August 22, 2010
I Kings 19: 17-45
“Limping and Reaching”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
“Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’” That’s how Elijah the prophet makes his entrance in scripture, talking to the king about rain. Right away the Word of the Lord tells Elijah to go down to the wadi, a stream, a channel that flows when the rain falls. Elijah was to go the wadi and drink and be fed by ravens. But soon the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. That’s when the Word of the Lord told Elijah to go see the widow of Zarephath. When Elijah called out to her he said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” The widow and her son had nothing to eat except for a handful of meal and bit of oil in a jug. Elijah pronounced that the jug would not be emptied until that day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth. The widow’s household ate for many days. It was the widow’s son who became sick and died but Elijah called out to the Lord and the Lord heard his cry, and life came back into the child.
Then in the third year of no rain the Lord came to Elijah and sent him to Ahab. “Go present yourself to Ahab, I will send rain on the earth,” the Lord said. The famine was severe in the land. Along the way, Elijah met Obadiah who was in charge of the king’s palace. Although Obadiah served Ahab and Queen Jezebel, he saved 100 prophets of the Lord by hiding them in a cave. Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord but Obadiah gave shelter to 100 of them. Scripture notes that he provided them with bread and water. It was right after Elijah’s conversation with Obadiah that Ahab went out to meet the prophet Elijah. I Kings 18:17-45
What a story: Elijah and the prophets of Baal, or for any students out there slugging through summer Hebrew over at the seminary, Ba-al, Elijah and the prophets of Ba-al. Elijah really doesn’t hang around all that long in the Old Testament, but there are some stories. I mentioned the widow of Zarephath and her son who died and then lived. Next week, we’re going to take a look at Elijah at Mt Horeb when the Lord passed by in a still small voice. In II Kings there’s Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha as Elijah is taken up to heaven in a chariot. All in all, it’s only a few chapters in the sacred book, but Elijah the prophet has provided quite the material for preachers….forever. A generation or so ago, it was the preacher Peter Marshall, and a very famous sermon called Trial by Fire. Marshall ends that sermon with these words, “If God be god, follow him, if Baal be god, then follow him, and go to hell.” Preacher after preacher, generation after generation; Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
While Elijah’s role in scripture may, in the big picture, may not take up all that much face time, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, certainly spreads out in the telling of it. Quite a leisurely pace to it all, here in I Kings. The detail of Elijah’s preparation of the altar: he repaired it, he took twelve stones, he built it, he made a trench, large enough for two measures of seed, he put the wood in order, he cut the bull in pieces, laid it on the wood. Four jars of water. Once. Twice. Three times poured. All the detail of Elijah’s preparation, compared with that of the other guys, those other prophets, the prophets of Baal. “So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’”.
All the detail points to Elijah. Then there’s the violence. Elijah eventually killed all those Baal prophets. What’s a preacher to do with that? And there’s the dialogue, and the humor in the dialogue. When Elijah first confronts the prophets at Mt Carmel, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him!” When Elijah drops the question, THEE question, then people answered him not a word. Yet when he described the challenge, the prophet’s dare, double dare, when he suggests the test to see which god can bring the fire, that’s when they say “well spoken!”
Right at noon when nothing was happening on the Baal sideline, when there was no voice, no answer, Elijah the great prophet of the Lord, turns to mocking sarcasm. “Surely he is god! Maybe he is meditating, or he’s wandered away, or he took a trip, maybe he’s just sleeping!” It says all of the prophets cried aloud. I guess that could be a cry to their god, or maybe Elijah made them cry there as they worked their way around the altar. Or as the narrator puts it, joining in on Elijah’s mock about their crying march, kind of piling on with the tone, “they limped about the altar they had made.” The crying of the prophets’ of Baal only turned after the fire of the Lord fell. Fire that consumed the bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. Fire that even licked up the water that was in the trench. In the aftermath of the fire of the Lord, “Answer us! Answer us, O Baal!” turns to “The Lord indeed is God. The Lord indeed is God!” which apparently didn’t get them all that much, didn’t score any points with Elijah, their fresh fire-side, altar-side confession. Elijah took them down to the wadi, where the rain runs through it, and he killed them there on what was a dry river bed.
The long drawn out, detailed-filled story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, it doesn’t stop there at the wadi. Notice I kept reading this morning. The story kept going. It’s tempting to stop right there. Actually, it’s a whole lot easier if you stop a little earlier; right at “The Lord indeed is God. The Lord indeed is God” It’s a whole nicer if you stop there before the prophets get seized and killed. But as the story continues, Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.” And Elijah at the top of Mt Carmel, Elijah looked toward the sea. A little cloud was rising, no bigger on the horizon than someone’s hand. “You better go before the rain stops you” Elijah told Ahab. And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind; there was a heavy rain. Elijah the Tisbhite, who said to Ahab “there will be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”, Elijah says to Ahab, “you better move along before the rain comes.” There was a heavy rain. That’s where the story ends. Elijah and the prophets of Baal. You can’t stop the story before the heavy rain. Ahab rides off to Jezreel and Elijah, he runs all the way there. But the story effectively ends with the rain. A heavy rain.
