Let’s review the events that precede today’s Elijah story. Elijah was a prophet of God, and like other prophets was not bringing the messages Ahab, king of Israel, wanted to hear. Ahab wanted approval for the Baal worship which he and most of Israel had adopted from his wife Jezebel; but they brought warnings. The warnings went unheeded and eventually, God brought a drought on the land. Ahab ordered that all prophets of the God of Israel be rounded up and killed. Elijah ran and escaped, ending up in the home of a widow and her son all of whom were fed by God. After a time, God sent Elijah back to Ahab. As he was coming close he ran into Obadiah, a close advisor of Ahab who remained faithful to God. Obadiah had great news to share. Not only had Elijah escape the killing, but Obadiah had managed to hide away 100 other prophets of God! Even though the people of Israel were not faithful, Elijah was not alone in his faith in God.
Following that, there was the scene on Mt. Carmel where he challenged the prophets of Baal and God sent a consuming fire to show his presence and his power. The people acknowledged God as their god and king, and at Elijah’s order set about to capture and kill all of the prophets of Baal who were present. Then Elijah called on God to send rain, and boy did it rain! Both Ahab, in his chariot, and Elijah, on foot, headed back at high speed for Jezreel where today’s story begins just as they were shaking off the rain.
When Ahab told Jezebel that Elijah had all the prophets of Baal put to death, she was furious and cursed him, saying that he would be dead in 24 hours. Despite God’s great display of power on Mt Carmel, and grace in ending the drought with fresh rain, Elijah was terrified and ran for his life. The primal survival instinct kicked in and he was off. He ran to Judah, the kingdom ruled by Jehoshaphat, when he got as far as Beersheba he left his servant behind. After one more day’s journey, he couldn’t go any further! He sat down under a broom tree, a big tree which is almost always pictured all alone on a barren plain, and he prayed to God saying, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” and asked God to end his life. He must have been exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and feeling like a failure. He went to sleep with no intention of doing anything more and was woken by an angel with food and drink ready for him, a cake baked on a stone and a jar of water, just what he had asked from the widow of Zarephath, and which God had continued to provide for them.
After eating, He didn’t do anything else, like hiding for instance, but went back to sleep. When he was woken a second time he was not only fed but told that he would need food to sustain him for his journey. Remember, Elijah was planning to lay there until he died, but he didn’t seem to have batted an eye at the statement that he will be on a journey. The writer doesn’t give any indication that he received directions for this journey. It was almost as if a sleepwalker set out and, with no further food, walked south for 40 days and nights until he arrived at Mt Horeb. He spent the night in a cave, possibly the one in which Moses had stayed and met God. There. at the end of his flight from Jezebel’s anger, Elijah met God.
God asked why Elijah was there. Elijah poured out his story of service, feelings of isolation and failure and God told him to go out on the mountain because he would pass by. From inside the cave, where he had stayed, Elijah observed a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but God was not in any of those. It wasn’t until silence fell that Elijah wrapped his face in his cloak and stepped out. Once again God asked Elijah why he was there and Elijah replied just as he had before. This great display of power, the events at Mt Carmel, and the 40 days of testing on his journey had done nothing to shift Elijah’s state of mind, and yet when God told him to return and head to Damascus he set out without questions.
Today is Aboriginal Sunday and I want to tell you about a friend of mine. Hugh Akagi is the chief of the Schoodic Band of the Passamaquoddy nation. He lives in St Stephen. In the year 2013, there were approximately 300 known Passamaquoddy people residing in New Brunswick. Hugh was elected as chief in 1998 and is the great grandson of a Passamaquoddy hereditary chief, John Nicholas. There is no question that Hugh is an indigenous person, and yet, when he is in New Brunswick he is not recognized as one. He used to joke that when he drove from the US into Canada he felt himself becoming invisible. It is a neat image, but not funny by any stretch!
