July 15, 2018

If the Lord is God, Follow Him

Passage: 1 Kings 18:20-39, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Elijah 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.

A 2012 Psychology Today article noted that according to a survey by Columbia University decision researcher, Sheena Iyengar, the average American makes approximately 70 conscious decisions every day. Over the span of 50 years that means over 1,200,000 conscious decisions. The 20th century philosopher Albert Camus said, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” I think Camus’ claim about the relationship of choices to life an overstatement; even so, our choices do profoundly impact our experience of life.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God makes incursion into people’s lives, a decision has to be made. When God called Abraham to go to a land that God would show him he had to decide whether he would go; when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary with news that she had found favour with God, Mary had to decide would she say yes; when Jesus called Peter and John to follow him they had to decide if they would leave their nets behind and go. With respect to God’s call upon us a decision has to be made.

If you were standing on the monastery rooftop observation platform located on the top of Mt. Carmel today looking at the valley of Megiddo, you would easily see why the placed is called Carmel, God’s vineyard or God’s garden. It was in just this place that God, through the prophet Elijah, called his people to decide. ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ I invite you to reflect with me on this decision Israel is being called to make with respect to God and to consider God’s call in each of our lives to decide.

1. According to this story of Elijah calling God’s people to decision, silence is not an option. Ambivalence won’t do. One of the key themes of this story is around the word “answer.” When Elijah calls the people to decide, “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him,” we are told that “the people did not answer him a word.”

We know this already about all our deciding in life: indecision is a decision—it is a decision not to decide. Further, such indecision isn’t neutral. In the Bible the most common metaphor for the experience of faith in God is marriage. Think about the decision to marry someone. Two people have been dating for some time and one proposes to the other the prospect of marriage. If the other person hesitates and can’t decide or won’t decide; is not prepared to say “yes” or “no;” the decision not to decide sends a very clear message, does it not? “You don’t measure up,” or “there may be a better option” or “this seems all so sudden.” The point being that indecision isn’t a neutral place. Or as Elijah pictures it, it is to limp along or wobble and not really get anywhere.

These people assembled on Mt Carmel this day with Elijah should know better. They are God’s people Israel. At this point in Israel’s history the twelve tribes of Israel have split into two kingdoms. The southern two tribes comprise a kingdom known as Judah and remains loyal to the throne of David in Jerusalem. The northern ten tribes comprise a kingdom known as Israel and is ruled from Samaria where a king known as Ahab occupies the throne.

What happened to them that they don’t give an answer to Elijah’s question? It their hesitancy indifference towards God? Ahab, Israel’s king, had married the daughter of the King of the Sidonians likely driven by a desire for strategic political alliance. The name of this king’s daughter? Jezebel. Ahab promptly then introduces Baal worship—the deity worshipped by the Sidonians—into Israel. In other words, Baal worship comes with the force of the state.

King Ahab, the wickedest king in Israel’s troubled history, decided it would be politically correct and personally advantageous to have his cake and eat it too. Why not mix together Baal, the pagan deity, and Yahweh, the holy one of Israel? Why not have the self-indulgence that Baal permits his people and the security that Yahweh promises his people? Why not the fornication that Baal laughs about and the forgiveness that Yahweh weeps to bestow? Haven’t popular preachers always retained their popularity by telling hearers that we can all have the “goodies” of the world together with the gospel of God?

Further, Baal was known, among other things, as the god of the storm. Surely worship of Baal and Yahweh would mean enough rain for crops. And yet as they assemble on Mt Carmel they are three years into a drought; a drought Yahweh proclaimed through Elijah because of their Baal worship. They should know who to choose to follow—but they give no answer.

I wonder what silences Christians today in our culture. In many ways the state has ruled the choice for God out-of-bounds. I find it telling that our schools are very worried about bullying; schools that long ago ruled as out of bounds reading the very book that enjoins love of neighbour as a personal obligation to God. The force of our state champions multi-culturalism, environmentalism, liberalism, inclusivism and to the extent that a Christian can support some aspect of these “isms” we are tolerated, otherwise not so much. So we become hesitant. We wonder, am I crazy to actually choose Jesus as the one to follow?

