[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on August 14, 2021.]
When I previously spoke about those who were blessed enough to be called friends of God, I was asked by one of the people in this congregation about the other side of the picture, about the hazards of people thinking that God was a buddy. Today I would like to examine the hazards and pitfalls of two different approaches to God that are common within the world we live in. First, I will talk about the tendency that people have to think of God as a potential ally in our own partisan causes. After that I will spend a bit more time discussing the pitfalls of looking at God as a buddy, which can have very tragic consequences. In both of these cases we will be examining these two mistaken views of God by conducting a thought experiment on stories that deal with precisely those viewpoints that people have of God. We will examine the way that God presents Himself to his servants and ponder the implications of God not being either our ally or buddy.
Let us begin with the briefer case, and discuss the way that the Bible clearly disclaims any intent to be our ally. In a world like our own, where people tend to be valued based on how they can help out with our goals and ambitions, and where those who are not on our side are viewed to be our enemies and against us, the Bible gives us a healthy reminder that God is not on this side or that side, but on His own side. It is not as if this is completely unknown. The sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, understood this particular matter when he was speaking to religious leaders during the American Civil War and made the following statement: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” We see Joshua learning a similar lesson when discussing the issue with the preincarnate Jesus Christ in Joshua 5:13-15. Here we find the Commander of the Armies of God challenging Joshua’s assumption that He is either for Israel or for their enemies. Joshua 5:13-15 reads: “And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?” So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?” Then the Commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.”
Let us note a few of the elements of this short passage that are of particular interest. First, let us note that the Commander of the Lord’s army, as He is titled here, makes of Joshua a similar request to that made of Moses in Exodus 3 when Moses had his famous encounter with the Eternal in the burning bush. This being asks Joshua to take off his shoes because it is holy ground, and it is holy because of God’s presence there. Similarly, this being receives worship from Joshua in a way that is only appropriate to give to God. We are, after all, to bow in worship before no one else. What is immediately relevant to our discussion, though, is that Joshua assumes that this divine being is either on the side of Israel or on the side of Israel’s enemies. This is a common assumption we make in our own lives when it comes to any one of the innumerable disputes and divides that we face in our lives and in the world around us. We argue whether God supports this side or that side, this party or that party, this nation or that nation, when in reality God is not our ally. God has His own side, and the question is not whether God is on our side but rather are we on His side. Fortunately, Joshua was quicker to realize this than many others are, and His response to realizing who he was talking to is something we should be quick to adopt in similar circumstances.
We find a similar dynamic at play when it comes to the problem of thinking of God as a buddy. When God calls us a friend He is initiating the friendship based on our obedience to Him, and the friendship is definitely not one of equals. I would like to spend the rest of our time together this Sabbath in examining a sad story where the treating of God and His commands in a casual fashion had fatal consequences for a disobedient and anonymous prophet. In looking at this passage, I want us to reflect upon the alternatives to treating God as a buddy that proved to be so destructive, so that we can better avoid this mistake in our own thinking. Let us now turn to 1 Kings 13. We will begin by looking at the actions of an unnamed man of God in 1 Kings 13:1-10. Though this story starts out well enough, it soon becomes very tragic. 1 Kings 13:1-10 reads: “And behold, a man of God went from Judah to Bethel by the word of the Lord, and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense. Then he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, “O altar, altar! Thus says the Lord: ‘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 gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign which the Lord has spoken: Surely the altar shall split apart, and the ashes on it shall be poured out.” So it came to pass when King Jeroboam heard the saying of the man of God, who cried out against the altar in Bethel, that he stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, “Arrest him!” Then his hand, which he stretched out toward him, withered, so that he could not pull it back to himself. The altar also was split apart, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of God had given by the word of the Lord. Then the king answered and said to the man of God, “Please entreat the favor of the Lord your God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored to me.” So the man of God entreated the Lord, and the king’s hand was restored to him, and became as before. Then the king said to the man of God, “Come home with me and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.” But the man of God said to the king, “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.’ ” So he went another way and did not return by the way he came to Bethel.”
