Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sermon: June 2, 2013

“Luke Skywalker Takes on the Death Star”
I Kings 18:20-39                                                                                                                         
 Rev. Andy Ferguson

            Do you remember in the 4th Episode of Star Wars that the good guys and the bad guys declared themselves early? The good guys were led by Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The bad guys are led by Darth Vader and known as the Empire, their evil made crystal clear by the building of a weapon the size of our moon which they called, “The Death Star.” In the battle to stop the attack from the Death Star, Vader and a group of TIE fighters are about to destroy Luke Skywalker's ship, but Han Solo (one of the reluctant good guys) returns at the last moment and destroys the TIE Fighters. The blast sends Darth Vader spiraling away. Finally, Luke turns off all navigational aids and trusting the Force flies his fighter through a canyon on the surface of the Death Star to destroy it with the perfect shot mere seconds before it can fire on the rebel base. That movie had a great ending.

            We Americans love the big confrontation – pitting good against evil AND right against wrong. The good guys are supposed to win the battle or the game or the day. The bad guys are supposed to end up a pile of wreckage.
            The Bible is filled with stories of clearly good-guys pitted against obviously bad-guys. So, maybe the Bible would have cheered for Luke Skywalker, too. But, most often, in our world, the sides are not so clear-cut; they are rarely completely good or completely evil. In our time, the bad guys claim to be the good guys, and the good guys are less than heroic, and innocent bystanders get hurt along the way. Of course, in the Bible we have the benefit of hindsight to help us make up our minds. In the Bible, we can be sure that the side God chooses is the good side. But, when we are in the situation and people are choosing sides, it can be hard to discern which side is good and which is evil. It can be hard to tell which side is better and which side is worse. It was all so clear back in the days of the Bible. The showdown between Prophet Elijah and the Prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel reads like Luke Skywalker trusting the Force to take on the Death Star. Such sweet clarity!

            During the days of Elijah the Prophet a king arose in Israel named Ahab. This king did what was unacceptable in the sight of the Lord:
+      He married a foreign woman, Jezebel, to make an alliance with the foreign king.
+      He embraced her worship of Baal, turning away from the worship of God.
+      He set up an altar and a sacred pole to honor Baal right in the heart of Israel.
All of this was forbidden by the God of Israel.
            Therefore, God stirred up Elijah to announce that there would be a drought in Israel:
**“As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew not rain these years, except by my word** (1 Kings 17.1).

Having made his pronouncement, Elijah went to live in the wilderness to wait. Well, the drought came, and it was harsh. It continued for three long years.
            As the scripture reading opens, Elijah has been in hiding for three years, staying well beyond King Ahab’s reach. Now, it is time for a showdown. Elijah steps out of hiding to meet the King.
            This is one of the great meetings of the Bible:
**17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you Troubler of Israel?” 18 Elijah answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals** (1 Kings 18.17f).

Now, think about this. It was not as clear-cut as the story suggests. Elijah charges that Ahab has led Israel into idolatry; thus, the drought is God’s punishment for their sin. Ahab, for his part, could have charged that Elijah made the god Baal angry with his no compromise ways. Alternatively, Ahab might have claimed that he was promoting enlightened cooperation among the religious groups – a cooperation that Elijah is disrupting. As these men talked, I expect that charges flew on both sides. Elijah will not accept the blame for these years of suffering. The blame rests on King Ahab and the way he has led the nation away from the ways of God. Someway must be found to resolve the standoff.
            Now, Elijah lays down the challenge to Ahab and his nation:
19 Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” (1 Kings 18.19).

Like Luke Skywalker taking on the Death Star, Elijah will challenge these foreign prophets and their god to a showdown. The challenge to God and this foreign god Baal is to demonstrate their reality and their power in some way that the people can comprehend. In this way, the charges flying between Elijah and Ahab will be answered. Still, watching these two old adversaries shouting at each other in the open field must have been quite a sight.
            20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18.20f).

Elijah got to set the terms. The division could not be more clear. The stakes could not be higher.
            Elijah stands before the assembled crowd with blazing eyes, the wind whipping his beard. He speaks with all the sweetness of Rush Limbaugh – focused on dividing people from people, loyalty from loyalty, side from side. In his mind, there is no middle ground; there is no possibility of compromise; there is no way they can work together. Their accommodation is the problem. There is not enough room for two gods in Israel: one must rise victorious; the other must be driven from the field defeated.
            If Ahab was working to allow both gods and both loyalties to exist in his kingdom side by side, Elijah was determined to establish a division. In Elijah’s mind, what Ahab proposed was nothing more than “limping with two different opinions.” In Elijah’s mind, compromise was weakness.
            Curiously, when Elijah challenged the people:
“How long will you limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word.

It appeared that they did not realize the problem; they did not know what to say. And what about us? Do we realize the problem with living in two competing commitments, two competing visions of what life should be? I think we also do not realize the problem. We too would stand silent before the blazing eyes of the prophet.

II. We again live in a time of accommodation. We are taught to be tolerant:
+      Of intolerance,
+      Of injustice,
+      Of different religions with different gods.
We are taught to make a place in this Christian faith for the ways of the world.
            Like ancient Israel, we live in a world of many allegiances, many gods. We were spoiled by the dominance of Christianity in the America of 50 years ago, and have not learned to claim our faith in a world of many faiths. At the same time, we have been convinced that we cannot claim our convictions without being obnoxious. We have been silenced by the call to get along.
            Elijah’s challenge is that *WE WHO CLAIM FAITH too easily accommodate the claims and the ways of the world. You see this accommodation any time Christians lose the critical distinction between the claims of God and the culture of our time, between God who is AND the god who is fashioned, between God who creates and god who is created. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve both.”
+      Our God broke on the scene by responding to the cry of the oppressed. Israel was living under slavery in Egypt; with a mighty hand, God led them to freedom. So, how can we tolerate oppression – against the poor among us, against the Latino, against the African American?
+      Our Jesus willingly embraced the lepers that the world declared unclean. So how can we tolerate the poor treatment of the lepers in our own society – those with AIDS, children with mental and physical handicaps?
+      Our Jesus demanded mercy for the sinner, the outcast and the poor when everyone knew that they were getting what they deserved. Where have we withheld mercy? From those who deserve prison, from those who lost homes in the Great Recession, from the working poor bypassed by the economic recovery since 2008?
Biblical faith, with its roots in the cry of the oppressed to God and in the hope stirred up by Jesus of Nazareth is too often twisted to sanctify and perpetuate the life, culture, security, and privilege of those with power to silence all other claims.
            The challenge of Elijah is addressed to each one of us who claims to follow in the way of the God of Israel, the God of the prophets, the God who took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We are called to faithfulness to the voice of God in a world that whispers, “But, on the other hand.” God’s voice calls us:
+      To keep the Commandments as God’s gift to build strong communities and nations, even though the world finds them narrow and prudish.
+      To live as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, convinced that the beginning of the Kingdom of God is found there.
+      To know the difference between the ways of God and the ways of the world and to care about those who get chewed up by the difference.

Think about it. Elijah’s challenge is for us, too. 

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