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Trouble in the Holy Land

Sermon - 6/24/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Kings 18:17-40

The text for our reflection this morning comes from the story of Elijah.  It is a very important story in the development of the prophetic tradition.  I'm actually going to spend three Sunday's reflecting on the story, and just to share one portion of it this morning.

The story of Elijah begins in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings.  At that point in the history of the nation, Israel is divided into two.  You may recall, after the time of Solomon, the Northern Kingdom known as Israel (capital in Samaria), the Southern Kingdom, the smaller of the two, known as Judah (capital in Jerusalem).

Ahab is the current King of Israel, and his father had arranged a political marriage with Jezebel to unite Israel with the coastal region of Tyre.  And Jezebel brings with her all of her traditions and practices, including the worship of Baal, a fertility God.  And so brings in prophets of Baal into Northern Israel.

Well, God does not appear to be pleased with that development, sends Elijah to Ahab to announce a drought.  And then Elijah promptly leaves and goes and takes refuge with the widow of Sidon.  You may remember in the story when Jesus goes to Nazareth in the 4th chapter of Luke's gospel and he tells that story of Elijah with the widow -- a foreigner.  The point of the story being that when the people of God don't live up to the task that has been given, God may choose someone else outside of the faithful flock.  And hence the folk in the synagogue there in Nazareth take offense at the story and attempt to throw Jesus off a cliff.

And so in this story in the 18th chapter of 1 Kings, the drought has now lasted 3 years.  And God sends Elijah to Ahab to announce the end of the drought, and this is the way that story reads:

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ 18He answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.’

20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word. 22Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. 23Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. 24Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ [Nothing better than a contest between the Gods to entertain the people here J]

25Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ 26So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ [I have to tell you at this point that I still have a vivid image -- when I was a freshman at Northwest Christian College and Song Nai Rhee taught introduction to the Old Testament, but remembering him telling this story and pointing out to us that the Hebrew here for "perhaps he's just wandered off" is a euphemism that means "perhaps he's stuck in the John!"  He's in the 'throne' room, you know J.  And of course, freshman in college, we just reacted like that was hilarious.  And that's the point of the story, that he's mocking them--this is the nature of your God]

28Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation [That's a thanksgiving offering offered at 3:00 in the afternoon], but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; 32with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ 34Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, [Now, if you're math is good, you see this is 3 times 4, is twelve, it's once again a biblical number to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel] 35so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ 38Then 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. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’

Now, that verse is the end of the lectionary reading for this Sunday.  The lectionary committee, in their wisdom, said 'Good pastor, you can stop there.  Don't read the next verse'.  Now you're dying of curiosity.  The next verse says:

40Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.  [Not a very pretty image].


This past week we have seen yet again trouble in the holy land.  Gaza has been taken over by the more radical Hamas.  Prime Minister Abbas therefore dissolved the government that had the Hamas party in it, and formed a government strictly out of the Fatah party, whereupon Israel, the United States, and several other nations quickly recognized the new government and freed up the assets that had been frozen because of Hamas being in the government, causing many people to wonder if this hadn't been orchestrated in advance as a means to isolate Hamas and to unseat the very problematic but democratically elected leaders in the occupied territories.

Regardless of how you might see that or feel about that, this is an incredibly high-stakes game with incalculable risks.  It could either represent a breakthrough that will at least make steps toward lasting peace -- the roadmap for the two-state solution -- possible, or, it could quickly degenerate into a Palestinian civil war that could draw in Israel, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and so forth, and you can see that the potential is enormous for the risk.

I met this week with Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin from Temple Beth Israel, and Ibrahim Hamide, a well-known Palestinian leader, to see if we might locally compose some kind of joint statement calling for a peaceful resolution to this crises.  And even though the three of us have worked together on many occasions before, that task turned out to be harder than I imagined. 

We are in agreement, at least in principle, I think, that 40 years of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza has got to end sooner rather than later, or the consequences will be even greater and more fearful.  But the question is, how does that happen?

Frankly, I have no idea.  The differences of opinion, just among the three of us, were so strong that finding common ground was difficult.  But I have two, deep abiding convictions that I want to share with you this morning:

First of all, whatever we do to bring peace to that troubled land must be done together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Mother Teresa said "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another".  There is no place in the world where that is more true than in the Middle East.  Only when we see -- especially among these three Abrahamic people -- that we belong to one another will we have any chance of achieving a true and lasting peace.

