I spend enough time hammering the lectionary editors for excising periscopes of the “difficult” passages and dumbing down our readings that I feel I must praise them on days like today. I only glanced at the old BCP lectionary, but it looked to me like our editors added this reading in to the RCL. That is significant because it is one of those cool stories of the Old Testament that few people know. I have thought for years that the story of Elijah could be done, a la Charlton Heston in the “Ten Commandments,” with this being an incredible scene. When people come into my office and complain that the Bible is boring, this is one of my “go to” passages” to remind us that God can tell a story as well as Marvel or Star Wars. The difference is, of course, this story happens in our universe, in our history. And, yes, it is a difficult story. . .
Those unfamiliar with the story might well have been shocked by the length and detail. Let me tell you what: you should read the next few verses if you really want a shock to your system. A couple things are happening in the passage which we tend to miss as modern post-Christian Americans. Ahab and Jezebel are king and queen over Israel. Most of us could not tell a single story about Ahab, but we know all Jezebels are bad, don’t we? They are bad because she was beyond bad. The king’s primary responsibility was to study the torah and teach the people how to live like the holy, righteous people God wanted them to be. The kings were to pattern their lives, and the lives of their family, after the way that God instructed. Only the prophet could correct the king. If the king misread or mistaught or misbehaved, the prophet would be able to call him out on the behavior. Otherwise, the king was unchallenged in his authority.
This descendant of David, Ahab, now sits on David’s throne. Even though his primary responsibility is supposed to be to lead Israel in the right worship of God, he has listened to his wife and set up altars to Baal, while allowing altars erected to God to decay and, in some cases, to be toppled by those who worship idols. Not surprisingly, this has caused Israel confusion. Elijah begins in the pericope today asking Israel to choose. Are you servants of the Lord or servants of Baal? Baal, at first, was any number of what you and I might call nature gods. The Canaanites had a number of baals that they worshipped as gods. By this time, though, Baal is more closely associated as the god of the storm. That is important because there is a drought. In fact, Israel is experiencing a three-plus year drought that was prophesied before it happened.
Those of you who have been to Israel have remarked how brown and stony things are there. You are not alone to notice that. In fact, water is a valued resource in Israel. We have lakes and reservoirs and so, likely do not understand their worries about water. Plus, we are not an agrarian society. California may need to worry about water, but we can ignore such issues in central Tennessee. Israel was more like California in their attitude toward water. Except, Israel had a promised spigot. The Lord had promised them that so long as they kept His covenant He would send the rains. If they chased after false gods, though, He promised to withhold the rain. Often in the OT, droughts are more of a theological commentary than a meteorological observation. A drought plaguing Israel meant that Israel had forsaken God. As our story begins, they are in the midst of a three-plus year drought. You get an idea how faithful Israel has been to the Lord.
In answer to Israel’s limping, Elijah proposes a battle of the gods. He suggests that the priests of Baal, which number about 450, and he build an altar, sacrifice a bull, and ask their god to consume the flesh of the bull to prove, once and for all, who is god. The people seem to cheer for it, and the priests seem excited by the prospect! Can you imagine the CGI effects, were this a movie?
The priests of Baal go first. They build their altar, prepared their sacrifice, and then called to Baal. Not surprisingly, there is no answer. The priests continue to do more elaborate things to gain the attention of Baal. They call loudly, they sing, they dance. Still no answer. Eventually, they begin to cut themselves with spears and swords, offering blood to attract the notice of their god. This spectacle goes on for several hours, from dawn until perhaps the middle of the afternoon, with an added description. The whole time the priest of Baal are calling, dancing, cutting, and futilely trying to gain the attention of their god, Elijah is mocking them and their god. Maybe he is meditating. Maybe he is asleep. Maybe he is in the bathroom. Still no answer from Baal. Exhausted and disappointed, the priests of Baal give up and allow Elijah his turn.
Elijah invites the people of Israel to come closer. He prepares the altar to God that had been thrown down by the priests of Baal with Jezebel’s encouragement and Ahab’s assent. He takes twelves stones, calling to mind the story of Jacob, and rebuilt built the altar. Then he dug a deep trench around the altar, placed wood on the altar, and sacrificed and butchered the bull, placing the pieces on the altar. Then, curiously, he asks the people to fill four jars with water and drench the wood and burnt offering. He has them do this three times. Did I mention there was a drought? The wood was well prepared to burst into flame, but Elijah is soaking it with water, so much so that the trench is filled with water. There is to be no accusation of subterfuge. No priest of Baal will be able to claim that a spark from Elijah caused this fire.
