Saturday, November 7, 2015

“Going All In” - November 8, 2015

Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39

It’s interesting how words and phrases enter our American vocabulary.  Frequently, there are words and phrases that are part of a subculture that but gain popularity to where they become a part of mainstream usage.  Such language may come from technology or youth culture or urban culture or from a particular ethnic group, but it can come from other places.  It is interesting to me how much the language of poker playing is a part of our everyday conversation.

Many of poker’s words and phrases evoke a kind of romance and drama and derring-do that we hope might rub off on the more mundane activities of life.  So we talk about upping the ante, stacking the deck.  We’ll talk about something we are unsure of as a wild card.  We call somebody’s bluff or we want to be completely up front about something and so we’ll put all our cards on the table.

Another of these expressions, maybe of more recent vintage, is “all in.”  It refers to the moment when a player—whether out of bravado or recklessness or desperation—bets all of his or her chips on a single hand.  Thanks to the Texas Hold ‘Em craze of the 1990’s and 2000’s and the public’s appetite for dramatic hyperbole, this poker phrase crossed over into general use.  “I’m all in,” we say.

The all-in moment in poker is a thrilling win-or-lose-everything crisis of dramatic clarity: you’ve wagered all you’ve got and you can’t go back.  But in regular life, the phrase “all in” is almost always a gross exaggeration.  

A few years ago, Alex Rodriguez wanted to assure Yankees fans that the team was serious about winning.  He said, “We’re all in.  This is the most urgent we’ve been.  It’s going to be exciting.”  Well, the Yankees did not win the World Series.  But the players got paid anyway, and they were not all compelled to retire.  As it turns out, they really weren’t all in.  Last year, Cleveland Cavaliers fans were asked to go all in on LeBron James and their hometown team as the NBA playoffs began.  I don’t think the team really meant that. The Cavaliers did not win it all, but the team doesn’t expect its fans to cancel their season tickets and to watch reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond” instead of the NBA on TNT.

The phrase “all in” is sometimes applied to politics.  Candidates say they are “all in” on immigration reform or raising the minimum wage or tax reform, but if these policies prove to not be so popular with voters or do not get enacted, chances are they are not going to retire from politics.  They are not really betting everything on it. 

“All in” is most often misused.  In most cases, a person is supportive of something – but not really “all in.”

Abraham Lincoln on preserving the union?  All in.  Mother Teresa on serving the poor?  All in.  The free-climber Alex Hannold climbing sheer rock faces without a rope?  He is all in.  If you quit your job, mortgage your house, and cash in your retirement so you can start your own business, you really are going all in.

And then there is Elijah at Mt. Carmel, challenging the prophets of Baal.  In our scripture this morning, Elijah was definitely all in.

How did it get to this point?  First, let’s back up a bit.  Last week we looked at King David.  He was far from perfect, but his reign represented the Golden Age of Israel.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, known for his wisdom.  Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem.  But Solomon is the last of the kings of a united Israel.  It didn’t last long.  After Solomon, the kingdom divided north and south.  The southern kingdom of Judah and northern kingdom of Israel are frequently allies; they share the same history and the same faith, but they are never again a single united nation.

The southern kingdom of Judah is ruled by descendants of David for over 400 years.  These kings permit and at times encourage the worship of foreign gods, and there are a lot of corrupt and ineffective rulers.  But Judah’s track record is a lot better than that of Israel, the northern kingdom.  Israel faces numerous coups and rebellions and there is a succession of short-lived dynasties and rulers.  And if Judah strayed from God, Israel was generally a lot worse.

One of the longer-ruling kings of Israel is Ahab.  While he had a relatively long reign, it was not necessarily a good one.  1 Kings 16 says that he was “more evil than all the rulers before him,” which is really saying something.

Ahab married the Phoenician princess Jezebel.  This was a political move, a marriage intended to cement ties with a neighboring country.  Jezebel is a very strong personality and a real power in Israel.  She greatly expands the worship of Baal and Asherah, who are storm and agricultural and fertility gods.  We are told that King Ahab himself is a worshiper of Baal.  The king of Israel had turned his back on the God of Jacob, his ancestor for whom the nation is named.

Jezebel, it turns out, is not someone to cross; you don’t want to be on her bad side.  Prophets of Yahweh, the God of Israel, spoke out against Baal worship, and they paid for it.  Jezebel had many prophets of Yahweh killed.

God does not appreciate what is happening.  These are God’s own people, God’s children.  God had cared for them, provided for them, brought them out of Egypt, given them the Law to guide them.  And now God’s own people, led by its king, are turning to other gods.

The persecution of the prophets continues, and God instructs Elijah to go and confront Ahab.  When Elijah and Ahab finally meet, I love the way that Ahab greets Elijah.  He says, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”  Obviously, there is some history between the two.

Elijah responds that Ahab is the one bringing troubles on the nation, with his turning from Yaheweh to worship Baal, but there is a sense in which Ahab is right: Elijah is a troubler of Israel.  But that was his job.  And being troubled is exactly what the people needed.

