Saturday, June 15, 2013

“Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: The Showdown” - June 16, 2013

Text: I Kings 18

The Thrilla in Manila.  Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in their third bout, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Celtics vs. Lakers, the seventh and deciding game of the NBA Finals, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.

The 1980 Winter Olympics, USA vs. the Soviet Union in hockey.  They called it the Miracle on Ice.

Or, the annual ISU - Iowa football game, any year.

Maybe you don’t like all the sports references, but I’m sorry, it’s Father’s Day and I can mention sports as much as I want.

But it’s not just sports.  The sensational trial has gone on for weeks, the prosecutor confronts the defendant, it is a media sensation, and finally the jury comes back with its verdict.

After demonstrations and protests, after years of communist rule, freedom sweeps across Eastern Europe.  The wall comes down in Berlin and unarmed protesters challenge tanks in Red Square – on live television around the world.

Showdowns.  They take place on the field or court, and in court.  On the battlefield.  Sometimes at work, sometimes in your family, sometimes even at the church convention.

The Bible knows all about showdowns.  Moses vs. Pharaoh.  David vs. Goliath.

Maybe the most dramatic scene in scripture, and maybe the biggest showdown, is found in our reading this morning.  As Elijah takes on 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, there is not only a great deal riding on the outcome; Elijah really has a flair for the dramatic.

When we left Elijah last week, he was in Zarephath, where in the time of terrible drought a widow had taken in Elijah and prepared meals with the jar of meal and jug of oil that never ran out.  But now God has instructed Elijah to go back to Israel and confront Ahab, the evil king.  On the way to see Ahab, Elijah runs into Obadiah, the king’s right hand man.  Ahab and Obadiah are searching for grain – but not for the people who are starving in the famine.  Ahab’s concern is his war horses and pack mules.  Obadiah assures Elijah that he is on his side, telling him that as Queen Jezebel was having the prophets of God killed – what would you call that, prophetcide? - he personally saved the lives of 100 prophets.

Obadiah works for Ahab, but he himself worships the God of Israel.  And he is scared to death to tell Ahab that Elijah wants to see him, because he is afraid Elijah will wander off, the meeting will never happen, and Ahab will be angry enough about it to have Obadiah killed.

Elijah assures Obadiah that he is not throwing him under the bus, and eventually Elijah meets Ahab.  I really love the way Ahab greets Elijah: “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”

Elijah responds that Ahab is the one bringing troubles on the people, with his worship of the Baals, but there is a sense in which Ahab is right: Elijah is a troubler of Israel.  But that was his job.  And here’s the thing: being troubled is exactly what the people need.

Apparently, the decisions and behavior of Ahab and Jezebel had not “troubled” the people, not nearly enough.  Under their administration, the worship of Baal had grown by leaps and bounds in Israel.  Prophets of the God of Israel had been murdered.  Ahab’s rule was characterized by injustice.  But as things stood, altogether too few people were troubled by this.

Sometimes “trouble” is exactly what we need.  Ahab is seen by the writer of Kings as the worst ruler ever, but it doesn’t seem to bother the people very much.  What Israel needed was for something or someone to come along and shake things up, turn things upside down, so that there will be at least a fighting chance for truth and justice to make a comeback.  And Elijah is exactly the guy to get it done.

He confronts the people for their wishy-washiness, for their wholesale inability to choose between the God of Israel and Baal.  “Attention all you fence straddlers,” Elijah begins, “how long are you going to be indecisive on the absolutely crucial, ultimately important issue of knowing and following the one true God?  How long are you going to treat the worship of God so casually, like you are trying to decide between paper and plastic at the grocery store?  How long are you going to sit idly by while the nation turns toward Baal, leaves behind the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and goes to hell in a handbasket?

That should get the people’s attention!  Elijah lays it on.  But the people don’t have anything to say.  They don’t answer Elijah.  They just kind of clear their throats and look at their feet.  When faced with a critical decision, they do nothing.  And like they say, not to decide is to decide.

So Elijah goes for broke.  If words won’t convince them, a good old-fashioned mano-a-mano duel might wake them up.  Except it isn’t really man-a-mano, it is 1 vs. 450.  Elijah vs. 450 prophets of Baal.  It is a showdown, and it appears that the odds are stacked heavily against Elijah.

Now, in some ways this is a great story for Father’s Day because it full of testosterone.  Before the World Wrestling Federation and Monster Trucks and NFL Sunday Ticket came along, this was about as good as it got for guys.  It is a wild and wooly My God Is Better Than Your God Challenge.  It has threats, taunting, drama, competition, fire from the sky, and violence on a massive scale.  What’s not to like?

