05.29.16 Sermon (May 29, 2016) “The Lord indeed is God”

posted Jul 12, 2016, 8:40 AM by David Hawkins

1 Kings 18:20-21 (22-29) 30-39
So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” 

The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”
All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 
So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 

At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “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.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. 

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. 

He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 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.” 

Then 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. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

New Testament Reading: A reading from Luke 7:1-10, page ?? in the pew Bible (Liturgist)

“Please Stand for the Reading of the Gospel”

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Sermon: “The Lord indeed is God”

These two scripture passages today might seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Our Old Testament reading is a spectacular story of the Prophet Elijah engaging the prophets of Baal in a supernatural showdown, with vivid images of a bull, water, blood, a mountaintop and fire. And the Gospel lesson tells the story of a centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant.

Like I said, two seemingly completely different stories.

But maybe not.

Because when it comes right down to it, both of the stories are really about one thing: trust.

Who do we really trust when things go bad? Where do we put our ultimate trust? Where is our ultimate security? What, or who do we really worship, when the chips are down?

Elijah was a prophet during the reign of the famously evil king Ahab. Ahab was nominally a Hebrew king, but he had married Jezebel, a foreign woman from Phoenicia. And while this might have been something of a scandal, the problem was not so much that she was from out of town, the problem was that she brought with her a whole passel of other problems.

Most of these problems had to do with the entanglements that she brought with other countries. Alliances with other rulers, relationships with other political systems, these things were problematic for the Kingdom of Israel. Getting involved in the affairs of other countries might have seemed like a good idea, it may have looked like it might help the with the security of the nation, but instead, it just brought more conflict. It diluted their power. It made them dependent on other countries.

And beyond the political sphere, Jezebel brought with her her own gods. Especially, she brought with her Baal, the original ‘rider of the storm’, the god of wind and sky and fertility.

Now, in order to understand why this was a big deal, we have to remember that the Hebrew nation thought differently about God than the surrounding nations did. The one characterizing mark of the Hebrew nation was its belief in one God, the God of Creation, the God of the universe.

Most of the nations around Israel believed in many gods, local gods, gods that had specific tasks. This god was the god of rain. This other god over here was the god of fire. That god over there was the god of crops.

Also, the gods were usually tied to a specific area or country. This god was the god of say, Assyria. That god was the god of say, Phoenicia. Gods were local. They had roots to the community.

And when King Ahab married Jezebel, she brought some of these gods with her, and introduced them to the people. And here is where it got problematic. Instead of remembering their covenant to the one God, the God that had delivered them from slavery, who had brought them through the sea, the God who had led them in the desert, and delivered them into the promised land, instead of remembering the promises they had made to worship that one God alone, and to be His people, when faced the prospect of worshiping another god, the people said, “hey, why not?”

Why not have another god or two, just in case? Why not hedge our bets, just a little bit? Why not include some other little gods, along with our big God, just cover all the bases? After all, it seems like it’s working for these other countries. Let’s worship both, just to be safe. You can never have too many gods after all.

And then, once Baal worship began to take hold, Jezebel began to persecute and kill the prophets and the priests of the one true God of Israel, until finally, there was only Elijah left to speak for God.

And this is where we catch up with the story. It has come down to this question: who is God, really, for us? Will we worship the gods of another country, of another culture, will we trust in the religious traditions of someone foreign to us, or we will trust in the God of our Fathers and Mothers? Who do we really worship, when it comes down to it? Baal, or God?

Elijah proposes a test of these gods, with some pretty potent symbols. A sacrificial bull, symbolizing the trust that Abraham showed when commanded to sacrifice Isaac. The twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes. The water poured out twelve times, a reminder of the drought that had stricken the land.

First, the prophets of Baal try to summon their god, to no avail. Our text suggests that they are walking around the altar chanting, and then limping around, but the original Hebrew text says that they are actually hopping around in a circle. In fact, all of the activities of the Baal prophets seem to be somewhat ridiculous on the face of it. Hopping, cutting themselves until they bleed, chanting ‘oogah, oogah, oogah.’ It’s all about what they can do to bring Baal to the mountain. It’s all about their worthiness, all about doing, saying the right things.

