Text: I Kings 18:20-21, 30-39
Throughout history American literature has chronicled the epic contests between good and evil, right and wrong, the strong and the weak. Homer and Hesiod. Moby-Dick and Ahab. Aslan and the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Frodo Baggins and the Dark Lord Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Or that epic contest between Mufasa and Scar in the popular children’s story The Lion King. Just to name a few.
But rivalries and epic contests are not reserved for only the stories of great American literature and film. Think also—the Cowboys and the Redskins, the Yankees and the Mets, or the Yankees and the Dodgers or anybody who plays the Yankees, the Lakers and the Celtics, or closer to home, the Tarheels and the Wolfpack (or for some the Tarheels and the Blue Devils). Or even closer to home the women’s blue team verses the red team at the local YMCA.
I love a good contest, especially on the basketball court. Those who know me well, and not so well, know that competitiveness and healthy competition is deeply ingrained in my DNA structure. Several years ago I started playing a pick-up basketball game at the Y with some other Pullen women as well as a few non-Pullen women on Monday mornings. The idea, the simple and decent idea, was to have some fun while getting some much-needed exercise. The first couple of games were fairly uneventful, collegial, even friendly, ending with exchanges like “good game,” “that was a great shot you made,” and “wow, am I out of shape.” But by about the third Monday things started to shift. What had been uneventful, collegial and friendly games turned aggressive, emotional, and super competitive. Those of us who had played competitive sports in high school and college couldn’t contain our desire to win. By week three tempers flared, elbows were thrown, arguments erupted and the score keeping was contested. There were some rough weeks followed by much needed conversations of reconciliation until we found our way back to fun. We would later learn that many of the Y staff would stop what they were doing each Monday morning to catch a glimpse of our games. It seems that as competitive as we were, we were also quite entertaining. What I learned from those Monday morning basketball games is that when life is seen as a contest, things can sour quickly.
Contests between good and evil, right and wrong, the strong and the weak, however, are not just recounted on the pages of great novels or the big screen, or on basketball courts, baseball fields or in football arenas. Such contests also tell our human story. World War II, the Spanish Conquest, the American Revolution, the Vietnam War, Waterloo and the epic battle between the Confederacy and Union soldiers in the American Civil War. These brutal, violent contests have shaped our world—its powers and principles. And today, we are watching one of these ostentatious contests play out in our American politics.
Still, the stories of epic contests are not exclusive to literature, filmmakers, sports arenas and battlefields. They are also contained in the stories of our sacred scriptures—rivalries between good and evil, right and wrong, the strong and the weak. The tree of life and the serpent. Jacob and Esau. David the small shepherd boy and Goliath the giant Philistine warrior. And, as we see in our text this morning, the contest between the gods.
I Kings 18:20-40 contains one of the most memorable Elijah narratives. The great prophet of Yhwh summons the prophets of Baal and Asherah (well known deities in Syria-Palestine) at Mount Carmel for a contest of the gods. At stake is Israel’s allegiance to Yhwh. Elijah begins the contest with an accusatory question addressed to the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God; but if Baal, then follow Baal.” The people’s unwillingness to choose is exemplified by their lack of response in verse 21 which reads: “The people did not answer him a word.” For the prophet Elijah, indecision is not religiously neutral ground. A point underscored by Elijah’s reference to “limping.”
While the people are not up for choosing between Baal and Yhwh, they are most certainly up for a battle of the gods. (Not much has changed in 2000 years!) Elijah proposes a contest by fire. He calls for two bulls, cut in pieces, laid on wood. The prophets would then “call on the name of” their respective gods. And the God who “answers by fire” will be declared the one true God.
The prophets of Baal do all they can to gain their god’s attention, even to the point of inflicting harm on themselves. The story tells us that they called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, they cried aloud, and they raved on until the time of the offering of oblation. But nothing happens. Elijah loses no time in taunting his opponents: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (Commentary by Michael Chan) The prophets of Baal are left humiliated.
