I Kings 18:20-39
The lectionary cycle for this year presents us with great Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) stories. And they are stories. They remind us that, although we might speak of God’s law and that God’s law is in some places codified, much of the Biblical witness is not a law book, nor a code of conduct manual.
We have stories. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Jesus taught through parables. He was raised on and in the stories of faith.
Why stories rather than a simple law book? I think the stories have the power to get under our skin rather than remaining an external guide. They connect with us in ways that can teach us something about who we are. (I’ve been reading a book in which one of the main characters, one that I had liked, made some very poor choices. I got so mad at him, I had to quit reading!) I read somewhere that naming our favorite fictional characters tells us something about who we are—and our values. Who are your favorites? Have they changed through the years? What glimpses might they give you about your core values?
So today we’re going to begin hearing stories that come from the time of the great prophet, Elijah.
It might seem that we have little in common with the situation in today’s story. At first hearing it is thoroughly archaic. But, I think we can be a little creative and even have some fun as we think about it. So, we’re going to hear this story as if it were a modern day sports broadcast. Mark is going to be the play announcer and I’m going to provide the color commentary.
Mark: Welcome to our broadcast of the competition between Baal and YHWH. This competition was initiated by Elijah – one of YHWH’s prophets. He challenged the prophets of Baal to come to this mountain and prove, once and for all, which God is more powerful.
Micki: There’s some background that we need. YHWH is the ancient God of the Israelites. King Ahab, however, married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. When Jezebel came to Israel she brought with her a devotion to her faith – a faith that proclaimed the god Baal. Elijah insists that the modern worship of Baal is offensive to YHWH. In fact, Elijah claims that the drought we’re experiencing is a sign of God’s displeasure. Actually, Elijah went so far as to claim that he caused the drought by proclaiming YHWH’s displeasure.
Mark: Yeah. Sure. Well, anyway, team Baal is entering the arena now. Boy, they look strong. There are 450 prophets! What a spectacle!
Micki: A little more background. Baal is the chief god of the Phoenicians. In fact (and I admit this is a little ironic considering the drought), Baal is known as the God of the storm and is represented by lightning. (Reveal shirt) I guess I’m going to show my bias here. I don’t think the prophets of YHWH have a chance against Baal – the god of a powerful, developed, respected nation. Go Baal!
Mark: I don’t think you have to worry about showing your support! After all, worship of YHWH has been dying out. This will probably be that God’s last stand. Well…here comes team YHWH. And, look,…are my eyes deceiving me? No. Well, if you want further proof that worship of YHWH is dying out, it’s right in front of us. 450 prophets for Baal. One ---yes you heard me – one for YHWH!
Alright, it looks like things are going to get started. Elijah, YHWH’s prophet, seems to be going first. I must say, he has nerve! He’s challenging the people, accusing them of trying to serve Baal and YHWH. It seems he’s going to set the ground rules.
Micki: It looks like he’s going to suggest a burnt offering – something familiar to the people. But – wow this takes nerve—he says that they should call on their god to set fire to the offering!
Mark: Here they go. They’ve taken a bull, prepared it, and set it on the wood. Now they’re crying out to Baal. “O Baal, answer us!” Let’s see what happens!
Nothing happened. They’re walking around the altar, but there’s no fire. OK. I think I hear Elijah.
Oh. There’s some trash talking down there now! Elijah has nerve, I’ll say that! “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Harsh words.
Micki: Harsher than we might think! Actually, I’ve been told that when Elijah says he has wandered away he really means he’s responding to nature’s call. Not something you’d expect of a god!
Mark: Well, he’s riled those prophets up! Now they’re crying aloud and cutting themselves. It’s a bloody spectacle – self-inflicted! And yet Baal seems to be silent.
Now, Elijah’s ready to take his turn. He’s rebuilt the altar (which the prophets of Baal destroyed in all their antics.) He’s put twelve stones as the base.
Micki: That’s a reminder of their history with YHWH. The twelve stones stand for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Mark: Now he’s putting a trench around the altar. I wonder what that’s for. Anyway, he’s put the wood and the bull on the altar. I wonder what approach he’ll take. Will he march around it like the prophets of Baal? Will he cry aloud and cut himself?
Wait! Wait! I can’t believe it! He’s having the people pour water on the whole thing! He’s soaking it! They’ve poured so much water, the trench is filled. Good luck getting that soggy mess to burn!
Micki: (Laughing) Well, if it does, I’ll be impressed!
Mark: OK. He’s starting his prayer. “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done these things at your bidding. Answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Nice prayer….Oh wow! I can’t believe it! That soggy mess is burning! It has burned up the bull, the wood, even the stones and the dust. The water is gone.
(Moment of silence)
I guess I don’t know what to say.
Micki: Me either. This isn’t going to sit well with the King and Queen. One insignificant prophet has managed to challenge their power base. If Baal even exists, it looks like YHWH is the more powerful God!
Mark: You said it! Amen. (End of storytelling portion)
Although we took that story and gave it a somewhat modern setting, I think it was designed, in its recalling and its telling, to have a humorous sense of drama. It invites us to ponder what we think matters. I’ve heard tell that there are places in this country where the primary religion is not Christianity, or Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or even Islam. The primary religion is football. (NE Pennsylvania is one such place.) Yet, even the best team will disappoint --- and there’s really not much we can do about that! (I pick on Mark when he yells at baseball umpires or players during broadcast Yankee games!)
The Israelites had taken a pragmatic approach to their faith. They sort of hedged their bets (so Elijah accused them of fence sitting.) They still acknowledged YHWH, but they also accepted the faith that Jezebel brought – because it was connected to perceived power.
What Baals exist in our lives? What gets our attention? We might speak about the unreal expectations we have as we prepare to elect a president. We ask the candidates to speak as if they had the power to solve every ill. Is it any wonder that, ultimately, they then disappoint us? Maybe we place such demands on them because we also expect a human society to have the power to make our lives complete in every way.
We could talk about jobs, and hobbies, and families – all good things that can become so consuming in our lives, so demanding of our attention and our loyalty, that God’s call in and on our lives is diminished.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians speaks to the problem in the church itself when the good news of God gets confused by adding in traditions and expectations that are more human in origin than Godly. He wrote in frustration because the Galatians were accepting an interpretation of the good news that conflicted with the message of grace that he had proclaimed. He would not accept a hybrid approach to faith that diluted the message he had proclaimed. He would not accept the pragmatic approach that incorporated past practices as essential to a new gospel. Even within the church, we muddy God’s good news with traditions and practices which we elevate to almost god-like status. They become the focus of our energies – sometimes our monies – and even our worship. There was a small church in northern New York that decided to dissolve. They asked the presbytery to sell the property to the local historical society—for one dollar. And the presbytery did. Soon after, we discovered that the historical society was the congregation. They continued to gather – and to worship as they (and their parents) had worshiped in the past. They sang the old hymns. They gave their money to maintain the building. No longer was there any connection to mission and ministry beyond themselves. Their traditions had become Baal – and God was displaced – even forgotten.
That ancient story occurs again and again – all around us and within our own lives. It seems, at times, that God is silent, absent, even powerless. Yet, God calls us back, through Elijahs and Pauls and persistent voices that proclaim the good news of God’s living, loving presence. Amen.