Tag Archives: 1 Kings

Elijah at Mount Carmel – November 8, 2015 (NL Week 9)

Sunday’s Reading:
1 Kings 18:20-39

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

After two weeks of reading about the rise and fall of kings and the political realities of life in ancient Israel, this week’s text from First Kings brings us back to the central question that faces everyone who lives in relationship with God, especially when life is really difficult: Whom will you serve? In a perfect world, Elijah wouldn’t have needed to be the person pressing that point with his people. The king, chosen and anointed by God to bring justice and righteousness and peace to the people, should have made the answer to that question perfectly clear. Human history teaches us, however, that power can (and often does) corrupt even the most well-meaning leaders and distract them from their duties. Things were no different in Israel than they have been in any other nation. As a result, from the beginning of the monarchy there had been prophets – messengers of the divine – to remind both the king and the people of their commitments to God and to one another, to observe what was happening among the people and their leaders, and to call the whole community back to loyalty and love for the God of their ancestors. Saul had Samuel. David had Nathan. Now Ahab, who according to the author of First Kings was one of the worst kings ever to rule over Israel, had been given Elijah to be the thorn in his side, opposing his policies and pointing out his betrayal and unfaithfulness at every turn.

As today’s reading begins, the people of the ten northern tribes of Israel were in the middle of their fourth consecutive year of drought conditions, a state of affairs that made Ba’al, one of the gods of the surrounding nations, look mighty attractive as an alternative to the God that they had sworn to serve. After all, Ba’al was known far and wide among Israel’s rivals as the “Storm God”, the one who was believed to bring rain and fertility and abundant growth to the earth. Given the circumstances, perhaps it’s no wonder that Elijah found himself alone as he faced off against four hundred and fifty prophets who represented Ba’al in a battle to determine whose god was more powerful – with the proceedings taking place under the watchful eye of thousands of Israelites who were just looking for a reason to seek greener pastures in service to another god.

It is into this situation that Elijah stepped – one man against a multitude – and set terms for a showdown that by all appearances favored the prophets of Ba’al: choosing the bull, the preferred sacrificial animal for Ba’al; giving the other prophets the first pick of bulls and altars and wood to conduct their sacrifice; conceding to them the first shot at making it happen so there was no chance that they could claim their god was offended; not to mention the sheer number of people calling upon Ba’al relative to Elijah. As if all that wasn’t unbelievable enough, Elijah proceeded to spend a good portion of the day taunting his opponents for the silence of their master. Here’s that section of the story in an updated translation: About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” (1 Kings 18:27, New Living Translation)

Once Elijah took his turn, it became obvious who had come out on top of the showdown. The God of Israel sent flames to consume water-logged wood, a soaked bull carcass, and even the excess water that ran off the altar It was an overwhelming victory for Elijah, and the people quickly exclaimed that they recognized once again the power of their ancestral God and would devote themselves to serving their God once again. That victory, however, came at a cost. Soon after these events, the Queen of Israel, Jezebel, vowed that Elijah would pay for his insolence – specifically for ordering the death of the prophets of Ba’al who had opposed him. From that day forward, Elijah spoke God’s word under the threat of death, a fact that caused him great pain and frustration for the rest of his life.

Perhaps that’s the point, though. The work of a prophet is never easy. Speaking truth to those in power is a frightening proposition, and it has always had the potential to end badly. Yet that work is also vital, because the word of God spoken by prophets like Elijah draws strength and vitality from that place of uncertainty. It’s a relatively simple matter, after all, to give thanks to God when things are going well, when there is nothing and no one to challenge us and our understanding of how God is working in the world. It is quite another thing to speak the truth about God’s call on our lives when we find ourselves on unsteady ground, faced with the prospect of a world that doesn’t make sense to us anymore. Elijah calls out to us from his place of fear and reminds us of God’s love for us, God’s guidance for us, and God’s history with us, even in the most trying of circumstances

All that brings us back to the central question I asked in the first part of this morning’s sermon, the question at the heart of the prophet’s calling: Whom will you serve? We live in a world in which there are any number of people and things vying for our time and energy and attention and allegiance on a daily basis. The problem of idolatry and false worship isn’t any less acute than it was in Elijah’s day, it just looks a little different. Instead of Ba’al, we might be drawn to place our trust in our bank accounts. Instead of the gods of Greece or Rome, we might be drawn to place our trust in those things that satisfy our greed or romantic notions of self-sufficiency. Instead of the idols of wood and stone that tempted the people of Israel, we might we drawn to place our trust in more abstract things like “the market”, or the so-called “prosperity gospel”, or our individual freedoms, or our stubborn insistence on our innocence in the face of societal and systemic sin and brokenness that concerns us all. In the process, we might find ourselves looking less like Elijah and more like the prophets of Ba’al, who shouted and screamed and limped and dashed themselves to pieces in pursuit of a god who could never grant them the peace and wholeness and abundant life offered by the God of Israel who has called us by name.

