Read I Kings 18:20-39
Recalculating–from fear to love
On Tuesday I decided to go to the Lectionary Meeting at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. It’s a good resource for Bible scholarship and insight. Since I now live in Ashland, I had to find the best way to get to Huntington. It makes me nervous to drive anywhere new, so I dutifully set my GPS with the church address on Norway Avenue. I’d also gotten a mapquest print out. It said the best way for me to get to Huntington was to cross the Ohio River and go down Rte 52, so that’s the way I was heading, but the GPS voice told me to go in the opposite direction.
I rolled my eyes.
The GPS began to repeat itself: Recalculating. Recalculating…
Do a U-turn. Turn right. Turn left. Turn around. Recalculating.
I swear I heard this voice getting more and more frantic, but I paid no attention. I dutifully followed the Mapquest directions. After all, they were written down. Besides I knew I could get into downtown Huntington across the bridge from Rte 52.
But that GPS kept on hammering at me. Recalculating. Turn, turn, turn.
Then just where there is a sign to Tri-State Bible College, the GPS recalculated yet again and got it right. I don’t believe the Bible College had much to do with the change in directions–but there again, maybe it did. Maybe to study the Bible is a way to internalize sacred TRUTH that denies conventional wisdom.
Sometimes we think we know what God wants, but we don’t.
Sometimes we think we understand who God is, but we can’t ever fully appreciate the awesome power of God in our lives.
Can you imagine how Elijah feels when he’s confronted with all these people worshipping the false Gods of Baal?
Baal worship in the time of Elijah did not accord with the commandments of Jehovah in quite a few ways: the god they wanted to worship represented fertility worship which might not have been such a bad thing except these folks sacrificed not only young men but also children. They were so afraid. They were so afraid they thought such sacrifices could appease the gods and maybe get them what they wanted–good harvest, health, life–not so different than what we want?
Clearly though, the Baal prophets were not teaching healthy behaviors. In fact those 450 prophets might as well have been called 450 for-profit. P R O F I T . Ba’al owned the people and all they produced. The prophets used fear to subjugate and extort money to empower themselves.
So here is Elijah up on Mount Carmel, long considered a Holy Place. The name Carmel means God’s vineyard. It is a coastal mountain range in northern Israel. It stretches from the Mediterranean Sea towards the southeast. For those ancients, it must have been a very special place, a geography of awe like the Grand Canyon is for us.
Elijah sees what is happening to the people and doesn’t like what he sees. He decides to face-down those 450 prophets. He suggests a contest where each side gets to select a bull and then sacrifice it to their God with the understanding the real God will consume the bull-offering with fire.
The people have very little to say.
Elijah allows the Baal prophets to choose their bull and go first.
Their worship rite sounds very primitive, stomping about for hours, wailing, cutting themselves with swords until their blood flowed. They sound dangerous. They sound as if they could be mafia thugs. But no matter what they do, their bull does not burst into flames.
Those peasants must have been trembling in their sandals. The Baal powers-that-be who controlled their destiny could surely hurt them. One slash of the sword and off with your hand…
Now it is Elijah’s turn.
First he re-established the altar to the Lord God, which had been torn down by the Baal worshipers. Then he, Elijah, took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.”
By doing this, he is uniting the peoples to center them on a God of justice. He is including these powerless peasants. It sounds like what religions ought to do. Center us in the holy so we are able to speak truth to power.
Does might make right? The 450 prophets think so. But real power does not reside in frantic, wild demonstrations intended to induce a frenzy and cause the people to be afraid.
So Elijah prepares the bull and solicits the help of the people. They’re told to fetch four large jars of water. Then three times they pour the water over the bull and over the wood, until water fills the surrounding trench.
If you are a camper and have ever tried to start a fire using wet wood, you know it will be hard if not impossible to get any flames going.
Can’t you hear the 450 prophets sniggering.
When Elijah has the people repetitively participate by pouring the water, he is changing their understanding. Repetition is a technique educators and teachers use today to help students remember. It develops memory; it grows minds. Now the peasants are participants not helpless servants. The miracle they are about to witness is one they helped create.
Still these simple peasant farmers, these ordinary people, must have been mystified.
Elijah is seeking God not for self-gain, but in order to help the people become united in freedom from the tyranny of fear. He is calling upon a higher power to help restore the people to sacred ways of justice and courage.
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
The peasants are awed, yet they are able to speak. “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
They turn back to God empowered by the One whose wisdom can be trusted, and who strengthens them to resist the evil practices of human sacrifice and wild carnal desires. Furthermore, with the Lord God as the One they worship, they need not be victims of strong-arm thugs who are after their money. Nor do they need to live in a culture of fear that requires sacrifice in the hopes of a good harvest to keep them alive another year.
We need a resource deeper and greater than what we alone can create. These primitives needed to put their trust in a Holy god who never exploited them. For us, we need the power of Christ’s message to change our minds and hearts, not only to point us in a new direction, but also to deepen our trust so that we are no longer afraid.
It is not a mistake that Paul got a major recalculation from Jesus that he could not ignore, one that caused him to completely reorder his life purpose. Jesus hit him with a spiritual lightning bolt that temporarily blinded him, because he was blind to the reality of true Divinity. He discovered the real God was a God of inclusion, empowerment and fearlessness.
Are we living in a culture of fear like those people up on Mount Carmel, do you think? Primitive God-understanding begins with fear of an outer force that can crush us and we must appease, and are powerless to change, but in Christ our God understanding is growing. Now we are moving into a reality of a love that yokes us to the Holy and emanates through us in lives of courage, justice, compassion and fearlessness not only for ourselves but also for others.
What wields power over your lives and instills such fear you are blinded to the truth of the loving, inclusive, empowering God we understand through Jesus? What are thugs that rob you of daily peace? I can’t help but think that the frenzy of the news media repeating, repeating messages of fear over and over and over is not unlike what those primitive Hebrews experienced. It’s not that journalists are evil. They are trapped in fear too and they are also trapped in economic necessity. And power. The next sensational story gets attention. Unwittingly or otherwise, they promote a false sense of fear.
Certainly we cannot control storms, as Elijah apparently did, and it is good to be informed if a tornado or hurricane is heading our way so that we can take safety measures.
Certainly it is good to know about diseases we can prevent but do we need to be pounded with the amazing and expensive drugs we ought to be taking to make us feel better?
Do you fear losing your jobs?
Do you fear stock-market crashes?
Do you fear the next terrible terrorist event?
God gives life, courage, and endurance.
This is not to say jobs are not lost, stock-markets do not crash, and trees cannot fall upon our houses. Rather, if we center ourselves within the God of life, the God who sends lightning not to strike us down but to burn up our false fears, then we will walk more bravely through all of our difficulties. We will become aware that God-is-with-us, God-is-for-us, God-acts-through-us, and yes, God is love.
Seek the Lord
Find a Community of Holiness.