We meet again with Elijah, one of the great prophets of the First Testament. In our story today he is a figure larger than life: fearlessly confronting the king, praying fire down from heaven, predicting rain, caught up in wind, earthquake and fire, and finally meeting the Lord on the mountain. It is mythical stuff, and conveying truths that are much deeper than just the historical confrontation of a prophet with the perverted culture of Baal worship at the court of an evil king and queen.
But before we turn to the story a little bit of background on these Baal worshippers and the bad press they get in scripture:
Baal was a fertility god, and one of the central features of his cult was the worshipping of fertility, productivity, youth, strength, wealth, success and sexual prowess. In the information we have Baal appears to have been a harsh and demanding god who desired huge sacrifices from his adherents to secure whatever they wanted from him. Financial sacrifices, but also self mutilation, self chastisement, and even the sacrifice of young children to secure a good harvest and a prosperous future. Sexuality played an important role in the rituals and service of Baal as sexual prowess, fertility and potency were celebrated and revered. That in itself would not necessarily have been so bad thing if it hadnt involved the offering up of young girls, young men and anything else that would take the fancy of the priests to be used and abused in the name of the god.
Religiously motivated prostitution was practiced in their temples, which was an abomination in the eyes of the prophets because of the promiscuity it involved. To them human sexuality was not considered a gift to be celebrated in the context of human love, intimacy and a caring relationship, it was something completely different. More importantly there was little clemency or support in the Baal religion for anyone that didnt make it up the social ladder, the poor, the widows, the orphans, or the strangers who didnt have any income. Again something that was severely criticized by the prophets of Israel.
This is the religion Ahab has joined, the religion those 850 priests who are challenged by Elijah belong to.
The values that were high on the agenda of Israels God werent for those who worshipped either Baal or Asherah:
They would probably have considered such values a sign of weakness, of inferiority, of a loser mentality.
Last week we heard what that leads to: the world becomes a wilderness where widows and orphans die of hunger and prophets are persecuted for speaking up and being critical of the government.
Today the Ellijahs journey continues as he is summoned to go and confront the King again. The drought is going to break, and Elijah is the one who is to bring the news to the King.
The situation is bad, but the way the story tells it, there is a sting to it that once again shows how far Ahabs reign has taken Israel off the right track. After three years the king has trouble finding grass and water for his horses and cattle. That is three years however after the poor widow of Zaraphat found herself and her son facing starvation! That is Baal worship in action. That is what happens in a society where social justice and the support of the weak isnt on the agenda. The King himself seems to be hardly suffering, even after three years his main concern is finding food for his animals, while the poor have already starved to death.
Ah, there is the troublemaker, Ahab exclaims when he sees Elijah arriving. And by the sound of it he isnt even aware that it is not Elijah who has caused this inconvenient drought, but that it is him and his behaviour that are at the root of it. No repentance or regrets to be expected from that quarter! Isnt it time somebody showed him who is God?
Well it seems Elijah thinks so
he organizes a contest.
Id like to point immediately that it is not the Lord who initiates this. Where the Lord has been talking to Elijah all the time up till now, there seems to be some awkward silences on Gods behalf when it comes to this part of the story.
Again this is mythic stuff. Other cultures and other religions tell tales like this, stories that seek to convince the audience that one god is better and more powerful than another.
Is it historical fact or mythical fiction? I dont know.
But it is a great story. I used to love it when I was in Sunday school. Those 850 priests dancing and singing around their altar, going to great lengths to get their false gods to move, even flogging themselves and inflicting wounds on themselves in a fruitless attempt to squeeze blood out of a stone with Elijah jeering them along: "come on, keep going, shout a bit louder maybe your god is asleep, dance a bit better Baal may be out for the day ". With the people of Israel breathlessly watching.
And then, at the end of the day, the magnificent finale with Elijah offering one simple prayer and . Hoopla, fire coming down from heaven consuming not only the sacrifice, but also the altar and all the water that had been poured over it.
A cheer goes up. Fantastic! Isnt that a God to believe in? Doesnt that prove our God is better than theirs? That He has the power? More power?
The people cheer, fall on their face and change loyalties immediately: they know on which side their bread is buttered and it seems this Elijah persons God can do more for them than the gods of the priests they have been following previously.
We are pragmatic and opportunistic beings and whatever god seems to offer the most will get our worship. Paradoxically, this change of mind only shows how deeply committed they really are to Baal: Anything that proves to be strong and powerful and seems able to control the forces of nature to their advantage is worth worshipping. Nothing has changed.