So I believe that it is imperative that we work together in this country precisely as Christians, Jews, and Muslims to model that.  So the world can see that such is not only possible, it is truly a wonderful and blessed thing.  So I would ask for your prayers -- to pray for the Rabbi, Ibrahim, and I as we continue to work on this issue.

[Editors note:  at the time of this sermon, the joint statement had not been finished.  It was published in the Register Guard on July 3rd 2007]. 

I have a second conviction, just as deep as the first, and though it is important to all faiths I think it is especially important to ours, and it comes out of this story of Elijah this morning.  The conviction is this:  if we want to get the ending right, to the story that we are now living, then we must get the beginning right.  That is to say, correct understanding of the biblical story is essential if we want the modern story to have a happy ending.

For the biblical story reveals both the deepest origins of trouble, not only in the holy land, but everywhere, and reveals also its resolution.  Typically we think of the story of the Garden of Eden, right, as the origin of sin, the fall from grace, the temptation of the serpent, and we know it was all Eve's fault J.  

But, there are many stories in the Bible that describe those origins in different ways.  The story of Cain & Abel -- no women to blame in that story, when violence was introduced into human society.  The tower of Babel with its hubris, the pride reserved only for God that brings down the civilization.  The Exodus story, the systemic oppression of an entire people.  The story of Job, contemplating on the source of evil.  There's much for us, even today, we can learn from all of these stories.

The Elijah story reveals also another source of trouble.  Only I am not sure that those who passed this story on to us saw it in quite the same way that we do today.  The story of the contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, is a story of redemptive violence.  That is, the idea that violence can be used to redeem some wrong, some evil (in this case, the worship of Baal).

And the story is a classic David vs Goliath story.  One prophet against 450.  Or, if you count the 400 prophets of Asherah that are for some odd reason mentioned at the beginning of the story and then left out in the remainder of the story, it's 1 against 850.  

And of course, in such stories, if you want to be on the right side, you know, God is always on the side of the underdog, right?  By that standard, I guess it would mean that the University of North Carolina playing this afternoon against the defending national champion Oregon State Beavers (yet undefeated in the College World Series) would mean that God's on their side.  It just goes to show that there's an exception to every rule, because we all know that God is on the side of Oregon State J.  I can be magnanimous because the Ducks don't have a baseball team, so we want to cheer for them since they're so pitiful in football and basketball J.  At any rate, cheer for Oregon State this afternoon, you'll be on God's side.

On Mount Carmel, Elijah was greatly outnumbered.  But he's not worried, is he?  He knows he has God on his side.  And when he gets the people on his side as well, what does he do?  He massacres these other prophets.  Wipes them all out.

Now this strikes us as a rather brutal ending to the story, and hence left out in many churches, of reading on Sunday morning.  But note that there's nothing in the scripture that says that was God's idea.  It's just Elijah's doing.  And it's no more brutal than anything that is portrayed today in T.V. and movies and even that we see acted out in the news.  And whether it is comic made into a movie -- Spiderman, Batman -- or a science-fiction drama like The Matrix or an old-fashioned cowboy western movie, or the current events being lived out in Iraq, the story is always the same.  Our hero is outnumbered.  And then gets beat up, or some other innocent person is beat up by those villains before he or she gains the upper hand and in the nick of time kills all of the bad guys, wipes them all out, leaving audiences -- ancient and modern -- to cheer.

Yeah, it feels good.  And the message is clear:  when you are on the right side, God's side, you can use all the violence you want because you are acting with the blessing of God in this cosmic battle against evil.

Only there's a problem with this story, isn't there?  It's not the way it works.  There's a problem with the myth of redemptive violence.

First of all, it's the problem of who gets to determine which side God is on.  German soldiers wore belt buckles that said Gott mit uns ("God With Us").  Suicide bombers are known to proclaim "God is Great" before they push that button.

The second problem is that redemptive violence becomes the tool of government to justify each and every war.  It is only through this violence, we are told, that we can redeem the wrong that has been done to us or to others.

