Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon: Calling Down Fire

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016, Pentecost 2C
1 Kings 18:20-40; Galatians 1:1-7;
            Luke 7:1-10

Calling Down Fire

Elijah is, to put it mildly, one of the more difficult characters in scripture to comprehend. He seems to come out of nowhere; unlike many of the major characters of Hebrew Scripture like Moses or David, we don’t get much of a life story for him. His presence in biblical story is pretty brief; a few chapters at the end of 1 Kings and the very beginning of 2 Kings. He is attributed feats of superhuman strength (presumably by divine favor, although it isn’t always made clear) that would qualify him as a character in a Marvel superhero movie. And when his time comes, instead of dying like a mere mortal, he is caught up for a ride in a flaming chariot.
His reputation lives on after his death, or final chariot ride. He shows up along with Moses in gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, and his name is invoked at Jesus’s crucifixion, when someone from the crowd wonders if Elijah will come to save him. In modern Jewish practice a chair is reserved for Elijah at circumcision services, and at a Seder meal the door is opened and Elijah is invited in, and a cup of wine is set at a place at the table reserved for him. As a Jewish friend of ours pointed out to me, though, Elijah never shows up and the wine never gets consumed – a waste of good wine.
A figure like Elijah can take on legendary status – it can be very hard for us to conceive of Elijah as human, with all the flaws and faults that implies, when he is calling down fire, outrunning a chariot, running from Israel to Sinai, or disappearing in a trail of flame. That would be a mistake, though; even in his great moments Elijah displays flaws from which we would do well to learn, if only to learn to avoid.
The story covered by today’s lectionary reading is probably the most famous part of Elijah’s narrative, except possibly for the fiery-chariot departure from the planet. It’s the kind of scene that big old-fashioned Hollywood biblical epics are made of: a dramatic confrontation; wild, frenzied action (particularly on the part of the Baal prophets, in their desperation to get a response from their nonexistent god); a charismatic and slightly crazy lead in confrontation with the political authority of his day; and a spectacular climax (with superior dramatic buildup) that would be a great opportunity for the special-effects department to do their thing. In fact, it rather amazes me that the story of Elijah hasn’t been made into such a movie somewhere along the way, although it does get a good dramatic treatment in Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio about the prophet, Elijah.
Still, though, if we poke around the ends and the corners of this account, there are a few parts that should give us pause.
First, though, it’s worth setting the scene. Israel (the northern kingdom at this point in biblical history, in contrast to the southern kingdom Judah) has, largely under the influence of Israel’s king Ahab and his foreign-born queen Jezebel, taken up the worship of the idol Baal, a figure in non-Jewish religions to which is attributed power over rain. In response to this, Elijah predicted a drought to fall on Israel, which indeed happened; by the time of today’s reading the drought has been in effect for three years. Elijah has first been in hiding in the wilderness, and later with a family in Zarepath, in the region of Sidon, outside Israel (next week’s scripture reading will cover this part of the story).
Now it was no new thing for the people of God to go astray and give their homage to idols. Nor is it a thing confined only to the darker past of such corners of Hebrew Scripture as this. They many not be carved wood or stone, and we may not trust them to provide rain for our crops, but even today the people of God are far too prone to give their allegiance and their trust in false gods, willingly supplied by the culture and society in which we live.
Those of you who follow college sports saw an example of just such a thing in this week’s headlines about Baylor University, which initiated proceedings to dismiss its president, athletic director, and football coach in the wake of an investigation revealing failure to take seriously numerous allegations of sexual abuse of female students on the campus, by male students including but not limited to football players. Despite its self-described status as a Christian institution of higher learning, Baylor apparently tolerated one of the most vile and unchristian, not to mention criminal, actions one human being can inflict upon another, apparently blinded by the idol of athletic prowess and success according to a very worldly status. Idols take many forms these days, but don’t ever be deceived into thinking they don’t exist anymore just because nobody’s physically bowing down to carved wooden statues.
But back to Elijah. God does give a command to Elijah in the face of the three-year drought, but nothing so elaborate as you might think. In 18:1, God issues this word to Elijah: “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.”
That’s it.
Nothing about a big altar-burning contest. Nothing about any kind of big display, or show of force. Just a command to go to the king. But from this Elijah has extrapolated this elaborate contest. When he does meet Ahab, in verses 17-19, he doesn’t even say anything about rain coming. Ahab tosses off an insult at Elijah, calling him “troubler of Israel,” and Elijah rants back and challenges Ahab to the contest with the prophets of Baal.
