Sunday, May 29, 2016
Sermon: Limping between Gods
1 Kings 18:20-39
Limping between Gods
James Sledge May 29, 2016
If you were among the participants in the weekday Bible study on the book of Revelation, you may recall that it is a badly misunderstood work. It does not predict the end of the world. It is not meant to be frightening but to encourage people who were already frightened, who lived in a time when it was difficult, even dangerous, to be Christians.
Revelation is addressed to seven churches in what is today Turkey. Each church’s strengths or weaknesses are mentioned, their need to hold fast to their faith or to deal with some problem. But the seventh is addressed differently. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The writer of Revelation seems to have a special disdain for the church at Laodicea. Embrace the faith or don’t. None of this half in, half out business. And in their lukewarm ways, the Laodiceans seem to mirror the Israelites in this morning’s Old Testament reading.
Like Revelation, Old Testament books such as 1 Kings are also misunderstood, if for different reasons. They tend to be viewed as historical works, reports of “what happened,” but 1 Kings is primarily theological reflection. It seeks to understand how God’s chosen people, rescued from slavery in Egypt and brought into the land of promise, could have ended up with Jerusalem and its Temple destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant gone, people carried off into exile in Babylon. And even when they finally returned home, there was no return to the glory days of King David. They were an unimportant, insignificant speck in some other nations’s empire. How could that be?
The writers and editors of 1 Kings look back over Israel’s history in an effort to give an answer. And so while they do tell a history, questions of “what happened?” are always secondary to questions of “Why?”
Historically speaking, today’s reading takes us to the time when the kingdom built by David had split. Israel, the northern kingdom, had its capital at Samaria, and Judah had its at Jerusalem. The great prophet Elijah lives in the northern kingdom which, officially at least, is a Yahwist nation. YHWH is their God. Festivals and worship devoted to YHWH occurred, but the people of Israel hedged their bets.
Our story today is one of several connected to a long drought in Israel. Israel was dependent on the rains for the crops, for survival. And as it so happened, Ahab, the king of Israel had married a woman from a neighboring kingdom whose god was a god of agriculture, fertility, and rains. A temple, some altars and sacrifices to Baal might be a good backup strategy. Couldn’t hurt.
Ahab and Queen Jezebel encouraged this strategy, and even went so far as to persecute priests and prophets of YHWH who objected. And so Elijah regularly finds himself in danger when he dares criticize and condemn both king and queen, dares suggest that the drought is actually the result of Israel’s worship of Baal, a false god who cannot bring rain.
Even if we recognize that this story is not primarily about “what happened,” it can be difficult to appropriate for our day. We live in a time when peace in the world requires tolerance and understanding between faith communities and religions. What are we to do with a story that, on some level, seems to be about, “My God is better than your god.”?
Perhaps it will help to remember that this story is not addressed to people of other faiths. It is an internal story, a story for followers of YHWH, a story told not from a position of power but within a community that knew defeat and loss. And Elijah’s question about how long the people will go limping along with different opinions, between different gods, speaks directly to that situation, and the Scripture writers see these different opinions, these divided loyalties, as a critical faith problem.
I wonder if Elijah’s question might also address problems of our day, might address my need to choose between gods, between all those various things I look to for meaning and fulfillment and life. I wonder if Elijah might challenge me to decide whether or not I will go all in with God, with Jesus, or if I will continue limping between opinions and gods, never totally committed, neither hot nor cold.
Speaking of limping, our story tells us that the prophets of Baal “limped about the altar.” Perhaps this describes some sort of dancing. I wonder what sort of frenzied dance it was as they grew more desperate and self-destructive, frantically calling for a god who could not answer. I also wonder about our world’s frenzied dancing, my own frantic, sometimes self-destructive pursuit of the goodies promised by the gods of our culture. Power, prestige, success, achievement, influence, possessions, experiences, gratifying every desire; all these promise to make me happy, fulfilled, and more alive, but I’ve found that they are no better at keeping such promises than Baal, no more likely to answer when I call.
And I think that is the key to this story, this question of whether our gods will answer when we call. The fiery answer in our story is beyond most of our wildest imaginations, but knowing a God who does answer is at the very heart of faith. When we’ve forgotten this, as we often have, reducing faith to believing certain things or, worse, knowing certain things, we’ve unwittingly embodied that quote I’ve shared so often I’m sure people are tired of it, but I’ll share it once more. “People come to churches seeking an experience of God, and we give them information about God.”
But the fact is that I have had times when God very clearly answered me, and I know that many of you have had such times yourself. So why do I still find myself limping, dancing between gods?
What if we told our stories of God answering us more often? What if we regularly remembered for each other those times when we cried out and God acted? Might that help us to choose, to stop limping between gods, to proclaim, “YHWH indeed is God: Christ indeed is God.”