I’m preaching on the semi-continuous lectionary reading from First Kings. The Elijah Cycle! Oh yeah!
Don’t want to read? I recorded an audio version as well.
Doesn’t the story from our first reading sound like an old fashion, god vs god, throw-down showdown? In the left corner, we have the God of Israel, YHWH, and in the right, we have the storm god known as Baal. This is a perfect thunderdome moment. Two gods enter, one god leaves. And the rules are simple. The prophets from each side will gather together ‚Äì and as Elijah says ‚Äì it is “the god who answers by fire” who “indeed” is “God.”
So that’s how we’re starting our five week exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures ‚Äì of the story of Elijah ‚Äì by answering the question which god ‚Äì Baal or YHWH ‚Äì will send an answer to the people of Israel with fire.
But why the question? And what is this fire that Elijah keeps talking about?
Our reading today has a little back story. It takes place on Mt. Carmel after the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel had split. King Ahab rules the north and Elijah is introduced by going up to the king, looking at him straight in the face, and saying that there will be no rain in Israel ‚Äì that there will be a drought in Israel until God decides otherwise. This, of course, doesn’t make Elijah lots of friends ‚Äì so Elijah runs. He hides ‚Äì and the drought happens. And it goes on. And on. And on. Then, finally, three years in, Elijah emerges from his hiding places, meets Ahab, and gathers the prophets of Baal, the king of Israel, and the entire people of Israel to Mt. Carmel where Elijah throws it down. He accuses the people of Israel of being unfaithful; of wavering; of putting their trust in something other than YHWH ‚Äì and thinking that something or someone or some other god could end this drought. So Elijah calls for a contest and the rules are simple: the prophets of Baal will do their rituals, prayers, and sacrifices and Elijah will do his ‚Äì and the god who answers with fire ‚Äì the god who can send down lighting ‚Äì the god who can actually make it rain and end Israel’s suffering ‚Äì that’s the god that the people should trust; the god they should devote themselves to; the god they should be faithful to. That’s the question here ‚Äì which god can actually help us. And the one that can ‚Äì all they have to do is just make it rain.
So the prophets do what prophets do. The prophets of Baal do their thing. They perform the rituals they know. They say the prayers they’ve been taught. They do everything they can to get Baal to notice them; to notice their suffering; to hear their case. I mean, bringing rain ‚Äì that’s just what a storm god does. Baal should have no problem with this simple task. And all the prophets of Baal need to do is activate their god, switch their god on, get their god to see them. And, they try. They really do. They do everything they know how to do ‚Äì even when Elijah mocks them ‚Äì they don’t stop. They don’t give up. They try everything to activate their god ‚Äì who they trust ‚Äì who they have faith in ‚Äì but it just doesn’t work.
So Elijah starts his rituals ‚Äì but he begins in a different way. He first gathers everyone together. And when they are close he takes 12 stones representing the tribes of Israel and builds an altar, digs a trench, lays down wood, and drowns the wood in water three times. And, as he begins the sacrifice, he does what I think is the most important part of the story ‚Äì he prays ‚Äì and he starts his prayer with these words: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…”
Did you catch that? Did you notice what Elijah does different here? He doesn’t name God in the usual way. He doesn’t say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No, Elijah says Israel ‚Äì the name Jacob was given by God after Jacob spent the night wrestling with the Angel. Israel, the name Jacob was granted after he held onto the angel all night long, refusing to let go even as the day broke and the sun rose into the sky ‚Äì Jacob refused to let go until he was blessed. So the angel blessed him, giving him a new name ‚Äì Israel ‚Äì which means “he who struggles with God.”
That, I think, is the ace in Elijah’s sleeve. In this confrontation with the prophets of Baal ‚Äì he’s actually not confronting Baal. This really isn’t a god vs god boxing match. No, Elijah is doing something different. He’s there reminding the people of Israel who they are ‚Äì who they have been ‚Äì who has claimed them and what their true identity is. And in the reminding, Elijah is not trying to activate God. He’s not trying to get God’s attention. He knows he has God’s attention. He knows that God is paying attention to them because they are the heirs of Jacob ‚Äì they are heirs to being the people who struggle with God ‚Äì who live in relationship with God. This isn’t about saying the right prayer, doing the right dance, or performing just the right kind of good deed to get God’s attention. They are gathered not to activate God but to remember that God has already activated them. God has already given them an identity. God has already named and claimed them. God has already answered them with fire ‚Äì from the burning bush of Moses and the pillar of fire that lead the people as they traveled through Sinai on their forty year journey ‚Äì God has already answered them and continues to answer them. The contest on Mt. Carmel isn’t a real contest. It isn’t a throw-down between two gods. It’s a reminder of what it means to be the people of God and that this God has already acted in their lives ‚Äì in their very identity and history. Elijah is calling them to remember that God has already answered in fire ‚Äì and that they are the witnesses to God’s activity in the world; witnesses to God’s fire; witnesses to God’s answer to the world. They are, in a sense, God’s fire for the here and now no matter how unfaithful, unguided, and wavering they seem to be. They are God’s unlikely fire in the world.
Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Pentecost ‚Äì how the holy spirit descended like a mighty wind through the disciples as they gathered to tell the story of God and Jesus. And as they gathered, tongues of fire appeared over them. Tongues of fire. Tongues of fire so that the story of Jesus ‚Äì the story of the carpenter from Nazareth who traveled throughout Israel, who healed the sick, brought good news to the poor, saw the invisible, ate meals with the unwanted, and died on the Cross ‚Äì that this story could be shared to all, regardless of who they were, where they came from, or what they believed or did. And that’s still our present story ‚Äì our present calling ‚Äì to live out Elijah’s reminder that we gather to remember and witness God’s story and to be bearers of God’s fire into the world. Because our story is not about trying to live a life that gets God to notice us ‚Äì but to live in that place where God has taken a chance on us, in all our imperfections, to be part of God’s answer to the world. The Cross of Christ just doesn’t right our relationship with God ‚Äì the Cross of Christ activates us, gathers us, claims us to be living witnesses to the fact that God actually loves the world. Because we are part of God’s fire. Right here, on the corner of 93rd and Broadway, we’re invited to be like Jacob and live out what it means to struggle with God. We’re invited to share our story, to remind others of our story, and to live as God’s fire in the world. We’re invited to pack a bag of groceries for a neighbor in need or serve a hot meal to a stranger who might not get another meal that day. We’re invited to raise awareness of the maternal cost of racism, to fight malaria in Africa, to advocate against discrimination based on gender identity, and this is just a small sample of what we, as children of God, are invite to do. We’re invited to live out Elijah’s call ‚Äì to live out what it means to be a people who are activated by God rather than who try to activate God. Because that’s the gift of grace ‚Äì that this activation isn’t up to us. No, God has turned us on ‚Äì God has made us fire bearers – and we’re invited to live out God and Jesus’ story on this corner in New York City and throughout the world.