Sermon for June 2, 2013
1 Kings 18:20-39, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
As Paul said to the ancient church in Galatia this morning, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” As Paul begins his letter, for generations, Lutheran pastors have begun sermons with these words, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Notice that after the Amen, suddenly the letter takes a strident tone. The usual complements and greetings which begin ancient letters such as this are missing. Paul is so angry that he dispenses with the pleasantries and gets straight to the point. Basically that point is, “You idiots. Why do you fall away from the grace of God offered in Christ Jesus, and insist on following custom, religious traditions and habits, as if those things will bring you peace and happiness. What lunacy. Happiness can only come through graceful love and forgiveness as revealed in Jesus. No matter how well you perform all those little details of life, if you have not graceful love, have not compassion, your well crafted castle is empty.”
Paul is hot under the collar, because the gospel of graceful, compassionate love is in danger of being lost to habits, customs, and traditions. Fortunately perhaps, most Lutheran pastors have not followed the greeting at the beginning of the letter with such angry words. But make no mistake about it: the Greek is intense. Paul’s on the side of love, not the side of obedience to convention. The stakes are high, as two religious views collide.
The stakes are even higher as two religions collide in I Kings today. Here we have the confrontation of two primitive faith traditions, a thousand years or more perhaps before the time of Paul. In this story two faith traditions collide: the desert God YHWH and the agricultural God BAAL are contesting for the hearts of the people in the land of Canaan. The detail of the story preserves the prehistoric echoes of this confrontation in the ancient history of the Middle East.
YHWH, called the LORD in our passage, was a desert deity, worshipped by desert nomadic tribes. As the prehistoric Hebrew people wandered in the desert wilderness and lived the nomadic life, YHWH was their God. The desert God was the God of wind and fire. YHWH was elusive, so illusive that God’s name could not be pronounced or spoken, and was worshipped with the sacrifice of goats. A goat would be selected from the flocks. Hands would be laid upon the head of the goat, transferring the sins of the tribe to the animal. The animal was killed as an offering to God. The meat was shared in a feast or community meal.
YHWH spoke to people in fire and wind, burning bushes, and the appearance of strangers. People found faith in wilderness retreats and wandering. Hospitality was a divine command since survival in harsh desert conditions demanded it.
Eventually the Hebrew people came out of the desert into Canaan to settle and to take up agriculture. In the Bible this shift from desert nomadic life into agricultural society is called entering the Promised Land. The book of Joshua is perhaps the Bible’s record of people moving from a nomadic into an agricultural society with cities, and temples, priests and formal sacrifices, and emerging authority figures, money and armies. More people were in charge of more things.
BAAL was an agricultural God indigenous to Canaan where crops were grown and communities were established and fortified. Not given to wind and fire, BAAL was more concerned with the success of the harvest. Fertility was the important theme of the culture and of BAAL. Without fertility humanity would not flourish. Blood was a part of the faith as the source of life. Goats gave way to cows. Agricultural abundance allowed for the creation of wealth, art including statues such as golden calves, the construction of temples, and the creation of a priestly cast. Sacrifice, supervised now by professionals, was needed to insure a successful harvest. It may have been the case that human sacrifice was called for, and may be the story behind Genesis 22, what we know as the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
As these desert nomads settled into agricultural communities and cities, and as life became more complex, the tendency was to abandon the old God of the desert for the new God of fertile promise. The religious struggle between the two faith traditions was carried on for some time. And it was intense. Today, we have a story from the time of King Ahab when it seems like everybody was giving up on YHWH and going for the new faith. Indeed, the faith of YHWH is being persecuted by the growing majority. Elijah the prophet of YHWH is in opposition to the great numbers professional prophets of BAAL. It’s a bull burning contest filled with anthropological detail. The first God to light the sacrificial fire wins.
At first it seems like BAAL has all the advantages: 450 professional prophets verses the rag tag Elijah. The BAAL group picks the bull, the wood, and receives the ball first. It’s even a bull rather than a goat. Their altar and sacrifice is bone dry. So they call on the name of their God, they dance in ecstasy and self mutilate, all part of the religion of the time.
But their so-called advantages are superficial. Notice that it is YHWH’s team that sets the challenge and defines the struggle in the first place. This is a challenge of fire, and YHWH is a god of desert wind and fire. And sometimes it is not to one’s advantage to go first. And Elijah creates spiritual distraction with all his taunting throughout their liturgy.
Notice the prehistoric detail of Elijah’s ritual. The people are called to come close. God is present in the gathering, not in professional priestly ecstasy. The altar is constructed of twelve stones symbolizing the inclusion of all the tribes of the nomads, and making present the power of the many. The prophet’s prayer is simple, not complex. It remembers the past. In humility it makes a request, and then waits for a response. Elijah has the better liturgy.
And so his altar explodes with fire. No amount of water is a match for the intense heat of the God of the desert. The stakes are high as two religions collide. YHWH prevails, and the faith that continues eventually gives rise to two of the world’s great religions. To this day we sustain these prehistoric values in our rituals: the coming together, the drawing close, the presence of all the hosts of heaven, the simple and straightforward prayer of the lay person rather than the professional prayer of the priest.
The stakes are high as two cultures collide in the gospel of Luke. The Romans are occupying Judea and are hated as foreign conquerors are always despised. The Romans were not gentle in their occupation. The penalty for standing against Rome was crucifixion. And many were crucified, including Jesus. So we have a story grounded in this confrontation. There should be conflict here, but there is not. How could that be?
Well this is an unusual Roman Centurion. He has compassion for those who work for him. He is humble in his office. He does what he can for his people. He helps the Jews he governs build a meeting place called a synagogue. He defers to Jesus, and his humility and gentleness is a key to his success and accomplishments. It’s still that way today for all leaders regardless of their backgrounds, cultures, situations, or convictions. The lack of presumption, the presence of humility, the sense of cooperation and gentle affection serve all leaders well. But make no mistake about it. This man leads. And he leads efficiently. As a leader, speaking to a religious leader, he just assumes that Jesus can handle this with a simple word. And Jesus does.
So where there should be an intense clash between cultures, between oppressor and oppressed, there is not. Jesus, it seems in Luke, can work with both Jews and Gentiles. And instead of that hostility being the focus, Luke points Jesus into the deeper conflict, not between Jew and Roman, but between good and evil, between brokenness and healing, between compassion and fear, between Jesus and the forces that would destroy hope. And make no mistake about it. That struggle in Luke and in all of these lessons is intense.