Have you ever wanted to call down fire?
I’m talking about God’s wrath. God’s judgment. Proof that God is God. That the so-called way it is, is not the way it is supposed to be, and that there is a higher authority than any bureaucracy can produce, than any government can select, than any church can own. That there is a God who cares about what happens to the world God created, and that we are going to be called to account for our management and mismanagement of God’s creation, our treatment and mistreatment of God’s people.
Have you ever looked at the world and wanted to call down fire?
I have, and recently at that. Months and months of organizing for marriage equality in the State of Illinois, and in the end not even a vote? Just silence from the Illinois House. I wanted fire. A fresh tally of victims to gun violence here in Chicago last Memorial Day weekend, six dead and eleven wounded, as nearby as Humboldt Park; and in response, the House breaks its silence to push forward a carry and conceal bill that would make it easier for people to walk the streets of our neighborhoods with deadly weapons? I wanted fire.
And you have cried out for fire as well, I know. You are battling bureaucracies that put children in harm’s way. You are fighting for the rights of the weak, the poor, the hungry, the disabled. You are watching as big business treats your co-workers and yourselves like cogs in a machine. You are tending to the bodies and minds of the uninsured, and seeing the impacts of generational poverty on entire families. You are calling for an end to war in a country obsessed with violence. You are teaching in classrooms where children have gone without food, without support, without safety, and you are being told year after year to do more with less.
I can only imagine how badly and how often you must pray for God’s fire to come down and burn away the red tape, the apathy, the machine, the system, the guns, the drones, and all the wickedness of this world.
Today we begin a summer long series focusing on the prophets of Israel, and for this season we will be a School of the Prophets. You may remember that two weeks ago it was Pentecost Sunday, and we heard these words from the book of Acts,
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
Then, last Sunday, as we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we affirmed the Church’s faith that there is only one God, but who is known as and in community. We heard from the gospel of John these words from Jesus,
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth; for [the Spirit] will not speak on [its] own, but will speak whatever [it] hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. [The Spirit] will glorify me, because [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that [God, our Parent] has is mine. For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)
In truth, ever since Easter we have been studying texts that make it clear to us that one of the meanings, one of the implications of Christ’s resurrection is that the Holy Spirit of God has been set free in the world; that the Spirit has a message for the world that needs a messenger; and that God’s messenger is the church, the baptized body of Christ in the world. Jesus said, “the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15) and “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)
And then, like Elijah whom we meeting again for the first time this morning and who eventually is taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, Jesus seems to withdraw from the story leaving its next chapter in our hands. We are inheritors of a mission, a commission, and a message. Living in the last days, in a Pentecostal epoch, we are now called to be prophets, and this is our school.
As we learn about our calling, our ministry as prophets, we can learn from the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition the Lord Jesus Christ stood, whose words and wisdom would have been his bread and butter as a young man in occupied Israel in the time of the Roman Empire.
Jesus obviously would have known the stories of Elijah, who lived in Israel during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled four generations after the reign of King Solomon. King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are remembered for bringing the worship of foreign gods back to Israel, in particular the god known as Baal.
It’s difficult to know what the actual religious beliefs and practices of the neighboring nations who worshipped Baal were, since most of the information we have comes from these biblical texts that aren’t concerned with religious pluralism and multiculturalism. But I think we would be missing the point if we simply read this story as a warning about other religions. What’s being contested here isn’t the number of followers each deity, Yahweh or Baal, can muster. What is at stake is the worldview they represent within the story of Israel’s relationship with God.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,
There is no doubt that in the Bible, an especially in this cluster of narratives, Baalism is heavily caricatured in Yahwistic representation. Indeed, we have only the caricature so that the narrative is not, and does not intend to be, an evenhanded exposition. The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic. Thus it must not be thought that the contest concerns mere religious symbols or slogans; it is rather a deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community. (Brueggemann, Walter. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 2000. p. 219)
In other words, the problem with the worship of Baal isn’t that God’s honor is tarnished, or that God’s feelings are hurt, because people are worshipping some other god. It is instead that, what the worship of Baal represents — at least in these stories — is a turning away from the ethical and moral character of the God of Israel, an ethic of care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; and ethic that took form in these stories in the person of a king who had first been a shepherd, who cared for God’s people by bringing them together to love and care for one another.
