‘Are you the king or aren’t you?’- a sermon about Naboth’s Vineyard- 16 June 2013

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 16 June 2013: Year C, Proper 6- Father’s Day
SERMON
Texts: Galatians 2.15-16 and 20-21
1 Kings 21.1-21a
‘Are you the king or aren’t you?’
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What a great and terrible story is today’s Old Testament tale. King Ahab covets a nice property near his palace- he wants a vegetable garden (perhaps a vegetable garden was a status symbol for kings back then). Naboth has a vineyard on the site, and Ahab offers him good money for it, or even a swap to another vineyard. But these are not the best of times in Israel. The King Ahab has entangled his nation in a web of foreign alliances. He has married a foreign queen, Jezebel, and at her behest is encouraging the worship of foreign gods. The old God of Israel- the Lord- stood for justice and mercy and the protection of the week. We don’t know much about Jezebel’s gods, but for someone like Naboth they clearly represent a threat to all he holds dear. Naboth has an old understanding of the land. The land is sacred- given my the God of Israel to his ancestors, it is not his to give away or sell. And so he answers the king with these incredible, defiant words, in which he names his God: “The Lord [the God of Israel] forbid that I should let you have it!”

King Ahab no doubt thought his vegetable garden would be an improvement on Naboth’s vineyard. And to us, who are used to the idea of inexorable change, Naboth’s protest sounds a bit futile- why should he stand in the way of progress? Why not take the money, the fair price which Ahab offers?

However, Naboth’s protest is more than just the protest of a poor peasant facing the loss of his land. He uses the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, in his argument with the king: “The Lord forbid that I should let you have it!” He is standing up for Israel’s God, and standing up for the old traditions and morality. It would sicken Naboth to give up his ancestors’ land to this bad king. In an earlier chapter we hear the claim that only seven thousand Israelites have remained loyal to the Lord, and have not bowed down to the Baal, the god of Jezebel (1 Kings 19.18). Naboth is one of that small minority, one of the seven thousand. He’s making a religious, as well as a moral protest against Ahab and all he stands for.

So then we see the kind of morality which Jezebel has learned from her gods. On this Father’s Day, we have, unfortunately, a Bible story about a wicked family. It’s like a plot from Shakespeare, or Dallas or The Godfather- the evil wife behind the throne comes up with a terrible plan. When the king comes home depressed by his argument with Naboth, Queen Jezebel is scornful: ‘Well, are you the king or aren’t you?’ And she organises convoluted plot which leads, via Naboth’s death, to the land grab. It is a a terrible abuse of power.

This is a story which is re-enacted, in one form or another, across the generations- of how the powerful people so often steal land from those who have had it and looked after it for generations. Whether is the native Americans, or Scottish Highlanders, or Palestinians in Israel today, throughout history people have their land stolen, by all kinds of trickery and violence. And, of course, if you lost your land, you lose your culture. Naboth’s losing his land is like dishonouring his ancestors and all the old ways, the old morality, which lasted generations. And all because a king coveted what was not his, and his queen abused their power to get what they wanted.

You might recall that our Sunday School recently raised money to send to Christian Aid to help buy some chickens for farmers in Bolivia. Just now there is a lot of pressure on ordinary Bolivian farmers, such those who will receive our Sunday School’s chickens. Christian Aid have been publicising the plight of Bolivian farmers because it is so typical of what is happening to indigenous people around the world. At the Church of Scotland General Assembly we heard a report about Bolivia which stated:

The Bolivian Amazon where many indigenous Bolivian communities live is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. This biodiversity is under threat as only 17% of the national territory is protected (source: WWF website). Land is still mainly held by a few rich families and large corporations. They use the land for large scale agro-industry such as logging, cattle ranching and plantations. Indigenous peoples are often displaced from their lands1.

Of course, you can always argue that these new ways of doing things are better, that they are progress. Modern farming will replace the old farming practices of the native people. The modern world needs the beef from the cattle who will graze in the cleared forests. Our dependence on transport means that we need the oil which is being discovered in these remote, almost untouched wilderness. There is a market for the fine wood which the logging companies will make from trees which have taken hundreds of years to grow. So we are told. But in fact, we’d probably be better to leave the rain forest alone, as the report to the General Assembly makes clear:

The Amazon stores 86 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of almost 11 years’ global carbon emissions… Deforestation is destroying this carbon sink, as well as adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere2.

We often hear that native peoples claim that they live in harmony with nature, and that it is better to leave their forests alone. It turns out that in the case of the Amazon, they are absolutely right. The rest of the world needs the Amazon to stay as it is, because of importance of its role in swallowing up greenhouse gases, and so slowing down climate change. But as long as mere greed is allowed to dictate what happens to the forests of Bolivia and other natural resources, we will be in terrible danger of fatally undermining the environment of our planet, with terrible consequences for our children and grandchildren.

For although we sometimes justify such things in the name of progress, it is often simply greed and corruption which drives the destruction of land. It think it’s interesting that the present protests in Turkey were sparked by a plan to cover a popular and historic Istanbul park with a shopping centre. Istanbul is a bustling city, where green space is it a premium. Whoever decided to build a shopping centre on one of the few empty spaces certainly did not have the good of the wider community at heart. We might think that something like that could not happen here in Scotland, with strict planning laws. Why would we ever allow the destruction of a unique green space? Yet near Aberdeen, Donald Trump has been allowed to build a golf course on beautiful, unique and what had been designated as scientifically important sand dunes. Too often, such developments are driven by greed disguised as progress.

