May 29, 2016

1 Kings 18:20-40

When I was a child I loved this story of the prophet Elijah.  I loved that he dared the priests of a foreign God to a test, despite the danger he was in from the rulers of his nation.  I loved the image of the fire coming down from heaven to eat up everything in sight – even the rocks themselves!  I had one of those Arch Bible story books that were so popular in the 70s and I can still see the orange and red of the page that depicted the flames consuming everything and the priests of Baal fleeing in terror!  A child’s mind appreciates the vividness of the story, and the way the “good guys” so thoroughly defeat the “bad guys”.  Like the stories of the Judges that we looked at with the children in Messy Church yesterday, these are like superhero stories or old westerns, where there are white hats and black hats, and the white hats win.  If that’s too old-fashioned for you, think jump-suited Star Wars rebels versus faceless, heavily armed Stormtroopers.  You don’t generally worry too much about the Stormtroopers when the Death Star gets blown up; you just celebrate with the Rebels who have been saved from destruction.

Elijah is one of the first of the great prophets of Israel.  Unlike many, he doesn’t have his own book.  His story is part of the story told in the books of Kings and Chronicles – tales of the rulers of Israel and Judah in the days of the monarchy, and how they and the people wandered between faith in Yahweh –  the God of their ancestors –  and flirting with the gods of their Canaanite neighbours.  There’s archaeological evidence that the Israelites were not quite as monotheistic as we would like to believe; the worship of fertility gods was widespread through most of this period.

The Hebrews, when they came into the land they called the Promised Land, did what many conquerors do: they took the holy places dedicated to previous deities and rededicated them to their deity; they married the locals and adopted some of their ways (despite the supposed extermination of the locals depicted in Judges); the cultures mixed and, from a certain point of view, the purity of their religion was diluted.  This is the concern of many of the prophets.

What really bothered the prophets and drove them to speak in the name of God were the abuses that came with some of those cultural and religious practices: child sacrifice, temple prostitution and sex rites, the exploitation of the vulnerable by the mighty because they believed that was what their deities ordained, divination and soothsaying, and so on.  The God of compassion, the God of justice, is firmly opposed to such practices, declared the prophets – and it was their job to call both the high and the lowly to account.

The prophet Elijah’s nemesis is an Israelite king named Ahab, and his Canaanite wife, Jezebel.  Even people who’ve never heard a Bible story know that name, as it’s become a synonym for the dangerous temptress leading the poor deluded man astray.  Jezebel was the daughter of the King of Tyre, and her marriage to Ahab was a political one.  Sidon and Israel shared a border at Mount Carmel.  Jezebel used her marriage to exert political and religious influence over Israel.  In an age when the basic understanding of life was that royalty was directly linked to the divine – could even in some cases stand in for the divine or be worshipped as divine – politics and religion were deeply intertwined.

So Elijahs’ words and actions on behalf of Yahweh were a direct challenge to the monarchy and to Jezebel in particular, and she became Elijah’s bitter enemy.  That’s all the backdrop of today’s story.  We have a challenge between a storm god and Yahweh – and the storm God can’t light a fire, while Yahweh lights a fire that burns so hot that meat, wood, water and even rock are consumed.  It’s a vivid demonstration of what happens when one worships a false god.

But what does one do with such a story in a scientific age?  One cannot test the validity of one’s faith on whether a deity performs miracles or not.  One cannot engage in interfaith dialogue with a “my God is better than your God” approach.  That’s a bit too much like a couple of kids in a school yard having an argument about whose Mom is the smartest or whose Dad is the toughest.  And to suggest that one side is on the side of light and others on “the dark side” (as they say in the Star Wars universe) – that’s a good way to provoke religious conflict.    Besides which, this is a violent story – one of far too many in the Bible when it comes to how the Hebrews interact with their neighbours and vice versa.  One doesn’t want to set up a story like this as some kind of moral model.  So what do we do with it?

I do think that there is something useful to be found in this story, miraculous trappings and violent actions aside.  It is useful for Christian teaching because it reminds us that not all religious practices are good or holy or healthy.  We live in a relativistic age, where people tend to treat all religious activity as equally healthy or equally wrong-headed.  But as one writer points out “some religious views and practices are clearly false, harmful, and even despicable. Aztec human sacrifice and Buddhist almsgiving don’t deserve equal respect. Nor do Hindu widow-burning, female infanticide, phallic worship, and the mass suicide of 913 people at Jim Jones’ “People’s Temple” in Guyana” deserve the same respect as the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca or Christian communion practices.  (Daniel Clendenin, “If The Lord is God, Follow Him”:
Elijah and the Prophets of Baal
, on Journeys with Jesus: Notes to Myself webpage, posted May 27, 2013)

It is also true that not all practices labelled “Christian” are good.  Teaching people to hate others in the name of Christ – not good.  Teaching people to judge and condemn others in the name of Christ – not good.  Going to war in the name of Christ – equally suspect.  Forcibly converting people to Christianity – shameful!  We have years of Christian history in which so-called Christian practices have done great and lasting harm.  We cannot afford to be unquestioning or accepting of anything simply because it is labelled Christian.  Take a stroll through a Christian bookstore sometime – you will see what I mean.  There is good and helpful material there – and there is stuff I wouldn’t want in my home or in our church.

This story we hear from Elijah begins to develop a theme that we will hear repeatedly from the prophets over the next few months of Bible readings.  Elijah and others remind us that there are many paths that will lead us in false directions, cause us to take wrong turnings, teach us to place our hope in things and people and systems that will fail us or that will hurt others.  We are unlikely to become Baal worshippers or practice human sacrifice; nor are we likely to get into contests with those of other faiths to prove that they are wrong and we are right.  The great Canadian scholar of religion  Wilfred Cantwell Smith reminds us of our tendency when looking at other faiths to compare the worst of theirs with the best of ours.  It’s important that we take a good, honest look at our faith – both the history of Christian tradition, our own practices, and the practices of Christians around the world – and be aware of whether they have been and are healthy, life-affirming and contribute to the store of goodness in the world.   When we look at other faiths, we must do so with humility and with honesty.  Only when we have recognized and affirmed what is good – when we have built up relationship and recognized our common ground – can we critique both our own and theirs.

There are also other, more subtle issues to which we are called to pay attention: issues like the complex issue of physician-assisted suicide I looked at last week; issues like embryonic stem cell research, or cloning or 3D printing of human organs, or the gap between rich and poor, or the economy and the environment.  A quotation I came across a few years ago is from Dr George Caird, a British churchman, theologian, humanitarian, and biblical scholar. ‘The most difficult choices in life are not primarily between good and evil, but the most difficult choices in life are between what is good and what is best.'”   I find that in the Christian walk – and probably for all people of faith and of good will – these are the toughest choices of all.  It is not hard to turn aside from the worship of gods that demand human sacrifice or obscene acts; it’s a lot harder to turn aside from other things that command our attention – things that in and of themselves may be harmless or even very good things.  Our journey with the prophets over the next few weeks and months will take us into those places, and challenge us along the way.  So…to be continued.  Amen.

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