September 25th, 2016

Whose Servant?


“How long will you waiver between two opinions?”  (1 Kings 18:21) 

1 Kings 18:1-15

The gospel and the situation

You may have seen in the bulletin last Sunday that I participated in a panel discussion Monday on “civil discourse.” In my brief presentation I said that in a difficult situation believers need to respond with the Gospel and the Bible. The Gospel response to conflict is not separation but incarnation. We don’t disengage; we show up. We listen, we care, we do – because that’s what Jesus did in his incarnation. We also pay attention to Scripture – for example, its pervasive teaching on kindness – such as when Paul writes, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (Philippians 4:5). Because the Bible says so, we step into anger with patience and grace.

That was Monday. By midweek chaos had broken out in the streets and air waves of Charlotte, our big sister city to the south. Once again there are lots of people on all sides who believe no one is listening to them. Situations like that in Charlotte (repeated in many cities) are messy, confusing, chaotic. They defy simplistic answers. You mix pain and frustration and law and self-defense and hopelessness and racial/class distinctions and so much else into the mix, and you have all the ingredients for explosions just like that one. It’s easy for us to see that through our own lens.

That’s one reason we do pulpit exchanges here at Corinth. We have another coming up October 16, when Pastor Vincent Ross will preach here. We want chances to know and value and love and listen to those whom we rarely encounter. I love what Pastor Paul said in his sermon this morning at 8:30. We’re not black Christians or white Christians. We’re red Christians. We “bleed” grace. My heroes of this past week in Charlotte were the chaplains and ministers and others who just showed up to listen and care and seek reconciliation.

Sometimes situations become so large and so messy that we push our gospel perspective and our biblical perspective to the side. We begin to see the Gospel through the lens of the situation. We think, “My marriage (or my pain or my conflict or my society) is so complicated that I need to reframe my faith. I don’t want to give up my faith, but this situation demands my faith plus… whatever that “plus” is.”

So here’s the question of the day. Do I see my situation through the lens of the Gospel, or do I reframe Gospel truth because of my situation? Do you want an illustration? Turn to 1 Kings 18. We’ll take it verse by verse.

A man of fear

Verses 1-2. After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah, “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria…

If you’ve been here the last two Sundays, you know what’s going on. For the rest of you, let me bring you up to date on the situation. At the beginning of chapter 17, Elijah had gone to the palace of King Ahab in Samaria and said to him, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Now, God has promised to send the rain again. By the end of this chapter Elijah will be fleeing a torrent, so we need to see this entire chapter hanging together.

Since then, Elijah has been hiding in a ravine so remote that ravens had to bring him bread and meat. When the stream dried up, God sent him north, outside the borders of Israel to a town of Ba’al worshipers where a woman fed him for some time through God’s miraculous provision that her jar of flour and jug of oil never emptied. We haven’t had specific time markers until now, and it looks like we’re in the third growing season. No rain for three years is devastating in an agricultural society. No one has fresh crops. No one has stored food. No one even has seed to start over if it does rain. Elijah is walking through parched, dusty fields where lush crops should be ripening.

Verse 3.  …and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of his palace. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the LORD.

Now this is interesting. Fascinating. Puzzling, even. We have two statements about Obadiah that are difficult to reconcile.

First, Obadiah is “in charge of (Ahab’s) palace.” The updated NIV says, “palace administrator.” The Hebrew text literally says, “over his household.” I thought earlier this week that this was a government position. Now I’m thinking it’s more of a domestic position. Either way, he’s close to Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. He’s trusted by them.

Let’s think for a moment what this means. We learned a couple of weeks ago that in a line of evil, idolatrous kings, Ahab was the worst, by far. He thought it was “trivial” to commit the sins they committed. The worst of his grievances was to marry a princess from Sidon, where worship of the Canaanite storm god, Ba’al and his consort, Ashtoreth, was the norm. This led him to do something else no other Israelite king had done – to build a temple for Ba’al right inside the walled capital city, and to set up an Asherah pole inside there as well. The Bible doesn’t blame his wife for this, but it does associate her religion with his action. They are complicit in doing “more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:33).

