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God or Ba'al?

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, May 29

Texts: I Kings 18, Luke 7

So I can’t resist starting with a little archeological background on our two texts for today. Among the highlights of my recent trips to the Holy Land were two visits to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The contemporary art and the adjoining Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit there are astonishing. Even higher on my list of must-see sites is the museum’s vast archeology wing. Walking in through the giant glass doors, the first exhibit one encounters is a roughly 5 by 5 by 5-foot cube of stone with horn like structures protruding from each of the top corners. A sign on the nearby walls reads as follow: “Sacrificial altar, 8th century BCE, limestone. This monumental, four horned altar, probably from a Judahite sanctuary was used for burning animal sacrifices. It was built from smoothly carved blocks of stone… likely in the times of Hezekiah. The sight of it, like many artifacts there, was breath-taking. It brings to three-dimensional life stories like the one we just heard from First Kings which was written in roughly the same period.

Fast forward about 800 years to the time of Jesus and shift about 50 miles due east from where our Kings passage took place on Mt. Carmel, and there we would find the setting of our second reading, a small fishing village called Capernaum which sits on the northern shore of the 23-mile-long Sea of Galilee.  At that time and place the Roman army, and officers like the Centurion in our story, were an occupying force.  While Romans and Jews did not typically get along, records show that some Romans, especially officers, had good relationships with local Jews and some were intrigued and inspired by their monotheistic form of religion.  The centurion in our story is even said to have built the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum.   Believe it or not, I’ve been there, to just that synagogue. While the ruins that are currently exposed only allow you to stand on the temple’s 5th century floor, off in one corner, there’s a fenced off square hole in the ground about 5 feet deep, where you can peer down and stare at the temple’s first century floor. Who knew that I and countless tourists through the ages and maybe even Jesus himself just might have this centurion to thank for that first century floor on which Jesus himself would have walked?  

Ok, enough with the archeology lessons. The fact is altars and temples played an important role in ancient religion. They were where people would gather, worship, pray. Then as now, they were places where identities were formed, where people’s highest hopes, values and convictions were forged and upheld, often in the face of individual, communal and societal adversity. They were where people encountered the spirit of the living God. And, then as now, there were choices. In both of our texts there is evidence of a certain marketplace of religious ideas, a range of options people had for their practices and beliefs. I find it fascinating that our passage from Kings opens with this line: “Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, how long will you go limping with two different opinions? Make your choice. God or Ba’al?” You see, the people were in the midst of a drought. They were thirsty! Perhaps they were hedging their bets. Some may have been praying to multiple gods, to Yahweh and to Ba’al, who after all was a god of agriculture. Such religious and related political tensions and claims of apostasy and idolatry are a running theme in the book of Kings. So Ahab and Elijah suggests a contest that was basically this: two altars, two bulls, no fire. Let’s see which god sends down the fire and lights up the sacrifice! Despite elaborate rituals to evoke Ba’al’s fire, all day his followers “limped about the altar that they had made,” but “no voice and no answer came.”  Then the prophet Elijah took his cue, built his altar.  He grounded its preparation in the history of his people - using 12 stones for the 12 tribes of Israel. When it was ready, he drew the people near, and the fire of the LORD, of Yahweh, fell and consumed the burnt offering and the altar, too. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The LORD indeed is God."  Team Yahweh, for the win!

Meanwhile, our story from Luke is about a Roman soldier presumably branching out from his given religion in an effort to bring healing to his highly valued servant. Clearly, he cares about this servant, enough to use his rank and privilege and connections to local Jews to get a message to Jesus. He says, in essence: We need help here! We need God’s aid and, with all due respect and reverence, I understand and believe that your Rabbi Jesus is the way to that power!  

In both contexts, the main characters are facing challenges that threaten them or their loved ones. In both cases, they’ve been pressed to look beyond themselves for answers. I think they are saying the same things that many of us still are saying millennia later when we recognize our own vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of individual and societal adversity. They are asking a fundamentally human question: Who has the power to relieve this suffering? Who has the power to change the world?

Our stories offer a somewhat predictably biblical answer. Of course, God has the power! God can send down the fire that can discredit the false gods, bring hope to the faint-hearted and slake the thirst of an entire people. God through Christ has the power to heal the sick, even from a distance, as we are told! In both cases though, God and Christ react and react boldly to a reverent display of faith and a genuine cry for help!  Ultimately, both of these stories can be read as miracles, or at least as moments of divine intervention or blessing. Before we go further, we need to address this element of the miraculous.

For better or worse, the very phrase “divine intervention” may provoke an almost allergic reaction for contemporary listeners. Symptomology includes: increased tendency towards skepticism, cynicism and reflexive, knee-jerk like appeals to reason and scientific method. In extreme cases, reactions may lead to highly sarcastic and dismissive behaviors and to seemingly uncontrollable remarks like “oh puh-lease,” or “yeah, right!” Notably, these symptoms find prevalence in the northeastern United States.   

For others, the prospect of divine intervention may induce states of curiosity, wonder, humility and hope. In extreme cases, these symptoms have been known to produce episodic naiveté, rose-colored vision and magical thinking. They can sometimes lead to spontaneous genuflecting on football fields and prayers for parking spaces.