Then Elijah offers a simple prayer. There is no dancing, no singing, no cutting, and no exhaustion. He asks the Lord to answer him so that Israel will know that He is God. Fire falls from heaven and consumes the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even the water! Talk about an amazing scene! Unsurprisingly, Israel is impressed and falls to their faces saying, “the Lord indeed is God! Israel is so moved that, when they ask Elijah what they should do, they kill all the priests of Baal at his command without a second thought. I told you, it is a disturbing story to our sanitized ears. But it is a story which God caused to be written and collected for us. Why? What lessons are there for a community gathered in His name in central Tennessee?
It seems to me that there are two really important lessons to which we should pay attention this time through the lectionary. I understand there are other lessons, but two stood out to me in prayer this week.
(1) Our idols are worthless. In fact, the idols that we worship are worse than worthless. They demand more and more from us, while delivering less and less to or for us. Eventually, they require blood and often the blood of our children. Sound shocking? Consider for a moment our worship of mammon. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a stockbroker. If 48 year-old me were to ask 32 year-old me what I was doing, I would no doubt have told him that I was working on climbing the corporate ladder and trying to make money to provide my family with the things I thought they needed and wanted. Those of you who have worked as corporate lawyers, accountants, middle management in big companies, and maybe even small business owners likely know this story and the motivations. I used to leave for work at 6:36am every day. If I left at 6:37am, I swear my commute grew by at least an hour! And this was Des Moines, not Nashville. So, before most of the kids were up, I would shower and head out. I would get to work between 7-7:15am, eat breakfast as I did my paperwork, read a research report or whatever, and then hit the phones at 8am. My day would end at about 6pm, when I would head for home. If there were no wrecks, I often made it home at 6:30pm. What was my goal? Taking care of my family. How much time did I get to spend with my kids? 45 minutes? An hour? They were younger than Joshua in those days, so they went to bed at a reasonable hour. More often than not, they ate supper without me. What kind of family was I really building? Had we continued on that trajectory, would they have known me? Would they have understood I had sacrificed for them, or would they instead believe that I had sacrificed them? What would have been the response of my wife?
And that is just one idol! There are countless others that take from us the very things we think we are working to build or maintain! Why do many people turn to alcohol or drugs or sex? To escape whatever pain is in their life. To forget. When we enslave ourselves to these, what happens? More pain. Sometimes death. To feel the same escape costs more and more in terms of drugs or alcohol, right? Even the sex has to get more and more “out there” to have the same effect on us. The result of increased use often results in families and friends withdrawing from our lives. Sometimes, we run afoul of the law and have to face the costs of fines or incarceration. Livers fail. STD’s cause their own health issues. If we continue our slavish existence, what happens? We die. Another idol takes more and more and gives less and less and demands blood. No doubt you can think of other idols in your lives.
But what of other gods and other religions. They all lead to the same place in the end, don’t they? They are not so bad, right? Are they not? We live in a world and a country that values religious pluralism. We live in a country that has enshrined in its foundational documents the idea that the state will not take sides in religious debates. It is therefore natural, I think, that we squirm a bit when we read a story like this, where the followers of an idol are utterly destroyed. But look at the servants of idols around us.
We live in a world where people who serve a god and claim a tie to our spiritual ancestor Abraham think it ok to kill us, who think their path to heaven is paved by the killing of others to prove their faithfulness to their god. We live in a world where people who claim our faith practice abominable acts “in the name of God.” Heck we live in a world where the buying and selling of human beings is sanctioned by religion in some places, where the sacrifice of albino children is considered powerful magic in some cultures, where widows should be burned rather than cared for or esteemed, where the worthless ought to be put out of their misery “for their own good.” Tell me again how these false gods are equal to the Lord!
As uncomfortable as it may make us, as much as we might like to squirm at the thought, God judges idolaters. The story that we read today is just a hint, a bare shadow of the judgement that will face the world when He returns. Those of us who follow Christ understand that He paid the price for our sins. Those of us who follow Christ understand that He died the death we deserved. Those of us who follow Christ marvel at the love and mercy which caused God to reconcile us to Him, when we limping along in the world like Israel. We recognize that God judged us for our own idolatry in Christ. We are, what, nine weeks out from Passion Week. We are only weeks removed from that week when we remind ourselves that we caused His death. That we joined our voices with the crowds shouting “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” We are weeks removed from the horror of Good Friday, yet how quickly we forget. And forgetting that horror, we lose much of the joy that we should realize at His forgiveness and mercy. We call it a Eucharist, a thanksgiving, but how many of us drag ourselves to church rather than look forward to this reminder and celebration?