And Obadiah is their chief of staff. He does their bidding – not only Ahab’s but Jezebel’s. Being over their household means that when either Ahab or Jezebel says, “Jump,” he asks, “How high?” You don’t live in the palace and supervise the servants and run the daily affairs of the household without absolute obedience from and trust to the dictator and his wife. You just don’t.

But we’re told something else about Obadiah. He “was a devout believer in the LORD.” Actually his name means “Servant of the LORD.” It was a common name, and twelve different people in the Old Testament have the same name – including the prophet who wrote the book of Obadiah, who is not the same person. (He likely prophesied and wrote about three centuries later.)

This is a good place to compare Bible translations. Some translations (like the NIV) speak of Obadiah’s devotedness to his God. But the ESV and KJV are more literal – “Obadiah feared the LORD greatly.” Our first inclination is to take this as a positive trait, because by far the overwhelming meaning of the phrase, “feared the LORD” in the Old Testament is positive.

So already, in verse 3, we’re left to wonder, “How in the world does someone who is a devout believer in the LORD” stay so loyal for so long in the house of Ahab and Jezebel that they keep promoting him all the way to chief of staff? Do they not know he fears the LORD greatly?

Verse 4. While Jezebel was killing off the LORD’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.

Now we know what Jezebel has been up to. She’s not a religiously tolerant person. She doesn’t think it’s OK to serve the LORD. It’s her God or no God. She’s been rounding up Yahweh’s prophets and executing them. These are not private acts. They are public acts to show who’s now in charge.

Meanwhile, we have an example of what it means that Obadiah fears the LORD. At great risk to his own safety and life, he has taken 100 of these prophets and hidden them in two caves. Having traveled twice in Israel, it’s not at all hard to imagine in that topography how easy it would be to find a cave large enough for 50 men to live. Not only that, but he keeps in regular touch with them (directly or indirectly), supplying them with food and water. We learn later in the chapter (19) that Jezebel feeds 850 prophets of Ba’al and Ashtoreth regularly at her table. Obadiah is in charge of this hospitality in their “household.” It must have been quite a cafeteria, and quite a temple for Ba’al in Samaria for all these prophets. Obadiah was regularly caring for them while he was also snarling away leftovers for Yahweh’s prophets.

Verses 5-6. Ahab had said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.” So they divided the land they were going to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in the other.

We can probably give Ahab a little slack here. It’s not just that he loves animals more than people. It’s the old military vs. social needs tension. If Ahab is to maintain his legendary military security, he needs his cavalry and chariots. But what’s important about this is how much Ahab trusts Obadiah. This is a job so important that Ahab will personally engage it – presumably with an entourage. And Obadiah is so close to him and so respected and trusted that if someone else is going to cover half the territory, Ahab wants it to be Obadiah.

Verse 7. As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?”

There’s no indication anyone else is with Obadiah. He is awestruck that he has come across the missing prophet. He’s also deeply respectful, not only bowing low but calling him “my lord.” The Hebrew is adoni, which combines “my” with “adon,” which can mean anything from “lord” (“boss”) to a synonym for Yahweh. It’s not the casual way in which we say “Yes, sir,” however. It is a term for deep respect and honor. Obadiah in his position doesn’t do a lot of bowing and “sir”-ing. As a man who fears Yahweh, he fears Yahweh’s powerful spokesman.

Verse 8. “Yes,” he replied. “Go and tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’”

Now this is interesting. The word Elijah uses for Ahab, “master,” is also adon. He is saying, “Yes, I am who you think I am. But your lord is Ahab.”

Before I read the next section, I will admit I am going to put my spin on it. In spite of his position heading up the household for Ahab and Jezebel, Obadiah is a person who lives with a deep set of fears. I’ve noticed that when people explode with anger or fear, they generally calm down later and say, “That’s not the real me.” No, that was the real you. You can cap those pent up feelings like fizz in a bottled soft drink, but if your world gets shaken up that gas will explode. Obadiah explodes in verses 9-14.

Verses 9-14. “What have I done wrong,” asked Obadiah, “that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death?  As surely as the Lord your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.” I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. And now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!”

This man is a Coca Cola bottle of fear. He’s afraid of Ahab. He’s afraid of Jezebel. He’s afraid of Elijah. He’s afraid of the LORD. He even uses the exact same language the widow in Zarephath uses: “As surely as the LORD your God lives” (emphasis added).