The worship of Baal represents a different kind of governance which leads to a different kind of community and a different kind of world, one in which power is used to secure wealth for the wealthy, and the lives of the workers and the weak are considered the cost of doing business. It is the kind of world Jesus knew everything about, growing up under Roman rule. It is the kind of world we know everything about today, living in the heart of a global empire.
Elijah’s first prophetic action is to declare a drought. This is more than an agricultural crisis, this is a sign that the nation has set itself again God. In these ancient times, the king was understood to be the rain-maker, the one who assured wealth and prosperity by guiding the nation in accordance with God’s will for the people. The absence of rain is a sign that God’s favor is absent from Ahab’s rule. Rather than repenting, Ahab and Jezebel scour the nation looking for the prophet Elijah whose words of judgment are undermining their power and authority. Finally, after three years of drought, the conflict has come to a head in the story we read this morning. Elijah faces Ahab and challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest. They will set offerings on altars to each of their respective gods, and they will see which offering is consumed by divine fire.
The beginning of the match tells us something important about what God through Elijah is really trying to achieve. In the face of royal power and a legion of enemy priests, Elijah turns and speaks to the people, who are the actual objects of God’s concern. He asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)
This simple question, buried at the beginning of a spectacle, is the heart of the matter. The question always before God’s people is, in what god do you actually put your trust? Is is the god of the paycheck or the inheritance that will really take care of you? Is it the god of shrewd decisions and hard work that will provide for you and yours? Is it the god of the right family or the right connections that will give you an advantage? Is it the god of cynicism and low expectations that will protect you from the dangers of wanting more for your life?
Or is it the God known in community as community, who does not try to protect God’s own self from danger or harm, but is willing to endure every trial and humiliation to free the creation and its many peoples from patterns of life, systems of domination, that threaten to destroy us all?
Which god do you worship, and how?
Tellingly, the people do not say a word. They are as silent as our lawmakers, waiting to see how the chips will fall.
Which gods do we worship?
Then the contests begin, and we begin to see the price paid for worshipping other gods. As Elijah cracks jokes and taunts the priests of Baal (“Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he is on a journey, or perhaps he must be awakened.”), they begin to mutilate themselves. They injure themselves by cutting their flesh with swords and lances until they are covered in their own blood.
What price do we pay for chasing after the gods who cannot save us? We pay with our own lives. The paycheck ends. The inheritance is spent. Our decisions are exposed as dreams. Our bodies fail. Our families turn their backs on us. Our social networks are a mile wide and an inch deep. Our attempt to escape notice works, and we end up invisible in our own lives. The gods we invent for ourselves can never save us, but we will spend our lives, we will pour out our lifeblood, chasing after them.
After Baal’s priests fail to summon their god, it’s Elijah’s turn. Again, he gives his attention to the people, not the king, not the other priests. He builds an altar for his sacrifice by placing twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel on top of one another. He reminds them of their history, that out of many peoples they were made one. That out of many nations, they were made one nation. That their strength came from the ways that they leaned on each other, built on each other, rested on each other. Elijah creates a symbol of the underlying reality, that we the people together are the altar where God’s holiness appears.
Then Elijah drenches that altar, that sign of God’s people, three times with water — a baptism for that which is being offered to God, and assurance that what will happen next is no accident, no random spark falling on dry wood.
Finally, Elijah prays not for himself, but for the people he has been trying to reach. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37). And the Lord God answers the words of that prayer by sending down fire to consume the offering, the wood, the altar, the earth and even the water.
When I am angry at the world, as I have been these last few days, I want to call down God’s fire to burn up the heartless bureaucrats, the cowardly legislators, the violent warmongers, the absent parents. But God’s fire does not consume offerings made to absentee deities. Instead, God’s fire comes to rest on the altar of God’s own people and takes what we are willing to offer, transforming those offerings into signs that God’s Spirit is still at work in the world, moving toward us and through us and out into the world for the sake of healing, and liberation, and mercy, and justice.
God’s flames, the ones that fell on God’s altar, the ones that raised Elijah to heaven in his chariot, the ones that appeared above the apostles’ heads that Pentecost morning are signs of God’s prophetic word, given to God’s prophets. We pray for that fire each time we gather, not to destroy the forces that oppose us, but to kindle in us a passion to tell God’s truth to a world burdened by false gods.
Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.