And so biblical scholar Walter Wink writes in his book "Engaging the Powers":  "The myth of redemptive violence is nationalism become absolute.  This myth speaks for God, it does not listen for God to speak.  It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own, it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical denunciation and negation by God.  It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity.  It does not seek God in order to change, it claims God in order to prevent change.  Its God is not the impartial rule of all nations, but a biased and partial tribal God worshipped as an idol.  Its metaphor is not the journey, but a fortress.  Its symbol is not the cross, but a rod of iron.  It offers not forgiveness, but victory.  Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies, but their final liquidation.  Its salvation is not a new heart, but a successful foreign policy.  It is blasphemous, it is idolatrous, and it is immensely popular".

"This violence", says Wink, "is the ethos of our time.  It is the spirituality of the modern world.  It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America".

Those are heavy words.  And if Wink is right, in his assessment of our worship of violence, then the proponents of war as a tool of foreign policy to right the wrongs of other nations are the prophets of Baal of our day.  If we continue to blindly follow where they lead, we will become that which we seek to destroy.  Wink calls this "mimetic violence" -- violence that mimics the enemy, and thereby becomes evil itself.

He says "My point is not simply that war is bad.  The issue is far deeper.  It is that war draws intelligent, rational, decent people into mimetic violence.  Before they realize it, they are themselves doing or condoning acts of utter barbarity and feel unable to act otherwise."

And what is especially thought-provoking about Wink and his book "Engaging the Powers" is that he did not write this in the aftermath of September 11th, after the pre-emptive war against Iraq, after all the scandals of Abu Ghraib prison, after Guantanamo Bay, and so on and so forth.  He wrote it 9 years before any of that began.

It's precisely why I say if we want to get the story right today, we need to get it right from the Bible.  And Wink is one of those, I think, who does.  

What he makes powerfully clear is also clear in the story of Elijah, namely, redemptive violence simply does not work.

Note that the authors in this story carefully tell us "All of Israel" gathers there on the mountain.  Must have been a pretty big mountain, or a pretty small nation -- they "all" gathered there in front of Elijah.  And Elijah calls them "all" closer.  This is typical, classic hyperbole -- I've told you a million times not to exaggerate, right?

And it's a little clue that we can't take the story literally, it's symbolic.  They are "all" there to see, and to say, two times, "The Lord is indeed God".  And then they kill the false prophets.  Eradicate the evil-doers and you will get rid of evil, right?  That's what we're told.

Only we get to the end of the story in 1 Kings, and what does it say?  Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, continues to worship Baal.  The killing of the prophets does not stop the 'evil'.

And if that is not a message about the futility of waging war on evil with swords and guns and bombs, then I am not a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

So please hear this message of scripture, write it down, recite it whenever you hear discussion about the war on terror:  killing the evil-doers does not kill evil.  Never has, never will.  In fact, in only perpetuates and multiplies the evil.

So why do we keep trying to do what has never been done, which is impossible to do, which is counter-productive?  There is one way, and only one way, scripture teaches us, to rid the world of evil and that is to fill the world with God.

And that is precisely the solution presented by this story, and consistently throughout scripture.  The story we heard earlier of the demoniac, whose name is Legion, the name of the Roman soldiers.  But Jesus did not propose killing the evil-doer.  But note, instead, filling him with God.

Elijah says to the people "How long will you go limping with two different opinions?".  Make up your mind, will it be the God Yahweh or the God Baal?  And later in the story it reads "They (the false prophets) limped about the alter they had made".  In both cases, "limp" here refers to shifting weight from one leg to the other.  The story is using that image of the ritual dance as a way of saying it's time to quit jumping from one to the other, it's time to put both feet on the ground in favor of God, the Lord of Israel.  To rely solely on God, or more precisely, to rely on the way of God rather than the way of the world.

Or as we Christians might say it, to rely on the way of Jesus rather than the way of Rome.  The way of the cross rather than the way of the crown.  The way of servant-hood rather than the way of lordship.  The way of sharing rather than the way of hoarding.  The way of generosity rather than the way of greed.  The way of peace rather than the way of killing.  

We really do have a choice.  Every day we make the choice between God and Baal.  Between peace and violence.  Between life and death.  It's our choice, it's no one else's.  It's not the government's, it's not even the church's.  It's each of us.

The time has come for us to choose.  May we choose the God of peace.


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