(2) The second lesson relates to the end of that first lesson. You and I and all Christians should be motivated by love and thanksgiving and with an incredible sense of urgency to proclaim His Gospel to those around us. Look back at the beginning of the passage. When Elijah demands that Israel choose between Baal and the Lord, they did not answer him a word. We tend to forget that no answer or no decision is really a decision. Perhaps it is because we are Episcopalian and we value Augustine too much. After all, Augustine famously prayed “Lord save me, just not today” from the partying, prostitutes, and other fun parts of a wealthy life in Antiquity. Eventually, he chose God and became an early Church father. So what’s the rush? The rush is the number of people who said “not today” or “I will wait until later” and who never made the decision to serve the Lord before their death.
One of the questions that should haunt us or motivate us is the question of whether we love someone enough to care about their eternal destination. So often, we pull back from that last bit of urgency for fear that people will think us crazy or one of “those” people. People promote God’s love and forget His justice. People promote God’s mercy and forget His righteousness. People speak winsomely of God’s patience and forget His wrath. We speak often in the Church that all His revealed attributes kissed on the Cross of Christ, and rightly so. But we sometimes forget in the Church that we must claim Him as Lord. The words we mouth at baptism are not empty words. They are not simply formulaic either. We die to ourselves and ask Him to empower us to live as He would have us live. More significantly, though, our decisions to follow Him or reject Him have an eternal consequence. How often are we content, though, to limp along, keeping silent in the face of those decisions in the lives of those around us? How often are we content to let those whom we profess to love risk dying outside the covenant? How often are we content, like Israel, not to make choices or encourage others to make a choice of whom or what to serve?
Today’s sermon has been a bit heavy. One of the advantages of strolling as I preach is that I get to see your faces and shoulders. I get to see the eyes, the windows of the soul. Good preachers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think today I did a bit too much afflicting, perhaps with good reason. One comment I have heard repeatedly about my sermons on the Old Testament has been my knack to find the Gospel in it. I tell people it is not so much a knack but simply uncovering what is there. If Jesus is the Messiah, then the OT is all about Him, just as He said, even difficult passages such as today’s reading in 1 Kings 18. Where is Jesus in today’s story?
We have already spoken about Him in one sense. In some ways, the story speaks to the judgment that all humanity will one day face. On that Day of the Lord, we will face the consequence of our choices. Will we have claimed Jesus as Lord, or will we have rejected Him in favor of some idol? Those of us who claim Him as Lord will well remember the torture, the humiliation, the scourging, and the death that He bore for each one of us. Even were we once numbered among those priests of Baal, teaching those beneath us about the sacrifices necessary to make it as lawyers, doctors, brokers, accountants, politicians, or whatever else, His death ransoms us! The punishment we deserve, He bore to the grave, that we might live for Him and with Him for all eternity. That, my friends is His promise and pledge to each one of us.
What if we were limpers like Israel, incapable for far too long of choosing? What if we are limpers even today? Still the offer is there. Throughout His teaching, Jesus reminds us that He came to save the world, not to condemn it. He wants us to choose Him. Whether we choose Him early in life, in the middle of our life, or just before death, our reward and promise is the same: life for Him and eternity with Him.
But before we can experience the blessings and mercy and grace of God, an appropriate sacrifice for our sins must be made. Notice in the story that the fire falls from heaven and consumes the bull, the wood, the altar, and the water. The fire that fell that day was not the consuming fire that destroyed the Baal priests or even their altar. The fire did not harm even those in Israel who only hours before could make no answer, who could only limp along. No, it was a fire that signified to the people of God that their sacrifice had been accepted. You and I and the world around us have been given a like sign. Yes, He died, but now He is risen! Better still, He is ascended! He stands before the altar advocating for us, making intercession for us, empowering us through the Holy Spirit to accomplish His will for us! Like Israel, we have been given that wonderful sign and that more amazing access to God! The big question is what will we do with that offer? Will we accept it and share it as He commands? Or will we instead hoard it or ignore it, risking the souls of those around us?