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“How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21)
Elijah is not a terribly likeable guy.
This is often the fate of the prophet. In fact, prophets are usually hated.
This is a story, in one sense, about a king and a queen. Ahab was the leader of the northern kingdom of Israel. Make no mistake. Ahab was a very, very bad king. In fact, scripture tells us, “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30). After making the Phoenician princess Jezebel his queen, Ahab served the storm-god Ba’al, worshiping him and building shrines both to Ba’al and his consort, the goddess Asherah. All this is, clearly, in violation of the first commandment. But worship of Ba’al meant other things, too. Gods are demanding. They want your absolute allegiance. And one of the demands of the storm-god Ba’al was the sacrifice of children: “In [Ahab’s] days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho; he laid its foundation at the cost of… his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son…” (1 Kings 16:34). Ahab looked on and approved as the kingdom expanded and was enriched, at the cost of its most vulnerable. At the same time, by the queen’s authority, the prophets of YHWH[i] were being killed off (1 Kings 18:4). A crisis is coming. A confrontation is inevitable.
The god you follow makes demands upon you. Elijah has been commissioned by YHWH, the God of the Israelites, to make clear YHWH’s demands: all this must end.
This story seems to be about a king (and a queen). In fact, it is about a prophet.
The Hebrew word for “prophet” is “navi,” (and it comes from a phrase that means, “fruit of the lips.” God anoints kings do to what David started out doing: placing God’s Word and commandments at the center of the life of the community. God anoints prophets to speak. They speak to the people (and sometimes, to kings and queens) on God’s behalf, to convey God’s message.[ii]
It’s common to think of prophets as people who can predict the future, maybe receiving it in a special vision or trance, and seen from a certain angle, that is true. But it is really putting the emphasis on the wrong thing. Scientists have been telling us for the last 30 years that human activity is messing with weather patterns and causing global climate change. They’ve done that by telling us all along what they see, right now, as folks who understand things like water temperature and melting ice caps and El Niño. We can think of prophets like that. They see and understand what is before them, right now, and they are commissioned by God to tell the truth about it, even if that truth makes them incredibly unpopular.
The wisdom of the prophet is the fruit of their lips: their words.
And, just in case we are ready to throw up our hands about the ancient Israelite people, who seem pretty eager to follow Ba’al along with the royal family, remember: a particular god promises certain benefits. “Each religion has attractive features,”[iii] I read this week, and the storm-god Ba’al was especially attractive in a region where the presence or absence of water has played a critical role in power politics, up to and including the present day. The ones who control the water are the ones who control the land. And Elijah and YHWH are already responsible for a three-year drought to punish the kingdom for its unfaithfulness (especially humiliating to the followers of Ba’al, one would think). So, when Elijah challenges the people with his acid tongue, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him…” scripture tells us… “The people did not answer him a word” (1 Kings 18:21). They were silent. They were afraid to make the wrong choice.
The gods we follow make demands upon us. In our story, the words and wisdom of the prophet come down on the side of YHWH, the God of Israel and Judah. In fact, Elijah is really pretty obnoxious about it.
You heard the story. Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al to a contest, a challenge: Whose god will send down fire to burn an offering? Pretty simple. (Ironically, in his challenge to the storm-god, Elijah uses what appears to be a ton of water, that incredibly precious commodity. Where does he get that water?) When Ba’al fails to appear, Elijah’s inner pumped up football fan shows up as he proceeds to trash-talk the absent god.
“Cry aloud!” Elijah goads them. “Surely he is a god” (translation: Maybe he’s not).
Maybe “he has wandered away” (translation: Because he certainly can’t be depended upon to stick around when you need him).
Or “he is on a journey” (translation: Maybe he’s actually run away!).
“Or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (translation: Because your god, unlike the God of Israel, is so pathetic he needs naps!
Really excellent trash talk. But none of them come close to the phrase delicately translated “he is meditating.” The more accurate translation is “he is digging a hole.” This is a euphemism (for someone preparing to take care of bodily functions). The purpose of all this is to say one thing: “Your god isn’t even a real god. Your god is a human invention.”
Just because no one is erecting altars to Ba’al (at least, I don’t think they are), doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of false gods and little idols vying for our attention. The problem for us is, they aren’t as easily identifiable as the altar to Ba’al or the Asherah pole. They masquerade as helpful devices (tell me, should I be concerned that last week I had a dream about an iPad?). They convince us they’re about what is best for us (this particular job, that one perfect diet). They call to us to envision a self that is immaculately contoured and clothed, perfectly airbrushed, and, in the end, entirely beyond our reach… without that particular magic product. The thing we need. The thing we turn to when everything and everyone else has let us down. There are gods competing for us, alright. They just have really excellent disguises.
Pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes put it so beautifully in his reflection this week:
The prophets of fertility and satisfaction cry
from the pop up ads and the sports channels,
the campaign trails and the tanning beds,
commanding the gods.
But the fire of the Holy One
is not summoned.[iv]
It has been said that we will know what our gods are by an examination of our calendars and our checkbooks. To whom or what do we give those precious commodities, our time and our money? For what will we sacrifice either of those? Against whom will we defend our choices?
And, just so that there is no misunderstanding, I do not believe that all of us who consider ourselves people of faith should assume that our expenditures will be identical, or our calendars. Your bank statement will not look like my bank statement. There are so many ways to show God’s love in this world. Some are called to share God’s love by the songs they write, others by the casseroles they make. Some are called to lead Bible Studies and others to lead town councils. We may be prompted to build a Habitat House or to endow a homeless shelter or to give the homeless man a blanket. Our ways will not all be identical: God’s particular call on each of our lives is as individual as our fingerprints. But God does call us to give of ourselves. How, how much, where, and when… these are for us to ponder and to pray about, and then, to act.
The wisdom of the prophet is the fruit of his lips: How long will we go, uncertain, indecisive as to who is the worthy of our love and commitment? It is a timeless question, one we could ask ourselves every day.
The prophet is not a terribly likeable guy. But he knows how to get our attention. For all his salty rhetoric, he really is saying just one thing. The gods we serve make demands on us. It’s good for us to know that God is God, and not to confuse God with any of the other things we turn to in search of reassurance that we are all right. God is God, and God is prepared to pour down holy fire—to ignite us, if you will, with that passion for God’s concerns. God is God, and, in the words of that pastor-poet, we either stand back, or we catch.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] YHWH = the four consonants that make up the holy, unpronounceable name of the God of Israel, as revealed to Moses. Any pronunciation is a guess. I pronounce it “Yahweh.” It means something like “I AM.”
[iii] Vanessa Lovelace, “Commentary on 1 Kings 18:20-39,” Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary Resources, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2565.