I Kings18:20-39; Luke 7:1-10
Elijah was a rock star. I find it hard to believe that someone in Hollywood has not put Elijah on the silver screen. He came out of nowhere, left in a fiery chariot and even owned a cape. Elijah rivals Batman with mood swings that can only be described as half past midnight. Yet, when at his best, Elijah confidently straddles the crack of dawn and dares the sun to rise.
Elijah appeared in the midst of Israel’s darkest days. Sometimes I wonder why Elijah can’t reappear and resolve the mess that surrounds us. Yet there is something to be feared from resurrecting Elijah. With his fervor, comes a rage that will not tolerate compromise. This morning I want us to examine this mega-hero, the evil that necessitated his arrival, and then consider if the presence of Christ should make us wary of anyone with Elijah’s uncompromised zeal.
That last sentence makes me quake in my golf shoes. I love the story of Mount Carmel. One of my personal heroes, Isabel Rogers, told this story with such passion that Elijah has always been my main inspiration when there is a windmill to be attacked. Therein lies the problem. Is a knight in rusty armor the only solution to the complexities of the 21st century? But before wrestling this dilemma, perhaps some of you are not familiar with the complexities faced by this ancient prophet.
Around 860 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Ahab. The somewhat bias writer of I Kings described Ahab as more evil than any of his predecessors. But Ahab’s reputation hardly rivaled that of his wife, Jezebel. She was a native of Sidon and instituted the worship of Ball as the official religion of the land. Baal was the god of rain, and fertility.
In response to this edict by Jezebel, Elijah the Tishbite appeared and declared Yahweh the one true God. Elijah warned Yahweh would expose the infertility of Baal by causing a draught throughout the land. In response, Jezebel arranged for all the prophets of Yahweh to be hunted down and slaughtered. Elijah became enemy number one in the Kingdom of Ahab while the people of Israel suffered three years without water. Only when there was no longer enough water for the king’s livestock did Ahab demanded a meeting with Elijah. It was mutually decided Mt. Carmel would be where the confrontation was to be resolved.
One side of the mountain was occupied by 450 priest of Baal. Elijah stood alone. The citizens of Israel watched to see who would emerge victorious. Two alters were prepared, one to Baal and a one to Yahweh. The deity who lit the alter would be declared victorious.
The priest of Baal went first. All morning they offered prayers, sang songs, even mutilated themselves to show their loyalty to Baal. Elijah was not silent. He began to taunt the priest. “Maybe your god is hard of hearing. Maybe he has taken a trip. Maybe he is sleeping and you are not yelling loud enough. Maybe he just doesn’t care.”
Midday passed and Baal’s alter remained unlit. Now it was Elijah’s turn. Elijah took twelve stones, each representing one of the tribes of Israel and built an alter. Then Elijah had the people pour twelve buckets of water over the alter, completely soaking it. Finally Elijah spoke. “O God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, I have done everything you have asked. Let it be known that you are God.”
Lightening fell from heaven consuming the alter with fire. Wood, rock and water were all destroyed by the heat. The people of Israel fell on their faces and cried out, “Yahweh is God. Yahweh is God.” Then Elijah demanded the people seize the prophets of Baal and take them to the Kishon Valley. There they were slaughtered. When the killing ended, it began to rain.
With the exception of the Exodus from Egypt, no other story is more celebrated in the Old Testament. Like the Exodus, this is a demonstration of faith by one man. Like Pharaoh, Ahab and Jezebel represent evil personified. Both stories affirm the omnipotence and sovereignty of Yahweh. No one, not the witnesses, or the tellers of the stories or the future listeners to the stories seem to question the slaughter of the armies of Egypt or the priests of Baal. They picked the wrong guy and paid the price.
We don’t live in 9th century Israel. Nonetheless our days are stained with stories of zealots killing and maiming others in the name of God. Do we equate the exploits of Elijah with those who conduct public executions? How do we handle accusations that, “My God is better than your God,” or “Our faith is better than your faith”?
I believe we live in a time when it is imperative that people of different faiths respect rather than denigrate each other. My faith story and my understanding of God came through the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. I believe there is a holy distinctiveness in folks who believe differently than I. It is not my wish to dilute my beliefs or the faith of another, but this can become sinking sand. So where do we begin?
I did not read the gospel text this morning so you will have to trust me that I am correctly telling the story. You can find it in the seventh chapter of Luke.
Jesus had finished a busy day of teaching. Seeking rest for the night Jesus entered the city of Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. A Centurion in the Roman Army sent some of the elders from the local Synagogue to see if Jesus might come and attend to one of his slaves who was ill. The elders informed Jesus that the soldier treated the people of Capernaum well and even helped them build their synagogue. Jesus got up immediately and went to the home of the centurion. Again friends of the centurion intercepted Jesus and said, “Our master does not believe himself worthy for you to come to his house. He knows that just a word from you will heal his slave.” Jesus was touched by the humbleness of the Roman soldier and remarked, “Not in all of Israel have I seen such faith.” When the friends of the centurion returned to the house, they found the slave had been healed.
The Roman was a gentile. In the eyes of the Jewish people he was unclean. He was also a centurion. He was in charge of the garrison in Capernaum. The man held the power of life or death over this town yet it appears, in all of his actions, he chose life. Jesus immediately recognized this quality in the centurion. A Jew and a Gentile, a man of power and the son of a carpenter, find a holy intersection. Because of this connection, life, not death occurs.
Why was Jesus born into this world? I can fall back on my standard 101 theology and declare Jesus came to save the world from sin. But the answer is far more complicated. From the beginning God decreed that we choose life over death. How is that possible? We are commanded to love God and our neighbor, unconditionally.
Doesn’t this apply to the Prophets of Baal? This is a terribly complicated question into which I have to interject what I have been told concerning the personalities of Ahab and Jezebel. But in the gospels, a gentile was living as God desired and Jesus responded to his request.
Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhist and even the non-religious are quick to condemn folks different from themselves simply because they are different. While I celebrate the bravery of Elijah, does anyone have the right to commit murder? I think we all weary of death in the name of God. Why not celebrate life in the name of God even if the name used to honor God might not be the one we choose?
Imagine being in a convocation of the great religions. One at a time the representative of each group is asked to stand and offer a phrase that he or she could never give up. The person representing Christianity thinks for a moment and then declares, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you neighbor as yourself.” A man representing the Hebrew faith declared, “You have quoted from our books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.” I honor your words.” One by one, representatives from every religion stood and said, “I also believe in those words.” The Christian was initially amazed, but then responded, “I’m sorry, what I meant to say was, ‘Love my God with all your heart, soul and mind.” The room fell silent as each representative returned to their seat.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our religions didn’t spend so much time on what we believed and worked harder on how God would have us treat each other? If your beliefs call for the death of another, are you following the voice of God? If your belief calls for you to love your neighbor, no matter who that neighbor might be, this certainly becomes complicated. But at least together, we are discussing life.
What distinguishes our faith from other religions is this unique character called Jesus through whom we have received the life giving gift of grace. Who are we to limit the parameters of this gift? Jesus certainly didn’t. Amen.