King Ahab is depicted in the Book of Kings as constantly disobeying the God of Israel. Indeed, a bit later in this chapter the storyteller says of him that, ‘There was no one else who had devoted himself so completely to doing wrong in the LORD’s sight as Ahab- all at the urging of his wife Jezebel. He committed the most shameful sins by worshipping idols’ (1 Kings 21.2526). No wonder it ends with a confrontation with the prophet Elijah, who tells the king starkly that for the murder of Naboth, God says to the king, ‘I will bring disaster upon you’. It because he believed in progress that Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard. It was not because he was interested in agricultural improvement. The plot to destroy Naboth is hatched between a king who basically sulks because someone has stood in his way, and a wife who goads him into using- or rather, misusing, his powers. ‘Act like a king’ she says. It is not impersonal, unstoppable economic or social forces which sweep away Naboth and his vineyard. It is sinful decisions made by powerful people- in this case, Ahab and Jezebel.

Naboth is the victim of the personal pique of the powerful people he has annoyed. Jezebel and Ahab are egomaniacs, who put themselves and their selfish desires above all else. Ahab will be condemned for worshipping idols. And those who make idols out of materialism, greed, and pride inevitably turn into the sort of people Ahab and Jezebel were. And if they happen to be rich and powerful, ordinary folks like Naboth will suffer.

We encounter another kind of pride in the reading from the letter to the Galatians. In this letter, Paul is carrying on an argument about whether his own people, the Jewish people, have in some way an advantage over everyone else. After all, they were the people chosen by God before any other nation. And in the very first sentence of our reading, Paul uses the sort of language which perhaps was used, as people who (as Paul was) were ‘Jews by birth’ contrast themselves with ‘Gentile sinners’. But he immediately denies that he has and an advantage over anyone else simply because he is a Jew. He says that the only way someone can put themselves into a right relationship with God is by having faith in Jesus Christ. Even a very faithful Jew, who keeps all the regulations of the Jewish Law, can never by their own efforts be accepted by God. He writes, ‘we know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires’.

Paul believes that by believing in Christ, by trusting in Jesus, the Christian is changed inwardly. ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’, he claims. And so we discover a moral integrity, a spiritual renewal, a new heart if you like, which the Spirit of Christ brings. Interestingly, even the Old Testament historians understood that people could change. If we had read further about the prophet Elijah’s confrontation with the terrible King Ahab, we would hear how the prophet’s condemnation of him actually had an effect on him: ‘When Elijah finished speaking, Ahab tore his clothes, took them off, and put on sackcloth. He refused food, slept in the sackcloth, and went about gloomy and depressed’ (1 Kings 21.27). As a result of Ahab’s genuine repentance, God lessens his condemnation of Ahab. But for those who have faith in Christ, God’s forgiveness is absolute.

In a controversy with the Pharisees, Jesus once said to them, ‘God knows your hearts’ (Luke 16.15). God is interested in our motivations: it’s what’s in our hearts that really makes us good- or bad. Ahab and Jezebel, and other power-crazed fanatics like them- turn away from God, and other suffer. But for Christians, transformation is possible if we turn our hearts to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ is the same Lord God whom Naboth stood up for, even although it cost him not only his ancestral land, but his life as well. For the God of Jesus Christ, the Lord God of Israel, always stands on the side of truth and justice, and against arbitrary power, corruption and greed.

There are some Christians who give the impression that the Gospel of Christ is only about individual transformation, about individuals coming to God by believing in Christ. Well, they are half right, because God does want people to change by believing in Christ. And there is another sort of Christian who gets very interested in politics and social issues, and who does not seem to care about the inner life, the need to convert to God through belief in Christ. Well, they are half right as well, because the Gospel does have a social dimension, and the Bible has a lot to say about justice, poverty, greed and power- as we have just been hearing. American evangelical leader Jim Wallis puts it, ‘God is personal, but never private. And the Bible reveals a very public God’ (Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, p31). The Church needs to recover a sense that the personal and the social aspects of the Gospel are two sides of the same coin. The very personal sins of Ahab and Jezebel- greed and pride- led to a great social evil, as the farmer Naboth (and who knows how many other innocent people) was murdered for the sake of his land. It needed a man of great spiritual integrity- the prophet Elijah- to stand up to the king and make him face up to his personal sins. But that was also a very political act. For, out of his faith, Elijah was also standing up for the poor, the dispossessed, all those in Israel who were victims of the injustices which flowed from Ahab’s misplaced priorities.

It is tough work standing up for justice, trying to protect the poor against greed. But I believe that personal faith strengthen those who try to do so. Last weekend there was a huge rally in Hyde Park calling for action from the G8 leaders to do something about world hunger, and its causes. There were many different organisations represented there, but a number of reports about it which I saw and heard commented on how many people of faith seemed to be there. The report I heard on the lunchtime Radio 4 news featured someone who was very active in Christian Aid. The Gospel is firstly personal- it’s about what goes on in our hearts. Individuals are transformed through faith in Christ. But if as Christians we believe that Christ lives within us, the Gospel will also have social and political consequences, because we believe that God cares for every human being.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

© 2013 Peter W Nimmo