Reflection 9th June: 1 Kings 17

Today is the third week of our series on Kings. Today we are reading from chapter 17 so we have skipped over a fair bit so I will begin with a little recap on what has happened and where we are in the story so we understand the context of this reading.

 

Kings begins with an aging King David and a bitter struggle over who will be his successor. Solomon with the help of his mother Bathsheba, ultimately wins.  And so on David’s death, which we read about today Solomon becomes king.

 

Solomon’s reign takes up chapters 2 to 11. As we talked about in depth last week Solomon’s kingship was riddled with paradox. His wisdom, given by God is described as surpassing the wisdom of all others. He is credited with the wisdom literature of proverbs and song of songs and people came from all over to seek his advice.

 

And yet he also amassed to himself great wealth. He built lavish palaces and fleets of ships and chariots by forced labour. He had his slaves build a temple to God but he also a built high places for other gods. He had a harem of over 1000 wives and concubines.

 

All this contrary to the limitations on royal authority given in Deuteronomy that explicitly states that a king shall not amass great wealth, multiple wives and shall follow the law of the Lord.

 

On Solomon’s death at the end of chapter 11 his son Rehoboam succeeds him. The people come to Rehoboam requesting that he lighten the burden his father had placed on them. Instead of following the wise counsel of the elders who advised him to do this, he gathered around him young, immature yes men who told him to add to it. And he did.

 

The people led by a man named Jeroboam revolted. They made Jeroboam king of what became known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Rehoboam was able to keep the Southern Kingdom of Judah and thus David’s line continued. The Southern Kingdon was much smaller and weaker but it did have Jerusalem as its capital.

 

Jeroboam soon turned away from God as well and built golden calves for the people to worship so that they would not need to go to the temple at Jerusalem.

 

At the end of chapter 14 Jeroboam dies. Then Rehoboam dies. Chapter 15 and 16 tell the stories of their successors all whom did evil in the sight of the Lord. At the end of chapter 16 we are introduced to King Ahab and his wife Jezebel and their god Baal, “the giver of rain.”  Ahab who ruled around 850 BCE “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who went before him.”

 

In chapter 17, which we read today we meet Elijah the prophet. His opposition to Ahab and Jezebel is narrated for the next five chapters until Ahab dies in chapter 22.

 

This conflict begins when Elijah, like prophets before and after him, is called to be the bearer of God’s message to the king. The message however, is not what the king wants to hear. Elijah tells Ahab that his actions do in fact have consequences. Because of his evil there will be a drought in the land.

 

After this announcement Elijah hides in the wilderness. He drinks from the wadi and is fed by ravens. He is not though immune to the drought and the wadi eventually dries up. It seems the drought too falls on the just and unjust, the favoured and the unfavoured, alike.

 

So God tells him to go Zarephath in Sidon to be fed by a widow. This must have surprised Elijah and I reckon he must have spent a fair bit of time wondering if in fact he was discerning God correctly and if he was, what was God doing. Sidon is gentile country, the home of Jezebel herself. And widows, at the best of times live a tenuous existence. They are usually the receivers, not the givers.

 

But Elijah goes and, despite her extreme poverty, the unnamed widow helps him. Her generosity in such scarcity is unthinkable to most of us. But it turns out the jar of meal was not emptied and the jug of oil did not fail.

 

But then her son gets sick. He was so sick in fact that there was “no breath left in him.” She thinks it is because of Elijah, that the presence of this man of God in her home has brought her and her sin to the attention of God.

 

Elijah begs God to heal the son. In desperation he stretches himself upon the child and cries out, “let this child’s life come into him again.” This prophet does not appear to think that his vocation is some kind of definite protection against disaster. But God does hear Elijah, the son is revived and the widow professes her faith that Elijah is indeed a prophet who speaks truth.

 

It is an extraordinary story brimming with miracles and wonders. I love it and yet it raises again for me the hard question of God’s supernatural intervention in our world. It is not so much that I struggle with its plausibility. I mean of course sometimes I do but I think I have come to terms with a world in which things can happen that I cannot explain or understand. I have decided in fact I do not particularly want to live in a world or have a faith devoid of mystery and strangeness and enchantment. The Christian faith has all these things. The God of the Bible is simply not a God who does not speak or act or intervene in this world in really crazy, unpredictable and wild ways.

