The Soft Place in God’s Heart

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on October 30, 2016)

There’s a soft place in God’s heart for the outcast and the oppressed, for the underdog and the overlooked.

In one sense, this has been a revolutionary thing to my mind and heart. Over the years, this theme in the scriptures keeps leaping out at me more and more and more. In another sense, it’s a bedrock, a given, sort of common place…something I know you’ve heard me say many times.

I’ve said before that we meet each week to talk about the plan for Sunday morning worship, and often the things that others say in those meetings stick with me. This week, it’s been Michelle Akins’ words. We were talking about the themes and scriptures I was presenting for the next two months, themes which weave in and around and back through this sense of God’s advocacy for the underdog and the oppressed.

Michelle said something like, “We’ll have to be careful that this isn’t just a repeat of the same thing over and over again. Like yes, God cares for the oppressed, I get it…and I got it two weeks ago, and three weeks ago.”

That’s what has stuck with me: the “so what?” What does it matter for me, how does it affect my choices and my life that there is a soft place in God’s heart for the outcasts and the oppressed?

Every week when we gather for worship on Sunday, we look at the bible. 

We look at God’s revealed story of God’s interactions with humanity. We want to know and understand God’s story, what God has done in the world.

But if all we do is get better and better at memorizing the fine points of God’s story…if all we do is ingest and interpret the bible, we are missing something key. Not only do we need to know and study God’s story, but we need to prayerfully consider where we fit into God’s story. How do we make our story, our lives, our purpose and direction…how do we make our story something that is defined and directed by what God is doing in the world?

And that’s where the rubber starts to meet the road. We may understand that there’s a soft place in God’s heart for the outcast and the oppressed; but the sticky part comes with where we see ourselves in God’s story. Most often, when we understand God’s heart for the outcast, we see ourselves as one of the outcasts, we see God on our side. The sticky part is…what if we better fit another role in the story? How might that shape us?

As we move through these weeks looking at how the bible shows God’s love for the marginalized, our task is to be asking the Holy Spirit to show us our place in the story.

Today I want to begin with a sweeping look at a big chunk of God’s history with Israel,before we dive more deeply into Naboth, Ahab and Elijah. 

God’s heart for the oppressed starts really early… really, really early. God creates Adam and Eve, and then we read that Eve and Adam bring sons Cain and Abel into the world, and pain and evil and oppression are not far behind. Despite God’s efforts to intervene, Cain’s jealousy causes him to kill his own brother. It’s the first act of oppression in human history.

What is it that God says? We read it in Genesis 4:10: “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’” Why is this something important to be preserved in the bible we cherish? I think it’s a loud introduction of a theme that will recur throughout the bible, a bright beacon showing us something absolutely central to God’s character.

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

Right at the start, God is cluing us in: “I am not a disengaged God passively watching from the outside. I’m not just a dispassionate judge pronouncing “good” and “bad” in some moral code. I have a heart connection to those who are suffering! Injustice and pain have a claim on me, cry out to me, demand something from me. This is who I am. I am the one who cannot help but act on behalf of those who are wounded and who suffer.”

This is not just a morality tale, not just something that is supposed to serve as our warning not to kill others. This is a spotlight to the heart of God. It’s such a key part of God, that when the punishment is given, God’s heart even goes out to Cain, so that he doesn’t move from oppressor to oppressed. He has to suffer consequences of his action, but God puts a mark on Cain, a mark of protection from being killed himself.

Who knows what that was, but it’s really quite an amazing statement! Even a murderer should not be murdered. Even the oppressor shouldn’t be oppressed.

And then it just goes on and on, sign after sign of the heart of God for the oppressed and the overlooked.

God chooses barren, childless Sarah and Abraham to be made into a new nation for Yahweh. The overlooked and hopeless ones, in their old age, become the people of God’s promise. Grandson Jacob, the younger twin, is the one who is chosen and favored by God over older, stronger, more powerful and privileged Esau.

Joseph, the picked upon and rejected younger brother, becomes the savior of all Israel in Egypt. Then God hears the cries of his people who later became slaves in Egypt, and raises up Moses to lead them to freedom. The pain and the blood, the sorrow of being overlooked are things that consistently call out to God’s heart; and time and time again, the bible shows God acting on their behalf.

The theme is also there in the law God gives to Israel. In Leviticus 19, God’s law says not to mistreat foreigners, but to love them. God’s law also says right in that chapter not to cheat people with dishonest scales and measures. Don’t use your economic power to cheat the poor, because God’s heart is with them, not for you to get all you can for your own gain.

It’s just everywhere!

There is a soft place in God’s heart for the weak and vulnerable and oppressed, and it leads God to action. It leads God to tell us to act on their behalf as well. We’re getting closer now to our story of the day, with the corrupt power of one of Israel’s kings and queens.

First though, there’s this fascinating part of 1 Samuel, when Israel starts asking for a king. God rightly recognizes this as Israel’s rejection of Yahweh as their king, and gives Samuel a warning of the oppression they will face if they have a king. The king will draft your children into war, he will take your best fields and vineyards for himself, he will tax you…and you will regret it.

