Sermon: 1 Kings 20-39Posted: May 29, 2016
This summer at San Lucas, we’re following a series of scripture readings from 1 and 2 Kings, with more readings from other prophets later. I felt called to use these readings because it’s a chance to learn more about these ancient stories of Elijah, Ahab, Jezebel, and other prophets, that are still so very relevant in our current world of religious pluralism, sacred violence, and political idolatry.
In the mythology of the Ancient Near East, each land had its own god, and there were gods and goddesses for each aspect of life. There were gods of life and death, of earth and sea. It was normal to worship multiple gods, depending on the situation. Therefore, it was strange that the Israelites would worship only one God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a prophet, Elijah tried to eliminate (or at least discourage) the worship of other gods, especially Baal, a Canaanite storm god. In archaeology and art, Baal almost always has a lightening bolt in his hand. He was responsible for the rain. He was often worshiped alongside Asherah, a goddess of fertility.
Today’s story (1 Kings 18:20-39) takes place in the midst of a long drought. Without rain or harvest, life was hard. Just a chapter earlier, in a famous story, Elijah has an encounter with a desperate widow struggling to survive in a challenging time. With all the fear of not having food or water in a time of drought, I can understand the temptation of the Israelites and Ahab, their king, to pray to a god of storms and a goddess of fertility. In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah thus asks a provocative question: “How much longer will you try to have things both ways? If the LORD is God, worship him! But if Baal is God, worship him!”
We have in today’s story a tremendous show—a contest between four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and only one lone prophet of God—Elijah. At Mount Carmel, they had put two piles of wood and two bulls, ready to light a fire and offer a sacrifice. For hours and hours, they waited. The Baalist prophets danced and sang and prayed, but nothing happened. They even cut their own skin as a sign of faith and devotion. Still, no smoke or flames.
Then Elijah prayed, at the altar to God. Elijah prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah prayed that the people may know the true identity of the only God. And suddenly: FIRE. With flames and smoke, the fire came, with power and presence. Upon seeing this tremendous sign, all the people, as witnesses of this incredible marvel, bowed to the ground, saying “The LORD is God.” It was clear that Baal has no power. It was clear that God is the only God that exists. This story reminds us of God’s true presence in the world. This story shows us God’s unending power.
Elijah asks, “How much longer will you try to have things both ways?” This is a good question for us today, as well. As local communities, as a country, as citizens of the world, who will we worship: God or other gods? We may not have statues of Baal or poles of Asherah, but we live in a pantheon of all sorts of gods. It’s so easy to worship something other than God: Wealth. Beauty. Health. Sports. Success. Patriotism. Power. “How much longer will you try to have things both ways?”
At last year’s Synod Assembly, there was a breakfast where leaders from various congregations were gathered to talk about mission. I clearly remember the centerpieces that the convention center staff had lovingly placed at each table: Crosses draped with United States flags and little placards proclaiming “God bless America.” I confess that such mixture of faith and patriotism makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. First, God’s blessing is not just for [the United States of] America. God’s love is for all peoples and nations. We can’t be putting limits on God’s grace and liberty. It’s not just for one country.
When we drape a flag on the cross, we are making Jesus a United States American, when his mercy is for the whole world. Secondly, to collude cross and flag is also problematic because many brave people that died fighting under that flag were not Christians. We live in a world of religious pluralism. Our neighbors are loyal US Americans who are also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and all sorts of other faiths and denominations. They are all loved by God, even though they may not worship God as we do. We may not all practice the same religion, but our Christian faith pushes us to respect others with dignity and integrity.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the time in which the United States remembers those who have died in service to this country. Memorial Day is more than a time to barbecue chicken on the backyard grill or to buy cheap shoes on sale at the mall. It is a solemn time to remember those lives forever changed by the violence of war and the horror of death. We also hope for an end to conflict and suffering. We hope for the time when there are no more casualties. As Americans, we remember those serving for this country, but as Christians we must also remember those of all countries who have suffered in our wars. Violence is violence, whatever the uniform. Blood is blood, whatever the source. Death is horrible, for each and every person.
This weekend, President Barack Obama traveled Japan to visit Hiroshima, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb during World War II. He did not officially apologize, but he did meet some survivors and family members of survivors from this United States attack. He did offer his hope for a world without nuclear weapons. Perhaps it was just an unintentional coincidence, but the date of the attack on Hiroshima back in 1945 fell on Transfiguration Sunday, the day in which the Church remembers the vision of Moses and Elijah together with Jesus on a mountain—another Elijah/mountain story. In Hiroshima, it wasn’t a transfiguration of glory like in the Gospels. Rather, it was a transfiguration of death and destruction, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and transforming the world forever.
Many times that I’ve preached on the Transfiguration, I’ve described Jesus as a new Moses and a new Elijah, living out the traditions of both the Law and the Prophets. After re-reading the whole story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, I’m not sure I want to think of Jesus as a new Elijah. Elijah is a bully, arrogantly taunting the prophets with sarcastic verbal jabs and mocking put-downs. “Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up (18:27).”
Elijah is also a murderer. Our lectionary bulletin insert stops at verse 39 with everyone happy and worshiping God. However, in verse 40, Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah is another example of why we as humans need a savior. He’s one person in a long chain of religious people carrying out horrible violence against people of other faiths. It’s completely against the faith that Jesus teaches. In the Crusades, Christians killed Muslims for centuries. In both the Americas, Europeans murdered generations of indigenous tribes. During World War II, German Christians (including Lutherans) were too often silent and complicit during Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. Closer to home, at Crystal City, in the next county over, the United States locked up Japanese and German Americans in an internment camp. Sacred violence is not that sacred. I don’t want to worship Jesus as a returned murderer nor even as a bully, as a new Elijah.
The good news for us is that Jesus is neither Moses nor Elijah. Jesus is not a murderer nor a bully. Jesus is God-With-Us. Jesus enters our world, in life, in death, in the midst of violence, even in suffering. That is the power of the cross. Jesus’ love and mercy is for all people in all places. We remember those who have died. We remember our whole world’s need for a savior. We lament violence and we hope for peace. As we remember Elijah on that mountain, we remember that there is one God. There are many things that pull us away from God, but in the person of Jesus, we encounter the God that comes to us, transforming our lives in the way of peace. Amen.
[Adapted and translated from a sermon originally preached in Spanish at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas on May 29, 2016].