Since Elijah first arrived on the scene, he has been fighting with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  The battle went on and on, and while Elijah had successes, he also spent a good deal of time running for his life.  The big showdown, the crowning moment comes here on Mt. Carmel where Elijah finally calls the bluff of the prophets of Baal.  [With our Music Camp backdrop still up this morning, we are going to say that this (a mountain scene) is Mt. Carmel.]

Elijah proposes a contest – Elijah will build an altar to the God of Israel, and the prophets of Baal, 450 of them, build an altar to Baal.  Each will offer a sacrifice on the altar and call down fire from their god.  It will be clear which god is the more powerful – which is real and which is an imposter.  Everybody seems to love the idea, and the contest is on.

The prophets of Baal go first.  Everything is stacked against Elijah – if the prophets of Baal can somehow conjure up fire, the contest will be over before Elijah even gets a chance.  The Baal prophets, hundreds of them, do their thing.  They dance wildly around their altar, hour after hour, crying out to Baal, cutting themselves, as was the custom, to show their sincerity.  And while they do that, Elijah just sits back and laughs at them.  The account in Scripture is actually cleaned up in English translations.  Elijah’s taunts are a good bit ruder than English readers would be led to believe.  “Is Baal too busy?”  Elijah asks.  “Maybe he is asleep.  Maybe he went to the mall.  Maybe he wandered off.”  In Hebrew, the connotation is more like, “Maybe Baal had to take a rest room break,” but Elijah doesn’t really say it so politely.

For all of the efforts of the prophets of Baal, nothing happens.  Finally it is Elijah’s turn.  He knows a thing or two about drama.  He pours water over the altar, again and again, till everything is completely soaked and a trench around the altar is filled with water.  He knows how to play to the cameras.  There are oohs and aahs from the crowd.

The stage is set.  The crowd is pumped.  Elijah calls on God and says “Oh Lord, I alone am left, I am your only prophet remaining and there are these 450 prophets of Baal.”  Well, we know that isn’t exactly true; Obadiah just told him that he had saved the lives of 100 prophets.  But it doesn’t matter; Elijah is on a roll – and he is the only prophet here, and God’s prophets are clearly in a minority.  And - it adds to the drama.

Elijah calls on God, and there is no pleading necessary, no ranting and raving, no cutting himself needed.  There are instant results.  Boom!  Fire falls from heaven.  It consumes everything - the sacrifice, the wood, the rocks, the dirt, even the water in the trench.  God seems to enjoy this as much as Elijah.

There could not be a more decisive victory.  There is no doubt left as to which god is the real god.  But the aftermath is troubling to our modern sensibilities.  Instead of shaking hands an saying “Good game,” instead of giving the prophets of Baal a chance to switch sides and join God’s team, Elijah rounds up all the prophets of Baal and slaughters them.  In fact, if you go to Mt. Carmel today, you will see a statue of Elijah, sword drawn, slaughtering the prophets of Baal.  Instead of focusing on God’s power, the focus somehow became Elijah’s revenge.


Imagine what a boost this was to the beleaguered worshipers of the God of Israel.  Imagine how this changed their fortunes overnight.  We could all use that kind of boost.  We all need those big events, those huge victories, to give us hope and energy.  But if that is all there is to our faith, we are going to be sorely disappointed.  You would think that after this, the people would turn to God en masse.  But it doesn’t happen.  Worship of other gods alongside the God of Israel or instead of the God of Israel was widespread and continued; it would be generations before Israel was by and large monotheistic.

Our faith has to be built on more than pyrotechnics and more than turning to God in times of dire crises.  I remember after 9/11, there was a lot of talk that Americans would turn to their faith because of the crisis that 9/11 provoked.  And, for a few weeks, church attendance went up a bit, but it was really just a blip.  There was no lasting effect.

Moments of crises can turn us toward God.  And moments of jubilation, mountaintop moments – yes, this took place on Mt. Carmel – can infuse us with energy and passion and ignite our faith, but faith is as much about what happens in the valleys, in the times of drought, in the times of hardship, as it is the times of victory.

This is a powerful story and I don’t know why the life of Elijah hasn’t been made into a major motion picture.  We delight in the spectacle of it.  There is a hero of the big show and characters are clearly defined – they are good or evil.  We like the story because we rarely settle for a simple victory, and this was about as dominant, as overpowering a victory as we could imagine.

The question this story raises for us, I think, is the challenge of which altar we will claim for ourselves.  At whose altar will we worship?

This sounds like a dumb question at first, because to be just real honest about it, I have never met a real, live bona fide Baal worshiper.  But if we look at it in another way, there are plenty of gods at whose altar we may sacrifice.

