I Kings 18:20-39
This will be a shock to some of you, particularly folks in our Sunday School class, but once upon a time or as the young folks like to say, “Back in the day”, I did not pay much attention to the Old Testament. I had some very good reasons. The Creation Story contradicted everything I had learned from watching Star Trek. The Noah Story seemed a little overboard and Jonah’s dilemma was down right fishy. The Old Testament seemed…… old. I preferred the Book of Acts mainly because I loved the travels of Paul. Paul had great side-kicks like Barnabas and Silas. The stories were about ship wrecks and earthquakes. Paul had no fear. Even when at the brink of death, Paul had a plan that usually led to freedom. In my mind the Old Testament had nothing on the book of Acts. Furthermore, Jesus was nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. If there was no Jesus, why bother reading it? Little I did know how my Biblical world was about to be turned upside down.
In early September, 1976, I encountered Isabel Rogers. I had been out of the Army for about a week and in graduate school less than three days. I was sitting in the chapel at the Presbyterian School of Education as this wiry old woman stood up to read the text. She began, “Ahab assembled the Israelites and all the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel.” She stopped, looked out at each one of us and said, “Do you have any idea who Ahab was? I am not talking about that crazy captain who chased that great white whale. I’m talking about his namesake, the man who married the devil herself. Any of you have children? Any of you consider naming your children Jezebel? There is a reason for that and I am about to share it.”
Then Doctor Rogers looked at her Bible a second time and read, “Then Elijah”. She stopped and looked up. “Do know who the prophet Elijah was? Of course you don’t. No one with a modern mind can figure out this mystical man who knew nothing of the cosmic arrangements we take for granted, or of gravity’s free fall, or of the coming and going of the atom. The only thing Elijah knew anything about was God. So listen as I read this story. Listen with your ears wide open and your imagination at full throttle. Be skeptical, but pay attention to each detail. Don’t act surprised when an army of four hundred and fifty proves no match for this disconcerting madman.
She had my attention. As she read my eyes grew wide. With each taunt I began to laugh. “Is your god asleep? Is he on vacation? Did he take a bathroom break?” The theme song to the movie Exodus began playing in the back of my head as Elijah had the twelve barrels of water poured over the twelve stones that formed the alter. Rogers voice almost quivered when she read, “Answer me, answer me, that these people may know you are God.” I swear I could see the alter burst into flames right before me. Everyone in that room wanted to jump up and join the affirmation of the Israelites. “The Lord is indeed God. The Lord is indeed God.” We had heard the Word, not as prose or as the reading of the day, but through the voice of one woman who knew its power. And we were converted.
The Old Testament, from the beginning in Genesis to Malachi’s final exhortation, consistently preaches one theme, “The Lord is indeed God.” Thirty–seven years ago, as an eager grad student, those words served as an affirmation that my chosen faith and career path had merged at a holy intersection. Izzie Rogers was my Billy Graham. She was willing to take me “Just as I was”, shaping me into a learned disciple of the Word and a faithful follower of the one true God. She taught me how to be both a student and a skeptic. I remember Dr. Izzie preaching, “It is not faith if you believe what I say. Faith is acting upon the questions you have the courage to ask.”
With all this personal history I come back to this particular text. There is so much stuff here that would cause consternation particularly if we take the text literally. I know the history of Ahab and Jezebel. Why would they agree to a winner-take-all contest? They held Elijah’s fate in their hands. Why allow this blow-hard the opportunity to perform in public?
Where did all the water come from? Elijah poured twelve barrels of precious water over the alter. Israel had been in a severe draught for three years. How on earth did anyone locate twelve barrel of this incredible life giving resources?
And then, when the alter explodes, Elijah personally slits the throats of the 450 prophets of Baal. This seems like another reason to stay in the New Testament. Some of the stories of the Old Testament vividly depict scenes of death and destruction that are too offensive for our peace-loving eyes. It is not great material for a children’s sermon. To quote Daniel Berrigan, “the divinely inspired books of Israel’s history are steeped in mayhem, slaughter, betrayal, intrigue and bravado. It is the story of foolish fathers, brothers betraying brothers, women deprived of status and dignity as wars continue to breed wars.”
So why do I come back to this text? What is there to discover in this offensive story that seems lacking both in common sense and decency. I come because I believe God will always give me the strength to ask the right question.
The question that haunts me this day is the identity of Baal. Do you remember growing up years ago when the question of religion seldom ventured beyond if our neighbors were Catholic or Protestant? Growing up, I read Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potak, but I think I only knew one Jewish family. As for Muslims, Buddhist and Hindus, they might as well have been from a different planet. Things have changed. Last week I performed a wedding with a Methodist bride, a Muslim groom and a Jewish grandmother. The band played Night in Tunisia with the clarinetists taking the lead and everyone seemed happy.
Other religions have never really threatened me. I have learned great truths from every religion I have encountered yet I still find my faith to be defined and shaped by God’s of grace as understood through the death and resurrection of Christ.
When searching for Baal, I need not travel to the Middle East or beyond. Baal is what Baal has always been; comfort food for those of us needing to go on a spiritual diet. Baal is those appetites that impede my relationship with others. Baal is rationalizing my actions at the expense of others. Baal is greed, temptation, and justification all rolled into one. The God of the Torah says, “Thou shall not lie.” Baal adds, “Unless you are protecting yourself.” The God of the Covenant says, “You shall not steal.” Baal replies, “Unless you really need it.” The God of Moses says, “Thou shall not covet.” Baal smirks, “Oh please, this is America. Our economic system is based on keeping up with the Joneses.”
The truth that I discover every time I come to Mt. Carmel is that Baal, in whatever form, has no power unless I give it. Baal is a creation of my imagination and is only empowered by my unnecessary needs. When I give into Baal, I often end up cutting my own throat.
“The Lord is indeed God.” That sounds so restrictive and absolute, unless you have lived a lifetime immersed in selfish desires. It is not faith in Baal that destroys us. It is our failing to question Baal and all that Baal stands for that leaves us thirsty.
Sometimes we need an Elijah to go up on the mountain and make his case. Sometimes we need someone to challenge us, even put us to the task by engaging us in those difficult conversations we would rather avoid. Elijah never won any popularity contests but it was those Old Testament prophets like Elijah who prepared us to hear Jesus say, “Trust in me, and you will never thirst.”
Each time I return to this text I see that old woman staring at me as if I didn’t have a clue. And then her face would light up, and she would point her arthritic finger directly at me and cackle these words, “Louie, you might forget everything else I ever told you but remember this, “The Lord is indeed God.” When Dr. Izzie, spoke I always thought I was in the presence of Elijah.
To God be the glory. Amen