Nov 3rd | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | 1 Kings 18:17-39
There are stories in the Bible that were just meant for film. The story of the parting of the Reed Sea and the passage of the Hebrews from the ensuing Egyptian chariots and armies is one, memorably re-created (though historically inaccurate) by Cecil B. DeMille. The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is dramatic, to be sure, with poor little Daniel surrounded by more lions than live in the Bronx zoo. The nativity of the Lord is another, most often completely ignoring the gospels and historical insight, but lovely nonetheless.
And this story of Elijah on Mount Carmel offering dueling sacrifices with the prophets of Baal is another. It’s got everything: a king and queen (named Jezebel) who have forsaken the God of Israel and gone off with the gods of Baal, a prophet who stirs up controversy - called “the troubler of Israel” by the evil king, pyrotechnics - including fire falling from heaven on command, and plenty of blood and gore - enough to earn an “R” rating. The setting of the story is Mount Carmel, which overlooks the plain of Meggido - the supposed site of the great and final battle between good and evil known as Armageddon. There’s more than enough there for a good movie.
And that has been the problem with the story. The message of the story gets lost in all the special effects. We get so wrapped up in the production quality of the story that we fail to realize that there’s more to it than meets the eye.
And God - and God’s cause - doesn’t come off too great in the story either. What kind of God participates in such a gawdy display that sounds more appropriate for a Las Vegas theater than the Bible? What kind of God allows themselves to be “put to the test” by Elijah while forbidding everyone else from doing so in the Book of Deuteronomy? How does God sanction Elijah taking all the priests of Baal down to the nearby brook and killing them? Much better to focus on the special effects.
And what in the wide, wide world of sports are we doing reading this story on a day when we celebrate the saints of God? What does this story have to do with those who have lived lives of faithfulness and devotion to God? Why aren’t we reading a more traditional passage for All Saints’ Day, like the 11th chapter of Hebrews, or a very small portion of Revelation?
So, we have more than a challenge ahead of us this morning, and a quick look at the liturgy for the morning will tell you that we don’t have much time. So, fasten your seatbelts. Here we go.
Let’s first remember that the stories of the Bible - including this one - were written long after the events they purport to share. They are not all that different from some of our own American stories that were told after-the-fact and enhanced for the purpose of magnifying their importance.
Take the story of George Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. This popular myth is often told to illustrate his strength, but the river was not the Potomac (about a mile wide) nor was it the Delaware. Looking at his childhood homestead, perhaps it was the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. According to myth, Washington threw a piece of slate, about the size and shape of a dollar, not an actual silver dollar. Well, why not a silver dollar? Because there were no silver dollars until 1794, five years before Washington died, far past the time when Washington could have been a reliever for the Nationals. But it makes a great story and amplifies the message that Washington was a great and powerful man.
So, here is Elijah - the great prophet of Israel - second only to Moses. It is Moses and Elijah - emblematic of the law and the prophets - who appear on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Jesus. Elijah the Great, who deserves a story of greatness and power. Elijah - whose name means “My God is the Lord” - meeting in pitched battle with those whose god is not the Lord. Suddenly, the story becomes a bit more compelling.
Then, let’s also remember the fact that Elijah was not just going up against false gods and idolatry and the two-timing behavior of the people. Elijah was also standing in drawn opposition to the king and queen - the government of his time - who had the power to execute him at their whim. Elijah was confronting the powers and authorities of his day for their abandonment of God and the ways of God. Trust me, when you preach like that, you get mail.
And Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal was completely public. This was not a small group gathering, or a social gathering, or a Facebook post. Elijah is standing on a mountaintop in the full sight of the people of Israel that King Ahab had commanded to be there and in the company of 450 prophets of Baal and 400 priests of Ashura. One sole individual against what seemed to be the world.
Now, Elijah can appear to be a little cocky. You can read the story as Elijah being a little-too-sure-of-himself. He comes off as smart-allecky and snarky.
But, very often, confidant people come off that way. When people are certain of something, there is a boldness - an audaciousness - a fearlessness - that is at the core of their being and behavior. Elijah’s bravado isn’t masking anything. Elijah is certain of his mission.
And his mission is to remind the people that God is God and there is no other. God is God and cannot be depicted in idols of metals or stone. God is God and God calls God’s people to a particular and peculiar way of life.
That is what is at the heart of this story of Elijah and the events on Mount Carmel. Elijah is certain of his certainty when it comes to the reality of God. Elijah is not unsure or doubtful. Elijah is not unconvinced or hesitant. In the presence of imperial power and religious malpractice, Elijah boldly stands in witness to God and God’s way.
Saints are those who stand boldly in witness to God and God’s way. They are not super-human nor do they possess super-powers. They are often among the least and the forgotten of the earth. They are not always powerful by the metrics of power and influence. They are not always rich and comfortable.
Of some saints of old, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews said:
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented - of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:36-38)
But they were certain of their certainty. They stood with unshakable conviction and confidence that God was exactly who God said God was. With assurance and certitude, they stood in the face of powers and principalities with unswerving faith. They were certain of their certainty.
And we are called to nothing less. You and I are called to sing, in the words of the old evangelistic hymn:
But “I know whom I have believed,
and am persuaded that he is able
to keep that which I’ve committed
unto him against that day.”
In the face of powers and principalities, in the presence of friends and enemies, in the face of popularity polls and general acceptance, you and I are called to “the certainty of certainty” - that unshakable confidence that comes from being connected to God. We are called to stand with the utmost assurance that God-is-with-us and that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
This is the faith of the saints. This is the faith in which they lived and died.
This is the faith we too are called to live.
For now and evermore. Amen.