November 3, 2019

“God’s Name and Promise Endure”

1 Kings 18:17-39

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

November 3, 2019 


Today’s reading reminded me of a song from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Annie and Frank get into an argument and she begins to sing:

Annie:   Anything you can do, I can do better.  I can do anything better than you.

Frank:   No you can't. 
Annie:   Yes, I can.
Frank:   No, you can't.
Annie:   Yes, I can. 
Frank:   No, you can't.
Annie:   Yes, I can, Yes, I can!


In our Scripture reading it’s King Ahab and the prophets of Baal versus Elijah.  “My god is greater than your god.”  “No, my God is greater than yours.”  It sounds like children arguing on the playground, and the only way Elijah could think of to settle it is with a contest.


It’s easy to just read this story and come away feeling satisfied that our God won.  Our God is greater and stronger than all other gods.  Our God answers prayers.  Our God is present and active in our lives.  The lesson seems to be that we need to choose whom we worship.  We need to choose to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.


That’s how I’ve preached this story in the past.  And while I think it is true that we need to be aware of the false gods and idols we worship and that we need to really focus our worship, I think there is more going on than just this power contest between Baal and the Lord.  


I think in this somewhat crazy, street-theater type of story, this contest between Baal and the Lord, God is revealing God’s character to us.  God is faithful and would not give up on the people God called, beginning with Abraham and to the kings and people of Israel that Elijah spoke to.  The promise God made was unbreakable, durable, took a beating and was constantly disregarded.  And yet, it still endures, even today.  That says a lot about who God is and how much God loves us.


The context for this contest between gods is the divided kingdom and the unfaithful leadership of the kings of Judah and Israel.  A long time has passed since David had been king of a unified Israel, having led all twelve tribes.  For all his flaws, David tried to be faithful to the LORD.  But this was not the case with the kings who followed him.  While Solomon succeeded David and built the first Temple, his life was full of distractions.  Too much wealth, too many wives.  After he died, his son Rehoboam ascended to the throne.  But Rehoboam rejected the advice of the elders, which gave Jeroboam a chance to rally the people against him, and the kingdom split in two, Israel and Judah.


The story of Israel and Judah’s kings found in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles is one of abandonment of the covenant they had with the LORD.  Some kings were faithful to the LORD, but most were not.  If you read the summaries of the lives of each king, some say, “he did what was right in the sight of the LORD,” but most say, “he did evil in the eyes of the LORD.”  But God loved his people and refused to give up on them.


In today’s reading, Ahab is the king of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.  He was not a good king, as it is reported in 1 Kings 16:30, he “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.”  His wife Jezebel, the daughter of a foreign king, brought her worship of Baal to their marriage.  Not only did Ahab worship Baal, but he also encouraged the worship of another god, Asherah, just to make sure he was in good standing with the various gods of the day.


Elijah the prophet was sent to Ahab to register the LORD’s displeasure and disappointment.  He said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  The drought did not convince Ahab, Jezebel or the people of Israel to drop their worship of Baal.  


After three years without rain, the LORD was ready to confront Ahab, and once again sent Elijah to him.  Elijah told Ahab to gather all the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Asherah, who had all been supported by Jezebel.  He also called for the people of Israel to gather.  The NRSV translation of verse 21 vividly conveys Elijah's challenge:  “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (v. 21).  The challenge was clear:  Choose your God; worship the God who is truly God.


Elijah described the contest.  Each team would prepare an altar with the sacrifice of a bull, and would call on their god to set it all on fire.  “The god who answers by fire—he is God” (v. 24b).  Everyone agreed to the terms of the contest.


The contest was stacked in Baal’s favor.  Fire was Baal’s specialty.  He was the god who threw lightning from heaven. This was what Baal worship was all about:  you prayed to him, and he would send rain and lightning.  If Baal could do anything at all, he could certainly light the fire.  And Team Baal would get to go first.  If Baal answered, the game was over.  He also had a bigger team, 450 prophets versus Elijah.  


The prophets of Baal sprang into action.  They prepared their bull sacrifice.  They prayed and called on the name of Baal from morning to noon. There was a deafening silence, as there was no response.  No lightning, no fire came.  


