I want to start today by setting the scene, by getting clear about the backstory – on several levels.
To begin with, we have entered a new liturgical season: the Season after Pentecost, aka Ordinary Time, which gives the suggestion that this time of year – stretching all the way from now until Thanksgiving – is unremarkable, ordinary, not exciting, nothing much going on in the life of the Church, in the Scriptures, in our lives as Jesus’s followers. After the sequence of following Jesus’s life and ministry through Advent and Christmas, the Season after Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week and Easter, the Ascension, the gift of Spirit at Pentecost, and even the great mystery of the Trinity which we celebrated last week, things do seem ordinary; perhaps we need a bit of a breather. And yet this is also the season that focuses on the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church – and that means us: the Body of Christ, the People of God. This is the time of year that asks us how we are going to put what we know and have learned and loved about Christ into action. It’s as though our spiritual bones have been grown and stretched through living Jesus’ life with him; now our spiritual muscles have to catch up, they have to be worked and exercised if we are to have any strength of faith.
The second point of our backstory to get clear is that we are in Year C of the lectionary – the third year of our three-year cycle of readings. We started Year C back in Advent, and have been hearing from the Gospel of Luke for the most part, with readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament that support the Gospel. Now we are moving into that time when the Old Testament readings will follow in course, telling large swathes of the story from one week to the next. In Year C those readings will all highlight the prophets and their ministries. It’s important to remember that in the Old Testament, prophets were messengers of God – not fortune-tellers, not clairvoyants, but people who had been called by God to steep themselves in prayers and the divine presence so they could listen for the word or message that God wanted to be spoken into particular situations. They usually addressed the leaders of God’s people so they could be guiding in making decisions that would keep the people as a whole in a faithful relationship with God, that would keep them in the covenant.
The backstory of today’s reading from 1 Kings is that Elijah was a prophet and wonder-worker from the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab, in the 9th century BC. Earlier in time Israel and Judah (in the south) had been one united kingdom, under the leadership of David, and his Solomon; and it was during Solomon’s reign that the Temple had been built in Jerusalem, in the south, to be the home of the Ark of the Covenant, and the focus of worship for the whole nation. But the coalition and the dynasty of Solomon’s sons finally fell apart, and south and north each went their own ways. The Israelite kings pursued policies and alliances that ran counter to the ways and worship of Yahweh, Jehovah, the Lord God. King Ahab married Jezebel, a foreign princess and priestess of the Canaanite fertility god Baal and his consort Asherah. And he built many shrines to Baal, and put many priests of Baal on the court payroll – all in a nation that was supposed to have a faithful covenant relationship with God.
Elijah took the lead in opposing Ahab and Jezebel and in calling the people back to the worship of Yahweh alone, and there were a number of skirmishes in that long-running struggle. But finally, as we hear in the reading today, Elijah has called for a direct and public face-off with the priests of Baal. There were 450 of them, and only one of him. The idea was to see whose god is indeed listening to and answering prayer, and powerful enough to show up in the lives of the people.
Now, the story of this encounter is very long – thirty verses; that’s why we read as a dialogue this morning. And the lectionary editors suggest that we could omit verses 22-29, but that leaves out the Baal priests’ attempt to call down fire on their sacrifice – the whole point of the contest. And it would also leave out Elijah’s mocking of them – surely one of the snarkiest lines in the Old Testament: "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is ‘meditating’ (OT euphemism for being in the bathroom), or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." Another reason for reading the whole passage is because life just takes time, faith takes time; as we tell our own stories of faith and our journey to know the Lord we know that it has ups and downs, ins and outs, and that our life of faith and relationship with God cannot be put in a 30-second container, like an ad for dish soap.
So the priests of Baal have failed to have their god respond in any way to their prayers. Elijah, on the other hand, shows his faith and trust in the Lord God first by suggesting the contest, and second by upping the ante by dousing the entire sacrifice and altar with water three times, just to make God’s response seem all the more dramatic. And that’s exactly what happens – Elijah prays, and God sends fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice, and all the people standing and watching are convinced and say “The Lord indeed is God.” Elijah to an enormous risk, went out on a huge limb, in order to call the people back to God through his very dramatic action. Had he failed, he would not just have been disgraced, and the people unconvinced, but Elijah would no doubt have been put to death by the king’s order.
In the Gospel we see a similar kind of risky faith. A Roman centurion, a Gentile, one of the despised military leaders of the occupying imperial force, sent a delegation of community leaders he had worked with to ask Jesus for help in healing a household slave who was ill. As they were talking, the centurion sent another messenger: “Master, you don’t have to go to all this trouble. I’m not that good a person, you know. I’d be embarrassed for you to come to my house, even embarrassed to come to you in person. Just give the order and my servant will get well. I’m a man under orders; I also give orders. I tell one soldier, ‘Go,’ and he goes; another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (The Message). The centurion had no guarantee that Jesus would entertain his request, that he would not be rejected out of hand. And perhaps he ran the risk, from the Roman point of view, of foolishly stooping to the local customs, being disloyal to the Roman imperial code. But he clearly knew from what he had heard about Jesus that here was power, and compassion, and his request was worth the risk on behalf of this slave whom he seemed to value. Indeed, the man was healed, and Jesus was very impressed with the centurion’s faith, so far than any of his own people.
And that’s one of the real hallmarks of faith – it is risky; the outcome is not assured by any means. It entails putting your hopes and plans, and sometimes even your life, on the line – trusting that God has your best interests at heart and wants you to be intimately involved with his purposes. Even when – or especially when – life seems to be falling apart, we are called to put our trust in God, to exercise risky faith; not foolish faith, but risky faith with no guarantee of the outcome except that we will always be held, loved, valued, and cherished by God. It was true for Elijah, it was true for the centurion, and it is true for you - now, today, tomorrow, next week, and on and on. God’s purposes for us and for this world are before us, and we are called to embrace and be embraced by the faith of Christ which will sustain us always.
Let us pray in these words from Henri Nouwen:
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Pentecost
May 29, 2016