It is not through showing off with heavenly fire that people are brought to God. It is not through the spectacular victory over his rivals that God wins the hearts and minds of his people for justice and a life following his commandments. Perhaps that was something Elijah had to learn and something for us to consider: How do we relate to this part of the story? Are we, deep down as opportunistic, pragmatic and self-centered as those gathered on Mount Carmel? Putting our loyalties there where we feel we are going to get the most gain for ourselves?
Or are there other things that motivate our religious and spiritual allegiances?
After the victory, in verse 40, Elijah kills the priest of Baal, all 850 of them. A verse that is mostly omitted when this passage is read in Church or recounted as part of the story. Many would regard it as too gruesome and even embarrassing, as something that could be misunderstood too easily. Bishop Spong and other progressive Bible scholars reckon this a remnant of an older, much more savage religion that should be discarded and is not in line with the teachings of the New Testament.
I dont agree with them.
I think it is important not to change God into the tame, lovely nice guy that some would have him be. There is an awesome, violent side to God too, a side that comes to the surface when God is severely taunted and tried and meets with grave injustice and profound sinfulness. There is something that is called the wrath of God that comes out when all else fails where human sinfulness is concerned. Fire comes down from heaven when all the prophets of the Lord have been killed and only one is left. Violence and destruction finally find those who have led the people astray and practiced, consciously and wholeheartedly the worship of those things that are abomination in the eyes of the Lord. As Jesus said: But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. There is an end to what God will suffer, or rather what he will suffer from those who are responsible for the suffering of his children. Child sacrifice, sexual abuse, greed, the neglect of the weak and vulnerable, there is a limit to how far it can go. It is the priests who have made it possible and who legitimized it. And the story tells us their punishment is terrible.
Having said that we should note that the text does not call us to do the same to whomever we feel has gone too far. Gods silence in this part of the story is also putting question marks around the whole massacre. What Elijah does is not on Gods command! These are dangerous texts, but I think they should be read. Gods love and forgiveness is boundless for those who repent and turn to him, and try in earnest to live a life that has love and righteousness at the heart of it, but there is an end to what those who dont can do and are allowed to get away with!
And Elijah? Once again he finds himself on the road, back in the wilderness, looking for a place of nurture. All his efforts have come to nothing. Things are worse than when he started. He is the only prophet left, in spite of all his hard work and his victory in the contest the king hasnt converted and is even more intent on killing him then before.
It leaves Elijah exhausted and depressed. He doesnt want to go on any longer. Only with the help of supernatural power does Elijah find his way to the place where he will meet with God and find peace.
Ever felt like that? Hopefully not. It is a rotten feeling.
God however wont let him fall by the way side and virtually drags him to the mountain. And there again he is put through an ordeal.
Wind, earthquake and fire. In Kings Canyon, where I was on holiday earlier this year, I saw the result of something like what is described in the story. An avalanche 2 years ago had changed the face of a lovely valley forever. Rocks, fallen trees and debris everywhere, proof of violence and upheaval on an awesome scale. Nothing one would want to be near to when it happened. Nevertheless that is exactly what is Elijah is reported to be doing. Hiding in a cave, waiting for God, all hell breaks loose around him. As if he hadnt met with enough hell before!
Reading and meditating on this I realized that Elijah does only come to that place of profound silence where the still small voice speaks to him after he has gone through deep and greatly unsettling turmoil.
I also realized, reading the story in the context of the whole of the Elijah narrative, that it is not the first nor the only place where God is present. This story has sometimes been used to support the premise that to meet God, to be close to him and in his presence, the only way is to go and find that place of profound silence and peace somewhere.
In the Elijah story however God is everywhere, like the circles on the painting show there is water and nurture to be found in the desert. Everywhere. God is with Elijah when he confronts the King, God is with Elijah when he finds himself in the wilderness, God is with Elijah where he and the widow of Zarapath establish a small oasis, God listens (contrary to Baal) where Elijah prays for a sign, God is with Elijah when he finds himself once again in the wilderness severely depressed and ready to die. And where all hell brakes loose once again God is not far behind.
It is only in that moment of stillness however, where everything else stops where Elijah wraps his mantle around his face, and becomes most intimate with that mysterious force that has pushed and pulled him around. It is there where he feels the presence of the Lord in its most penetrating immediate way. It is there where divine beauty and power reveal themselves in all their glory and a new beginning is ushered in.
And immediately that voice comes: What are you still doing here Elijah? Come on, get up! We need another king, another prophet, there is work to be done! Move!
The experience of the presence of God is not a place where we can stay, but it is a place to be encountered again and again on the journey. Amen.