So far, at least, in the story, things look good for our unknown prophet. He was given a command by God to go and deliver a message of doom upon the false worship practices in Israel that Jeroboam had established and he did so. He was given clear commands not to return the same way from Bethel to Judah that he went on the way to Bethel, and he did so. He was told not to eat or drink anything in the land. And so far, at least, he has obeyed the command. It is noteworthy, though, that he did so in the sort of exaggerated way that tends to lead to disaster. He told Jeroboam that if he was to be given half of the kingdom of Israel that he would not stay to eat or drink. He would have done better not to have been so harsh in his determination not to eat or drink or anything in Israel, as we will shortly. There is also a bit of caution in the way that the prophet was so quick to heal the hand of Jeroboam when he was asked to do. This ready willingness to accede to the requests of ungodly people would, as we will see, also be a serious problem. Nevertheless, despite these signs of caution, overall we would say that the prophet has done a good job so far of being conscientious to his God-given duty to give a message of woe to Israel’s wicked king and their corrupt religious system. Spoiler alert: this would not last.
Let us now turn our attention to 1 Kings 13:11-19, where our prophet finds himself deceived by someone who both pretends to be his buddy and led to think that God is his buddy, thus not taking the prohibitions on eating and drinking seriously enough. 1 Kings 13:11-19 read: “Now an old prophet dwelt in Bethel, and his sons came and told him all the works that the man of God had done that day in Bethel; they also told their father the words which he had spoken to the king. And their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” For his sons had seen which way the man of God went who came from Judah. Then he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled the donkey for him; and he rode on it, and went after the man of God, and found him sitting under an oak. Then he said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” And he said, “I am.” Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat bread.” And he said, “I cannot return with you nor go in with you; neither can I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place. For 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.’ ” He said to him, “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.’ ” (He was lying to him.) So he went back with him, and ate bread in his house, and drank water.”
It is clear that the nameless prophet of Judah made a very serious mistake here. His willingness to see God and the disobedient prophet of Bethel as buddies led him to not take the command of God not to eat or drink anything in Israel seriously. Instead a false prophet who merely claims to be a follower of the Eternal makes a request of the prophet from Judah that contradicts something that God clearly and specifically forbade him to do, and he very quickly disobeys God’s instruction to him. It is easy for us to with hindsight condemn the disobedient prophet, but how many of us would do the same thing? How many of us would be quick to eat and drink at the home of someone who was a professed follower of God instead of traveling without eating or drinking for however many hours it took to get from Bethel back to Judah? Let us also conduct a thought experiment. How do we think God reacted to the disobedience of the prophet from Judah? Was He merciful and understanding about the mistake? Or did the prophet pay a serious price for the disobedience? What price do you think he paid? [Pause.]
Let’s find out. Let us finish this story and see what happens in the rest of 1 Kings 13, from verses twenty through thirty-four. What was the result of the prophet’s disobedience, and what was God’s response? 1 Kings 13:20-34 reads: “Now it happened, as they sat at the table, that the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back; and he cried out to the man of God who came from Judah, saying, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord, and have not kept the commandment which the Lord your God commanded you, but you came back, ate bread, and drank water in the place of which the Lord said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your corpse shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’ ” So it was, after he had eaten bread and after he had drunk, that he saddled the donkey for him, the prophet whom he had brought back. When he was gone, a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his corpse was thrown on the road, and the donkey stood by it. The lion also stood by the corpse. And there, men passed by and saw the corpse thrown on the road, and the lion standing by the corpse. Then they went and told it in the city where the old prophet dwelt. Now when the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard it, he said, “It is the man of God who was disobedient to the word of the Lord. Therefore the Lord has delivered him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke to him.” And he spoke to his sons, saying, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled it. Then he went and found his corpse thrown on the road, and the donkey and the lion standing by the corpse. The lion had not eaten the corpse nor torn the donkey. And the prophet took up the corpse of the man of God, laid it on the donkey, and brought it back. So the old prophet came to the city to mourn, and to bury him. Then he laid the corpse in his own tomb; and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” So it was, after he had buried him, that he spoke to his sons, saying, “When I am dead, then bury me in the tomb where the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the saying which he cried out by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel, and against all the shrines on the high places which are in the cities of Samaria, will surely come to pass.” After this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but again he made priests from every class of people for the high places; whoever wished, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places. And this thing was the sin of the house of Jeroboam, so as to exterminate and destroy it from the face of the earth.”
