Sunday, July 30th's terrific message “God’s Messengers” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 15 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
Hosea 4:1-2; 14:1-2
First United Methodist Church, July 30, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
You and I read and hear our share of warnings: they're for our own good and they're all around. There are billboards telling us not to text and drive. We know—because of the warnings—that smoking is dangerous to our health, and in recent years we've heard more about the perils of drinking diet soda. Somehow Facebook knows of my addiction to Diet Coke, because I'm always getting warnings about that from them. And then there are the roadside warnings. When Scott and I were in South Haven a couple of months ago, we saw a ROAD CLOSED sign, but went on around it, because oftentimes the road really isn't completely closed and we weren't sure how else to get to where we were going. But thankfully there was one more road for us to turn off, because just beyond that the bridge was out. The road really was closed. Sometimes we pay attention to the warnings, and sometimes we don't.
In our reading of The Story this week we learn about the messengers God gave to the people of Israel who warned them, and sought to redirect them back to God, because they weren't making healthy choices. The people worshiped pagan gods and no longer placed their faith in the Lord God who created them, who brought them out of bondage in Egypt and into the promised land. Well, sometimes they worshipped him, but sometimes it was just more convenient to worship pagan gods. But God remained faithful, and over the years, God raised up 9 messengers/ prophets whose purpose was to confront, to guide, and to lead God's people back to the heart of God.
In past weeks, we've talked about Samuel who was priest and prophet during the time Saul was king of Israel. Then there was Nathan, priest and prophet during David's time on the throne. This week we read about Elijah and Elisha in Chapter 15 of The Story, with readings from scripture taking us from 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings. The Story this week also includes prophesy from the books of Amos and Hosea, as these messengers of God each call the people of God—in their time and in ours—to faithfulness through their words and through their lives.
In 1 Kings 16 we're introduced to King Ahab in this way:
In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years. Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him (1 Kings 16:29-30).
Here is what King Ahab did: he worshipped pagan gods, as did his father. Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of a king and priest of Baal. Baal was the king of the pagan gods, believed to be in charge of fertility, weather, wind, rain, lightning, the various seasons, war—those kinds of things. Ahab built a temple with an altar for worshipping Baal in Samaria, and he also worshipped Asherah, the fertility goddess who was believed to be the spouse or companion of Baal. Together, Ahab and Jezebel had two sons, one named Ahaziah meaning "the Lord grasps" and the other Joram, which means "the Lord is exalted," so we can see that Ahab moved back and forth between what he called the worship and honoring of God and the worship and honoring of Baal. As we have come to see, God isn’t pleased with this divided allegiance.
This is when the prophet Elijah enters the picture. He goes to King Ahab with a weather forecast: He tells the king, "As the Lord the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word" (1 Kings 17:1).
Can you imagine? We go without rain for awhile, and things dry up pretty quickly. The Northern Kingdom surely still had some relationships for trading with other nations from alliances made with Solomon, but the lack of rain (and even dew!) still can’t help but significantly impact the kingdom's quality of life.
After Elijah makes this pronouncement, God tells him to leave that place, to turn eastward and to hide in a ravine east of the River Jordan. God promises to provide Elijah with water to drink and food to eat. His food will be supplied by ravens, birds who usually feast on the dead. For Elijah, they bring life-giving bread and meat, in the morning and in the evening.
Elijah does what God tells him to do. He leaves, and his absence literally removes God's Word and God's blessing from the land and its people.
In time, because of the lack of rain, the brook where Elijah has been able to draw water to drink, dries up. God instructs him to go to a place, up to the coastal area of Sidon. It’s interesting to note that this is an area of the nation where Jezebel’s influence—and the worship of Baal—is the strongest. God is sending his servant into hostile territory! God tells Elijah to go to the town of Zarephath where a widow will supply him with food. He finds her at the town gate, gathering sticks. She is expecting to go home and prepare the last of the food that she has for herself and her young son, but she agrees to feed the prophet anyway, and at his word, her flour is not used up and her oil does not run dry until the drought finally comes to an end.
She feeds and shelters him until the third year of the drought when God comes to Elijah again, telling him to present himself to Ahab. You can see the great esteem that Ahab feels for the prophets of God in his greeting of Elijah when he sees him: “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
Elijah gives it back to Ahab, “No, I’m not the troubler of Israel, you and your family are—you’ve abandoned the Lord’s commands and you’ve followed the Baals.” Then, Elijah basically challenges Ahab to a duel. Bring the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who your wife Jezebel feeds at your dinner table every night, to the top of Mount Carmel, and let’s see who carries the biggest guns (or, more precisely, whose god is the real deal.)
While Ahab is assembling the prophets, Elijah goes before the people, “How long are you going to waver back and forth between Baal and the God of Israel? You’re going to have to choose!”
The people don’t respond. They don’t say anything.
Elijah proposes a plan. He calls for 2 bulls. The 450 prophets of Baal (I’m not sure what happened to the 400 prophets of Asherah at this point. Maybe they knew better than to show up)—the prophets of Baal can have their choice of bulls: they and Elijah will each take a bull, cut it into pieces, and place it on a stack of wood but not start a fire under it. Then, the prophets of Baal and Elijah will in turn, call upon their god to light the fire. Whoever’s god answers by fire, is God.
Everybody nods. That’s a good plan.
