1 Kings 21:1-21a
No story ends on the last page. Even when we close the book; even when the credits roll; even when we breathe our last -– no story ends on the last page.
Recently I was talking to a friend who had yet to watch the last episode of the last season of Downton Abbey. When I asked him, “Why not?” he simply replied: “Because I don’t want the story to end.” And that began an imaginative conversation about how the story might have continued. For example: how did Lady Mary and Lady Edith react to the mod 1960s in London? What did they think of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones? And what about their children? Did Master George survive the Second World War? Did Sybie and Marigold find true love or an exciting career? Did Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson live happily ever after? My friend and I were free to imagine what might have been because we know that no story ends on the last page.
The Bible is largely a compilation of stories - tales about the human condition and about a God who loves us enough to get involved in our stories. But because we consider the Bible a holy book, we are less prone to imagine what happens nex than we probably should be.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jezebel. Jezebel was a Sidonian princess, a foreigner and a pagan who was married to King Ahab of Israel. And Jezebel was a worshipper of a god named Baal. Now the very fact that the king of Israel had married a foreigner was a scandal, but more scandalous still was the religious influence she had on Ahab; so much influence that the king built a grand temple for Baal. And that idolatrous act earned him the reputation of being more wicked than all the kings who had come before him.
Ahab and Jezebel had a winter palace in a beautifully verdant place called Jezreel. Jezreel literally means, “God planted.” Right beside the winter palace was a lush vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. And every day the king looked out the palace window at Naboth’s vineyard and dreamed of turning it into a royal vegetable garden. One day he called Naboth to the palace and offered to buy it from him for top dollar, or if Naboth preferred, to give him an even better vineyard nearby. But Naboth refused. This wasn’t just a business deal. This was about faith and family and roots and tradition. In ancient Israel, people who owned land saw themselves not so much as owners but as stewards. The land really belonged to God and the people were tenants. Leviticus 25:23 reads: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” So the land was a sacred trust, passed down from one generation to the next. And because the king could not force the sale, he sank into a deep depression. He pouted like a spoiled brat. He took to his bed, turned his face to the wall and refused to eat.
Well Jezebel was having none of this. One day she threw open the bedroom door and said to her petulant husband: “Get up and eat something! I will get you the vineyard of Naboth.” And this is how she did it: she wrote letters in the king’s name and sealed them with the royal seal. Then, she sent those falsified letters to the elders and nobles in Naboth’s town. And this is what those letters instructed them to do: “Proclaim a fast and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly. Then plant two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring unsubstantiated charges of treason and blasphemy against him. Those being capital offenses, drag him out of town and stone him to death.” And that’s what they did. They murdered poor Naboth by breaking one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” That commandment is actually about court testimony.
When Jezebel got word that the dastardly deed was done, she said to her sulking husband: “Problem solved. Naboth is dead. The vineyard is yours. He won’t bother you anymore.” Notice that Ahab never asked how any of this had been accomplished. Ignorance might be bliss, but willful ignorance about the suffering of others doesn’t get you off the hook with God.
About that time the word of the Lord came to the prophet Elijah. And the Lord told him to go to Naboth’s vineyard and confront the king. Now just a few chapters before this story unfolds, Elijah had been running for his life because Ahab and Jezebel had sworn to kill him. But somehow, despite that, Elijah had found his courage. He stood toe to toe with the wicked king and said: “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
Now that is how you tell a story! The evil ones are vanquished. The righteous ones are vindicated. Except, of course, that no story ends on the last page.
In the days and weeks and years ahead, the survivors would still be dealing with what had happened. Did Naboth’s wife and children find the courage to move on? Did they ever find peace? Did Mrs. Naboth remarry? Or were they frozen in time and consumed with the desire for revenge? That would certainly be understandable, given all they had suffered. But here’s the thing: if their rage continued to burn; if the wound never healed; if they were always victims, then Ahab and Jezebel still continued to wield power from the grave. They were still inflicting pain. So, at some point - maybe not in that generation – but at some point, Naboth’s family had to choose to no longer be identified by their pain, by that awful thing that had happened to them. They had to move on and let go and trust God.
Naboth’s family’s story is our story. We all know, either as individuals or as a group, what it’s like to be wronged. We understand the disappointment and pain of broken covenants. And sometimes, we even suffer the effects of unspeakable violence, like the horror in Orlando. And in the face of those injustices, we have every right to be angry. We have every right to seek justice and fairness. We have every right to ask God to intervene. We just don’t have the right to stay in that place forever. We can’t stay there because no story ends on the last page. At some point, we all must choose to let go and move on. We must choose to bless and not curse. It’s in that choosing that we are healed and set free.
No story ends on the last page. And that is a promise as much as it is a description. The promise of the Gospel is that in Christ all things are being made new. In Christ, relationships are repaired and reconciled. In Christ, hatred and malice and bullets and bellicose politicians can never have the last word.
Now, maybe you’re not there. Maybe there’s a situation for you that is so painful that you cannot seem to get passed it. Orlando is just too fresh to even try. OK. It’s OK to be wherever you are at this moment in dealing with your pain. And you can stay there as long as you need – just not forever. At some point, through the sheer power of your will, you turn the page. At some point, you turn the page and you let love win.
Thanks be to God. Amen.