He doesn’t trust anyone. He doesn’t trust that Elijah will be there when he gets back. It won’t be Elijah’s fault – the Spirit of the LORD will move him.

And he doesn’t know who his “Lord” is. He calls himself Elijah’s servant in verse 12 and Elijah his lord in verse 13. But he calls Ahab his lord in verses 11 and 14. Although he was brought up to serve Yahweh and has done one very dramatic deed to serve God in secret, he’s very conflicted about whose servant he is. Not so Elijah.

Verse 15. Elijah said, “As the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.”

“Almighty” is in contrast to all of Ahab’s military might. “Lives” is in contrast to Ba’al. “Whom I serve” (literally “before whom I stand”) is in contrast to the one whom Obadiah serves. He believes he has served Yahweh since youth. His life says otherwise.

What’s wrong with idols?

I have a lot of empathy for Obadiah. I have no desire to throw him under the bus. He’s in a tough spot. But he reminds me of a lot of Christians today. Sometimes he reminds me of me. We grow up in Sunday School and church. We learn what it means to follow Jesus. We learn that the only thing that matters in life is following Jesus.

Then we find ourselves in messy situations. In fact, we find ourselves in a messy life, in a messy culture. And the stories we learned in Sunday School, the sermons we heard and still hear, and the Bible we read just doesn’t seem all that relevant to a world where you need so much more to survive, much less to thrive. We begin to believe that our situation needs “Jesus-plus” in order to make it. The plus might be attention, or alcohol, or success, or fame, or sex, or money, or drugs, or therapy, or a different spouse, or a child, or a better job, or peace and quiet. These are our modern day idols.

What’s wrong with idols anyway? On one level, especially in moderation and with boundaries, there’s nothing wrong with anything on that list. Those are God’s good gifts. And therein lies the struggle – the (sometimes fine) line between having these things and letting them have me.

It’s when I don’t have them that my faith is tested. As I was typing this final page of my sermon yesterday, my computer locked up. I was on a deadline because our daughters are home for the weekend and my time is so limited. At that moment I have to ask, “Is this computer a tool that I use, or is it my god?” If it’s my god, at that moment I get extremely anxious, even angry. I learn a lesson in where my trust lies. In this messy world, I need this computer to behave, right? The same way I need my ice cream, my health, my bottle, my job, my stuff, my marriage. I need this stuff to keep going.

I battle with this, and so do you. Which is why I feel for Obadiah. He rose to a position of influence just because he was effective and loyal. What’s wrong with being effective and loyal? Nothing. But it was also about his sense of security. His confidence, not only for a job but literally for his life, hung on suppressing his loyalty to Yahweh.

I’m not going to tell you I think he went to hell or wasn’t a true believer. Nor will I say that about you if you battle your own gods. I will tell you I think this story is a set up for next week, when Elijah will stand on Mount Carmel in one of the most dramatic scenes in all the Bible, with Ahab and Jezebel and their 850 prophets of Ba’al and Ashtoreth before him. Standing alone Elijah will turn to the people and ask, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Ba’al is God, follow him” (21).

This part of the Bible, with all of its very visible and physical tension between the true God and these false idols, answers the question, “What’s wrong with idols?” What’s wrong is that they promise what they cannot deliver. They seem at first to come through. A man prays to Ba’al, and sure enough it rains the next day. A woman holds her hands out to Ashtoreth and gets pregnant the next month. What’s wrong with covering your bases?

What’s wrong is that the idol is an imposter, a charlatan, a pretender, a hoax. The idol can’t deliver what the soul yearns for: meaning, hope, identity, being known, being loved. We need a few really dramatic stories in the Bible to help us see that an idol will cast such a spell that we really begin to believe it’s where hope lies.

Our closing hymn today will be one I never knew until I came into the German Reformed church tradition: “I Sing the Praise of Love Unbounded.” We sing it because this is the great distinction between God and our idols. Idols can’t love you back. Your money, your pleasures, your need to control, your addictions – they will take but never give back. Even the people in your life will never love you. Some relationships will give you a glimpse of love, but even the best marriage or parent-child relationship or friendship will fail you from time to time, and ultimately will end in death. Only God will love you back and only God will be there on the other end of any situation…still loving you. Amen.


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