Maybe the slaughter of the prophets of Baal bothers us not just because of the carnage and bloodiness of it, but because there is a sense in which we are all Baal worshipers.  And by that I don’t mean that we worship the ancient Middle Eastern god of rain and fertility, I mean that we can all have mixed allegiances, and sometimes what we really worship – what we value the very most – is something other than the living God.  What we seek after is often not exactly the same as following the way of Jesus.

The gods we worship have all kinds of names.  There is a whole pantheon.

They go by names like Self-Sufficiency.  We don’t need anybody else helping us out, we have all the wherewithal it takes, we don’t want outside assistance – that would be a sign of weakness.  We don’t depend on anyone or anything.  This is the core of who we are.  Of course, this mindset closes us off from God as well as others.

The gods we worship go by names like Possessions.  When I can get a better car or a new house, things will be different.  Or we tell ourselves that we deserve the latest fashions or the most cutting edge gadgets and we orient our lives around these things.  We can wind up living for these sorts of things, giving them a place they don’t deserve.  Or we hang on to what we have so tightly that we are not only unable to share, we are unable to really enjoy life.

We can worship at the altar of Relationships.   I wouldn’t be so down if my friends were more responsive to my needs.  If my children just treated me better; if my parents weren’t so annoying; if I could find Ms. or Mr. Right; if my co-workers weren’t so difficult, then life would be good.  We can ask impossible things of others, in effect asking them to be our gods.  Maybe it’s just another name for Baal.

There are any number of gods out there – they go by names like Image and Control and Money and Comfort and Feel No Pain.  There is a sense in which we are all polytheists.

Maybe the point of this story is not to go out and slaughter the infidels who worship other gods – because that just might be us.  That may describe all of us, in a way.  Maybe the point is that we need to stand with Elijah and worship at the altar of Yahweh.  No matter how unlikely it may seem, no matter how wet the wood may be, no matter how small the odds might appear, God’s fire can still blaze in our lives when we call on God.  But the thing is, we have to be willing to leave those other altars behind.

For most of us, maybe the big Showdown isn’t a once in a lifetime, winner take all, pyrotechnic event.  Maybe it is a daily choice to follow the way of Jesus and worship the God of love and grace and hope and compassion and justice, and leave those other gods behind.  May it be so.  Amen.

Friday, June 7, 2013

"Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath: God Will Provide" - June 9, 2013

Text: 1 Kings 17:1-24

For the next several Sundays, we are going to be following the Biblical storyline in 1 Kings and on into 2 Kings, looking at the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.  I figured, we have a couple of Elijahs in the church, so – why not?

Our story really begins not with Elijah, but with the king and queen of Israel.  Ahab and Jezebel are the prototypical evil rulers of the Old Testament.  This was in the time of the divided kingdom.  Ahab was king of Israel, the northern kingdom; Judah was the southern kingdom.

Now, historically speaking, Ahab is mentioned in sources outside of the Bible and by some measures was a successful ruler.  He was certainly a powerful king.  But the criteria the Bible uses to measure a good ruler are different than the criteria of money and power and warfare and building programs.

Ahab arrived on the scene at a critical time for Israel.  As a nation, Israel needed reliable allies both for national security – it was a dangerous world – and to have good, stable trading partners.  And then, people were worried about the economy.  Folks were having trouble making ends meet.  Does any of this sound familiar? 

Ahab set out on a building program and rebuilt the city of Jericho.  You may remember that when the Israelites captured Jericho, they marched around the walls seven times and the walls came tumblin’ down.  This was maybe the most memorable event of the Israelites taking the Promised Land.  Later Joshua said, “Cursed be anyone who endeavors to rebuild the city.”  The walls were to remain in ruins as a testament to what God had done.  But Jericho was rebuilt under Ahab, and the chief builder’s oldest and youngest sons died in the process, just as Joshua had said would happen.

But as much as urban centers and building programs, Ahab was concerned about agriculture.  Being an agrarian society, what mattered most was the crops.  A good crop could make all the difference.  It would lead to a happier population, and a happy population made for a more secure king.  Which, if you are a king, is the bottom line.

Israel had long worshiped its own God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who had led the nation from captivity in Egypt, the God who had provided great leaders like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and King David.  To Ahab’s way of thinking – which was a lot like that of his father and grandfather - there was nothing wrong with Israel’s God.  Yahweh was still their god, but in the modern world, you had to adapt to new realities.  The reality was that an agricultural god like Baal couldn’t hurt – just to cover all the bases, if nothing else.  If one god was good, then two or three would be even better.

