A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 13, 2010.
1 Kings 21:1-11, 15-21
“It’s your typical romance. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Obstacles keep them apart. They overcome the obstacles. Happily ever after.
(“Just your typical romance.) Except for the vampires. And werewolves.” So begins Stacy Lingle’s review of the four-volume book series entitled, Twilight, a review that appears in Christianity Today, of all places.
Stacy Lingle believes Christians need to pay attention to the “Twilight phenomenon,” even if they never read the books that total 2300 pages. In case you’ve been hibernating, Twilight is one of the hottest pop cultural phenomena since Harry Potter, prompting midnight release parties and vampire proms.
Truthfully, I’ve not read the Twilight books, and I doubt I ever will. But I agree with Stacy Lingle that Christians ought to have some awareness of the rising tsunami of passion surrounding these books.
Twilight is the story of teenage Bella who falls in love with Edward, a 108-year-old-vampire frozen at age 17. Edward and his family of vampires have chosen not to feed on humans, hunting only animals. Throughout the series, Bella and Edward are torn between their feelings for each other, and the inevitable problems that arise in a human-vampire romance.
Their biggest conflict is whether or not Bella should become a vampire. She wants to spend eternity with Edward, but he doesn’t want her to forfeit her humanity for him. The problem, you see, is that human beings have souls, and vampires do not.
(Actually, Edward vacillates about whether or not vampires have souls, but at the end of the day, Edward is not willing to put Bella’s soul at risk.)
Meanwhile, Bella is so in love with Edward that she doesn’t blink at the idea of becoming a vampire, thereby forfeiting her soul for all eternity. In Bella’s lovesick mind, her soul is a negotiable commodity that can be traded away if need be to get Edward. She’s more than willing to sell her soul for love. Ironically, it’s the vampire in the story who understands that Bella’s soul is far too precious for such a transaction.
Selling ourselves and our souls has been a common theme of the human condition from the beginning of human history. To some degree, human beings have always sold themselves to impress others. Early on in our lives we learn how to project different versions of ourselves—sometimes gracious, sometimes gruff, sometimes pious, sometimes proud—whatever version we think is necessary to get what we want. In this sense, the cynics among us would argue that most people spend most of their time selling themselves to accomplish their own agendas…including preachers!
But there’s an even darker meaning to this phrase, “selling ourselves.” Selling ourselves can mean selling our souls to the highest bidder, most of all the Devil. We think of Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil for more of the world’s pleasures and possessions, and paid the price of his soul. And we think of Bella, who was willing to strike a Faustian bargain with Edward, trading her soul for romance. And after today, I hope we’ll think of the ancient Israelite King Ahab, who made selling himself and his soul a tragic art form.
When it comes to compelling stories, the Old Testament book 1 Kings can hold its own with Twilight. What’s more, the stories in 1 Kings aren’t just entertaining. They are true, dealing with real events and real people like Solomon, Jeroboam, Elijah, Ahab, and his infamous wife, Jezebel.
King Ahab is first introduced in 1 Kings 16:30 where we read, Ahab, son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. Yes, he did! He not only repeated the sins of past kings of Israel. He added some to the list, like marrying the daughter of a foreign king who worshipped the pagan god Baal, and introduced the worship of Baal in the temple. Worshiping Baal was no small matter. Baal worship involved temple prostitution as a way to assure the fertility of the land, and even called for child sacrifice to appease the anger of Baal.
God was so angered by Ahab’s transgressions that he sent the prophet Elijah to announce to Ahab that Israel would be inflicted with a severe drought. This was a direct challenge to Baal worship because Baal, known as a god of fertility, could not prevent the land from drying up into a dust bowl.
Later, you may recall an even more dramatic challenge to Baal when Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their showdown on Mt. Carmel. Eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the pagan fertility goddess, Asherah, imported into Israel by Queen Jezebel, tried to set fire to a sacrificial alter by calling on their gods, but to no avail. Elijah, by himself, not only succeeded in calling down fire from heaven, but then had the eight hundred and fifty pagan prophets killed. Afterwards, Elijah predicted the three-year drought would end, and in just a few moments, a heavy rain came.
You might think these events would persuade Ahab and Jezebel to reconsider their loyalties when it came to the god they served. But you would be wrong. Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah, and to our surprise, a depleted Elijah tucks tail and runs into the wilderness.
Meanwhile, Ahab is challenged to battle, Ben-hadad, Syrian king of the Arameans. Despite all that’s happened, God gives Ahab not one, but two dramatic military victories over the Arameans, with the understanding that Ahab will end the life of Ben-hadad and his soldiers. But Ahab defies the Lord once again, this time sparing Ben-hadad and his men for political reasons. When a prophet announces that Ahab and Ahab’s dynasty will one day come to an end because of his disobedience, Ahab is none too happy, and he withdraws, sullen and angry, to one of his palaces in Samaria.
