Thursday, May 26, 2016

May 29, Proper 4: Prophecy 1: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

I Kings 18:20-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

We are now in so-called Ordinary Time. That’s the period in the church’s calendar after Pentecost and up to Advent, about six months. Ordinary Time is all those ordinary weeks outside the two special seasons of Christmas and Easter which celebrate the events in the life of the Lord Jesus. In Ordinary Time we deal with our own ordinary lives, in the ordinary world, but as this ordinary world is also the Kingdom of God.

In Ordinary Time, by ecumenical agreement, each Sunday gets its proper prayers and its proper lessons in the Lectionary. Today is Sunday Proper 4. Why we are not starting with Proper 1 has to do with the changing date of Easter, as I could show you in some charts and tables, but not right now.

Also in Ordinary Time our Old Testament lessons now follow their own sequence and tell their own stories week after week instead of being determined as background for the Gospel lesson, so any harmonics with the Gospel lesson are coincidental. We are in third year of our three-year lectionary cycle, which means our Old Testament lessons are from the latter centuries of Israel’s history, and that means the prophets, like today. So my new sermon series is on Prophecy.

Prophecy occurs in all religions, but it’s especially important to Biblical religion. The religion of Islam takes it to one extreme, and says that while there have been many prophets, including Moses and Jesus, the final prophet is Mohammad, and there is none after. No Muslim today would ever dare call himself a prophet. We Christians are different. On Pentecost, the Apostle Peter proclaimed that the Holy Spirit would make our sons and daughters prophesy. Every Protestant preacher is supposed to be a sort of prophet. And we Christians in general are called to be prophetic people.

So let’s find out how this is true for us. We will see what the scriptures say to us on this over the coming weeks. I don’t know yet where we’ll come out. I’m learning as much as you are. I hope we will all be inspired and challenged and maybe even convicted. “How shall we, as ordinary Christians, be prophetic?” I hope I have some take-homes for you in the coming weeks.

And also, “How shall we, the congregation of Old First, be together a prophetic people?” Being prophetic is not in our mission statement, it’s not been part of our vision. If anything, we think of ourselves as a priestly people, offering sanctuary and hope, and maybe a slightly kingly people in offering hospitality, but never in our history has Old First been very prophetic. Maybe that stems from our having been established by the government in 1654. So we behave, and be nice to everyone. The establishment regards prophets as troublemakers, because prophets speak truth to power.

If we look at the Lord Jesus in the gospel story, I can imagine him responding differently than he did. If the Lord Jesus is a prophet, then shouldn’t he be like Elijah and denounce the centurion and all that he stood for? Should he not clarify that the niceness of the centurion was only lubrication for the oppression of the Roman empire, making tolerable the abomination of temples to Roman gods and goddesses within the Holy Land?

And if Jesus is the Messiah, is it not actually his job to do like David with the Philistines, and battle the centurion and chase him and his slaves and soldiers out of Israel? That Jesus did not do these things is why the patriots who were drawn to him then drew away from him, and one of them finally betrayed him, Judas Iscariot by name.

Look how fiery was the Apostle Paul in our epistle lesson. He called a curse upon his theological opponents. Now that’s prophetic rigor, isn’t it? That’s like Elijah. Is that what it means for us to be prophetic—to brook no toleration, to risk division and even call for it?

The Bible never explains exactly what a prophet is, and it’s hard to pin the job down, because the job shows evolution over time. There were prophets before Elijah, but they always worked in groups, and we have no record of what they did or said. Elijah was the first great solo prophet. We know nothing of his prior life. Nobody ordained him or appointed him, he just shows up out of nowhere, from the desert, to speak his truth against the power of King Ahab.

King Ahab, according to the evidence of archaeology, was regarded internationally as an effective king. He grew the economy, and he made good alliances, especially with the Phoenicians, who dominated the Mediterranean at that time. He married the Phoenician princess Jezebel. He allowed his queen to bring her gods and goddesses with her, which was normal, and he built for them a temple in his capital.

Her gods and goddesses were obviously very powerful—just look at the success of the Phoenicians! It was smart to get her gods and goddesses on the side of her adopted country, so that Israel could have a share in their prosperity. It was smart to offer worship to the most successful of the gods. You could still offer worship to the tribal god too, the Lord God of Abraham. It was the normal thing to do.

The normal thing to do is what a prophet speaks against. The issue for Elijah is that you can’t have the Lord God as just one among the many gods. It’s all or nothing with this God. This God of Israel is the only god in the ancient world who acts like that. This is the only god who refuses to take his place among the other gods and goddesses who all have their fair share of power in the world. This is the only ancient god who isn’t fair to the other gods, the only god who claims to be the one true god.

And what does this jealous God have to show for his presumption? An empire? International success? Like the Phoenician gods with their powerful colonies established along the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Carthage and Spain? No, just twelve tribes quarreling and self-defeating, culturally backward and primitive economically. Some god. So King Ahab will still show some honor to their tribal God of Abraham, but the future is with Baal. Especially when it comes to the economy.

But Elijah will have none of it. He is jealous for the Lord. And fortunately the Lord God backs him up.

So what’s for us today in this marvelous story? Well, first of all, we’re just plain supposed to know this story, as part of the necessary knowledge of the Christian church. And we’re meant to enjoy this story too, with all of its drama and color and comedy, not least the sarcasm of Elijah. You have the frenzy of the prophets of Baal and them drawing their own blood to show their sacrifice, and then you have the deliberate labor of Elijah and then the quiet as he gathers the people and then the focused intensity of his prayer. When you know this story you have an idea what faith feels like.

Second, as much as the story delights us it also judges us. Not that we’re the prophets of Baal; we are the ordinary people. We do try to have it both ways. We do “go limping along with two opinions.” We do compromise our faith in the One True God by our loyalties to other beliefs and ideologies that are normal and apparently successful in the ordinary world. Political systems, economic ideologies. Liberal, conservative, progressive, socialist, capitalist, all of them, we have always to ask ourselves how our participation in them makes us limp in our walk with God.

Whenever we examine ourselves against God’s claims we are being prophetic. Being prophetic means more than that, but that’s enough for today: we are prophetic in our self-examination, collective and individual. We judge ourselves and then we gather close to Elijah and return again unto the Lord.

This prophetic self-examination is actually good news, because it is liberating, as it keeps freeing us from presumption, pride, and prejudice, and from our bondage to power and our seduction by success.

And it’s also healing. It’s healing because standing between Elijah then and us now is the Lord Jesus, greater than Elijah, the one in whom that centurion recognized true power and an authority greater than his own, the one who was willing to go to that centurion’s house despite all of his corrupting connections. So the sharpness of the prophet is for healing and the clarity is for grace. The jealousy of Elijah was for the love of God. The centurion loved his slave, and in the Lord Jesus going to his house we see why Christ came into the world, because God so loves the world.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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