1 Kings 18:20-39
The setting for our Elijah story is the ominous reign of Ahab in the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was married to the wicked Jezebel given to Ahab by the king of Phoenicia. Jezebel brought with her many troubling practices, not the least of which was the worship of Ba’al the Canaanite storm God. The introduction of Ba’al, however, was not enough for Jezebel. She began persecuting the worshippers of YHWH and created a spirit of contest between the deities. Elijah the prophet of YHWH is Jezebel’s nemesis, and under his prophetic leadership YHWH and Ba’al go head to head in a fiery showdown.
The details of the cosmic contest are simple. The prophets of Ba’al and Elijah will each create an altar, offer a sacrifice, but withhold the fire. They will then call on the their divine champions to ignite a flame. The God/god who cooks his own dinner will win. The prophets of Ba’al are up first. They construct their altar, slaughter their bull, and get to work praying. Ba’al does not answer. Elijah taunts them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
Next comes Elijah’s opportunity. To heighten the drama he calls for trench to be dug around the altar and then he douses the slaughtered bull on the altar and the wood underneath with jar after jar of water. So much water is spilled on the sacrifice that the trench around the altar is filled. Elijah then prays to YHWH, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” God answers in spectacular fashion by sending a fireball from heaven consuming both the sacrifice AND the altar, and drying up the water in the ditch. The onlookers to the contest offer the only reasonable response, “The LORD [YHWH], he is God; the LORD, he is God.”
Psalm 96 is a psalm of praise that offers a fitting response to our Hebrew Bible reading. The psalmist asks the people to sing a new song to God and to declare him among the nations. The psalmist reasoning for this glorification of YHWH is that “great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”
This Sunday begins a six week series of semi-continuous readings that takes us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Reading Galatians is like watching a good fight unfold. In one corner is the apostle Paul who first brought the gospel to the churches in Galatia. In the other corner are the teachers who came to Galatia after Paul and accused Paul of not preaching the “whole gospel” of Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the response of Paul to these teachers and it is none too nice! Paul begins by chastising the Galatians from abandoning the gospel he preached and following another gospel that is really no gospel at all. He speaks a curse on those (even angels) that teach a gospel other than one he proclaimed.
Our section ends with Paul defending himself as one who speaks words to please God and not to please people.
Our gospel lection is the story of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion. The centurion servant was highly valued. It is possible that the servant was a laborer of great skill. It was not uncommon for slaves to have more education than their owners, and to be an important part of their owner’s success. Whatever the case the centurion is so worried for his slave that he sends an envoy (comprised of Jewish elders) to Jesus to seek Jesus’ healing abilities. The Jewish elders speak highly of the centurion. The centurion was helpful in building a synagogue in the region. One of the strategies of Rome as occupier was to placate leaders by funding projects that put the leaders in debt to Roman officials. Whatever the motivation for the centurion’s kindness to the Jews, Jesus responds and sets out toward the centurion’s house. Before he can arrive, however, the centurion sends another envoy to Jesus and says that Jesus can just say the word and the servant will be healed. Jesus praises the centurion’s faith and chastises Israel for its lack of belief.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the necessity of proclaiming the power of God to the nations, and how often those nations respond by displaying even greater faith than their teachers. Our task is to present the healing Christ to the world. Often it is not the lack of faith found in the world that is the problem but our own lack of faith. We wonder if Christ can do good in a world so burdened by sickness and death. We wonder if the gods of this world are too great for YHWH. What we need is a good ol’ fashion contest, with altars, jars of water, and fire balls from heaven. Maybe then we can lift our voices in a new song that proclaims “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.”