All of this is prologue to our focal story of the day.
Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it’s worth.”
But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry…. Looks like Ahab spends lots of his time sullen and angry!
Now to his credit, Ahab seems to make Naboth a reasonable offer for his vineyard. And when Naboth says, “No,” Ahab does not exercise his royal prerogative to seize the land anyway. Truthfully, Ahab knows Jewish Law well enough to know that it forbids even a king from doing such a thing.
What’s striking about this exchange is it’s clash of views about land. For Ahab, land is simply a commodity to be bought and sold. For Naboth, land is a precious inheritance, given to his family by God, and not for sale at any price. This clash of ideas is the heart of the matter.
That might have been the end of the matter except for good ole Jezebel.
Remember, Jezebel is from Phoenicia, where Baal is god, kings are kings, and laws are made to be broken. When Jezebel hears Ahab whine because he can’t talk Naboth into selling him his land, she hits the ceiling and challenges his manhood. “If you were any kind of king, you’d just take the land!” she says. Then she adds, “Never mind, I’ll take it for you, wimp!”
And that’s precisely what she does by hatching a plot that involves paying two scoundrels (it takes two witnesses to make a charge stick in Israel) to press false charges against Naboth, accusing him of cursing God and the king, both punishable by death. Without further adieu, Naboth ( and we learn later) his sons are taken to Naboth’s beautiful vineyard and stoned to death. Since the land has no heirs, it’s fair game for the gutless Ahab, and the heartless, Jezebel.
So far, it looks like the bad guys are going to win, and laugh all the way to the bank. But then a spiritually restored Elijah shows up, and the tables suddenly turn. Elijah confronts Ahab with his sin against Naboth, and tells him he will pay dearly for his transgression. The day will come when dogs will lick his blood from Naboth’s land.
As you can imagine, once more Ahab is sullen and angry! Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”
Then comes this fascinating response from Elijah—“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.”
In his own charming way, Elijah has put his finger on the focal problem of Ahab—Ahab sold himself.
See, Ahab didn’t just think inherited land from God was a commodity. He also considered his own soul a commodity that could be bargained with, traded away, or sold on the auction block at a moments notice.
We don’t know how Ahab met Jezebel. But when Ahab met Jezebel, he wanted her, and that’s all that mattered. Never mind that Jezebel was loyal to a pagan god and a religious system apparently full of idols and immoral ideas that were diametrically opposed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and supposedly Ahab. Ahab’s faith was negotiable, and he if had to sell out his God to get his woman, so be it. “ There was never anyone like Ahab,” says 1 Kings 21:25, “who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife.”
Like any king, Ahab wanted more power, and that meant more land. So what if he had multiple palaces and access to millions of acres of land? If he saw a beautiful vineyard that pleased his eye, he should have it. If he had to sacrifice the truth, human life, and his own integrity to get the vineyard, so be it.
Tragically, Ahab had driven a Faustian bargain with the Devil, selling his soul to Baal, and to power gone mad, and to greed gone wild. Centuries later, Jesus would ask a question recorded in Matthew 16:26 that would challenge the likes of Ahab to the core—“What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?”
What Ahab forgot in all his glory is that nothing in this world is more precious that the human soul. Our soul is our truest self, more true than any of the roles we play or selves we project it’s that part of us connected to the very Spirit of God. We did not earn this sacred part of ourselves. Like Naboth’s land, it is an inheritance from God, and it is not ours to sell for sex or love, for fame or fortune.
Ahab ultimately paid a terrible price for selling himself – as Elijah predicted Ahab and his family lives comes to a bloody end. All because he gained the world in exchange for his precious soul.
The church father John Chrysostom understood how we can gradually barter away our souls. Today it’s a small lie we tell to protect ourselves. Tomorrow, it’s cutting corners at work. The day after it’s sleeping in the wrong bed. The day after that, who knows? Before we know it’s our souls are positively numb to the presence of God. Chrysostom was especially troubled at how clergy could sell their souls a transaction at a time. Writing to his fellow priests he says “Tears come into my eyes when I think of…how little we have changed after our baptism, yielding ourselves to sin, going back to the oldness we had before….But we must see that it is not for a few days that we are required to change, but rather for a whole lifetime. The youth of grace must not lead to the old age of sin. The love of money, the slavery to wrong desires, or any sin whatsoever, makes us grow old in soul and body. Our souls become rheumatic, distorted, decayed, and tottering with many sins….”
That was Ahab in a nutshell, all because he thought his soul was for sell, expendable for this world’s goods.
Friends, hear me when I say your soul is most precious possessions. Never sell it. Never trade it. Never give it away.