“You go first,” Elijah says. So, from morning to noon, the prophets of Baal call on their god. But there isn’t a response. They dance around the altar they made, calling out…but nothing happens.
At noon, Elijah suggests that perhaps they should shout out louder. Maybe Baal is deep in thought, not paying attention. Perhaps he’s taking a nap…on vacation? The prophets of Baal begin tearing their clothes and cutting themselves with knives and swords. This continues to the evening…but there is no response: no one answers, no one pays attention. (It’s sad, isn’t it?)
Then Elijah calls the people to come to him. He repairs the altar of the Lord which has been in ruins, using 12 stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob. He digs a trench around the whole thing. He arranges the wood, cuts the bull into pieces and lays the pieces upon the wood. He then calls for 4 large jars of water (do you call this show-boating?), and he has it poured on the wood and on the offering. He calls for 4 more jars: “do it again.” Then again. Until everything is saturated and the water runs down around the altar and fills up the trench he dug.
After that, Elijah prays to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. “Let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done these things at your command. Answer me, O God, that these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
God answers by lighting the fire, by burning up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil around it. The water vaporizes and the people fall on their faces, recognizing that the Lord God of Israel is the one true God.
With God the obvious victor in this duel of deities, Elijah commands that the (now recognized) false prophets of the (now recognized) false god Baal be seized and put to death. And before long, a rain cloud is sighted, the wind rises, and a heavy rain falls…and the drought is finally broken.
I think it’s interesting how Elijah waits for the rain to appear. He tells Ahab with great confidence to go eat and drink, because the rain is about to come down. And then he climbs to the top of Mount Carmel, he bends down and puts his head between his knees. He can’t even watch for himself. Seven times, he sends his servant to look up into the sky over the sea to see if clouds are forming. It’s as though he’s holding his breath…until the moment that it’s obvious that God has lifted Elijah’s curse and the drought has finally come to an end.
Elijah is God’s prophet/God’s messenger. He has warned the people, he has demonstrated God’s presence and God’s power in a pretty spectacular demonstration: He has shown who God is and who Baal isn’t. You would think that even Jezebel would be convinced after all that…but she isn’t…Ahab isn’t…and their sons aren’t convinced either, they, too, do evil in the sight of God during their reigns. But God doesn’t give up…God continues to send messengers.
The prophet Elisha follows Elijah as prophet to Israel. You can read his words and acts in 2 Kings, including how Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram is healed of leprosy by washing in the Jordan 7 times. Naaman expected to be treated in a manner consistent to his position in life, and at first declined to go wash himself. Really? That’s it? He finally relents, is healed, and proclaims his faith in God, even while acknowledging that the pagan world in which he lived would sometimes call him to do things that he no longer believed…
The prophet Amos, a shepherd, calls the people to acts of social justice, challenging them to hate evil, to love good, and to maintain justice in the courts that they might live.
The prophet Hosea’s family life is offered as a symbol of how Israel turns away from the Lord, as God instructs him to marry a promiscuous woman who continually turns away from him to other men. God tells Hosea that he is to show his love for her, no matter what, supporting her, even as she thinks she is being supported by other men. Hosea, like God won’t let go, no matter what. Hosea, like God, loves, no matter what.
So these are four of the prophets: What do they teach us? What can we learn from them? What word do they bring for our day?
The first thing I think of is their strength and courage. These are ordinary men. They’re introduced to us as “the son of…” And yet they are willing to stand up to the various kings—they speak with confidence, bravado. They go against the flow and are not intimidated …though sometimes they run and hide. Sometimes they put their heads between their knees, holding their breath, waiting for God… And yet that fear doesn’t silence them.
At the end of our study on Wednesday night, a friend asked me, who do you think our prophets are today? I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t name anyone. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I wondered, if there are prophets, are we listening to them? If they’re here, can I not name one because I’m ignoring their words?
Then, I started thinking about ordinary people. About you and about me. Are we willing to go against the flow? To be who God calls us to be? To do what God calls us to do? Even if it’s not the easy thing? The popular thing? The way that we/our world usually does whatever it is? Is that being a prophet? Or is it being a disciple? How are those two roles similar? How are they different?
This week I watched a brief video from a leadership conference I’m planning to attend that talked about how few of us are called to do great things, and yet we’re all called to do small things, consistently and well. To keep doing these small things, to keep loving, to keep reaching out, to keep lifting up…to not stopping, even when it seems that we’re the only one doing whatever it is…
We may not be called to the top of the Mount Carmel of Marshall County to challenge the Baals of our day to a duel, but maybe we’re called—to the best of our ability—to seek justice in those situations we encounter where that voice needs to be heard. Maybe we’re called to lift up the downcast where we are, and in our words and in our actions, to keep pointing people to God…in small ways, every day, consistently, to the best of our ability. Maybe that’s what today’s messengers are called to do and to be. Maybe they’re you, maybe they’re me.
Or maybe today’s messengers are actually those children who are hungry or abused or lost or alone whose eyes speak to our hearts and souls and challenges us to respond. Will we be quiet? Maybe today’s prophets are the refugees who put us in such turmoil and conflict trying to figure out what to do, but they’re calling us to action…to make a decision…to do something. Maybe today’s prophets are the victims of crime, the drug addicts, the mentally ill, the poor, the sick…who call us to action…to do something. Something.