Brothers and sisters, the story of Elijah – beyond being an amazing, almost cinematic tale of conflict between the living God and the gods of our imagination – is a story of God’s faithfulness and our calling to respond to that faithfulness with our whole lives. It is a reminder that trust in God is not born out of naïveté, but out of an honest view of the world around us that maintains hope against hope. Wherever you might find yourself this morning, the Word speaks to you anew and calls each of us to turn our hearts to the God who created us in love, who saved us by grace, and who sustains us moment by moment by the movement of the Holy Spirit. This week, then, may we be inspired by the words and deeds of Elijah to look closely at our lives and to recommit ourselves to the God who desires life and love and joy for us and for the whole creation. May we set aside all those other gods who lay claim to our allegiance with false and fleeting rewards that do us more harm than good. Finally, may we, even in the direst circumstances, rely on the one who has called and claimed us as his own, and who has promised to be with us always, come what may. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Kingdom Divided (All Saints Day) – November 1, 2015 (NL Week 8)

Sunday’s Reading:
1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I wrestle with this collection of stories that we call the Bible is that it so often fails to be the collection that we want it to be. What I mean by that is this: we Christians sometimes have this unfortunate habit of deifying the Bible, placing the Bible on such a pedestal that it becomes almost as important to us as God. In many ways I understand that impulse. The Bible contains stunningly beautiful passages about God’s love for us, about the lengths to which God will go to forge relationships with humanity and the whole creation, and about the grace that is offered to obviously imperfect people like you and me. Some of these passages truly make my heart sing, and I treasure much of what Scripture has to say about God in Christ.

Then, of course, we have passages like the one before us today. Just two generations after David, the great king of Israel and Judah, we read of the division of the so-called United Monarchy because of the arrogance of Rehoboam, the newly crowned heir of Solomon. At the beginning of his reign, Rehoboam had the opportunity to right the wrongs of his father, who despite all of his famed wisdom made some really terrible choices as king, none worse than the establishment of a system of forced labor that was used for the construction of both his palace and the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead of heeding the advice of his more experienced counselors, who urged him to lessen the demands placed on the people and deal with them compassionately, Rehoboam threatened to increase the workload to prove his supremacy over the people. In response, the vast majority of his subjects – the members of the ten northern tribes of Israel – returned to their homes and pledged their allegiance to one of their own, a man named Jeroboam.

This is not a story that inspires love or devotion. It has little redeeming value except as an example of what not to do as someone who seeks to be faithful to God. Yet here it is, included within the pages of this holy book alongside the stories of hundreds of other broken and beautiful people. What makes Scripture so beautiful, so timeless, so important for us to dig into time and again, is precisely this fact – it is an imperfect book filled with stories about imperfect people who were nevertheless the object of God’s love and grace and guidance.

This is an important truth for us to ponder, not only because it helps us to see some good in an otherwise terrible story of abusive and unresponsive leadership from one of God’s anointed people, but because it reminds us of an equally important truth that often gets lost in our observance of the Feast of All Saints. When we gather to remember the saints, God’s holy people from throughout time and space, we are sometimes in danger of speaking of them the same way that we so often speak about Scripture. It is customary for us to observe to an extreme degree the old adage that it isn’t good to speak ill of those who have died, and again, I understand that impulse. Calling to mind the best and most admirable qualities of our departed loved ones is a practice born out of our affection for them. It helps us to focus on positive memories and to remember what is excellent or praiseworthy. I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to do the complete opposite and look exclusively at the faults and failings of those who have gone on to be with the Lord. Yet there is room for a middle way, and I think that middle way is beneficial to us in a number of ways.

First of all, it allows us to remember our loved ones in all their fullness, as complex individuals with their own particular mix of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, bright spots and dark moments. Second, by remembering that all these “saints” of God were not perfect, we are reminded that our own imperfections are not barriers to relationship with one another or with God. Most importantly, refusing to look at the saints as perfect helps to shift our focus to the one who alone is able to make us saints – Jesus Christ, who came to live among us, to die as one of us, and to be raised for us and for our salvation.

In direct contradiction to the character at the center of today’s Scripture reading, we who are numbered among God’s saints are called to boast first and foremost in the power and presence of God that moves in our lives and enables us to do things that we might never think we were capable of doing. Instead of trumpeting our own status or influence or ability, we are called to draw the gaze of others beyond our own accomplishments to the one who does everything well. In their best moments, the saints we remember today would have told us that themselves – perhaps not in so many words, but in the subtle ways that so many of them deflected attention, or refused to receive praise for things that seemed to them to be perfectly unremarkable, or readily acknowledged their rough places and growing edges.

