Sermon from June 2, 2013. The text for this Sunday was 1 Kings 18:20-39. Blessings.
It hasn’t rained once since Elijah showed up and told King Ahab that his idolatrous ways were leading them all to ruin. It’s been nearly three years since then, and Elijah has now gathered all of Israel on top of Mt. Carmel. Mt. Carmel symbolic of what’s going on in Israel at this time. It’s a holy place for both followers of God and followers of Baal. Israel had been wavering between two religions, worshipping Baal and his partner Asherah, and worshipping Yahweh, or as we would say, God. Ahab had married a Sidonian princess, Jezebel, who was a committed follower of Baal. Now Ahab had never really been the religious sort (neither had his father, for that matter), nor was he particularly assertive in other matters. He mostly did what he was told. He erected an altar to Baal in the capital city of Samaria, and arranged for worship there. What resulted, was that there became two religions of Israel, and the people of Israel were torn between the God of their ancestors and the God of their neighbors, whose worship King Ahab had recently adopted. And Elijah has gathered them all together to set the record straight.
He stands before all of the people gathered at Mt. Carmel, and asks, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” It’s interesting that uses the word limping. It’s a great image, and I think it applies pretty well to today. Not that there are a lot of pagans, but everyday life is a series of Baals, each fighting for our attention, each wanting a piece of our lives, each promising us the world for three easy payments of $9.95. And we’re caught limping between them.
When I was working in Houston, I used to get calls from people trying to sell me curricula and programs for my church. And one day I get a call from a fellow who wanted to talk to me about consumerism. I’m interested. He said it’s the biggest challenge to our youth today. Amen, man. And we have got to do something about it. Would the church be interested in buying our course on escaping consumer culture for $500? Consumerism is a problem, a big one. But I don’t think we’re going to fix it by buying things.
Politics, money, fame, beauty, success, they all promise to give us what we need. And to be honest, most of us end up limping around between them. We stand on one good leg and one bad. One minute we’re praying to God to provide for all our needs and saying thy will be done, the next we’re wondering if Dr. Oz’s 48 hour cleanse will finally make us love ourselves.
But the reason all of these things are competing for our attention, for our time, for our money, is not because we need them. It is because they need us. You think advertisers are paying millions of dollars for thirty seconds of your attention because they want to make you happy? Or that Dr. Phil, Tyra Banks, CNN, or even facebook and Google are giving us information because they’re devoted to an informed public? They’ll tell you whatever you want to hear as long as you’ll give them what they want.
Now someone might say that the church is no different from these other things. Churches seem to be competing just as hard for my attention as everyone else. There are church billboards; radio, TV, and newspaper ads; flyers; and campaigns. And you know what? Sometimes they are right. Sometimes churches are trying to do the same thing advertisers are doing: they are trying to get what they need, instead of looking out for what others need.
You know, if Hannah and I go into a church to visit, like if I’m on vacation and we stop by a local church, we get VIP treatment. You can almost see dollar signs in people’s eyes. “Look! A young couple! They are exactly what we need! They can invite all of their young couple friends to church and this place will be full again. Couples like this are exactly what we need to save this church. . . maybe you see what the problem is. Don’t feel bad if this kind of thing has crossed your mind. We’ve all been there. The church is in the midst of a massive transformation, and we don’t know what it will look like when we come out, and that causes a lot of anxiety for all of us. But if you think you’re going to save the church or that attracting new members will save the church, you’re wrong. Jesus Christ is the one who does all the saving around here. I guess what I mean is, people aren’t the only ones who limp. Churches do too.
The question Elijah poses, is how long will we go on limping? How long will we continue to flip between trusting God and looking to something else to fix everything, whether it’s diets or programs, or some new way to make a buck. Because those other things, those modern day Baals that are constantly pulling on us, they can’t do anything for us. They can only drain us. The prophets of Baal cut themselves with knives and drain themselves of blood to call on their God. With the Baals of this world, you always have to pay up front. And in the end, nothing happens. They’ve got 450 prophets for this test, all carrying on and hollering trying to make some barbecue, and not even a whiff of smoke comes up from the altar.
But God, on the other hand, God does not demand our blood before coming to us, God comes down to earth in the form of Jesus Christ and sheds blood for us. God does not drain us of our life in exchange for help, God nourishes us. This is my body, he says, broken for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. All we are asked to do is accept this gift, and let it transform our lives. The difference between the Baals of our world and God is that while the Baals all want something from us, God gives something to us. God nourishes us, while the Baals can only take away.
And do you know what happens? When Elijah finally finished building up the suspense, when he has gathered the people close and dug a moat around the altar and poured gallons and gallons of water on the bull until the even the moat is spilling over. God roasts it. Flames spurt forth, burning the bull to cinders and boiling all the water away until there is nothing but dry ground. Elijah doesn’t have to pay in blood for this to happen, and neither do we.
The way God works. And the way we should work, if we really want to be a reflection of Christ in our world, is to give first. When you’re doing church the right way, you aren’t looking at the folks coming through your door for what they can give you. You are looking for what you can give them.
My church growing up always used to brag about how it was such a welcoming place. We were different from other churches, because we were friendly and welcoming. I hasn’t learned yet that that’s something that every church says about itself. Nor had I learned how rare it truly is.
But anyway, we had this couple come in one day, I think I was about 12, or so, and I had truly internalized this whole welcoming thing a little too deeply. I saw them sitting by the aisle and I was gonna go welcome them to my church. But at that time the youth sat all the way in the far side of the church, where nobody (meaning our parents) could hear us making noise. And by the time I got out into the narthex they were already gone. But I was going to welcome this couple, I was a freight train of friendship, there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me. And so off I went charging towards the nursery because they had a baby carrier with them, and when I didn’t find them in the nursery I kept looking, almost sprinting through the church.
Finally I found them just getting their little baby settled in the carrier about to go out the door. And I stopped, and I collected myself, and I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Drew, and I just wanted to say welcome.” And they sort of glanced at each other, like “is this really happening?” and we awkwardly shook hands. And having discharged my duty, I took off running to go play with my friends. This is not an example about how you should chase potential members through the church to shake their hands.
But what the church gave me was an intense sense of welcome and belonging. And it meant so much to me that I just had to give it to anyone I could. I still feel this way. The church has been one of the few places in my life where I have felt so loved and accepted that I didn’t have to hide anything. I could be my whole self. To this day, having grown up and become aware of the many problems that churches can have and cause; the reason I still love it, the reason I want to do ministry, is because when it’s done right, the church can be one of the only places in the world where you are loved and accepted and cherished for who you are. This is an unbelievably rare gift.
When the flames finally die down. And a hushed silence, has fallen over these people who have limped up Mt. Carmel and found themselves on solid ground. The people fall on their faces and worship the Lord their God. And the great thing about this, for all of us who are limping through our life trying to cling to find the right things to put our trust in, trying to find a leg that we can stand on, is that even a people who limp can fall on their face.