Let me say now that at different points in my life, I have experienced the full range of these symptoms. The fact is, when we consider divine intervention or miracles, it cuts to the heart of big theological questions about our faith and about our place in this world. Does God really exist and does God have agency in our world? Did God just create the world and set it all in motion and leave it to us to take it from here? Does God continue to work through people, prophets or otherwise, to guide or influence the course of history? If so, might it be time for a performance review (see, there’s that sarcasm)?  

The fact is, no matter what our perspective on divine intervention may be, we are, all of us, at some level, thirsty. We are all in need of healing and of that peace the world cannot give.  We all yearn to know why there is so much profound suffering in our world. Whether we appeal to religion, science, art, organizing, education, engineering, business or politics, how can we live our lives and not wonder who has the power to change our world?  What was true in that mountainous desert landscape some 2800 years ago is still true today and, I believe, many of us, are still limping along, hedging our bets, trying to make rain here and there, with a faith too timid to ask for the help we barely know we need. Some of us are too self-reliant, too self-assured, too privileged and powerful maybe to recognize our powerlessness and our need for big help and higher power when it comes to changing our worlds and the world.

Divine intervention cannot be proven. But narratives can be woven, stories can be told and poems can be written, often in retrospect but enough to make real and true a hope for God’s future involvement. Enough to give us reason to ask for help when we need it!  This is what the bible is - an account of the acts of God, working with humanity, to make this broken world a better, more beautiful and more just place, despite our moral and spiritual limping. We are a church of continuing testimony to those acts.  It’s ongoing inside of you and me but we need to get better at belting out these stories, naming our needs and claiming the source of our hope and faith, like Elijah or like that Roman centurion!  

So, let me ask you: When was the last time you felt a drought in the landscape of your world and prayed for God to see you through? When was the last time you set aside your rank and privilege and your tendency towards self-reliance and to get done what needs to be done and reached out, humbly, vulnerably, asked for something you could not fix or change on your own?  When was the last time you stood at the altar of God’s love and pledged your faithfulness in covenant? When was the last time you stood atop a mountain, before some great altar of creation’s splendor? Or when was the last time you stood atop some great mountain of justice, your legs still burning from the climb, and said “O my, Lord!  O my, God” You are indeed great!  To you God be the glory and the honor!”  When was the last time you ask God’s help and received if not a miracle of healing then at least a blessing?
Without wanting to get into the details, I confess I had one of those experiences this past Thursday. After two plus years of prayerful listening to stories of families and communities ravaged by gun violence, after recruiting almost 100 mayors and police chiefs here and around the country, after standing with signs at a press conference outside the gates of the White House last fall pleading with the President to do what was in his executive power to act on this seemingly intractable crisis, this past Thursday, a minister, a rabbi and a community organizer got to sit in the White House for a substantive, hour plus conversation with senior policy advisors. Sounds like a joke right? Instead, we had a dead serious conversation about next steps to enact our ideas to use federal, state and local gun purchasing power to press the gun industry to create safer, smarter guns.  For me, and for thousands of leaders who prayerfully kept the faith, imagination and hope that God would make a way out of no way, this kind of access and recognition and engagement with the President’s administration, the most influential and largest gun purchaser in the world, was a huge, even miraculous blessing! Stay tuned and you’ll be hearing more.
A poem I found recently rang especially true this week given our visit to DC and all this consideration of divine intervention.  The poem is called Blessings by Ronald Wallace.

Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.
All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows’ ears,

building Rome in a day.
There’s a business
like show business.
There’s something new
under the sun.

There’s rest for the weary.
There’s turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.
Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
I can
take it with me.

Amen? In an election season, as we are receiving constant and frequently terrifying messages about who does and does not have the power to change our world, these passages and this theme of faithful and hope-filled commitment to God may find a particulate resonance.  There is a temptation toward idolatry in our elections. Whether we put our votes on the altar of Trump, or Sanders or Clinton, we must be careful to remember that none of them alone have the power to change the world, despite what they say.  All of them are making false promises. It’s what politicians do, and it’s exacerbating our collective limps!  It’s all the more on us as people of faith to walk tall and to hold fast to a higher truth, a higher power, a higher justice like mountains soaring above, a higher love, to choose God, to choose hope and to choose that long-view perspective of history that can trace those mountain-top moments and that count all of those improbable blessings that have brought us thus far on the way!

I confess though. I worry that our faith is limping, and precisely when it needs to be walking tall!  Despite what deniers says, we know there is a great drought in this land too, a literal one in California and elsewhere. What’s more there’s a drought of hope, a drought of faith-based conviction for the power of God’s love and justice.  It’s on us, now, to set up that altar again, to use whatever rank, privilege and authority we have to call out and bring God’s hope and healing and peace to our world.  Can we learn to sacrifice our penchants for certainty, security, self-image and comfort, all at the altar of the common good? Can we learn to sacrifice our pride of history and heritage at the altar of a broader and more inclusive story of all God’s people?  Can we learn, as those soldiers who we remember this week with great pride and sadness, to make the ultimate sacrifice, for a cause that was greater then them?  Can we learn to change our limping and hedging ways and, in prayer and action, double down on our faith that God will continue to send down those fires of justice, mercy and truth? In the words of Psalms 61: Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; 2 from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint and overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”  Amen.

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