So for several generations now, the rulers of Israel had mixed the worship of Yahweh with worship of other gods.  Judah, the southern kingdom, had a slightly better track record on this, but that wasn’t saying much.  Ahab’s father, King Omri, had followed this path and 1 Kings chapter 16 says that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, more so than all the kings who went before him.  If you read through 1 Kings, you’ll see that this was really saying something.

But then came Omri’s son Ahab, and as far as religious practice and the worship of the true God of Israel, Ahab was even worse than Omri – he took the prize as the worst ever.  Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, as they say, along came Ahab.

Now, Ahab had some political skills, no doubt.  He married Jezebel, a Princess of Sidon.  Sidon was a Phoenician city, just north of Israel in what is now Lebanon.  Politically, this was a shrewd move, cementing ties between the two countries.  The Phoenicians were merchants and ship builders and this brought access to raw materials like Cedars of Lebanon.  Jezebel was a dedicated worshiper of Baal, the god of rain and agriculture and fertility, and like I mentioned, Ahab was glad to get all the help he could get agriculturally. 

So Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel brought closer ties to a neighboring state, increasing both trade and security.  Beyond that, Jezebel brought with her a dedication for the worship of the Phoenician gods Baal and Asherah.  And the text says that Ahab himself served and worshiped Baal and built altars to Baal and sacred monuments to Asherah. 

This was what was going on when we first hear of the prophet Elijah, at the beginning of chapter 17.  We don’t hear anything about his call, about his background, about his family.  Elijah just appears on the scene, but it is quite an entrance.  This is a guy with authority.  He tells Ahab that “As sure as the God of Israel lives, there will be a severe drought, with neither rain nor dew.”

God is not just randomly sending a drought to punish Ahab.  What is going on here is that Baal is the God of rain.  For turning from the God of Israel to Baal, the god of rain, God is saying, “Alright – you can depend on Baal for your rain.  Count me out.”  The extended drought shows how impotent Baal is.

Of course, Elijah’s pronouncement does not make Ahab happy.  Ahab has killed for a lot less than this, and God tells Elijah to flee, to go live by a wadi – a ravine - east of the Jordan River.  There he is miraculously fed by ravens, who bring him meat and bread twice a day.  He has water to drink from the wadi until it dries up because of the drought.  God is miraculously supplying Elijah with food, but Baal, who is supposed to be responsible for rain, is dropping the ball.  

And so God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, in Sidon, where a widow will take him in and feed him.  He goes there and at the city gate meets a poor widow who is gathering sticks.

As we read about this encounter, it’s hard not to think that Elijah is, well – he’s kind of a jerk.  He doesn’t ask this woman for a drink of water and a little bread, he demands it.  Elijah apparently didn’t even learn “please and thank you,” the magic words.  There is no introduction, no explanation, no “God has sent me here to you,” just, “Give me some bread.”

This woman says that she is gathering sticks to make a little fire so she can prepare the last meal for her and her son.  There is just a tiny bit of meal and oil, and after they eat this there will be nothing to do but die.  The drought is not confined to Israel.

Lia Scholl pointed out that this is a traumatized woman.  She has lost her husband, she is fighting poverty and losing, she is nearly despondent, heading home to face death with her son.  And then Elijah, this jerk prophet shows up.

But Elijah is also facing trauma.  He is also trying to survive, running for his life, in a battle with an evil king and queen.  You would prefer a little kindness.  You would like for Elijah to notice the widow’s need.  He comes across as blunt and demanding, but then Elijah, like this widow has had a bad day.  It’s been a long streak of bad days for both of them.

It seems almost ridiculous for Elijah to ask this woman to provide for him.  But he does.  She says she is getting ready to cook one last meal, which will only temporarily stave off death for her and her son.  Elijah says, OK, but first, make some for me.  First give me some water and make me a little bread, and then make some for you and your son.  For the Lord the God of Israel says that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not fail until God sends rain on the earth. 

What do you do, if you are this woman?  Maybe you think, “We’re going to die anyway,” so you make the cake for Elijah.  But I think it’s more than that.  Somewhere inside this woman there is courage, there is trust, there is hope.  There is generosity that is hard to fathom.  Every day, she gives away all she has.  Every day, she empties the jar of meal and the jug of oil.  And every day, God provides more.  I wonder if this became easier for her.  I wonder if day by day, she grew in generosity and in trust.

