Reflection 23rd June: 1 Kings 18:1-2,17-40

Well that is quite a wild story indeed. It might leave some of you feeling awe and wonder at the glory and power of God. It might leave others of you feeling deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps like me you feel a bit of both.

 

In the newsletter I quoted James Hopkins from feasting on the word who suggests that we need to “approach this story with humility and care.” He says, in our reading, “it is best to let it raise questions in our minds rather than superiority in our hearts.” I think this is something we should probably always do but perhaps especially with stories that might tempt us to fall into, “my God is better than your God” type thinking. In a world in which the violent sacred remains horribly active, perhaps on the rise, as is the case with Christian nationalism, it is imperative that people of different faiths respect each other. In a world where the divisions between the so called right and left continue to grow and ideological purity in our churches and communities seems to be more important than welcome we should resist the temptation to just assume people who think differently to us are either stupid or evil.

 

However, I believe there is more to be learned from this story than just “my faith is better than your faith,” type thinking.  As always context helps and so a little recap again on the story so far.

 

Kings begins with the succession of Solomon to the throne of his father David. King Solomon was known for his great building projects and wisdom but also his extreme wealth and excessive number of wives, chariots ships, slaves and gold which he obtained contrary to the limitations on royal authority given in Deuteronomy that explicitly states that a king shall not amass these things.

 

On Solomon’s death his son Rehoboam succeeds him. The people come to Rehoboam requesting that he lighten the burden his father had placed on them. Instead of following the wise counsel of the elders who advised him to do this, he gathered around him young, immature yes men who told him to add to it. And he did. Perhaps Rehoboam reminds us of so many leaders today who clear their cabinets and leadership team of any dissenting voices. Might this story serve as warning to not do this.

 

The people led by a man named Jeroboam revolted and the Kingdom splits. Jeroboam becomes king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Rehoboam keeps the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Southern Kingdon was much smaller and weaker but it did have Jerusalem as its capital and so Jeroboam makes golden calves for the people to worship so that they would not need to go to the temple at Jerusalem.

 

After Rehoboam and Jeroboam die the book of Kings gives us a fairly tedious account of the reign of the kings of both Israel and Judah all who “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”

 

Then suddenly, the story   of Elijah begins, and it feels as  though we’re in a completely different kind  of narrative. He arrives without introduction or preamble to pronounce the beginning of an indefinite drought because of the evils of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.

 

After this announcement Elijah hides in the wilderness. He drinks from the wadi and is fed by ravens (animals he would have considered unclean). He is not though immune to the drought so he takes the food from the ravens until the wadi eventually dries up. So God tells him to go Zarephath in Sidon, the home country of Queen Jezebel herself, to be fed by a widow. Despite her extreme poverty, the unnamed widow helps him. Because of her generosity and God’s provision the prophet survives.

 

As we read today’s story that on the surface seems wholly lacking in nuance we need to remember the paradoxical king Solomon and that the dissenting voices were the voices Rehoboam should have listened to. We need to remember the unclean ravens who fed Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. As a woman from Sidon it seems likely she too worshipped the god Baal.

 

But Elijah cannot hide forever and as our chapter opens today Elijah is now been called to return to King Ahab to tell him that the drought is to be broken. When Ahab sees Elijah, he says, “is it you troubler of Israel?” Again this sounds so modern, a leader accusing the ones naming the problem, as the problem, rather acknowledging there is in fact a problem.

 

Elijah responds, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have and your Father’s house because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord.”

 

Elijah, like all the prophets, is deeply rooted in the memory of the exodus story of liberation and in the tradition of Moses and Sinai where God gives the 10 commandments to the Hebrew people and they promise to be God’s covenant people by following these commandments.

 

Brueggemann describes these commandments as counter commandments to the commandments of Pharoah, that were endlessly demanding and relentless and were all about more production and more wealth. In entering into a covenant with God based on obedience to the 10 commandments the Hebrew people are in entering into an alternative community with an alternative future and promises. But it takes immense vigilance and intentionality to live in this community because the attractiveness of Pharoah and his production economy and its shiny things has its hooks into the imagination of the people.

 

In fact before they have even left Mt Sinai they have built a golden calf. And from then on much of the history of Israel told in the Hebrew Scriptures is an ongoing drama of covenant made, and then covenant broken and then covenant remade and then covenant broken and then covenant remade and it goes on. The people continually return to the ways of Pharoah, that is the ways of centralised power, great wealth and no rest, to the gods that ask nothing hard but ultimately give nothing either.

