As a general rule, my pastor announces a few weeks in advance what his next series of teachings will be. Then he has bookmarker-sized announcements prepared for the congregation to hand out to friends or leave at restaurants or other public places, to attract newcomers to hear the message. His series always have interesting and sometimes controversial titles, and the one that’s due to begin the first weekend in March is no different, “Necessary Sins.”
I’m always most anxious to hear that first message in a series, to see the direction God is going to take Pastor with the subject. What’s different is that this week, I felt a leading to talk about the same subject in my blog, and the primary scriptural text to which I was directed was one that I’ve often considered an unusual Old Testament story.
The 1 Kings 13 episode begins about a year after King Solomon’s death. The Kingdom of Israel has been split apart, with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining faithful to Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The remaining tribes have chosen Jeroboam, the son of one of Solomon’s former servants, to be their king. God allowed the rending of the kingdom to happen because Solomon, in his latter years had begun to worship the false gods of his many foreign wives. But Jeroboam was no better than Solomon, for he too worshipped false gods and built altars throughout the country-side, including one at Bethel. This was especially blasphemous because it was the site where God had made covenants with His people, first with Abraham, and later with Jacob.
The “unusual” 1 Kings 13 story began at the site of the altar Jeroboam had built in Bethel. Jeroboam, by this time had even made himself a priest and was offering sacrifices – a total abomination to God’s commands. God sent an unnamed prophet, only described as “a man of God from Judah” to cry out against the altar and declare: “Behold, a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men’s bones shall be burned on you.” And he prophesied that the proof of the truth of this saying would be that “the altar shall split apart, and the ashes on it shall be poured out.”
When Jeroboam reached out to order the prophet’s arrest, his hand became withered, the altar split apart and the ashes were poured out. Jeroboam pleaded with the prophet to pray to God for his hand’s restoration, and he did. Jeroboam then asked the prophet to come home with him, so he could get some rest, food, drink and a reward – but the prophet’s response was clear: “If you were to give me half your house, I would not go in with you; nor would I eat bread nor drink water in this place. For so it was commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘You shall not eat bread, nor drink water, nor return by the same way you came.’” And he walked away from Jeroboam and headed toward Judah.
And that’s when the story took an unusual turn. Another prophet only described as “an old prophet who dwelt in Bethel” heard about this and hurried after the prophet from Judah. He found the man “sitting under an oak tree.” He made the same offer Jeroboam had made, to come home with him and get refreshed. The prophet from Judah responded as he did to Jeroboam, saying “I have been told by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall not eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by going the way you came.’” At that point, the old prophet tells him a lie: “I too am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water.’” And the man returned with him to his home.
While they were eating and drinking, God spoke through the old prophet who had told the lie, telling the man from Judah that because he had been disobedient, he would never reach his home alive. On his return journey he was in fact attacked by a lion and killed. When the old prophet heard about it, he fetched the man’s body and buried it in his own tomb.
The story leaves many questions unanswered:
Why didn’t God stopped the old prophet from finding the man from Judah?
Didn’t the prophet from Judah deserve some leniency from God? Isn’t that what mercy is all about? After all, he was one who heard the voice of God and obediently delivered a difficult message.
Why did the old prophet lie about hearing from an angel of God?
And after lying, why did God continue to use this evil man, first to tell the man from Judah he was going to die, then later to retrieve and bury the man’s body? Why didn’t God take the old prophet’s life?
How un-necessary this man’s death was. But he brought it on himself. I’m sure the prophet from Judah was tired from his long journey, and he had to have been hungry and thirsty. But God had specifically told him to neither rest nor eat or drink in this land that had been made unclean by the idolatrous acts of Jeroboam. The fact that he was found sitting under an oak tree, instead of getting out of the unclean land immediately indicates he was looking for an excuse to rest up and refresh himself before he headed back home. And the old prophet’s story about hearing from an angel provided that excuse. Even if the other man had indeed heard from an angel, the prophet from Judah had already heard from God directly – there was no reason to put an angel’s message above God’s.
One of the apostle Paul’s favorite analogies was of a runner in a long distance race. He constantly reminded both his young helpers and the members of the various churches he founded to keep their eyes on the prize, and that it was only obtainable if they finished the race. The prophet from Judah in our story started the race well – but he stopped to rest too soon. None of us is immune from making a similar mistake – and stopping too soon. It’s only human to look for an excuse to avoid the difficult things we’re sometimes expected to do. But as Christians, we’re called to operate above what’s “only human.”
Paul used another analogy, that of a soldier preparing for battle, when he wrote to his converts in Ephesus. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” In other words, when you think you’ve done all you can do, just keep on doing. The presence of God with us will enable us to complete what seems like an impossible (in the natural) task. And for those who are called to special ministry, whether that be as a teacher, an evangelist, a pastor or a prophet, God’s expectations are much higher than for just the average “Joe Christian.” But then His grace is also much greater, to enable those expectations.