In the Spring 2013 issue of Leadership Journal, Jeff Manion offers this insight (quoted by Molly Marshall in her Trintarian Soundings blog):

The chief inhibitor to generosity isn’t greed; it’s fear.  Fear of not having enough.  And the only remedy for fear is trust.  Trust and generosity walk hand in hand, and it is really difficult to pursue the generous life while scared.  God delivers us from fear as we trust God to unleash generosity.  When a person begins to tap into generosity, they’re dialing into a core of God’s character.
I think Manin is right.  What holds back generosity is not greed as much as it is fear.  We worry if there will be enough.  We are fearful for the future.  And the way we overcome this and become generous is through trust.  Trusting in the goodness and care and grace of God, we become more generous. 

John Kelton is Dean of the McMaster University Faculty of Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ontario (a school with Baptist roots).  In a commencement address a couple of weeks ago, he talked about the evolution of the human brain over tens of thousands of years.  Recent research using new MRI techniques has revealed that the highest neural activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (the area just behind the right eye) occurs when this area is stimulated by thoughts and actions closely related to empathy, compassion, kindness, and generosity.  Kindness and compassion make this part of the brain just light up. What is really interesting is that with greater use, the neural plasticity of this area actually increases.  It’s like a muscle that becomes stronger with use, and the more we are kind and compassionate and generous, the greater our capacity for kindness and compassion and generosity.

Well, I think this just confirms what we have known for a long time.  We act with kindness and we become a kind person.  We give generously and we wind up becoming a generous person, and the more we are generous, the greater our capacity for generosity. 

Now, it would be easy to use this text as a way to encourage giving for our facilities offering today.  And I hope you will give generously, but I’ll leave it up to you to make that connection.

I think this story speaks to us in many ways.  In so many instances, in so many places, it is easy for us to hold back because of fear – fear that we don’t have enough.  Fear that we’re not good enough.  Fear that there is only so much love and kindness and compassion to go around, and we need to save it for when it is really needed.  Fear that we better hold on to whatever resources we have because it’s all we’ve got and things might get really rough somewhere in the future.  Fear that we might fail, so why risk trying something new?

Tomorrow is the first day of Music Camp.  I remember that first camp, 13 years ago.  It was scary because we hardly had any kids in the church, we didn’t have a ton of workers, and we had no experience with it – we hadn’t done this before and weren’t sure what to expect or if anybody would sign up or if it would work.  But we went ahead with what we had.  And the registrations just kept coming in, and we had a fantastic experience.

It’s always a little bit scary, there is some uncertainty every year, but that jar of meal keeps getting refilled.  We barely have enough counselors, but former campers and parents of campers want to help out, and we always have enough.  And this year, for the first time, half of the campers have a connection to our church – they are First Baptist kids, or they are cousins or grandkids or great-grandchildren.  We keep going on in faith, year after year, and that jug of oil is replenished.

So often, we have more than we realize.  Maybe we were only counting our own resources, what you can read in a bank statement or put in a spreadsheet, and forgetting about God’s love and care and provision, which like that jar of meal and jug of oil never run out. 

Have you ever felt like you were just at the end of your rope, that you couldn’t manage one more day?  But somehow, somewhere, you find the strength to go on and somehow you make it through.  It’s that jug of oil again.  Or have you ever felt really alone, and just when you need it someone shows up to lift your spirits and help you make it through?  It’s that jar of meal.

This widow, amazingly, gives away all she has, again and again, and again and again God provides.  Now, here is the irony of it all: this woman lives in Phoenicia.  She lives in a suburb of Sidon – Jezebel’s home town.  Elijah is sent presumably to a Baal worshiper, whose generosity keeps him alive.  In your face, Jezebel!

God is a God of life.  God uses ravens – unclean animals – to provide for Elijah, and then God uses a poor, marginalized woman from Jezebel’s own area to provide for him.  God provides, sometimes in strange and mysterious ways.

But that is not the end of the story of Elijah and this widow.  The woman’s boy becomes ill and in fact dies.  And now it is a time of desperation.  After averting starvation, how could God let this child dies of illness?  Elijah says to the woman, “Give me your son.”  He sets the boy on his own bed.  He cries out to God.  He stretches himself out over the boy three times, pleading with God.  God hears and answers, and the boy is revived.  And the woman said, “Now I know for sure that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is true.”

God is a God of life.  And God provides – here, through the ravens, through the widow, and through the revival of the woman’s son.  Baal claimed to be a god of life, but this God, the God of Israel, the true God, is the real thing.

This is the first in a number of dramatic stories involving the prophet Elijah and, later, the prophet Elisha.  Some leave you laughing, some make you cringe, some make you scratch your head, some are pretty entertaining.  And though these events took place nearly 3000 years ago, it is amazing how relevant they can be.

God is a God of life.  God is still in the business of providing for us.  And God is still calling us to respond to God’s provision with kindness and compassion and generosity.  Amen.