Sermon delivered on Trinity 1C, June 2, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 18.20-39; Psalm 96.1-13; Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1-10.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are few stories more compelling in the Bible than today’s from 1 Kings and it is worth our careful consideration because it has the same elements in it that make us want to go limping along in our relationship with God in our own day and age. So this morning as we celebrate and give thanks for the institution of holy communion, I want us to look briefly at some of the reasons that make us want to limp along in our relationship with God and what our texts say can be done to correct our limping so that we can reach full stride.
The dynamics of today’s OT lesson are gripping. We have our hero, the prophet Elijah, facing seemingly hopeless odds as he challenges King Ahab and the people of the northern kingdom of Israel over their syncretism (the combining of different religious practices). Elijah’s challenge has to do with fire but the real issue is water, or more precisely, a lack of water. Old King Ahab has married Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who turns out to be a really nasty person, and Jezebel has caused Ahab and many in the northern kingdom of Israel (not to be confused in this instance with the southern kingdom of Judah) to take up Baal worship. This, of course, has aroused God’s anger because God is jealous for his people and demands our complete loyalty. After all, because God loves us, God wants the best for us and worshiping any other god than the one true living God must inevitably diminish and kill us because we have life only in God.
But it is part of the sad legacy of both Israel and Judah (not to mention the Church at times) that they often strayed from obeying the Great Commandment and fell into idolatry, and in this story we have the latest installment of that legacy. Because the Israelites have turned to Baal worship in addition to worshiping God, God has inflicted the land and its wayward people with a severe draught to show his displeasure. Now at the beginning of chapter 18, God sends his lonely prophet to confront God’s wayward king and people by a spectacular demonstration of God’s power. This was no small request on God’s part because apparently Ahab had been wanting to see Elijah for a long time, and not to have a beer with him. As is so typical of humans, instead of looking at his own behavior first, Ahab had accused Elijah of causing all of Israel’s problems and had actually given him the moniker, “Troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18.17). To make matters worse for Elijah, he now confronted not only a hostile king and his people, he also had to confront 850 prophets of Baal. Talk about feeling all alone in a hostile environment!
But of course Elijah wasn’t alone. Yahweh was with him and both had come to challenge the prophets of Baal to a contest of power. Whichever god could rain down fire and consume the two bulls would demonstrate without a doubt who was for real. Elijah’s challenge is quite ironic because Baal was the god of rain and fertility who specialized in sending down fire in the form of lightning. Now here is Elijah challenging this false god’s prophets to a duel that is apparently right up Baal’s alley. Not only that, Elijah lets his adversaries go first. If fire consumed the bulls, Elijah would not get a chance to prove he was the real prophet of the real God.
As the story progresses, it gets almost comical. The false prophets whip themselves up in a frenzy and become panic-stricken over Baal’s apparent absence. And because we are openly (or secretly) rooting for Elijah, we take great delight in seeing him taunt his adversaries and making fun of their impotent god. Yes! Then when it’s Elijah’s turn, we really begin to anticipate what’s going to happen and God doesn’t disappoint. To eliminate any doubt as to whether he is engaging in trickeration or that Yahweh is the one true God, Elijah orders the altar drenched with water before he makes a thank offering to God and calls down God’s fire on it. Of course the response is immediate and dramatic. Everything on the altar is consumed. Everything. Shock and awe at its best, baby, and a demonstration of the terrible power of the Lord God. Elijah and his God are totally vindicated and people see a convincing demonstration of God’s power and truth. The good guy wins after all, even in the face of immense odds against him. Who among us (except the truly bad guys) doesn’t like a story like this?
And of course if we are honest with ourselves, we want our God to be this kind of God, a God whose immense power can be called upon suddenly and dramatically to save his world and rescue us from all our problems. I think this is especially true for Christians living in this country today because there is little doubt that our culture is becoming increasingly godless and hostile toward Jesus and his people. All this makes us understand how Elijah must have felt coming into today’s story and this is a major reason why we can relate to this story. Not only does the good guy win, there is no doubt that God is God and firmly in control of things. We tell ourselves how much easier it would be for us to remain faithful to a God like the God in this story! There would be no doubt that God is in charge and able to protect us from all that is wrong in his good but fallen world. Like the psalmist, we want a God who is bigger than us and who can whack evil and evildoers whenever he wants so that he can put his broken world to rights. This kind of God makes us feel secure. This is a God we can worship and celebrate.
And if we read between the lines in today’s sharp epistle lesson, we see that apparently the Galatians were just like us, and that Paul had to take them to task over it. Dispensing with the usual niceties of praise and thanksgiving for his audience, Paul cuts to the chase and asks them incredulously why they are deserting the gospel of Jesus Christ he had preached to them? You know that gospel, the one of Jesus and him crucified (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.18-31). But where’s the shock and awe in that?? While Paul’s gospel surely was about the sovereignty and power of God, it was a power demonstrated in apparent weakness. Whoever heard of a crucified God? How could God possibly defeat sin and evil on the cross as Paul had proclaimed? And if we are really cynical, we remind ourselves that Paul himself was the recipient of a mighty act of power when he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, an event that Paul himself refers to at the end of our lesson! We want to say, “Sure Paul. You’ve seen the risen Lord and have been clearly changed by him. Us? Not so much. Why can’t our interactions with Jesus be more spectacular like yours instead of the mundane most of us experience?”