It might seem harsh to us that for the simple sin of eating or drinking in a place where God forbade him to do so that the prophet from Judah found himself killed on the road by a lion, but that harshness ought to remind us that God is not our buddy. If He gives us a command, He expects us to obey it. He does not expect us to take His commands casually, especially if we have a special enough relationship with Him for Him to give us prophetic insight personally and directly. Intimacy with God comes with a price, and that price is a higher obligation to take God’s words with the highest level of seriousness. It seems particularly harsh that God’s pronouncement of the death sentence on the disobedient prophet came from the lying scoundrel who deceived him in the first place. Yet this particular event, as tragic and serious as it is, had a positive effect in one sense, and that was in restoring to the wayward prophet of Bethel some sense of God’s workings. He realized that the word of the prophet would come to pass, and he desired to buried with the disobedient prophet whose untimely last meal with him convinced him of the seriousness of God’s judgment, at a heavy cost to the one from whom the lesson came. In the larger sphere, neither the message nor the grim fate of the disobedient prophet from Judah deterred Jeroboam from continuing to promote his false system of worship, nor did it lead any of the later kings of Israel to reject Jeroboam’s sin and return to God on a national level.
Yet the message that God gave through that prophet did come to pass. Let us, for our last scripture today, turn to 2 Kings 23:15-20, to see the end of the story, the fulfillment of the prophecy that God had given about the destruction of the high place at Bethel and its defilement. 2 Kings 23:15-20 reads: “Moreover the altar that was at Bethel, and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, both that altar and the high place he broke down; and he burned the high place and crushed it to powder, and burned the wooden image. As Josiah turned, he saw the tombs that were there on the mountain. And he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar, and defiled it according to the word of the Lord which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these words. Then he said, “What gravestone is this that I see?” So the men of the city told him, “It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and proclaimed these things which you have done against the altar of Bethel.” And he said, “Let him alone; let no one move his bones.” So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet who came from Samaria. Now Josiah also took away all the shrines of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke the Lord to anger; and he did to them according to all the deeds he had done in Bethel. He executed all the priests of the high places who were there, on the altars, and burned men’s bones on them; and he returned to Jerusalem.”
Ultimately, Josiah accomplished what had been prophesied of him some two hundred years before by the disobedient prophet from Judah. Even if the prophet’s message had no effect on the behavior of the corrupt leaders of Israel, the words of God came to pass when the last righteous king of Judah, only a few decades before that nation was to enter into captivity for its own sins and its own rebellion against God and against God’s ways, defiled the altars of Bethel with the bones of people, but left the bones of the prophet alone who pronounced doom upon Bethel’s temple. Ultimately, the seriousness of God’s word that led the prophecy of an unknown man from Judah to come to pass after two hundred years is the seriousness that led God to punish that same man with death when he disobeyed God’s clear command not to eat or drink anything in the kingdom of Israel. To the extent that we can rely on God’s promises to come to pass, we must take God’s words seriously when He tells us to do something or not to do something.
Let us therefore conclude. God is not our ally. We may be looking for God to support the same sort of causes or political parties or leaders that we are most fond of, thinking that God will relax His own standards to support what or whom we believe to be more right than the alternative even where it seldom even remotely approaches the high and noble standard of God’s laws and ways. Yet God is not on our side, whatever our side happens to be. Instead, God asks us if we will dare to be on His side, come what may. Similarly, we may wish for God to be our buddy, casually dealing with us and our behavior. God demands holiness and obedience, especially among those He privileges as His servants, the prophets. If we, who claim to be close to God and obedient to God, do not take His commandments seriously, how can we expect the world take either us or God seriously? And God will be taken seriously, even if that comes at a high price to His disobedient servants.