One can look at this a few ways. Elijah is simply confident in God to support him. Or Elijah has an ego the size of a planet to think he can challenge the king and have God automatically back him up. Or Elijah has a hair-temper trigger and goes off half-cocked rather easily. Or Elijah has the mindset of a Celebrity Pastor; why simply proclaim the good news when you can put on a monumental show?
To be honest, I think there’s something to be said for the latter view. After all, Elijah doesn’t just challenge Ahab to the contest, but makes a theatrical event out of it at every step. The way Elijah mocked and derided the Baal prophets during “their turn,” you’d think he took taunting lessons from professional athletes. And when it’s finally his turn, he doesn’t just call out to God to consume the fire. Noooooo…first he has to make a great display of drenching the altar thoroughly, using an amount of water that makes very little sense at the height of a three-year drought.
And yet… “…the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”
Elijah would hardly be the first or last such leader to be subject to temper, or excess, or theatrical overload. Our reading from Galatians captures just a small part of the vitriol Paul unleashes upon the believers in that community over their being misled by religious leaders who taught them rather less good news that Paul and his company had taught. His anger at their straying is palpable and only builds until finally, at 3:1, he exclaims, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” But at least he doesn’t have anybody killed.
There it is, in verse 40, which the assigned lectionary would have me leave out; those prophets of Baal are rounded up and executed. Let me put aside all delicacy and say bluntly (as much as it is a shame that this even has to be said, but such is the world in which we live) that this is not good, and it certainly isn’t commanded of God. There are plenty of disturbing passages in the Old Testament, back in books before 1 Kings, in which God really is portrayed as ordering the king or the prophet to slaughter their enemies (usually an opposing army, though), but there is no such mandate from God here; remember, all Elijah was told to do was to present himself to the king, and that rain would soon some. Everything else here is Elijah’s doing.
Some scholars argue that Elijah is taking retribution on Jezebel for killing the prophets of the Lord, as noted in 18:4. But since when is retribution Elijah’s to take? Violence in return for violence only guarantees more violence, as Elijah himself will find out in the next chapter. This weekend, and the Memorial Day that is observed this weekend, should serve as a reminder of that hard fact, if nothing else. In a day when far too many people are far too ready to kill in the name of God, this bit of “inspiration” from Elijah we don’t need.
The story of Jesus and the centurion found in the day’s gospel reading stands in stark contrast to the Elijah story. First of all, rather than the putative people of God straying from faith, the protagonist is a Roman centurion, an officer of an occupying army, who shows greater faith, according to Jesus, than he had seen in Israel. Secondly, it’s worth noting that Jesus did not consider it beneath himself to go to meet this centurion and the slave who was “close to death.” Rather than one to be destroyed, Jesus saw one to be extended the healing, the wholeness, and the love that it was his mission to show to God’s people. And in the centurion’s clumsy if earnest equation of Jesus’s power to that of a higher military authority, Jesus found a seed of faith that he went out of his way to respect.
Today it seems that Christianity bears maybe too much resemblance to the wrong examples in this story. We get led astray by false teachers, like the Galatians, or we vent our anger at other Christians like Paul (who, it should be said, did eventually get himself under control). We take up destructive idols like the people of Israel, or we appoint ourselves executors of God’s wrath like Elijah.
There’s only one worthy of our worship. We may not erect idols of wood or stone and bow down and worship, but don’t let’s kid ourselves; we create and adulate plenty of idols, and I don’t just mean the ones on that TV singing competition. Our adulation of wealth, or influence, or status; our fanatical support of a political party or figure; even excessive allegiance to a sports team or league or game – any of these, or any kind of overzealous allegiance, can become a false god, claiming adoration and emulation and worship that belongs only to God. It’s not for nothing that John Calvin described human nature as a “perpetual factory of idols”. [i] And yet the overzealous avenger is no better a position to take, bringing only destruction and death rather than life and healing.
As much as we may respect and admire and even learn from the likes of Elijah or Paul, Moses or David or the Apostles, we have only one Person in our Bible who is worthy of emulation or imitation, and most certainly only one Person worthy of worship; the one who frees us, both from the idols to which we would enslave ourselves and the claims of retribution by which we would destroy ourselves. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 11:8.
[ii] The Nicene Creed.

Hymns (GtG): "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above" (645); "O My Soul, Bless Your Redeemer" (439), "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee" (738); "Hear the Good News of Salvation" (441)

Elijah, what a showoff...

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