Sunday 4th December 2016, Advent 2, Evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
“The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God”.
I think these words from the end of the Elijah story sound shallow to us. After all, we take it for granted that ‘The LORD’ means ‘God’ in the Bible. And even if we know that when English translations of the Bible write the LORD, in capital letters, they are translating the Hebrew name of God, we are still too distanced from the question, Is Baal God or is the LORD God? Which God will we worship? The people’s triumphant discovery, ‘The LORD is God’, doesn’t feel significant for us. It would no more occur to us to worship Baal than to worship the man on the moon. The story is a very exciting and dramatic one, but its function is lost on us.
But this wasn’t the case in the period it occurred, nor in the exile when the story found its final form. These were times in which the very survival on the worship of Israel’s God was in the balance. Because the people of Israel, forever hedging their bets when it came to devotion, just couldn’t quite get with the LORD, who was jealous enough to demand exclusive devotion: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. They suspected that their chances of the harvest being plentiful, their relationships being joyful, and their enemies staying away was intimately connected with keeping as many competing deities as possible happy. And a few eccentric prophets standing against the might of the King – or in this case particularly, the Queen Jezebel – and her civil servant prophets of Baal didn’t seem like a good reason to keep away from Baal’s sacrifices.
The books of Kings found their final form during the exile in the sixth century BC. The conquest of Jerusalem, the loss of the land and the temple, and the deportation of the leaders into Babylon is where the books end. And in exile in Babylon, there was even more reason to doubt the strength of Israel’s God. After all, he’d lost, and here they were in a prosperous place, surrounded by the worship of deities who had obviously won – why would they stick with the loser? But the writers lay the blame for Jerusalem’s destruction squarely on their unfaithfulness to the LORD. The books are entirely about them keeping faith, staying true, not going with other gods. There was a real risk that the exile would mean the end of Israelite worship of the LORD, and the authors are intent on stopping that happening.
So I guess the question for us is, what is the equivalent? What is the place at which our commitment to God is at risk of compromise? It may be in the contest with those gods of power, wealth, status, celebrity, youth, appearance, or sex that fill our world. It is because these have such a hold on our devotion that advertising works. Sometimes we moan that adverts are exploitative or immoral in appealing to these things – but if we changed, so that such tactics were laughable rather than alluring, then their temples would fall without us destroying them.
And that is Elijah’s tactic. He stages a show-down to show which God works: Baal, the God of the king and queen, of the well paid court prophets, of the in crowd, who flatters those who flatter him; or the God who refuses to be represented in imagery, who is beyond flattery but demands sole devotion, who sends unsavoury messengers with truth that is harsh and uncompromising.
And the point of the show-down is to see which God sends fire – that is who touches the world with reality and receives and blesses the offering we prepare.
The contrast between Baal’s prophets’ cultic ritual and Elijah’s lack of ceremony is absolute. For them, calling and dancing and crying aloud, and in the end self-harm as they cut themselves. Maybe that’s the one part of the story that touches on our modern world most poignantly, with the tragic reality that the failure of so many people to find fulfilment in the temple of appearance, status, or fame has led to an epidemic of self-harm. The rest of the story is deliberately comic. Elijah mocks their impotent gods: ‘Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away,’ (which – by the way – is a euphemism for being in the toilet) ‘or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’
By contrasting with their ‘raving’, Elijah, with a drama that raises the stakes, calls the people forward; this is an act which needs participants, worshippers; not a ritual from which they are excluded. He repairs the LORD’s altar – a deliberate sign of defiance against those who seek to end worship of Israel’s God. He covers the sacrifice with water, to show more clearly that the fire is gift. And he prays, not raving or ecstatic, but just prays, ‘Lord, answer me…’ And the fire falls – as grace – as the work of God.
Where does the fire fall in our lives? Where, amongst the competing and anxious and compulsive ways in which we seek meaning or fulfilment, do we actually discover grace that's real? The practice of examining our lives to notice what is life-giving and what is soul-destroying, what is grace-filled and what is illusion-filled, what affirms our humanity and what belittles our humanity – this is exactly about noticing where the fire falls and where it doesn’t. The reading says of the prophets of Baal, ‘there was no voice, no answer, no response.’ We pour our attention and time into seeking meaning by being admired, refining how we present ourselves to the world, or grasping at influence; and these speak no words of grace in reply – they merely add to our craving for even more attention or power.
It is not in grasping at life and meaning that God’s fire is found, but in the giving of life. I’m struck by how Jesus on the cross is like Elijah’s sacrifice. An eccentric outsider, who rejects the establishment cult, and builds an altar outside the city, where with no ritual and with simple prayer, he offers himself. And on this offering the fire falls. This is the sacrifice that God receives and blesses – which he continues to receive and bless on our altar each time we celebrate the Eucharist.
And just as Elijah invited the people standing nearby to approach and take part in his sacrifice, so Jesus invites us to come near to offer ourselves with him in his sacrifice. Jesus says to us, ‘You are not worthy to offer yourself alone, but come along with me, offer yourself with me – and God will receive and bless our offering together.’
O thou who camest from above
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire
and still stir up the gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete.