Believe it or not…! Would you believe that … ? Most of the time that we are faced with that sort of statement or question it is either preceded or followed by some extraordinary tale. Can you believe that a deer climbed through a window and was running around in the legislature chambers? Can you believe that she lost 80 pounds in just a month on this new diet? I can’t believe they are charging so much for a loaf of bread!
Belief is a very fundamental thing and yet in the same way as we have taken to talking about “loving cheese” we have to some extent reduced the power of the word believe. It isn’t that we are misusing the word believe, but it is rarely used for the foundational issues. However, if I were to ask you what your beliefs were, I don’t think you would respond with your take on the latest happenings at work, the latest gossip, or the latest scientific discovery. Ultimately our beliefs are the foundation of our identity, the guiding principles behind all our life decisions and actions.
C.S. Lewis, well known author of the Narnia series as well as many excellent books on theological issues, grew up attending the Church of England with his parents. From his earliest days he believed in God. At some point in his teens this belief went away and he became an atheist. Not just a quiet atheist, he was what I ironically term a devout atheist. Not sufficient to just not believe himself, he argued all the really good reasons why there was no God with anyone who would listen.
Despite this belief, or lack there-of, he continued to feel that there was something else, occasionally glimpsed out of the corner of his eye or sensed behind his back. After years of atheism, a stage of dabbling with the occult, he was surprised to find that what he had been glimpsing and sensing was indeed God. During the period of time when he did not believe, he made no pretense of belief. He was wholly and enthusiastically an atheist. When he believed he was wholly and enthusiastically Christian and shared that belief in his writing. C.S. Lewis, for whatever else one may say about him, was not a fence sitter!
Elijah was the only prophet of God who had survived king Ahab’s killing of prophets of God and all those who refused to worship Baal. In the community of Israel at that time some people were either wholeheartedly worshiping Baal, the storm god of Syria, or somewhat secretly worshiping God. There were many, however, who sat on the fence. They worshiped God but had Baal figures and Asherah poles, symbols of the Canaanite mother goddess, as well. There was even a belief among some of the descendants of mixed marriages with the Canaanites that God was the replacement for the father god El, the husband of Ashera and so it followed that Asherah must be God’s wife.
We read in I Kings 18:20-39 of a standoff at Mount Carmel. On one side there were, according to other writings about the event, 400 prophets of Asher and 450 prophets of Baal. On the other side there was Elijah, the sole prophet of God. It was time for people to get off the fences and stand firmly on one side or the other. Either they would believe in “their god”, or they would believe in “the Lord.” Elijah proposed a sort of duel. Both sides would prepare a sacrifice but not set fire to it. The Baal prophets would then pray to him to light the fire and Elijah would pray the same to God. The one who lit the fire, he said, “is God.”
Let’s look at the odds shall we? They had, altogether, 850 prophets, an altar already standing, first choice of bull, and a head start. Elijah gave them all day. They began in the morning and by noon Baal had not started a fire under the offering. Elijah mocked them but did not set about to make his offering right away. By the time they were nearing the evening sacrifice and meal they had pulled out all the stops, to the extent of cutting themselves with swords and lances.
Elijah was alone, he went second in choosing his materials, had to build an altar since the original lay in ruins, had a definite time limit pressing, and then on top of that he dug a trench around the altar and had water poured over the wood and bull until it filled up the trench.
Have you tried starting a fire with wet wood? A betting person surely would put the odds seriously in favour of Baal. When it came time for oblation Elijah called people to come closer to his altar. He prayed to God in the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel not for justifying himself or saving his life but so that all would know that God is Lord! After this fairly simple prayer, “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.” The people saw, believed, and worshiped, repeating the words, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Recently on the Newnham Campus of Seneca College in Toronto the General Assembly; ministers, elders, and guests from Presbyterian churches across Canada, gathered to worship. There had great music, they gathered, confessed their sins, were nurtured by the Word, listen to a reflection on the Word, and respond with communion and prayers. After the service they settled down to the order of the day which was to address issues of doctrine, logistics and mission which will set the course of the national church for the next year. This is the court of the church that must meet and agree upon any statements of the church, like The Living Faith.
Paul wrote a letter to the Christians living in Galatia, some of them would have been Jews and many gentiles. He and his companions had presented the Gospel to them. They had believed, been baptized, and were living according to the Gospel message. There were no general assemblies; there was no formal church structure or any written documents to guide their growth as the church. By the time Paul was writing this letter people had started to try to formalize things and a group of Christians began to add their own interpretations and provisos to the Gospel proclamation.
Paul was horrified by the notion that some of the Jewish Christians were teaching that in order to be Christian people needed to submit to “the law” and a part of that included a requirement that men be circumcised. This may not seem like such a big deal, but to Paul it was the same as throwing out the Gospel and creating a gospel of human creation. Does this sound familiar? It is much like the situation with Elijah and the Baal prophets. Elijah knew there were no other gods, that, as it says in Psalms, “all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” Paul says the Gospel is in the same way that the Lord is God! The Gospel wasn’t created by man but given to man by God. He refers to the other teachings as gospel only to have a way of addressing the issue. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel.”
To Paul the Gospel was not something taught by Jesus during his lifetime, but given to us by Jesus. It was nothing less than the full power of God, there was no need for any human action or intervention for God to give this gift. It represents freedom, an opening up of salvation to all, it opens the eye of the needle so that we may all pass through. The law based gospel these people in Galatia were presenting denied the total power of God and effectively closed the eye of the needle right back up.
What is the message to us today? Those of us here this morning are all at some stage of believing the Gospel. Some may just be hearing it for the first time, some hearing it anew, some struggling to hold on to their belief, and others feeling full of and freed by it. The Gospel is the good news of God’s saving act in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For it to make sense to all different people it needs to be translated and interpreted to them in various ways. While, unlike the Galatians, we have the written New Testament full of the stories of Jesus and of the birth and growth of the early church, we truly receive the Gospel only from God.
The claims of the Gospel are wild and defy logic and human nature. In some ways we trap it, and tame it with our written word changing it into ideology. Let us, rather, choose to believe the Gospel. Let us truly accept it and stand in awe of its wildness!