God shows up
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on November 3, 2019
•1 Kings 18:17-39•
I have always found group projects a really mixed bag. Get a good group, and by that, I mean a group who holds up their end of the work and it can be a wonderful experience. However, you get a group with folks who like to coast or worse are undependable and it is a nightmare. Personally, I have had experiences with both, but the memorable ones are of the later variety.
I don’t remember the project, but I remember being excited about our group of five. I had a lot of confidence in the folks I was paired with and had high expectations for a positive result. We broke up the project, each taking a part with the plan to show up the day it was due to put it together.
Well the due date came, as did our time to meet and only three of us were present. The fourth showed up late and we quickly put their piece in, but the fifth person never showed. They never answered the messages we left. We hastily threw their part together and added it to the project, but as we turned it in we had little doubt the failing grade we would receive. I don’t know how the other group members reflect upon that moment, but for me it is a constant reminder: if someone is depending on you — you show up.
Now Elijah’s story from our reading today isn’t a group project, but Elijah is certainly depending on outside assistance. And in the story we are reminded how God is dependable and God shows up.
The story takes place in a troubling part of Israel’s history. King Ahab’s wife Jezebel was a zealous worshipper of Baal — the Canaanite god of the thunderstorm. She was determined to replace the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with Baal through ruthless persecution. The weak-willed Ahab, not only didn’t intervene, but in fact supported her campaign by building a temple to her god in the capitol city.
Then Elijah shows up and questions the people. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” The Israelites were caught in the space between these two gods and in reality it is not too difficult to understand why. It is always easier to worship an idol that you can see than a God whom seems elusive. It is always easier to mold God, or even religion for that matter, to our idea of what it should be than to change ourselves, or our lives to match what God actually calls us to.
In fact, I wonder if the people even thought about theology as they lived their lives. Rather I would bet their concern was simply about their daily existence. The people had been facing a drought that brought terrible suffering. Their question was likely when will the rain come? Who controlled life and death? The people weren’t questioning which god do I believe in, but rather they were ready to give allegiance to whichever god could really impact their existence right now.
And so the people simply hedge their bets. If it was Baal, then they were covered as they had adopted the practice of magic and sacrifice to survive. The people could continue to live in the materialistic, self-centered life that comes from serving a god of your own making. If however, it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then the people were covered as well. They could continue seeking to live by the Law of Moses. They would simply recenter their lives in faithfulness. But because they weren’t sure, they tried to follow both.
And Elijah tells them that isn’t possible. They must choose. They need to decide which god really mattered. For in their current living, choosing not to follow God alone, was actually choosing against God.
But here is there things get interesting. Elijah doesn’t actually try and convert the people at this point, rather Elijah simply seeks to create space for God to answer the question of which god mattered. Elijah simply creates a setting in which the people will be given a choice and as the people make their way up Mount Carmel they show an openness to allow God to do God’s thing.
It seems to me that we as the church could learn something here. For isn’t our job similar to Elijah’s? Isn’t our call to create space for people to see God at work in their lives? It has never been our job to convert people — that’s God’s work. Our work is providing a setting and perhaps helping to move people to an openness to see God’s activity… but after that we have to trust God and God’s grace to show up.
In our reading, Elijah does this by calling for a contest between Israel’s God and Baal. Elijah gives every advantage one can to the prophets of Baal. He plays on their home court. He uses the lightening and fire as the means to speak for a thunderstorm god who boasted about such things. He gives them first ups and all the time in the world.
The narrator and Elijah play up the theatrics of the scene. We sense Elijah off to the side catching some rays and sipping on a drink with a little umbrella in it as the prophets of Baal continue to whip themselves into a frenzy. Elijah perhaps gets a little spicy as the day continues by goading the prophets to yell louder for perhaps Baal is a Caribbean cruise or taking a nap or stepped out for a moment to relieve himself and simply can’t hear them. By mid-afternoon the sacrificial offerings were getting smelly and still no sign of fire from above. The point is made that Baal can’t be much of a god, if the people can’t count on him to show up.
Sadly, more and more people today are saying this of God — that God doesn’t show up or even worse that God doesn’t exist. Like the Israelites, most people don’t get caught up into questions of theology, but rather matters that directly affect their lives on a day to day basis: job, security, family, home, social life, etc. It is not that we and others are worshipping Baal, but we also aren’t choosing to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alone. The idols of today are not so obvious, but think for a minute, what do the Ahabs and Jezebuls of our time set up as shrines? What do our rulers put before us? Perhaps capitalism? Political affiliation? Or ourselves? And in what way are these idols showing up? If we are honest they aren’t showing up in a way that is healthy and helpful. They aren’t showing up in a way that is fulfilling the promise.
People boast about capitalism, but people are over-worked, tired and still in need. People boast their political affiliation, but neither side appears able to agree and no common ground comes forth and the people still suffer. People boast about their self-sufficient nature and their thinking they and they alone can have an affect on the issues of our day, but people are in pain and speak of hopelessness.
Like the Israelites people, we are not choosing God, and so therefore are choosing against God. But as Elijah shows in our reading worshiping an idol doesn’t mean God isn’t real. And even more so it doesn’t mean God won’t show up.
Elijah sets the stage through symbols that force the people to recall their own story. The rebuilding of a ruined altar, the 12 stones, and the name Israel recall the people to the moment when God showed up to Jacob with a new name. The abundance of water overflowing recall when the people walked through the water out of slavery and into the promised land. Elijah’s whole act is a reminder that God has shown up before and serves as a promise that God will continue to do so for they are God’s people. Elijah entered the contest with absolute confidence in God’s power. He seemed to have no doubt in God’s ability and stakes everything upon it.
At this moment, Elijah knew his part — it was simply too set the stage and let God be God. Elijah offers a brief and simple prayer in sharp contrast to the all-day groaning and craziness of Baal’s followers. Elijah confesses God as God and asks God to reveal God’s self. And God showed up.
Earlier this week I was with a group of pastors wondering what the book of Acts might have to offer to our future. I am still reflecting upon the insights offered in my time there, but for our conversation this morning I kept coming back to a piece in the concluding statements the presenter offered. He said, “If there is a central message in the book of Acts it is this: the insistence that God is reliable. And this reliable God will show up, even in unlikely people and places.”[i]
While we title this day “Elijah at Mount Carmel” this is not a story about Elijah, or even miracles. Our reading today is a story about God. It is a story about us. It is a story that reminds us that God shows up and God will do whatever is necessary to reveal Godself to us. It may be a supernatural event like fire from heaven, or if we continued with Elijah’s story, it may be in the sound of sheer silence. The point is not how God shows up, but that God shows up.
God shows up to the people hedging their bets. God shows up in the stories of the early church in the book of Acts. God shows up in our lives — it may not come in the way we imagine, nor want. It may not come in the person or place we expect. We may not even be able to sense God’s presence — but God is there. God is dependable. God shows up.
Let us pray: God, forgive us. Forgive us for hedging our bets. Forgive us for not recognizing your power and presence. Forgive us for not choosing you, when you have already chosen us. Lord, we believe you are God… help us in our unbelief. Amen.
[i] Quote attributed to Matthew Skinner in his concluding remarks at the 2019 Northwest Intermountain Bishop’s Convocation held at LutherHaven in Coeur d’Alene, ID.