“Traditionally, the Passamaquoddy lived seasonally on both sides of what is now the international border (Canada/USA) and traveled freely from place to place. They are recognized as Indigenous Peoples by the United States government, but the Canadian government has denied their Indigenous Rights under Canadian law. The Government of Canada does not recognize the Passamaquoddy Peoples as Indians, entitled to be registered under the Indian Act. Neither Canada nor the Province of New Brunswick recognize Passamaquoddy Aboriginal Rights nor Aboriginal Title to land.” ((“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”) The nation and band have continued to work for recognition in Canada. In a letter to the NGO Committee of the United Nations, he stated, “As Native people we will continue to practice our traditions and culture and we will defend to the end our right to exist and we will resist any attempt to separate us from our homeland, our ancestors and our heritage.” (“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”). Given the lack of change on this issue, it is reasonable to assume that Hugh has had some “Elijah moments” over the years, but the band continues to work for recognition.
At Mt Carmel, “Elijah had won, but it hadn’t brought him peace.” ((Miller) Somehow he felt that he had failed at his life’s work and he was despairing and ready for it all to end. One component of depression is not being able to see the future, not looking forward to anything, no way forward, no way out. Elijah so no way forward so he sat down ready to die. But even though he couldn’t see a way, he trusted God. He asked God to let him die, but when God had other plans he moved on, not seeing the way himself but letting God direct him.
We all have times in our lives when we are tired, discouraged, when we can only see the walls that hem us in. No matter what our problems are or have been, no matter how loud and chaotic our lives become, God is present and has plans for us. Elijah took the long journey back to Israel, to the wilderness of Damascus, anointed the next kings of Judah and Israel, and passed on his ministry to a successor. Hugh is still fighting for recognition for his people. We may need to take breaks, to hide in a cave for a little while sometimes, but we also need to maintain hope and trust in God.
We may not know the way forward for us, but Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light…” (John 14:6) Follow him!
Miller, Dr. Susan. “June”. Churchofscotland.org.uk. N.p., 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”. Newbrunswick.quaker.ca. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 June 2016.
Phenomenal cosmic power; itty bitty living space! This may not ring a bell for all of you, but it is one of the greatest lines from Disney’s Aladdin. It is part of Genie’s explanation of the highs and lows of the gig of being a genie. He also lists certain provisos and quid pro quos to the wishes he can grant. He can’t kill anybody, he can’t bring anyone back from the dead, and he can’t make anyone fall in love with someone else. Not only that, the only way for him to gain his freedom is for a person to use one of his 3 wishes to free him.
In the discussion from Starters for Sunday Fourth Sunday after Pentecost from the Church of Scotland, there are five themes identified for this week. From Power, Justice, forgiveness, restoration and grace they draw the discussion to the key theme, woven through the story of Naboth’s vineyard, of the sovereignty of God.
Today we read about King Ahab again. This time, though, he was being more of a petulant toddler than a king. The first people to read this scripture were probably the Israelites who were in exile and it is likely that it was written to explain to them why God had allowed their exile.
Ahab and his wife Jezebel had gone to stay in their secondary palace. Apparently, he liked gardening but when he saw the vineyard of Naboth next door he wanted to buy it from him. Naboth refused to sell the land of his ancestors. Not only was this his “family farm” but the vineyard had been granted to his ancestors when the Israelites arrived in the promised land, and when God granted that land he made it clear that the land was for their use in perpetuity, but that it didn’t belong to them. They were told that it was never to be sold permanently. Naboth was being faithful to the will of God when he refused the Ahab. He was, unlike Ahab much of the time, being obedient to the real sovereign of Israel, God.
When Ahab could not convince Naboth to sell him the land, nor trade it for even better land he was disconsolate. Most kings would not have even offered a purchase or trade, brutality was the norm for kings of the day. I don’t say that to justify Ahab in any way, but rather to highlight the difference with kings of Israel and Judah who did not rise to power through their own actions or by birth but through God’s anointing. There were a few provisos and quid pro quos. The king must not consider himself better…than any other Israelite and he must not use his position to accumulate wealth for himself (Deut 17:14-20). God made it clear that they were to live in accordance with his commandments, remain faithful to him, and imitate his heavenly rule.
