Listen to the sermon from Sunday, May 29, 2016 titled “Following the Wrong God Home” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
These lines from William Stafford haunt me in our time of spiritual confusion. Gone is the day of religious simplicity and clear absolutes. “We’re right and everyone else is wrong” leads to violence in the name of God and betrays the ignorance and arrogance that any of us should dare consider ourselves “experts on God.” But then how do we follow God?
Consider that day long ago the prophet Elijah held his “Last God Standing” contest with the Baal boys on Mt. Carmel. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” he asks the people. “If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Faith in Yahweh, God of Israel, God of the exodus, God of the war to claim the land had been eclipsed by the worship of Baal. Understandably. Since the exodus the people had shifted from nomadic to agrarian life. They were farmers now, not warriors, and the Baals were the Aggie gods.
For centuries these Canaanite gods had been responsible for the fertility of this territory, and the herds and clans to work the land, not to mention the cycle of the seasons, lightning, thunder, and life-giving rains. Baal worship was as integral to farming then as tractors are today. These people need farm gods now, not some demanding deliverer God. Then, in Yahweh’s name, Elijah announces a drought. It doesn’t rain for three years. The streams dry up. The crops fail. Baal fails.
Elijah calls the Baal prophets and the people to meet him up on Mt. Carmel. From there they can see most of their land, the capital city and the fertile valley of Jezreel lying parched below them. Jezreel is the breadbasket of the kingdom, but without rain it’s useless. The land itself cries out: Baal fails! Elijah calls the people to serve Yahweh and abandon Baal, but the people are silent as a white Baptist church with a preacher who uses a manuscript. Understandably. How do you give up on the gods you depend on for your livelihood? So Elijah sets up this god challenge, and now the people say, “Amen! Yessir! Well played!”
The Baal boys build their altar and pray from morning ‘til noon for Baal to light their fire. Elijah makes fun of them. “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” One Hebrew idiom actually implies Baal has stepped aside to “answer the call of nature.”
This whips the Baal cheerleaders into a fury. They cry louder, dance harder, even cut themselves to impress Baal with their ardent sincerity. It’s called “sympathetic magic.” They imitate what they want their God to do, which is pour out his life blood onto the land. But it doesn’t work. Baal fails.
Elijah practices a little sympathetic magic of his own, has the people pour precious water over the sacrifice. The point is not to prove his God can burn wet wood, though that will preach. It is to show God what Elijah really wants, which is rain.
But contrast Elijah’s simple prayer with the desperate dance of the Baal boys begging and bargaining with Baal. Prayer is a simple submission to God, not “the art of the deal.” Elijah prays and BOOM! Fire strikes his altar and consumes it. The people are duly impressed.
But again, the point is not the altar so much as the fire. Lightning! And with the lightning will come rain. Lightning and rain are supposed to be Baal’s bailiwick. But Baal is an epic fail! Elijah has shown that Yahweh is not just the God of exodus or war or covenant ethics, but the God of lightning and rain and fertility and everything else.
Then Elijah turns victory into tragedy by having the people kill all the Baal prophets, which infuriates Queen Jezebel who loves her Baal so that she puts a bounty on his head. Violence begets violence in the name of all that is holy. Elijah still has a few things to learn about God’s ways, as do we all.
Violent times. But simpler times. I mean, the choice seems so clear, so easy. Serve God or serve Baal. We don’t have the luxury of such simple choices in our complicated times, do we?
To be sure you don’t see Baal idols like much any more at the 4H or the the malls or people’s homes, except maybe biblical archaeologists or Christian missionaries. We’re not tempted to worship Baal or serve the wrong gods manufactured from plain materials of stone and steel.
Unless of course, you count our football stadiums or our phones or our money or our may road other passions and addictions. It is so easy to fall into idolatry, even with good things like family and work and food and fun. Small things become big things become the only thing, and we find ourselves following the wrong god home, majoring on the minors, serving soul-consuming things that are not God which pull us away from the soul-sustaining God who gives us life. We drift into idolatry without even realizing we’ve made the choice. As my alma mater, Baylor University learned the hard way this week, when you follow the wrong gods home, people get hurt. But before we judge, we must look at our own idolatries.
As the Greek God Hermes complains in a New Yorker cartoon, “It’s called monotheism, but it looks like downsizing to me.” In the history of theology Elijah represents a move from the practical monotheism of the exodus – “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) – to the absolute monotheism of the exile – “I am God; there is no other” (Isaiah 45:5). But no sooner is that declared than a whole slew of spiritual beings – angels and spirits and demons – pop up in the story to take those other god’s places.
The truth is, at a practical level, there are many gods in this world and most of us try to serve several at the same time, limping along between different opinions with divided loyalties that diminish us. The truth is, at a simple level, none of those other things are gods at all because at the end of the day, they don’t give you life. We could all use a little downsizing in the god department.
In all the confusion, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. That means living intentionally, reflectively, with pauses to get perspective on your life. You have to stop now and then to consider: is the path you’re on, the passions that are driving you, the things you are serving giving you life or smothering your soul? Can those things keep the promise they are making you, or are they really dead gods that aren’t worth serving? Baal fails!
Recover your center. The difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze leads to dead ends. A labyrinth leads you to be centered in the one God within you. We all get sidetracked from time to time, live on the periphery of our lives, major on the minors. Get back to your center and organize everything around that. The center is where God waits for you.
Perhaps Elijah’s time was no less complicated than ours for knowing how to live in the midst of so many competing demands and so many false gods. Perhaps the choice is as simple now as it was then. “How long will you go limping with different opinions? If God is God, follow God first.” Baal fails, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen. May we pray?
So many voices call us to follow. So many options seem right at the time. Center us on you, our God, that our every yes will be yes to you, and no to whatever leads us astray. Send your fire upon our altar that we might remember you alone are God and Baal fails. So lead us into the life you have promised, in the name of Christ. Amen.