Delivered at Ames UCC on November 8, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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NEXT THREE WEEKS
These last three weeks of Ordinary Time, the season between Pentecost and Advent, are interesting. We have a series of combative texts, stories of the people resisting God and God’s efforts to get us to finally, and permanently, wake up to faith. We will hear from three prophets: Elijah, Hosea, and Isaiah.
A word about prophets: They are trouble. As my rabbi, Dr. Rachel Mikva, likes to say, “You wouldn’t want to be caught in an elevator with a prophet.” Prophets are driven by their experience of God, with no regard for social niceties or our feelings. They are not fortune-tellers but describe possible future events, warnings of what might come if we fail to listen.
Prophets feel what God feels. And they demand what God is entitled to: repentance, faithfulness, and justice. Their recurrence in scripture and our lives points to a cycle of alienation and restoration with God that will, hopefully in some way, some day, lead to our redemption.
The three prophets we will hear this month bring proof of God, give voice to God, and then name the human predicament from God’s perspective. We begin with Elijah and King Ahab.
Ahab is the sixth king of Israel after Jereboam and his people rejected Reheboam, the son of Solomon. So Ahab is king of everything except the portion God protected for the descendants of David.
Ahab’s father is Omri. Omri is the first king in Hebrew history for which we have historical evidence. His palace has been excavated as well as other buildings. There is evidence of alliances and wars, typical actions of a powerful king of a small near eastern nation. But Omri’s write-up in scripture is brief and scathing:
Omri did what was displeasing to the Lord; he was worse than all who preceded him. (1 K 16.25).
And trust me, in the chapters between last week’s story and the appearance of Omri there are a lot of very, very bad kings and characters. But wait! His son Ahab is even worse:
Ahab son of Omri did what was displeasing to the Lord, more than all who preceded him. (1 K 16.30).
Ahab’s sin? Marrying a Phoenician princess, Jezebel.
Marrying a Phoenician was politically smart. They were close neighbors both geographically and culturally. They were also a significant conduit of cultural interaction through trade—far more than Israel. Homer mentions them under the name Sidoneans. They were the founders of Carthage. David and Solomon themselves allied with a Phoenician king, who helped them build the temple.
Jezebel has many good qualities. She is described as a good wife and mother. She was devout in her faith, even a zealot, but for the wrong gods, specifically Baal, the god of fertility, and Asherah, the mother god. Ahab’s problems arose when he began to do the same, when he was not completely faithful to the God of our scripture. (This should be reminding you of Solomon, who himself was punished for worshipping his wives’ gods.)
Our other major character today is Elijah. As Christians, we associate Elijah with John the Baptizer, who was believed to be a second coming of Elijah.
Elijah shows up out of nowhere to tell King Ahab that Ahab will have no rain or dew except as he, Elijah the servant of God, requests. On delivering that message, God sends Elijah into a region outside of Ahab’s control. God tells Elijah he will drink from the spring and that the ravens will feed him. Both prove true. But then the spring dries up and there is still no rain. God sends Elijah to another region where a widow will feed him.
On arrival, Elijah encounters the widow and asks for bread and water. She gives him the water but explains that she is about to use the last of her flour and oil to make a final meal for herself and her child, after which they will starve to death. Elijah tells her not to worry, but to make him a cake and one for herself and her son. If she does, she will never run out of flour and oil. The widow does and Elijah’s promise comes true: she has all she needs for some time. But then the son grows sick. The widow accuses Elijah of bringing death. Elijah cries out to God for life, and the son breathes again.
Much later, scripture reads, Elijah returns to Ahab at God’s behest. There is still a drought and it is severe. When Elijah and Ahab meet again, Ahab is angry. Elijah tells him to bring all of the people to Mt. Carmel along with the prophets of Baal, the god of Queen Jezebel.
That is when we meet up with today’s story: Another scummy king who has betrayed God, and a prophet with a proven godly connection sent, again, to try to set the people straight.
Elijah then enters into a magico-spiritual duel. He tells the prophets of Baal to sacrifice two bulls and put them on two separate stacks of firewood. Elijah then challenges them to get Baal to light one of the fires. They can’t.
Elijah pours water on to his own pile, just to make lighting the wood even harder. He prays:
O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove now that you are the God of Israel and that I am your servant and have done all this at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you are bringing them back to yourself.
And it works. Everything burns up and the water evaporates. The people recognize their god once more.
The prophet Elijah came to the people in their faithlessness. Elijah brought proof of God to the people in their doubt.
But, as Enrique was quick to point out during Bible study on Wednesday, it’s not like they hadn’t been given proof before. Elijah had miracles of food, but so did all of the people in the wilderness—for forty years! A whole sea parted! Octogenarians had babies!
What does it take for a people to remember God? What is it that keeps going wrong between generations?
That’s the same question I addressed last week when looking at our decline in church membership: What has gone wrong between generations?
Because even though we don’t have Elijah in our midst we are in the same position as the people he prophesied to: worshipping other gods and failing to live faithfully.
Some of our gods may be constructed by us like a golden calf, but I think most are more subtle. Like the pressure to always be busy, to always be connected online but look askance at opportunities to connect in real time, as we do here in church. Those false gods can feel so much more tangible and demanding than the holiness reported in this old book.
Since the time of Jesus we as a Christian body have been reluctant to recognize other prophets, teaching our children that their time is long over. But maybe the still-speaking God sends us voices in new ways for this new time.
Maybe the prophetic voice is in the absence of younger generations, the emptiness of our pews. Although the planet is certainly experiencing real droughts, maybe the prophetic drought is that of church attendance and participation.
Maybe the prophets are in the voices of legitimate complaint that the church has squandered its literal and spiritual riches on its buildings and in-fighting about sex and gender rather than literally caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
Prophets make us uncomfortable and we, as 21st century American Christians, are in a very uncomfortable, uncertain place.
The good news today is that this crisis is not new. The even better news is that the depth of our crisis points toward a richness yet to come.
This week Elijah brought proof of God. Next week Hosea gives God voice. And in the final week before Advent, before the beginning of the Christian New Year, Isaiah names the human predicament from God’s perspective.
If the prophetic record holds true, that we are in a cycle of falling away and coming back, then we are moving toward a new revelation of God.
Probably not manna or fire. Probably not a bonfire on demand.
But something that yet startles and stirs us deeply, that leaves us gob-smacked and slack-jawed at God’s greatness.