Trusting God in a Multicultural World
1 Kings 18:20-40
Trusting God in a Multicultural World
May 29, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
Elijah was not only a wild, hairy, scary, miracle-working man, he was a prophet. And in the Bible prophets are not people who foretell the future; they are people who tell the truth. They call kings to account for their actions and remind the people of God’s covenant. Elijah appears mysteriously in 1 Kings 17, in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 800s BC, and is called Elijah the Tishbite. Some scholars think that means he was from a town called Tishbe in Gilead, others think it’s a word meaning "stranger" (and he was strange!), and no one really knows.
Elijah is an important figure for Jews in part because 2 Kings reports that he never died, exactly, and centuries later Malachi prophesied that God would send Elijah again before the day of judgment. Jews invoke Elijah’s name every week at the end of Shabbat and every year reserve a place at the Passover table for him. He is for them a symbol of hope and deliverance.
Christians have a connection to Elijah too. The gospels portray John the Baptist--another wild, hairy, scary man—as Elijah come to prepare the way for Jesus, calling King Herod to account and telling people to repent.
Today’s story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal is exciting, but troubling—troubling in some obvious ways, but if we dig a little deeper, perhaps also troubling in some very personal ways.
Let’s face it—this story includes two of the biggest problems in our world today:
- First, there’s Elijah’s religious intolerance ("My God’s better than your god"). We know how much trouble that attitude can cause.
- And then there’s sacred violence ("I’ll kill you if you disagree me").1 Elijah doesn’t just banish the prophets of Baal, he doesn’t even just kill them, he "slaughters" them.
I’m wanting to suggest to you that if there’s something to learn from Elijah, it’s not those two things.
So if not intolerance of other religions and if not violence in the name of God, what do we take from Elijah? In a book about violence in the Bible, Philip Jenkins suggests that since these stories were written down hundreds of years after the time of Elijah, they are really more legend than history. They’re not meant so much to describe what happened as to communicate a message. "What’s the core message?" Jenkins wonders. Here’s his suggestion: "The imagined war against outside people and customs symbolized a rejection of anything that distracts or separates…people…from God."2
So what distracts us from God today? What threatens to separate us from the God who loves us? Well, we don’t often face a choice between God and Baal, but we do sometimes have to choose between God and work. And every weekend people choose between God and sports. The last poll I saw had God in about fourth place—behind football, basketball and soccer and just ahead of baseball and hockey. Again, our real decision is not between God and Buddha, but we do have to decide if our ultimate trust is in God or guns. Few of us waver between God and Allah, but how many of us are torn between God and the almighty dollar?
"How long," Elijah asked, "will you go limping with two different opinions," that is, between loyalty to God and loyalty to, well, anything else? And all of a sudden, this story is troubling in a very soul-searching way.
Now we all know that our choices in the real world usually aren’t as stark as Elijah makes them out to be. You can’t simply choose between God and money, because we all need money. But there’s a line somewhere, isn’t there, between having money and money having you, between enjoying possessions and being obsessed with possessions. And we don’t have to choose either God or sports. But there’s a line between being worshipers of God who like sports, and being worshipers of sports who are fond of God. And of course there are people who need a gun—solders, police officers, armored car drivers. But our country’s love affair with guns has become, don’t you think, obsessive, perhaps even idolatrous.
How long, Elijah asked, will you go limping along with divided loyalties? Yes, we live in a world of gray areas, of overlapping loyalties. But Elijah forces the issue in uncomfortable ways. To fail to choose God wholeheartedly is, in a way, to choose Baal.3
When it comes right down to it, Elijah is asking, who will light your fire? When the altar is ready and the wood is wet, when you’ve got to make a decision and the stakes are high—whom will you trust to light your fire? God, or something else?
This past Thursday evening I sat in a hospital room at St. Ann’s, where Sara Barbary was in palliative care, her family gathered around to pray and to say goodbye. And when it came right down to it, whom do you suppose they were calling upon in that hour of need, where do you suppose they were putting their trust when their wood was wet and the stakes were high? In their money or their job? In weapons or force of any kind? In the Bengals or the Buckeyes? No, no, they weren’t limping along with two different opinions. They were choosing the Lord. And sad as they were, I saw God keep their fires burning bright.
When it comes right down to it, Elijah insists, when you simply have to decide where you loyalties lie—always choose God. Choose God.
1 See Edwina Gately, "’If the Lord is God, Follow Him’: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal," Journey with Jesus, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20130527JJ.shtml, accessed 5/16/2016, 1.
2 Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (2011), 242. Quoted in Gately, 3.
3 See Richard Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 121-22.