Saturday, November 7, 2015

How long will you go limping along?

It really seemed like the right thing to do.

You know how it goes – you want to provide for your family, for your old age. You want to live the good life, to have fun, do the things you like.

So you do what it takes to give you security. To make sure you have enough.

That’s all we were doing.

When those prophets the Queen Jezebel brought to Israel with her started talking about how Baal was the god of storm, and his consort Asherah was the goddess of fertility, well, what were we supposed to do? Those are the very two things that farmers can’t live without. We need rain; we need our seed, and soil and livestock to be fertile.

Sure, YHWH is God of everything. But it couldn’t hurt to hedge our bets just a little. It couldn’t hurt anything, could it?

So we offered to YHWH and we offered to Baal and Asherah. And it was going pretty well.

But then this guy Elijah shows up. This prophet of YHWH, who couldn’t leave well enough alone.  He gets on King Ahab’s case for marrying Jezebel in the first place, and for allowing her to bring her gods, and trying to get all of Israel to worship them. Elijah declares YHWH says there will be a drought, because we are worshipping other gods.

 Baal’s priests tell us not to worry – after all, Baal controls the rains. Just to make sure – we offer to both YHWH and Baal, and Asherah for good measure.

But the drought comes anyway. And Baal’s and Asherah’s servants get more and more demanding as the drought goes on. No matter what we do, it isn’t enough to satisfy these gods. Soon they start demanding blood offerings – our blood, our children. They say it’s the only way to bring the rain.

We hear that Elijah is over in Phoenicia in Zarephath. Even though there’s famine there too, he’s got food enough to eat –him and the household where he’s staying are being fed miraculously. I wonder why he’s not here, taking care of his own people?

Three years go by and no rains. Finally Elijah shows back up, and King Ahab demands him to call on YHWH to stop the drought. Elijah calls for a showdown between him and Baal and Asherah’s servants.

So we get ready to set off to Mt Carmel to see who wins. There’s a really nice altar to Baal there. You would say they have the home field. 

The rules are pretty simple. Each side will sacrifice a bull, but instead of lighting the sacrificial fire themselves, each will call on their god. The god who is truly God will be the one who lights the fire.
Personally, I think both Baal and YHWH will light the fires. I mean Baal is the god of the storm, right? It would be no problem to set a bit of wood on fire with a good lightning bolt. And YWHW should be able to do the same – I remember the story of YHWH leading us out of Egypt with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. I don’t know what Elijah thinks he’s going to prove with this.

As if he knows what I’m thinking, Elijah challenges me to choose a side, saying to us all:  “how long are you going to limp along with two different opinions. How long are you going to hedge your bets? You can’t have it both ways. You either serve YWHW or you serve Baal. Today you have to make a choice – who will it be?”

Elijah calls for two bulls to be brought out and lets Baal’s people pick their bull first. They take some time – it takes awhile for 450 priests to agree on something! – then select the biggest, juiciest, most perfect bull for their sacrifice.

Elijah lets them go first. The priests start loudly praying, and dancing around the altar. Nothing happens.

Elijah begins making fun of them. Maybe Baal can’t hear them.

They get louder.

Maybe Baal is meditating.

They dance harder.

Maybe Baal is on a journey. Maybe he’s asleep and must be awakened.

They begin to cut themselves, offering their own blood with the bull to Baal.

Nothing happens.

We begin to get restless. The morning has passed, it’s after noon and Elijah hasn’t started his offering. It’s getting close to the time of the oblation sacrifice – the one where we give thanks for blessings and declare our loyalty. It doesn’t look like either Baal or YHWH will receive oblation today.

Finally Elijah turns his back on the 450 prophets of Baal and walks over to the side where YWHW’s altar used to stand. It was torn down to make more room for Baal’s altar, but Elijah starts collecting the rocks and putting the altar back together. This old man, all alone doing such hard work – I send my sons to help him, others offer to help, but he waves them all away.

He finds 12 large stones to put on the top. We know what this means – it’s for the twelve sons of Israel, the 12 tribes, the 10 of us who broke away and became Israel, and the 2 who remained loyal to the line of David and became Judah.

He laid the wood on the fire and the bull. We lean in, waiting to hear how Elijah would call on YHWH. How could one man get the attention of a god, when 450 couldn’t?

Then Elijah did something absurd. He called for water. First, we thought he might be thirsty. After all, he’d been working hard. Perhaps he needed to clear the dust from his throat before he started.

But he wanted more than just a cup. He wanted a lot more – jars full of water. In the middle of a drought!

People began offering water from their water skins. Some ran down to the sea to get water there. Soon there were four jars filled and Elijah commanded them to be poured on the offering.

And then four more.

And four more.

The offering was drenched – water filled the trench around the altar. There was no way this thing would ever light. Was he crazy?

This was absurd. This offering had no chance of catching on fire. It was a ridiculous as…
as impossible as…
as thinking someone in the grave for three days could be raised!

Then, just at the time for the loyalty offering, Elijah held up his hands. We all got silent, straining to hear his simple prayer: “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." (1 Kings 18:36-37)

Just like that, fire fell from heaven. A fire so hot and persistent that even the stones and water were consumed.

Just like that, the choice was simple. We had put our trust in the wrong things. Things that offered false hope, false security. We hadn’t hedged our bets; we had bought into false promises of security and prosperity. Ashamed, repentant, and truly terrified of a God who could do such things, we dropped to our knees, prostrate before YHWH, and called out, our faces buried in the dust, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul and all your strength.”

At our confession, the rains came.

I had thought it wouldn’t hurt to cover all my bases, worshipping Baal and YHWH to make sure we had what we needed. But trusting in something other than YWHW led to death and destruction, drought and famine. Only YHWH brings life.

What about you? Who do you serve?

What are the idols you offer your time, and skills, and money, and allegiance to? Where do you truly place your trust? Who do you count on to save you – your family, your work, your money and possessions, your nation, even the blessings YHWH has given you – false gods are much more subtle in your world.

Those things seem so reasonable – as reasonable as it was to us to call on Baal, god of storms, in time of drought. But those things you trust will fail you; they will be silent when you really need them, as unresponsive and impotent as Baal to the call of all those prophets.

It is YHWH, YHWH alone, who can be trusted, no matter how long the drought lasts, no matter what life throws at you, whose steadfast love and mercy never fail.

How long will you go limping along?