All of that background prepares us well for the specific story we are looking at today. Turn to 1 Kings chapter 21. [READ vs. 1-19]

   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 is worth.’
But Naboth replied, ‘The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.’
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.’ He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, ‘Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?’
He answered her, ‘Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’ ‘
Jezebel his wife said, ‘Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote:
‘Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.’
So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, ‘Naboth has cursed both God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent word to Jezebel: ‘Naboth has been stoned to death.’
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, ‘Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.’ When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood–yes, yours!’ ‘ (1 Kings 21:1-19, TNIV)

There’s so much here! Look first at Naboth.

He’s the flesh and blood example of what God had warned all Israel about, the danger of what a king would do. Naboth is faithful, holding to God’s instructions that land always stays within a family, that it isn’t to be “bought” for someone else’s use. This isn’t just a selfish principle Naboth clings to; this is a religious stand, daring to risk saying no to a king in order to be obedient to God!

It’s a classic case of the traditional Republican position of today, standing up to the government for religious freedom, standing up against government overreach, corruption and power. I’m not really taking political sides here; in a few weeks, we’ll look at the prophets Amos and Micah, and they broaden the critique to the entire wealthy class. On that day, we’ll see a classic case of the traditional Democratic position of today, standing up to the rich on behalf of the poor. The bible is far broader and deeper than any political platform.

But back to Naboth. Scholar Gina Hens-Piazza helped me see a lot here that wasn’t obvious to me at first reading. I did see how the land was tied up with God’s promise, how this is also religious obedience for Naboth to say no to Ahab. But what I missed is the important detail that Ahab wanted to turn Naboth’s vineyards into Ahab’s vegetable garden. Vegetable gardens were signs of the Israelite captivity in Egypt. Listen to Gina Hens-Piazza:

“Vegetable gardens are associated with Israel’s time of oppression and enslavement. By contrast, vineyards, which take years to grow and require constant tending, are symbols of the promised land Israel received from God when it was liberated from Egyptian bondage…For Ahab, the land is a commodity to be apprehended, divided, and traded…Conversely, for the people, the land…signifies the Lord’s gift: their inheritance, their family identity, and their identity as God’s people.” (Commentary on 1-2 Kings, p. 206-7.)

Ahab and Jezebel show all that goes wrong with kingship.

In many ways, Ahab sets up Jezebel to do his dirty work for him. Knowing she’s from a different religious background, he totally leaves out any obedience to Yahweh when he tells Naboth’s story to her. He just makes it look like Naboth is stubborn, and Jezebel takes power into her own hands…for Ahab’s gain.

Naboth in some ways reminds us of Abel back in Genesis, oppressed and killed by power and greed and jealousy. 

And just like Abel, his blood cries out to God. The prophets are God’s voice, standing up to speak truth to power. Elijah has already had a big showdown with Jezebel and Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but it sent him into depression and to exile in the desert.

This is the first task that God gives to him when he returns: God needs a human voice to speak God’s heart. “You’ve done wrong, Ahab. Your power is not yours to use without consequence. You murdered someone and stole what was not yours, and I will not let that go without consequence.”

This is a beacon of hope for us!

As dark as the world may get…for all the times we see power winning, might making right…there is this strong thread through the bible that reminds us God is not behind it. God is on the side of those trampled unjustly by power.

For all of the world’s Ahabs, who have power and think anything they want should be theirs, who whine and sulk when they don’t get their way…for all of the world’s Jezebels, who use all their influence and power to win in the courts or win in the power systems…for all of the Ahabs who may not do the dirty work themselves, but who have no qualms about claiming the benefits of unjust power used on their behalf…

For all of those dark places in the world, there is this huge sign of hope that God is not on their side! Suffering and injustice calls out to God’s heart, and God takes action. God’s people speak truth to power.

The effects of these acts of murder and oppression are the break down of community. When governmental power does not promote justice for everyone, community suffers and it is acting against what God is doing in the world. And this is where it starts to get sticky for you and for me.

Where do we place ourselves in the story? 

Of course we want to think we are on the Naboth side. But might we not need to at least consider how we may be like Ahab or Jezebel? Again I’ll read from Gina Hens-Piazza; these words that are challenging:

“Large corporations often manipulate legal codes and practices in order to squeeze small businesses out of existence. Powerful governments slash budgets, depriving citizens of basic needs while satisfying the desire for further luxuries among those at the top. First world countries, already controlling a great deal of the earth’s natural resources, often negotiate inequitable deals or exert military pressure in order to control even more resources belonging to the needy two-thirds world.”

The conviction of God’s prophetic message clearly cuts across our political lines, challenging all of us to evaluate a whole host of our actions and beliefs. And one of the strong strands God consistently holds up for us to use as a measuring stick is this heart, God’s heart for the weak, vulnerable, and oppressed.

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