The stories of Scripture and the stories of the saints are first and foremost stories about the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us minute by minute. To read the Bible rightly is to remember that it is not holy in and of itself; it is holy because all of its letters, words, verses, chapters, and books point to the reality of God that is ultimately beyond our comprehension. To honor the saints rightly is to remember that they are not holy because of their own works or piety or prayers, but because God called them (and continues to call us) to faith, to a reliance on the grace of God that is ours in Christ that transforms us to be Christ’s body in the world. So on this All Saints Day, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for Holy Scripture, this collection of stories that bears witness to God’s magnificent and messy relationship with creation, with humanity, with each one of us. Let us give thanks for God’s holy ones – both those known to us and those who stories we may never know – and for the testimony that they gave to the power and grace of Jesus Christ through their lives of faith. Most of all, let us give thanks to God, the one who calls us and makes us holy by the gospel of our Lord, and who sends us out to tell the story of love and life that is offered to all in Christ. Amen.

Solomon’s Wisdom (Reformation) – Sunday, October 26, 2014 (NL Week 8)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 6:9-10
Preaching Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Today our preaching text centers on Solomon, the second and last king of the united monarchy of Israel and Judah. Next to his father, David, Solomon is one of the most celebrated figures in Scripture, and he is particularly noteworthy because of the reputation he had for exhibiting wisdom in the governance of his kingdom. In this morning’s reading we are reminded that Solomon’s wisdom was apparent from an early age; in fact, the request for wisdom that dominates the first half of today’s text is itself evidence that Solomon possessed wisdom beyond his years. In the second half of the reading, we then get to see that wisdom put to practice, as the king mediates a dispute between two women who both claim an infant as their own. While our modern sensibilities might be offended by the thought of that child’s life being  used as a pawn in settling the dispute, Solomon does bring that argument to a conclusion swiftly (and safely) by forcing the issue and laying bare the hearts of both women involved. In short order, Solomon’s wisdom is described as being unparalleled, and the results of his wisdom plain to see: Israel and Judah’s influence in the Ancient Near East was never greater than it was during the reign of Solomon.

Yet, like all human endeavors, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Last week, Pr. Morrow mentioned God’s warning to the people of Israel, a warning about the abuse of power that was sure to follow when one person was elevated to a position of authority over another. It wasn’t long after Solomon was praised for his justice and wisdom that he succumbed to the temptation to use his authority for his own glory. Yes, Solomon built the first temple to the Lord in Jerusalem; at the same time, he built himself a huge palace that dwarfed the place where God’s name would dwell. Yes, Solomon created beautiful and important civic buildings and structures; he also built them on the backs of slave labor, a decision that revealed a stunning case of amnesia regarding where his people had come from. Yes, Solomon’s temple was considered a grand accomplishment that had lasting impact on the people of Israel and Judah; he also saw his own commitment to the Lord eroded through the many marriages and alliances that allowed idol worship to take root within his household. Like his father before him, the story of Solomon is a story of great achievement and devastating failure, but even more it is the story of God’s never-failing love for those that God has chosen. Though God allowed Solomon to suffer the consequences of his actions, God remained faithful to the promise that had been spoken to David and his descendants, and the house of David saw that promise of unending rule fulfilled centuries later in the person of Jesus Christ.

At first glance, this might seem an odd text for an occasion like Reformation Sunday. For years, we’ve been accustomed to hearing passages like Jeremiah 31, where the prophet proclaims God’s intention to renew the covenant and write it on the hearts of God’s people, and John 8, where Jesus declares that to know him is to know the truth and to receive the freedom offered by that truth. Those passages remind us of the gospel’s enduring power to change the lives of God’s people, and as Lutheran Christians who claim the heritage of the Reformation that message is not to be discounted. The benefit of reading Solomon’s story today is that it communicates an equally important truth to us: that even the most profound gifts and achievements can be compromised by our propensity for selfishness, greed, and arrogance. It is always a temptation for us to see Reformation Sunday as an opportunity to celebrate the Lutheran moment in the sun or to lionize Luther and the Reformers. But we do ourselves a disservice if we forget that one of Luther’s main contributions to Christianity is the understanding that we are simultaneously sinners and saints, that we are both gifted beyond measure and captive to our broken natures.

Like Solomon, Luther was gifted with a sharp mind, and he used that mind to pursue the truth. At the same time, Luther’s insight into the power of the gospel was hindered by his arrogance, prejudice, and intemperance toward people who disagreed with him. We rightly commemorate the wind of change that blew through the church of Luther’s day only if we also recognize the profound suffering wrought by the division and disunity that plagued Europe and the rest of the world for centuries after the Reformation first began.

Brothers and sisters, the story of Solomon reveals a truth that has played out in the lives of every person who has ever professed faith in God. The people of God have been the recipients of divine grace and mercy that we can scarcely fathom, and we have also been given gifts that we can share with those around us as we strive to extend God’s blessing to the world. We have also seen time and again how our best laid plans, our most sincere intentions, and our most promising endeavors have fallen short. Through it all, Scripture and history have revealed how God works through our failings and fears to accomplish God’s purposes for the world. Solomon, Luther, and each of us stand before God as sinners and saints, broken and blessed children who bear God’s image powerfully and imperfectly. On this Reformation Sunday, let us remember this truth about ourselves, not so that we would despair about our fallenness, but so that we might go out this week knowing that we have been freed by the gospel and intent on following Luther’s advice: Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.