Elijah taunted them:  “Shout louder!  Surely he is a god!  Perhaps he is deep in thought, or buy, or traveling.  Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”  But Elijah’s point in this contest is to show that Baal is a false god.  As much as Baal demands in worship of his followers, he can’t answer and he doesn’t respond.  Worship of such a god, who does not and cannot answer, is a waste of time. 


The prophets of Baal shouted louder and danced themselves in circles, and even began to cut themselves to try to get a response out of their god. “Frantic” is the word used to describe their efforts to get Baal to send fire.  You can sense the desperation in their actions.  “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (v. 29b).  


Then Elijah set to work.  He called all the people to gather around the altar as he worked on it.  The way Elijah repaired the altar of the LORD caught my attention:  

“Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying “Your name shall be Israel.”  With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed” (verses 31-32).


The stones were significant.  They represented the twelve tribes who had descended from sons of Jacob.  We are reminded of the story of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with a stranger.  Remember how Jacob held onto his opponent, even with a broken hip, and would not let go until he gave him a blessing?  The stranger, who we think was God, renamed Jacob the deceiver to “Israel,” which means “he struggles with God.” 


I think that these little details—the number of stones, recalling how Jacob was renamed Israel, and the fact that Elijah built the altar in the name of the LORD—are meant to jog our memories and help us link this story to the larger story of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  


After preparing the sacrifice and flooding the altar with water so there would be no doubt about the power of the Lord, Elijah prayed:  

“O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.  Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (vv. 36-37). 


Elijah prays that God’s answer will turn the people’s hearts back to Yahweh.  The whole point of this crazy exhibition is not just to prove whose god is better.  The point is for the people to return to the LORD.  Even after all their disobedience, their worship of false gods, their waffling between gods, their unfaithfulness, God wants the people of Israel to return to living in covenant with him.  God’s promise endured in spite of the long line of unfaithful kings.  God’s name, God’s glory would not be diminished.


The LORD answered decisively with fire that burned up everything—the bull sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil and even the water in the trench.  Nothing was left.  It was clear:  Yahweh was the true God, the One who answered.


How could anyone not worship this God?  The people fell down on their faces and cried that Yahweh was indeed God.  They cried, “The LORD—he is God!  The LORD—he is God!” (v. 39).


“The LORD—he is God!”  We proclaim this when we gather for worship each Sunday.  The God whom we worship doesn’t give up on his people.  God didn’t abandon the covenant when a whole line of kings ignored God’s law.  God didn’t give up when God’s people worshiped other gods.


And God never gives up on us.  This story tells me that God’s name and promise endure in spite of our disobedience, our waywardness, our rejection of God, our worship of false idols, our distractions and all the things that pull us away from God.


I think that’s what keeps me coming back to the LORD.  Whenever I feel like I’ve wandered, I know that God is still there, waiting for me to return.  


When I was in college, I often struggled, especially during finals week.  Each semester my mother would get a phone call from me.  This was when long distance phone charges were a thing, so we didn’t talk on the phone much.  I would cry a bit and tell her that I probably failed at least one of my classes, and that I was sorry she and Dad went through all the expense of sending me to college.  She would always say, “Just do your best, and then you can come home for a break.”  It was always reassuring to know that regardless of how I did on my finals, I could always go home.  My parents would be there and would still love me.  


That’s how God is with us.  God’s promise to be our God endures.  God’s love for us is always with us.  This is what enables us to keep going, to keep being God’s people and sharing God’s love with our neighbors.  This is what makes our prayers of confession so meaningful—that when we repent, when we realize we’ve wandered away from God and done things that are not pleasing to God, God does forgive us.  Every time.  And then we can continue to walk with God.


In a few moments we will be having communion and we will be remembering Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  We will remember again, as we do every time we have communion, how God didn’t give up on people and sent Jesus to bring us true, abundant life.  We will remember how God continues to keep covenant with us in spite of our fickleness, and how God sends us out into the world to bear the good news to all.  We will remember how God revealed his love for us, his power in a most spectacular way:  by raising Jesus from the dead and conquering death.  


If it were up to me, I’d have given up a long time ago.  But I’m not God—thank God!  This is who God is:  One whose love for us endures forever, who will never give up on us, whose love is eternal.  Why would we not give our lives in worship to this God and declare, "The LORD--he is God!  The LORD--he is God!"?  Amen.