 

So my struggle with miracles is more to do with what Debie Thomas describes as the harm we do when we read them glibly. She says,

 

I’m wary of reducing them to something predictable — or of assuming that we’re entitled to them or capable of peddling them if we just get the formula right. Most of all, I’m wary of appropriating and idolizing them to create dangerous caricatures of God—God as Santa Claus, as a giant gumball machine in the sky.

 

There is a way of believing in miracles that wounds the brokenhearted. That promotes a toxic positivity which leaves no room for holy lament. That encourages passivity and apathy. There is a way of believing in miracles that is fraudulent and cruel.

 

I think we’re on far more solid ground when we respond to miracles as our biblical ancestors did: with awe, silence, and wonder.

 

And I, Emily now, think with great humility, care and compassion as well.

 

Wil Gafney suggests that we should not talk about miracles without remembering those who desperately needed one and didn’t get it. Otherwise, we make mockery of their suffering and death as we try to make meaning of the miraculous stories of our lives and scriptural heritage. Because, if it is not good news—salvation and liberation for the least of these then, it’s not good news.

 

So what might all this mean for our lives today? I am always pretty reluctant to tell you what I think it means for your life but here a couple of things that have come to me as I have sat with this text and prayed that God might reveal something to us through it.

 

  1. Learning to sit with paradox really matters. I know I went on about this last week in fact all year perhaps but I think it is actually of the Kingdom. I was listening to a podcast this week in which American Christians were talking about how they wrestle with the fact that the founders of the church in America had slaves. They were talking about how when we are children we think our parents can do no wrong, when we are teenagers we think they can do no right but when we are adults we realise they can in fact do right and wrong. We must develop the same relationship with our own ancestors, leaders, heroes and people in our lives. This is not to say we are not discerning about what actions are right and wrong but we need to be careful about boxing people into simple categories.
  2. That said, we need be very sceptical of power and wealth. Yes we are called to trust that God has appointed those in authority and obey the law of the land. But I think 1 Kings makes clear those who are appointed are not always faithful. They become very corrupted, very easily it seems by the kingship.
  3. Actions do have consequences but life is complicated. We should never assume that good things just happen to good and faithful people and bad things just happen to bad, unfaithful people.
  4. Listen to the voices of elders and the wisdom of the old stories. Do not just gather around immature people who will tell you what you want to hear. I know that internet algorithms make that hard so be intentional about listening to all voices. Be intentional about listening to God as well, even when it doesn’t make sense to you.
  5. Our town, our country, our world is home to many young people who have had the life sucked out of them. There is a child in my own life who seems to have had the life sucked out of him perhaps there are children in your life too. There are no easy answers. Just the hard work of love and prayer. And so this week I have found myself daily praying these words of Elijah, begging God with him, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”

 

This narrative of a widow from Sidon and a Hebrew prophet offering each other mutual care across boundaries assumed such central importance in Israel’s story that Jesus repeated it a thousand years later, when speaking to his home crowd. His point to them was he cannot be coopted by a particular people nor cause. God is always doing a new thing.

 

This is not always discernible at the top. Throughout Kings God’s word and provision comes not to the great and powerful Kings but to the prophet’s, the widows, the outsiders. It is spoken not in the halls of power but in the desert places. It is through and to the ordinary people on the ground that God works his will. As Ruth Harvey from Iona puts it in a quote I have now used a couple of times but it’s good, “I believe God weaves a pattern, a golden thread through all lives and all of life! This golden thread, the Holy Spirit, if you like, is alive and continues to guide us.”

 

At this time (although perhaps at all times) when I do find it so hard to discern the will of God in so many of the decisions made by our world and community leaders this gives me hope. The work of God is always unfolding. And is unfolding in ordinary lives, through ordinary people. It cannot be stopped.

 

Amen.

 

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Reflection 14th July: 1 Kings 21

So this is the sixth week in our series on Kings. For 4 of those weeks we have concentrated on Elijah and his prophetic witness.