I find in the wider church an ever increasing silence with regard to the name of Jesus. The word God is still being used but to the point of being indistinguishable from “higher power” or “something bigger than ourselves.” To claim anything so particular as Jesus of Nazareth is thought to be bigoted or imperialistic over other religions. The gospel claims, as our story shows, that God is quite certain of God’s own identity. The Hebrew scriptures are clear that God is no human projection but the God who makes God’s self known. According to scripture, the chief characteristic of God is that God speaks.

When Elijah calls for a decision, “If the Lord is God, follow him,” the word translated “Lord” in our English translation in the word the Hebrews used for the name of God “Yahweh” (in reality four consonants). The name referred to the one they knew as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—this particular One who made incursion into the lives of the patriarchs. The name referred to the one who met Moses at the burning bush and when Moses asked for God’s name the answer came, “I am that I am.”

Much in the same way Jesus says “follow me” to his disciples, in this story the Lord is saying through Elijah to Israel “follow me.” Note that indecision is not a neutral place. We live in a world of many religions as did the people of Israel in Elijah’s day; as did the disciples in Jesus’ day. Some hesitate because of this popular idea that all religions have some contribution to make so we hesitate at being particular—we don’t want to be accused of some religious phobia regarding others. When Christian faith speaks about Jesus as God coming among us we are not saying that God isn’t free to disclose himself as he wishes. Nevertheless, the witness of scripture is that in Jesus Christ God can always be found for sure.

2. I invite you to reflect further in this story on God’s answer to this indecision and our need in faith for continual renewal of the decision to follow Jesus (for Israel to follow Yahweh). It wasn’t information about the God who emancipated Israel from slavery in Egypt that the people of Israel lacked. Elijah’s question assumes they know who Elijah is talking about. For some reason the people have drifted from their commitment to follow God—we noted earlier King Ahab’s hand in the matter. We too have many things calling for our attention—beckoning us to invest our lives in—wealth and the luxuries it affords being chief among these. You can’t serve God and money, Jesus said. Yet we think we can and often faith in Jesus drifts and we get caught up in the thick of thin things.

Should Elijah have had to imagine this elaborate show-down between Yahweh and Baal in order to convince the people to make this decision? Was God’s love for them demonstrated in that great event of the nation’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt insufficient in some way to be assured of God’s love? Is Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead somehow insufficient for us to be able to say yes to following Jesus? Is the towering event of God’s incursion into human life in Jesus Christ lacking in some way? And yet God graciously answers Israel’s indecision by fire.

Did the people of Israel really need to watch the 450 prophets of Baal dance around an altar endlessly in frenzied prostration complete with self-mutilation to know the impotence of Baal and the destructive nature of following such an ideology? Do we need some demonstration from God to know that death doesn’t care how much money you have and that wealth is useless in securing a future life for us? Do we need some additional information to know that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil? And yet God graciously answers time and again. Reflect on all the times in our lives that our Lord has confirmed his presence with us. The times when a word of scripture held us in the face of difficulty or confirmed the truth of his love for us. The times when, looking back, we knew we came through some harrowing experience only by his strength and protection. Hasn’t God “answered by fire,” so to speak, many times in our lives confirming the truth that Jesus’ death and resurrection is for us.

The baptism we share in today is the sacrament of saying “yes” to following Jesus. It is a day of renewal of commitment to Jesus when parents purpose to raise their child to believe in Jesus—and the best way to do that is by example, growing in our own faith in Jesus. In another sense sharing in the baptism as a congregation reminds us all of our own baptism and becomes another occasion to renew our following decision. It is a good day to say yes.

In our Gospel lesson today we read that Jesus had become so widely known it came to the attention of King Herod. In the reports circulating about Jesus many said that he was Elijah returning in history. There must have been something similar in the preaching of Jesus with Elijah’s. Could it have been this call to make up our minds to follow him?

One final note. The gospel is clear that the reason we have a choice is because of God’s great choice to be for us. If God had not chosen to be for his people Israel there would be no choice this day on Mt. Carmel to follow him. God’s gracious choice is the gospel’s context; God gracious choice is the very framework of our existence. The very fact that there is something rather than nothing is because “in the beginning God”, as the opening lines of the Bible tell us. Put another way, in the words of theologian Karl Barth, “what unites God and us human beings is that he does not will to be God without us.” And the event that towers above them all that demonstrates God’s choice to be for us is the self-giving of the Father and Son at the cross to rescue us from slavery to sin and the vindication of the sufficiency of this self-giving in raising Jesus from the dead.

If the Lord is God, follow him.