When he returned from the vineyard, Ahab moped, pouted, and refused to eat. Not only was he not getting his way, but as a king he had expected to be obeyed without delay and this made him feel powerless. When she noticed him moping around the palace more like a toddler than a king, Jezebel couldn’t take it. She asked what the problem was, told him to stop being such a baby and eat, and then set about to get him the vineyard.
Unbothered by loyalty to God (she worshiped Baal) niceties or ethics, she arranged to have Naboth killed. Not only did she do such a vile thing, but so did all the people and advisors who went along with her plan. Naboth died at the hands of the townspeople for trumped up charges of cursing God and king. When he was dead the elders and nobles got word back to Jezebel that Naboth was dead and she, in turn, informed her husband and told him to go take possession of the vineyard. Problem solved!
Ahab was Israel’s king. When God agreed to have a king anointed for Israel he warned them that life under a human king would not be a bed of roses. He knew, as do we through experience that powerful people and powerful institutions may start out working for the greater good, but too many turn to using their power for personal gain of one kind or another. Some want more and more power, today New Brunswick, tomorrow the world! Some use their power to belittle and diminish others like bullies on the school ground or in the workplace.
After Ahab took possession of the vineyard, God sent Elijah to him to pronounce his judgement for this crime. He told Ahab and Jezebel that they would die horrible deaths. “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (v 19). Our reading stopped at that point, but the story continues. Ahab actually repents and lives a more godly life for a while, but in the end he and Jezebel are killed and their bodies are dumped in the vineyard they had stolen where they would be torn apart by wild animals.
King Canute was once ruler of England. The members of his court were continually full of flattery. “You are the greatest man that ever lived…You are the most powerful king of all…Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do, nothing in this world dares disobey you.”
The king was a wise man and he grew tired such foolish speeches. One day as he was walking by the seashore Canute decided to teach them a lesson.
“So you say I am the greatest man in the world?” he asked them.
“O king,” they cried, “there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!”
“And you say all things obey me?” Canute asked.
“Yes sire” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honour.”
“I see,” the king answered. “In that case, bring me my chair, and place it down by the water.”
The servants scrambled to carry Canute’s royal chair over the sands. At his direction they placed it right at the water’s edge.
The King sat down and looked out at the ocean. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”
“Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” cried his entourage
“Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no further! Do not dare touch my feet!”
He waited a moment, and a wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.
“How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!”
In came another wave lapping at the king’s feet. Canute remained on his throne throughout the day, screaming at the waves to stop. Yet in they came anyway, until the seat of the throne was covered with water.
Finally Canute turned to his entourage and said, “It seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.”
Even some of greatest of Israel’s kings were, as are the rest of us, flawed. Regardless of who has earthly power over us, God is our sovereign, our true king to whom we owe our loyalty and obedience. Whether we find ourselves in positions of power or not, we are called to live out our lives in justice and love. This leaves us with two big questions. The notes on Church of Scotland starters for Sunday states them this way; “what does justice mean when we try to live it out relationally?” and, “what does it mean to live both justice and love in our lives?” As Presbyterians in Canada we have answer to that in our statement of faith, Living Faith section 8.4.
God is always calling the church to seek that justice in the world which reflects the divine righteousness revealed in the Bible.
God’s justice is seen when we deal fairly with each other and strive to change customs and practices that oppress and enslave others.
Justice involves protecting the rights of others. It protests against everything that destroys human dignity.
Justice requires concern for the poor of the world. It seeks the best way to create well-being in every society. It is concerned about employment, education, and health, as well as rights and responsibilities.
Justice seeks fairness in society. It involves the protection of human beings, concern for the victims of crime, as well as offenders. It requires fair laws justly administered, courts and penal institutions that are just and humane.
Justice opposes prejudice in every form. It rejects discrimination on such grounds as race, sex, age, status, or handicap. Justice stands with our neighbours in their struggle for dignity and respect and demands the exercise of power for the common good.
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!