Apparently, the decisions and behavior of Ahab and Jezebel had not “troubled” the people, not nearly enough.  Under their administration, the worship of other deities had grown by leaps and bounds.  Prophets of the God of Israel had been murdered.  Ahab’s rule was characterized by injustice.  Ahab is seen by the writer of Kings as the worst ruler ever, but it doesn’t seem to bother the people very much.

And so God calls Elijah to stir things up, to wake the people from their national slumber.  Elijah asks Ahab to set up a meeting on Mt. Carmel with the 450 prophets of Baal. 

The people gather, and Elijah confronts them for their wishy-washiness, for their wholesale inability to choose between the God of Israel and other gods.  Basically, the people are covering their bases.  They worship the God of Israel, yes, but they also worship Baaland and Asherah too - you know, just in case. 

The problem is that if you are worshiping a bunch of Gods, then you are not really worshiping any God.  “How long will you limp along with two opinions?” asks Elijah.  “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 to 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 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 challenges the assembled prophets of Baal to a showdown.  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.  It’s game on. 

Elijah really is risking everything.  If he fails, if God does not respond, there would seem to be no future for God’s relationship with Israel.  Elijah really is all in.  And here’s the thing: Elijah is a complete underdog in this confrontation.

First, it is Elijah vs. 450 prophets of Baal.  Elijah says that he is the only prophet of Yahweh remaining, but we know that is not exactly true.  In the previous chapter we read that there are 100 prophets of the Lord being hidden in a cave.  But Elijah has a flair for the dramatic, so we’ll let him get away with it.  At any rate, here on Mt. Carmel, it is 1 vs. 450.

And then, for Elijah this is a road game.  Opposing teams don’t want to play at Hilton Coliseum because of Hilton Magic – it is a really tough place for an opposing team to win.  Well, Mt. Carmel is part of a mountain range in northwest Israel that was a center of Baal worship.  This is their home territory.  The prophets of Baal have homefield advantage.  They’ve got Mt. Carmel Magic. 

And then, look at the contest.  It is to call down fire from the sky.  Well, Baal is the god of storms, the god of lightning. This is Baal’s thing.  It’s right up his alley.  This is like challenging Serena Williams in tennis.

And the contest is that the first team to score wins.  Baal’s team wins the coin toss and gets to go first.  It is a huge advantage.  It could all be over before Elijah even gets a shot at it.

So the prophets of Baal prepare their sacrifice and call on their god.  It goes on and on.  They dance wildly around their altar, hour after hour, crying out to Baal.  They cut themselves, as was the custom, to show their sincerity.  It is a pathetic display.

Meanwhile, Elijah gets a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.  He is taunting his opponents, trash talking.  “Maybe your god wandered off.  Maybe he is sleeping.”  The account in Scripture is actually cleaned up in our English translations.  In Hebrew, it’s more like, “Maybe Baal had to take a rest room break,” but Elijah doesn’t 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 there is no pleading necessary, no ranting and raving, no cutting himself needed.  There are instant results.  Fire from heaven 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.  Imagine what a boost this was to the beleaguered worshipers of the God of Israel.  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; in fact, it would be generations before Israel was by and large monotheistic.

This is a wild and dramatic story.  It is easy to focus on the pyrotechnics and the drama.  But for us, I think what really confronts us is this idea of limping along with two opinions, of not deciding which God to follow.

I’ll be honest.  I have never met an actual worshiper of Baal.  People we know by and large don’t claim to be disciples of Jesus while worshiping a pantheon of deities on the side.  But if we look at it in another way, there are plenty of gods at whose altar we may sacrifice.

The scripture mentions the offering of oblation, which probably doesn’t mean anything to most of us, but this is basically a Gift Offering – an offering to show loyalty to the god you worship.

Like it or not, realize it or not, we all give gift offerings to the gods we worship.  And the gods that we bow down before do demand something of us.  We may worship a god called Self-Sufficiency.  We don’t depend on anyone or anything.  This is the core of who we are.  Of course, this closes us off from God as well as others.  There is a price to pay.

The gods we worship go by names like Possessions.  We can tell ourselves that we deserve the latest fashions, the most cutting edge gadgets, a beautiful house, a great car.  We can wind up orienting our lives around these things and living for these things while we miss out on the real joy of life.

We can serve a god called Work, but there can be a price to pay.  Workaholism can be costly.

There are any number of gods out there – they go by names like Image and Control and Money and Comfort and Feel No Pain.  But these gods can demand a lot from us.

Is your god worth serving?  A good way to decide is to consider what that god asks of you.  Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  Jesus encapsulated God’s demands on us as loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  This is a God worth serving.

Most of us will not face a once in a lifetime, pyrotechnic event like Elijah.  But we are all asked to go all in on God – to give ourselves completely to the One who created us and loves us and cares for us.  Maybe that happens as we make a daily choice to follow the way of Jesus and to worship the God of love and grace and hope and compassion, leaving those other gods behind.  May it be so.  Amen.

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