As you might imagine, in the history of preaching on I Kings 18, there’s quite a fascination with Baal; the Canaanite god attracting all that worship, all those prophets, all that attention of preachers….forever. Baal is portrayed in many and various ways; a fertility god, a god of the earth, a god of the elements of the earth, a god of war, a god of orgiastic pleasure, a god of child sacrifice, a god of pretty much everything you find offensive at the time, and….a god of rain. Remember the long drawn out details of the story. The one thing that keeps coming back here in I Kings 17 and 18, is rain, water for the earth. The clear encounter here is between Elijah as a prophet of the Lord and all the prophets of Baal, and the battle comes down to rain. Who will bring the rain. It is an elemental, fundamental, your god or my god, kind of thing. It doesn’t get any more basic than rain. One can obsess about Baal and sexuality and perceived morality gone wild all you want, but this story as told in scripture is about rain. It’s very basic. It’s a first commandment, tablet smashing, golden calf-like confrontation.
So while the tendency, the fascination with Baal may lead preachers of every generation to decide who might be going to hell this month, the story as it unfolds is actually much more foundational, more basic, more bare bones and right to the heart of the matter. Which god is life giving, which god gives life? Two, three years in on the famine, no rain…..which god is it going to be? The rain. It is a metaphor for what, for which, for who shall sustain and nourish life. How long will you go limping with two different opinions about the God who gives you life, who sustains your life, who nourishes your life, who promises you life, today, tomorrow, everyday, everyday. “The people did not answer him a word.” Not a word.
It is such an elemental, rudimentary, theology 101, kind of question. But it’s not simple. It’s not at all simple, not easy. No, no way is it easy. The everyday encounter, confrontation, choice between this God and every other god. It is so basic, at the core, that you have to answer it everyday. Everyday you have to choose. Not preachers. Not prophets. Not theologians. Not scholars. But the people, which means every one of us, deep down, every day, every day, every one of us makes a choice about which god is life giving, life sustaining, which god is life. Which god is it going to be today. Rising from the pillow to meet the day, walking down the hall to wake the kids, sitting down at your desk and turning on the computer, still there in bed moving leg to see if your right knee still works, heading off to class, getting off the bus, sitting on the train, taking the morning walk, sitting in silence with a cup of coffee, at four in the mourning nursing a child….whenever your day starts….you have to choose. The people, they did not answer him a word. Not a word.
A week or so ago the Wall Street Journal carried a piece by a young 20 something evangelical Christian entitled “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity”. He writes about all the methods churches have been using to try to keep young people interested in church. He starts out with the unfortunate comparison to oil gushing in the Gulf: an ongoing gusher of different sort he describes the problem of young people and the church. And of course, while the examples he cites come from evangelical and mega churches, the problem, the crisis of young people not being in church, the statistics would only be worse in the mainline protestant church.
The effort to keep and attract and market to young people has resulted in, what the author describes, as a manic effort to “rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it cool”. So he talks about pastors quoting Stephen Colbert or talking about Lady Gaga. Or pastors trying to look cool with a metrosexual makeover, or congregations holding worship in a bar, or the leaders obsession with technology citing pastors who use Twitter during worship. More than a few preachers have gone for the shock value with sex-themed topics intended to lure your people into church. One pastor web-cammed himself 24/7 for five weeks at a website entitled mynakedpastor.com.
(Now if you happen to be taking a deep breath and chuckling a bit because you think the senior pastor of your church is taking pot shots at all things new, if you are hearing now any endorsement of “a that’s way we have always done it before” approach to the worship and culture and communication around Nassau Church, if you are sitting back to reassure yourself that you will never have to endure projection in worship, or the possibility of a web based or facebook grounded bible study class, or that I would never consider a Wed noon time e-chat about last week’s sermon, or you don’t have to worry about your pastor trying to look cool with new and fashionable glasses….well you would be wrong on all counts. I bring up the article not to join the author in piling on his examples. I bring it up because his conclusion is so, so spot on.)
The writer wraps up the point in a crisp and powerful way. “As a twenty something, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t’ want cool as much as we want real. If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because its easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative.” In other words, he’s asking for rain. He’s asking for the church to point to and witness to and proclaim and follow a life giving God. He’s asking, choosing, in an everyday kind of way, for the God who gives life.
But what about the whole bunch of us, evangelicals and mainlines, conservatives and liberals, progressives and fundamentalists, who rise to face yet another day, and answer not a word?
© 2010, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission