels and stonings. Deception and manipulation. Thus saith the Lord and divine judgement…now we’re talkin’. Now we’re really getting into the thick of things in the Old Testament.
Good thing stuff like that doesn’t happen today.
Except, of course, when it does.
Business deals get dicey. Demands are made for that which cannot be given. Bargains are bandied about for that which cannot be bought.
No, this is not just the world of the Old Testament. This is still the way of the world today.
How sadly familiar to see King Ahab pouting on his bed, throwing the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum all because he did not get his way. The closer we look at it, the more we might recognize that this is an everyman’s dilemma.
What do we do when things do not go our way? What happens when we, despite being told we’re king of everything, find we are not, in fact, in control?
Well, some of us refuse to believe it and blunder on. Some of us go on to wreck havoc upon others as we trample down their ancestral vineyards to erect our own. The idol of self is an envious god, which will never stop at one vineyard or one kingdom. Our idolatrous egos can inflate to enormous proportions as we become hell bent on bending the world to our wills.
Others of us, solely by the grace of God, are given a moment of clarity in which we realize there is another way, that we don’t have to be in control, because God is God, and we are not. God is God, so we don’t have to be.
There is a well-worn prayer written by German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and prayed by millions of addicts and alcoholics around the world who are coming to grips with their powerlessness. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. Perhaps you’ve heard it before…
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
This is not a prayer just for drunks and druggies. It is a petition not unlike “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a wisdom that is rarely gained without much suffering. And this is a wisdom that old King Ahab, sadly, did not have.
Ahab’s dubious wife, who does not worship the God who commanded “thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not murder,” Jezebel encourages Ahab to seize control, whispering untruths in his ear that he’s worth it, he’s better than that, he’s above the law, and the King should get what the king wants. “Do you not govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
My friends, I wish I could stand here and tell you that things like this happen only in times past. I wish I could tell you that only megalomaniacs and dictators make such demands, but in truth there is a tyrant in all of us who demands to get her or his own way…or else.
We want to be in control. We want things to go our way. Thy will be done too often becomes My will be done, and thus we succumb to our own worst idol.
But as the Serenity prayer suggests, might there not be another way?
God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change.
Serenity, that peace, which the world cannot give. Serenity to be at home in our own skin, no matter the circumstances, even when things do not go our way; Stillness in the midst of the storm, acceptance of things we cannot change.
Not only that, but God grant me the courage to change the things I can, the courage to speak up, show up, and stand up for Truth in the midst of lies, justice in the midst of oppression. Elijah was certainly granted courage to return to the king with a stern word of judgement.
And perhaps the hardest part of all, the wisdom to know the difference.
This, I think, is key. The wisdom to know the difference between things we can change, and that which we cannot. The wisdom to know ourselves, our abilities as well as our limitations.
We cannot change how someone thinks of us, or how they treat us. We cannot make others do what we want. But we can treat others with love and respect, and forgive them when we’ve been wronged.
This is much more difficult than any miracle or prophetic proclamation. I think this is exactly what Jesus is pointing to in the gospel, when he tells us to forgive, as we have been forgiven, to judge not, lest we be judged.
Notice how all throughout Holy Scripture, judgement and mercy, blessing and curse – in each and every case it is God who delivers justice, God who delivers blessing, God who pronounces judgement on hurtful, human sinfulness.
The wisdom to know the difference is the wisdom to know that God is God, and we are not. God is God, so we don’t have to be.
Both judgement and mercy belong to God. And as I’ve said before, “In the end, perhaps God’s justice looks a lot like mercy.”
King Ahab is not exempt from God’s justice, and neither are we.
King Ahab is not beyond God’s mercy, nor are we.
God’s mercy and justice are the same. They’re love.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 6c (2016)