All this reminds us that we are not the first people who prefer the God who manifested himself in today’s OT lesson over the God who manifested himself as Jesus of Nazareth, and him crucified. The latter takes a whole lot more faith to believe in and trust because the results of the cross are not so dramatic and in-your-face as the God who sends down a consuming fire from heaven. But of course this is how God has chosen to reveal himself to us and Jesus’ atoning death and vindicating resurrection are the ways God has chosen to deal ultimately with evil, sin, and death. Shock and awe, while fantastic and spectacular (provided you are not its target), is temporary at best. Think of how God’s people grumbled in the wilderness after witnessing God delivering them from their slavery in Egypt or his great power manifested at Mt. Horeb. This same dynamic was apparently true even for Elijah, because after this episode he ordered the slaughter of the 850 prophets of Baal so that Jezebel swore to do likewise to him. Shortly thereafter, Elijah fled for his life and became quite discouraged. He wondered why God had abandoned him (cf. 1 Kings 19.1-18). Shock and awe may take our breath away but it tends to not stick with us, in part, because of the human condition that makes us so easily distractible.
So what’s the solution? How can we as Christians living in an increasingly hostile environment in the 21st century walk full stride in our relationship with God so that we do not limp along and become enticed to worship other gods in addition to the God who has made himself known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
We find the answer in the Centurion’s faith reported in today’s gospel lesson. It was a faith that transcends our natural desire to gravitate toward shock and awe demonstrations of power to one that recognized in Jesus the inherent authority to perform spectacular acts of power, but of a different kind. The Centurion clearly had heard of all that Jesus did and on the basis of that testimony, he developed a deep faith, mixed with humility, that led him to believe Jesus could exert is healing power and authority without spatial limitations, i.e., Jesus did not have to be physically present to heal the Centurion’s servant; he could do his acts of power over a distance because he has the authority to do so. This explains Jesus’ astonishment because he had not encountered this kind of faith among the very people God had called to be his own. Instead, here was a Gentile soldier, a goyim, who had the kind of faith that ensured he wouldn’t limp along in his relationship with God. Luke wants us to see that this very fact was itself a preview of the real power of the gospel to win the hearts and minds of all and sundry.
Do you have this kind of faith? If you do, be gracious to others and share with them how you have helped cultivate it. You surely didn’t get this kind of deep faith and the needed accompanying humility overnight because we are all too profoundly broken without God’s help. So what did you have to do to allow God to let your faith bubble up and develop in you (for all faith comes from God and is a free gift to his human creatures)?
If you don’t have this kind of faith, then consider what we can learn from today’s texts. First, our lessons, especially the gospel, suggest that deep faith is never blind. There is always an empirical and/or historical basis to it. Do you know the stories of the Bible well enough that you can recall immediately the demonstrable acts of the love, power, and faithfulness of God manifested in his world, especially through Jesus? If not, it is unlikely that you will ever have a faith that believes in the power of Jesus to work for good in your life, the lives of his people, and in his broken and hurting world without him being physically present. And without that kind of faith you are destined to limp along looking for the next best thing to get you through the day.
And of course given that we are celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi today, we believe that we have the power and presence of Jesus available to us in the sacraments each and every week. In a few minutes I will be doing a brief instructed eucharist with you to help you understand what goes on during the eucharist and why you can have a faith-driven confidence that Jesus really is present in the bread and wine so that he can work in your life in the manner he did with the Centurion. We don’t know if that Centurion ever eventually met Jesus face-to-face. But we do know that his faith invoked the power of Jesus to work dramatically in his life and that same power is available to you by faith in the eucharist as well.
In saying this I run the risk of having you think that if you pray for Jesus’ intervention in your life and your prayers go unanswered, you lack the necessary faith. That would take a whole separate sermon to address. So the short answer here is don’t fall into that trap. When Jesus’ power breaks out in your life it is always because of your faith. The opposite, however, is not true. No action on Jesus’ part does not translate into little or no faith on yours. And if you don’t believe me, ask Job (and countless other saints whose faith was lively and powerful)!
Last, if we are going to have the faith that keeps us in full stride, we have to know how to look for signs of Jesus’ authority and power in his world today. God’s love and power was poured out on the cross for us. It was embodied in Jesus’ mighty resurrection so that new life sprang out of hopelessness, death, and despair. Do you see signs of resurrection and crucified love in your own life and the lives of others? For example, have you witnessed, or can you recall acts of Jesus’ power in your own life where healing occurred or forgiveness was offered or reconciliation achieved against all odds? Have you stopped to consider how the fruit of the Spirit has manifested itself in your life and the lives of others? Any of these signs is a tangible reminder that Jesus’ authority and power is the real basis for their existence. That is why it is so critical to be in fellowship with each other because we are the body of Christ and his Spirit lives in us, individually and collectively. We can therefore serve as witnesses to encourage each other.
There’s plenty more to be said but you get the idea. So this week look carefully at your faith, preferably with a trusted Christian friend or spouse, and see if it’s causing you to limp along or hit your stride. This is a work in progress but we all have to start somewhere. So start doing the things the Centurion did to help God grow your faith. Faith is God’s gift. But as with any of God’s gifts, we have to put in our sweat equity and be diligent and patient. As you do your part to develop the Centurion’s faith, you will surely learn to see more clearly Jesus’ power and authority in your life and his world, even in his physical absence. That’s because he is our Risen and Ascended Savior, the Lord of all creation. When by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit you really come to believe this, you won’t need shock and awe from God nor will you be limping anymore because you know that you have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.