Because we are receiving and reading this story from a particular tradition with selective editing it should not surprise us what happens next. Elijah repairs the altar to Yhwh. He takes 12 stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob. Then he makes a trench around the altar. Stacks the altar with wood and the sacrifice. He then fills four jars with water and pours it on the burnt offering and on the wood. And he does this not once but three times so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench with water. And then he begins to pray. And guess what happened next? When Elijah prayed to Yhwh “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.” And verse 39 ends with “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Now this sermon is not about prayer but let me pause here for just a moment and say something about prayer; because as much as this story calls into question what God we choose to worship, it also suggests that if we but worship Yhwh, the God of Israel, this God will answer our prayers. There have been times in my life when I have wrestled with and struggled with hard and painful life issues. I have called out, prayed day and night, shouted out to God with fists raised, cried quietly and loudly, and begged on my knees to God for guidance, relief, help, understanding, presence and comfort. And in some of those moments I have felt, and it has seemed, as though God was either meditating, or had wandered away, or was on a journey far away from me, or perhaps was asleep, or at worst didn’t give a damn about my pain and struggle.
Prayer is not magic. Prayer does not change outcomes to make our lives easy or without suffering. Prayer does not grant us our wishes—it is not wishful thinking. Prayer rather is paying attention—paying attention to what hurts and what soothes, paying attention to where the presence of light and love and hope ever so dimly breaks through our darkness and despair and loss. Prayer is a relationship that is built and nurtured over a lifetime, not in a moment of crisis. Prayer is not “this or that”—there are no formulas or right words or postures. Prayer is our most inner and outer longing, desires, hopes and hurts reaching out to that something that is within us and beyond us for understanding and comfort and peace. And sometimes we find that something in prayer and other times it is absent—far away. But it is in prayer we keep reaching out in trust that we are not alone—and believing that even when we can’t feel it, see it, taste it, experience it or know it, there is a presence with us—sustaining us through our most difficult times.
But I’ve strayed. So let me get back to this contest of the gods. For me this story—this contest of the gods—is an example of how I choose NOT to see or understand God. As is often the case with the stories of the God of the Old Testament, the lectionary tends to tame and sanitize them. While the lectionary ends the reading with verse 39 the story of Elijah and the prophets at Mount Carmel really ends with verse 40 which reads: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and killed them there.” If we include, as we should, verse 40 this story combines two problems for any religion—the claim of ownership of the one true God (my God is better than your God) and sacred violence in the name of God (I’ll harm you if you disagree with me.) Judaism and Christianity are not the only religions that contain stories of God ownership and sacred violence—most all religions do—but we have no better example of these two problems within religion than in this story of Elijah at Mount Carmel. And this is why, at least for me, this story is an example of a God that is not for me. Any understanding of God that limits God to a single name or being owned by a particular religious sect; or that sanctifies killing in the name of God is not a God that I care to either worship or follow. This story reaffirms that for me.
But this story is also a good reminder that we do choose whom we will worship and follow. Do we choose the gods and idols of greed and gluttony, of power and popularity? Do we choose the gods that are made in my own image—that authenticate my point of view, my sole experience, my limited truth? Or, do we choose to worship and follow a God who exists beyond our wildest imaginations, who is not contained in one set of beliefs or ideas, who is unnameable. The God who the prophets like Amos and Micah and Hosea and Jeremiah worshiped and followed through a proclamation of justice-love. The God of the Psalmists who declared that the heavens tell of God’s glory, who sang of God’s steadfast love, and who cried out with honesty when God felt far away or better yet, totally absent. The God who our brother Jesus worshiped and followed when he ate with sinners, healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and cried out to when the political powers killed him.
The God I choose to worship and follow and draw close to is not a god who works magic around the campfire, or demands the demise of my enemies, or blesses some and curses others. And so this story of Elijah at Mount Carmel reminds me that the scriptures of my faith are selectively edited, flawed and perfectly human. And that the best I can do, and the best that we can do, is go on limping—not with indecision—but with an open heart knowing that wherever and whenever we practice love and shine light and work for justice, that is God. Worshiping and following God is not a contest, it is a delight, a passion, a privilege—it is, indeed, a choice. And the moral of the story at Mount Carmel is: choose wisely.