Trinity 1 sermon by The Very Reverend Roger Dawson,
Bishop of St. Mary’s Anglican Catholic Cathedral, Caracas
It is one of my most favorite stories in the bible — Elijah and the fire, the underdog alone against the great and overwhelming forces of the enemy. When you go home today find your copy of the bible and read again this eighteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings because it is one of the supreme classics of all time.
In the previous chapter Elijah has a great triumph in restoring a boy to life and we should remember that for these people death was a constant companion. To give life back where it was thought to be lost was nothing short of miraculous.
When Jesus was alive and walking the earth the situation had hardly changed and much of his ministry was in healing because this was a sign that God was with him. Illness and death was thought to be the direct result of sin and sin is any action or thought against God’s wishes.
Don’t dismiss that as entirely stupid because in a way this is still true. If we destroy or harm the environment, for example, then people will die and harming the environment could be classed as a sin against the creation.
In Poland there are still some horrendous heavy industrial plants that harm and kill the people with foul air as they struggle to exist clustered and crammed in their little houses around the factories that give them work but which kill them for their own efforts.
Elijah’s problem was not industrial pollution but pagan worship. Because the Old Testament books have been edited so hard with a rather one sided view it is difficult to tell that for centuries people in Canaan worshipped a number of gods and most of these were centered on the agricultural gods of the Baalim. In spite of what we read in the bible the Canaanites and Israelites or Hebrews were of the same Semitic peoples and they all lived together.
The Hebrews tended to live more simply and did not eat pork; they were a sub culture group and they had their own god YHWH but they also, perhaps for the sake of insurance, also acknowledged the Baalim. The Baalim was a collective of local gods with a hierarchy of superior gods and a supreme god call El who had a son Baal and a daughter Ashtart who was the central character in the sexual orgies of fertility rites that were a great attraction to the followers of the religion.
In an annual cycle Baal fights a dragon in a great river in the sky and their fight, which is very noisy, that’s thunder and lightning, causes water to splash over onto the earth below. Baal gets killed in this fight and his death causes the sun to stop giving its heat to the earth so Ashtart, from which we get the word ‘tart’ meaning a woman of loose morals, pleads with her father El to restore Baal to life and this he does and the weather changes to warm again and the story gets repeated.
Elijah faces the pagan Baal worshippers because they are in a drought and no doubt he is saying ‘what has happened to Baal and the battle with the dragon?’ The king at that time is Ahab and he blames Elijah for the drought because Elijah has come to give him a message from YHWH. It is the usual — let’s blame the messenger for the message. Elijah tells Ahab that the drought is caused by the people’s rejection of the one true god YHWH. The drama gets played out as a confrontation between YHWH and the combined forces of the Baalim with suitable contrasting styles. The Baalim priests cavort around getting more and more frantic as they call upon the Baalim to send fire down on their altar, stabbing themselves in order to raise the stakes of sympathetic magic. None of it works and they all turn to Elijah to see what he will do.
Elijah turns to symbolism to remind the onlookers of their history and heritage. He evokes the story of Israel’s redemption by taking twelve stones to make an altar and sloshing water over them — remember the water from the flinty rock that Moses struck. The so-called water that Elijah used was probably naphtha, which is highly volatile but which is clear and looks like water. What he needed was the fiery presence of God and you will recall that in the Exodus story God is seen as the cloud by day and the fiery pillar by night. It was this fiery pillar that Elijah needs to complete his event and turn the people back to the God of Jacob.
All these years later, we forget that Elijah was a man who, for most of the time, stood alone against the forces of paganism about him and constantly had to prove his credentials. He was the role model and mould into which later zealots would be formed when they were faced with the forces of paganism from Rome. He, and later on the Zealot movement in which Jesus’ brother James and the early Christian Church were involved, opposed any and all forms of paganism by whatever means they could find including violence in an attempt to purify the nation from what they regarded as pagan corruption.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is added today because here we have Paul displaying the same zeal as Elijah in wanting God’s truth revealed and his total opposition to any distortion of God’s word. In verse 4 he says that through Jesus’ death the promised age to come that is to be an age of freedom and forgiveness has now finally arrived and, what he describes as ‘this present evil age’ has lost its grip on reality.
Paul continues with his theme that in the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham, God has created a single family of people who believe in Jesus, and Jew and Gentile, black, white or brown, male or female, old or young are all members of this one family and our badge of membership is our faith in Christ who has redeemed us. The idea that Jews separately owned a special privilege was no longer true and may never have been true and Paul opposes the very suggestion that it could be true. Luke’s account of the centurion and his servant makes the same point.
“Not even in Israel has such faith been found,” says Jesus. Here again, just like the Elijah story we have the contrasting styles of the healers. Most rampaged about calling upon God to do this or that and relatives would be wound up into an hysterical state of screaming and shouting reminiscent of the Baalim priests.
Jesus comes like the new Elijah with the concentration of the man of prayer to raise the boy from death. It was a demonstration that if we have the eyes of faith to be able to see clearly we can now know where the living God is at work.
In today’s world, you and I are surrounded by paganism as deeply ingrained and as extensive as any found by Elijah or Jesus and we are called to demonstrate through our lives that the God of all creation will provide the firepower we need to heal the world. This will come by faith in God’s Son Jesus Christ who brings us wholeness of living and also the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to continue to live in the ways of God.
We have seen this fire at Pentecost and how it changed the lives of the disciples and turned them into apostles, and we have seen the same fire on Elijah’s stone altar that changed the course of a nation’s history. Now let us pray that God can still stir up the fire in us to complete his will in creation and bring the people back to him.