And Elijah encourages them. “Shout louder,” he says. “Maybe Baal is asleep! Maybe he’s on a trip somewhere. Keep going, you’re doing just fine!”

But, no matter what they do, no Baal. He doesn’t show up.

But then God does. He really shows up. The fire comes to the mountain and consumes everything. The bull, the altar, the stones, the water itself. The fire of God comes to the mountaintop, and the people remember his power and his presence, and they worship him. Once again, they place their trust in the God of Abraham, the God who had fed them manna, who had given them water from the rock.

In our New Testament reading, we see a similar story about trust. The centurion is a non-Jew, who had begun to worship the God of the Hebrews. He has not taken the final step of becoming a Jew by getting circumcised. But, he follows the law, he observes the Sabbath, and he has participated in the life of the Hebrew people, even to the point of building them a synagogue, a gathering place for worship.

And the Hebrew people are grateful to him, and when his servant is ill and needs help, they vouch for the centurion, proclaiming to Jesus his worthiness, asking Jesus to help him.

But interestingly, the centurion himself does not assume that anything that he has done makes him worthy of Jesus’ time and attention. He himself says that he is not worthy, that Jesus shouldn’t even bother coming to his house. But, the centurion also recognizes the authority of Jesus, and he says that he knows that Jesus can heal his servant, and that if he would just speak the word, his servant would be healed.

And this is a remarkable trust. It’s remarkable because the official religion of the Roman Empire was a hodgepodge of different gods, not so different from the ancient Mesopotamia. And, above all, was the worship of the Emperor, the God-king. It is amazing that this Roman soldier, who had so much invested in the power structure of his community would choose to worship the God of the vulnerable, the God of the oppressed, the occupied, the marginalized instead of the cultural gods of his society.

And, like the fire on the mountaintop, we see the result of this trust. It’s not anything that the centurion has done that causes Jesus to heal his servant. It’s not the support of the elders of the synagogue speaking on his behalf. It’s only trust, and when the centurion trusts Jesus, Jesus shows up, and his servant lives.

Sometimes we think we need to hedge our bets. We indulge, just a little bit, in the idol gods of our culture. We bring the local gods of greed, of selfishness, of fear into our religious system.

Sure, we believe in God, but we also believe in the ‘-isms’ of our age. Capitalism, Socialism, Patriotism whatever, we trust in in these systems to provide our needs. Sure we say that God will save us, but let’s do everything we can to build walls, guns, bombs, just to help him out. Sure, we think that God loves us and forgives us, but we set up rules and codes of behavior for others to climb over before we can associate with them.

And so while we may not immediately recognize Jezebel and Baal in our midst, we know them better than we want to admit. And while we may not want to face it, sometimes the faith of those we would least expect it rivals our own.

Both Elijah and the Roman Centurion challenge us to consider who it is that we truly worship. Are we hopping around to the tune of the false gods of our contemporary society, the gods of money, fashion, fear, power? Are we cutting ourselves until we bleed to satisfy the gods of national pride, the isms of political systems?

Or do we simply trust in the God of Jacob, the God of Israel, the God of the cross, the God of Easter, the God that came to us, and conquered death?

This is the question, not just of the age of Jezebel, but our own, the question of the ages. Is God sufficient for us, or should we hedge our bets? Do we believe in His power, or do we think he needs some help? Do we trust in the healing power of Jesus, or should we place our hopes in the idols that are easier to control, easier to manipulate, easier to see and feel, and understand?

Because the reality is, it’s going to be one or the other. We can’t worship both Baal and God. It doesn’t work. We will always be limping around in circles if we try. The gods of this world require sacrifice and blood, and we will never be good enough for them.

Trust in God. Know that when you need him, he will show up in a mighty way. Let go of the lesser gods of our culture. They won’t always be there for you when we need them. And know that the Lord indeed is God, and he loves us, and he forgives us and he heals us when we trust in him.

How majestic is the name of the Lord our God!