 

This is certainly the situation at the time of Ahab. And Elijah’s role as a prophet is to remind the people of the ten commandments and their covenant relationship with God. 700 years on from Sinai, Elijah insists that true life is still to be found in the practice of these commandments and relationship.

 

And so Elijah assembles the priests of Baal and the Israelites who are called to witness the contest between the prophets and their God’s at Mt Carmel, that Neil read to us this morning. And he asks them a question, How long will you go around limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

 

Note it is the Israelites who are the witnesses to this contest. And it is them to whom this question is directed not outsiders. The purpose is to invite them back into covenant relationship. It should lead them to reflect on their faith not the faith of others.

 

And so as I have reflected on this passage, I have asked myself what other “gods” do I worship? In what do I truly put my hope? What is my first priority really? Money? My work and the identity that comes with it? My family? My favourite sport even? None of these are bad things but they do have a tendency to take a level of importance in my life that does not belong to them and is not particularly life giving to me.

 

The   prophets  of  Baal go first. They pray and dance and even cut themselves but there is “no voice, no answer, and  no response.”

 

Then comes Elijah’s  turn  and, after having very deliberately      rebuilt      the   altar of         Yahweh,   using        twelve       stones representing     the   twelve tribes     of      Israel,         and  after having      drenched his sacrifice         with  water        presumably to make it harder to burn, he calls on the  Lord. And ‘Boom!’ Fire comes down and consumes the offering.

 

The drama ends with the people returning to the Lord, the prophets of Baal are killed, and the drought ends.

 

It is another remarkable, crazy story filled with things that cannot be explained. There is much in this world that cannot be explained and things of God even more so. Thus I no longer believe just because something is extraordinary it did not necessarily happen.

 

None the less it is conventional now to view this story and some of the other stories of Judges, Ruth, Samuael and Kings as “folk legends” that is stories rooted in some unrecoverable happening but now greatly exaggerated through constant retelling. However, Brueggemann suggests this should not mean that we consider these stories as fanciful and therefore not to be taken seriously. Because these narratives are evidence of a way of knowing and living and experiencing reality that lies outside rationality and royal control. That these stories of the so called “folk” survived and are given such prominence in the story attest to life that has not been brought under control. Thus it is plausible to suggest that this narrative (and others like it) functions to delegitimate royal power and to assert that YHWH, the giver of life has other agents and other avenues outside monarchy to give the gift of life.

 

This gives me much hope in a world that continues to be governed by Ahabs. It also reminds me that perhaps the so called wicked problems the world confronts, that even our own town confronts, will not be solved by those in power and their bureaucrats. They will not solved by some very grand and very expensive solution but by small things that rise up from the ground by people that really care.

 

The modern church like ancient Israel is also invited to be an alternative community with an alternative future and promises. That is certainly not to say that the world and everything in it is evil and so we are called to reject it and everyone in it and retreat into our own Christian bubble. Far from it. The world is God’s good creation and Jesus came into it. But we are still 3called to be an alternative to the ways of Pharoah. Again to quote Brueggeman,

 

be an alternative to the endless demands of market ideology that depend on the generation of needs and desires that will leave us endlessly feeling “rest less, inadequate, unfulfilled, and in pursuit of that which may satiate desire. Those requirements concern endless production so that we are a society of 24/7 multitasking in order to achieve, accomplish, perform and possess. But the demands of the market ideology pertain as much to consumption as to they do to production. Thus the system of commodity requires that we want more, have more, own more, use more, eat more and drink more and any unmet desire is seen as an aberration that must be and should be overcome by whatever means.

 

This of course has devastating consequences on the earth, on our mental health and on our relationships with our neighbours who are mostly seen as competitors for scarce resources. It also has consequences to our relationship with God who we no longer have time for in pursuit of these other gods.

 

Our world needs as much as ever prophets. Prophets like Elijah who identify and challenge those parts of the world order and in us that are contradictory to God. But also remind us that God is indeed in our midst and active in our world and that He will make all things new, even in circumstances and in ways that seem impossible.

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Reflection 14th July: 1 Kings 21

So this is the sixth week in our series on Kings. For 4 of those weeks we have concentrated on Elijah and his prophetic witness.