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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/02/2013

The Bible contains a number of what are called etiologies which are stories that explain the origin of some custom or phenomena, could be a physical feature or a name.  For example, the custom of wearing clothes; where did that come from?   At the end of the Adam and Eve story they were ashamed and so in an act of grace, God made garments for them.  Where do rainbows come from?  At the end of the Noah story God put a bow in the sky as a reminder to us and to him that this would never happen again.  So biblical etiologies are not intended to be scientific or sociological explanations of anything, more like folk tales and legends whose real purpose is to serve as a reminder of some greater truth; in the two examples I gave the greater truth would have to do with God’s love and compassion despite the inclination of human beings to be disobedient.  So…etiology…that can be your word for the day.

I don’t think today’s first lesson from First Kings is meant to be an etiology, but…if the question were “How did trash talking originate or who was the first trash talker?” one might point to this story.  You know about trash talk, right?  It’s what athletes do to their opponent to try to get inside their head, to try to get a psychological edge, those little comments you make to throw your opponent off, to get ‘em thinking and questioning.  I think it’s probably most prevalent in basketball; people like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were supposedly masters of it and they both could back it up. 

But way before Michael Jordan and Larry Bird there was the prophet Elijah.  I don’t think this story is real well known but let me fill you in a little bit.  Ahab was the king of Israel but he was a bad king; “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”  Part of what he did was to marry Jezebel who was a worshiper of the god Baal, Baal kind of being the arch enemy of the Lord.  I suppose this could be seen as something of an etiology too if you ask “How did a sleazy, deceitful woman become known as a Jezebel?”  You go back to this part of First Kings.

Anyway, because of Ahab and Jezebel the people of Israel had fallen away from worshiping the Lord so Elijah felt like he was the only one left prophesying in the name of the Lord, Jezebel having executed many other of the Lord’s prophets.  In an effort to change the situation and to get people back to worshiping the Lord Elijah arranges a contest between himself, as the only prophet of the Lord, and all the prophets of Baal, hundreds of them, to see whose God could bring down fire from heaven so a burnt offering could be made.  They go up Mt. Carmel, flip a coin and the prophets of Baal go first calling on the name of Baal for several hours but of course nothing happens.  During that time though, Elijah does his trash talking about their god; “Maybe he’s meditating; maybe he’s wandered away on a journey; maybe he’s taking a nap.”  But there was no voice, no answer, no response. 

Then it was Elijah’s turn and after some initial preparations he says, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you O Lord are God.”  Fire comes down and consumes the burnt offering along with everything around it, the people fall on their face and say, “The Lord is indeed God; the Lord indeed is God.” 

It’s a good story in the manner of a folktale which is what many of the Elijah stories are thought to be.  But it’s not really about Elijah as the first trash talker and it’s not really about where the term Jezebel comes from.  As with other stories like this, it’s the deeper truth we’re looking for, the deeper truth from an entertaining story.

In this story, the people of Israel were faced with an either/or choice.  “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”  That either/or is the deeper truth, the question at the heart of this story.  In this contest on Mt. Carmel, Elijah was calling the people back to their identity as followers of the Lord.  At the time, the more popular, easier choice was Baal.  If you just wanted to go with the flow and get along, Baal was your God because he was the God of the rulers.  But Elijah was lifting up the alternative, the “or” which following the Lord represented.

We don’t engage in contests involving burnt offerings pitting one god against another, but the either/or that the Mt. Carmel confrontation represents is before us all the time, all of us.  I’m particularly mindful of this either/or relative to our graduates today but it’s not just them.  Jesus represented an alternative way to be in the world; he lived in a way that challenged the existing power structures, that’s what got him in trouble.  The earliest followers of the Risen Christ also represented an alternative which also got them in trouble.  At its best, the church still represents that alternative although it frequently has found it easier to just go along for the sake of getting along rather than being the alternative it’s called to be. 

A text like this one today is important because it reminds us of that either/or.  It reminds us that whether we’re aware of it or not, we are constantly negotiating between the gods of this world and being followers of Jesus.  For the people of Israel on Mt. Carmel, the popular, easy choice was Baal.  For people of our time, the popular, easy choice is to worship the gods of me first consumerism, the quest for enough money and stuff so that we can be comfortable and enjoy life.  But wait a minute.  That’s not so bad, is it; being comfortable and enjoying life?  Life is for living, right?  If following Jesus means giving up all the stuff that makes life enjoyable for me, I’m out; I can’t do it. 

This story today does pose a stark either/or that doesn’t leave room for compromise  and we need to see it that way; we need to see it that way even though we know we’re not going to fully embrace the alternative, we’re not going to embrace the “or” of Jesus.  We’re going to negotiate; we’re going to compromise, every one of us.  But still we need to pay attention to stories like this to remind us of the either/or because without the reminder, we stop being aware that there is a difference.  Without the reminder, the alternative can’t be sustained.  We become convinced that we can have it both ways, it’s all the same.  Without even being aware of it, no matter how much we might deny it, we wind up worshiping other gods.

The prophets of this modern day Baal are out there; they are loud and they’re good at what they do, convincing us that they hold the ticket to our happiness.  But the prophets of the Lord are out there too, proclaiming the either/or, proclaiming the alternative, if we let their voices be heard.

The problem these days, is that unless one is intentional about it, those prophet of the Lord voices are not heard.  There are fewer and fewer people in church and that means that there are more and more people who don’t ever hear or who have stopped hearing the stories that raise the either/or, they stop hearing about the alternative that Jesus calls us to.  When that happens the only voices one hears are the voices of the dominant culture, a culture which doesn’t have much to do with Jesus these days and when it claims that it does it’s often a pretty distorted view of what Jesus represents.  The result is that you forget that there is an alternative and that as a Christian community we are to reflect it.  Part of that alternative is acknowledging that there is more to life than what the dominant culture is selling. 

For us as Christians that more to life includes God’s love for us as revealed in Jesus.  It includes being a community preoccupied with the well being of the neighbor as Jesus taught.  It means embracing a future where hope is possible not because we trust in our own ability to make that future but because we believe in and won’t let go of faith in God’s good intention for us and for all people, faith in God’s ability to do something new.  We never lose sight of Easter and the Resurrection which was God’s ultimate something new, bringing new life and new possibilities even out of death, new life not just for Jesus but for us.  

We’ve all heard the stories that remind us of this more to life, stories that remind us of the either/or with which we are always in negotiation.  But whether you are graduating from high school and moving on to new chapters in your life or if you’re pretty well settled where you are, the need to continue to hear the alternative, the need to pursue the alternative is always there.  For the graduates, if you’re going away, wherever you go, find a church, a community, a campus ministry, something that reminds you of the difference.  If you staying here, come around once in awhile, not so we don’t forget who you are, but so you don’t forget who you are. 

It’s easy to forget and many do because in many ways what we proclaim is an impossible possibility that doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as what the world offers.  But there is more, there is the alternative, the either/or of the Lord that Elijah proclaimed, the either/or of Jesus that we proclaim and will continue to proclaim.  As Elijah did, we will persist, we will continue to proclaim the alternative, because there is more, more that needs to be spoken, more that needs to be heard.                      

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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