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29th May 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
27 May 2016


1st Kings 18: 20 -21, 30-39

This is the famous story of Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is represented as killing the prophets of Yahweh but Maurice Andrew suggests that if that happened there would have been a political, rather than simply a religious, motive.  This is a confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal but the challenge is primarily to the Israelites as shown in verse 21, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions?

If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’  This makes the point that however much we may understand the practice of others there comes a time when we must make a decision for ourselves and however inclusive people are, most realise that some things are negotiable and others are not.[1]  Without trying to analyse, from our scientific world view, how the events described happened we can take the point that through creative worship, meticulously prepared and theatrically presented, Elijah demonstrates that Yahweh answers prayers and Baal doesn’t.  In our multi-cultural society there are people and cultures with ideas and practices that we find repulsive like honour killing and family violence.  This reading points to a reality that cultural practice is not always a reason to resist change but to bring people to a point of accepting change requires creativity.   

Luke 7:1-10

In his commentary Justo González examines this episode with the subsequent raising of the widow’s son and says, that in pairing the two stories, Luke gives a story about a man and the other about a woman which is typical of Luke.

This first story is about a centurion and therefore a gentile or non Jew.  The way Luke describes him he was probably a ‘God-fearer’ (gentiles wishing to convert to Judaism with it monotheism and ethics).  Even though going into a gentile’s house was supposed to render a Jew unclean Jesus is willing to go to the man’s house and starts out to do so.  However the centurion fully accepts Jesus’ authority and suggests Jesus just give the command, as the centurion would command, and because of Jesus’ authority that healing would happen. 

Just as the centurion has power to command people from Rome he understands that Jesus has power from God and therefore has the power of command over evil and disease. [2]

Fred Craddock notes that the centurion himself never came in contact with Jesus and that is important as Luke anticipates all those future believers who, without seeing Jesus, believe and benefit from the power of his presence.  The second important point is that Jesus’ contact was through a bridge from the Jewish world to the gentile world through two sets of delegates and this anticipates the missionaries who would take the word into the gentile world [3]


In their book Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence suggest that two themes are held in tension in the Bible, zealous nationalism and prophetic realism.  Those who subscribe to zealous nationalism believe that the way for good to triumph is by eradicating evil.  In their book Jewett and Lawrence relate that point of view to the history of United States foreign policy.  It is a very seductive ideology and Donald Trump is milking it for all he is worth with considerable success. 

Prophetic realism recognises that the God of creation is the God of all people who cares for and loves all creation.  Therefore God’s people are likewise called to love all people and care for our environment. 

For Christians prophetic realism reached its highest expression in the mission of Jesus but there are hints of this theology throughout the Bible.  In the first chapter of Genesis we read that ‘God saw everything that he made, and indeed, it was very good.’(Genesis1:31)  Then again in chapter two we are told ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.’ (Genesis2:15)  If God made everything and believes it to be good then clearly God is not just the God of one particular part of creation or one particular group of people.  Furthermore God so trusts humanity and cares so much for creation that he charges humanity to care for the whole garden of creation.

Our two readings highlight the contrasting views between zealous nationalism and prophetic realism.  That contrast is most noticeable if we were to read on to verse forty where Elijah tells the people to seize the prophets of Baal and he kills them.  However our reading is proscribed for Christian worship so it just gives us the story of the improbable fire because the Christian tradition very much belongs to the Prophetic Realism.

If we read on from those quotes from Genesis we see significant prophets starting to see God as the God of all creation and not just the God of the Hebrew people.  In fact in spite of the violence at the end of the episode there is a thread of that understanding in our 1st Kings reading. 

Nevertheless the main point of the reading, and regardless of how the spontaneous sacrificial fire happened, or didn’t happen, the truth in the story is that Yahweh the God of Israel is real.  Furthermore whoever or whatever the prophets of Baal worship is not real.

I certainly would not want to be critical of other faith traditions.  I strongly believe that different cultures have different ways of imaging and reaching a connection of the divine.  But across all religious traditions, including atheism, there are people worshiping false gods. 

Baal was idol worship and there are hints of human sacrifice in relation to Baal mentioned in the Bible. 

People in our world certainly build themselves idols or ideologies to worship.  People even make idols of their religious tradition. 

One of the speakers at the progressive spirituality conference I went to in Napier suggested that many people treat the Bible as an icon rather than a book to read.  People expect some magical blessing to be bestowed on them just because they own a Bible.  There are similar issues in Islam.  In her autobiography Malala quotes the Taliban Mullah, who took over her village, as someone who could recite the Koran in its original Arabic from beginning to end.  However she said he didn’t know what was actually written in it because he couldn’t read, let alone read or understand Arabic.  He treated the Koran as an icon or idol and used it as his authority to command people to do what he wanted with tragic results. 

Donald Trump says he loves the Bible and he could well own a copy.  No doubt such a Bible would have a very expensive cover and binding.  But the magic that grips people’s souls and transforms lives would seem to be locked firmly in the unread text between the unopened covers.  That is the only conclusion we can make if we listen and read what Trump says about people and the way he would treat them.

Certainly the imagery of our story of Elijah suggests that we have to engage with our religious tradition if we want the magic to happen.  Elijah belonged to a sacrificial tradition but for us engaging with our religious tradition means not just owning a Bible but reading and relating the truth in its stories to our time and place. 

The fire that can ignite sodden wood, bring light and warmth out of seemingly impossible situations, is the tongues ‘as of fire’ that rests on individual people.  The Holy Spirit that inspires folk to be greater people than they had ever imagined possible. 

By contrast there is not even a spark of life in the idols of today like trickledown economics or self governing markets.  Such ideologies are indeed false gods and very soggy matches to use to ignite a just society.

In a Radio New Zealand pre-budget opinion piece on housing last Wednesday Shamubeel Eaqub seeks empathy from real people rather that the false god of the competitive market place.  He finishes his piece by suggesting that: ‘To make progress, we would need to rekindle the spirit of nation-building of the Greatest Generation in post-war New Zealand’.  He then asks the question.  ‘Can the disciples of competition and neo-liberalism find any empathy left in their hearts?’[4]

Shamubeel’s imagery allows us to associate his closing question with the story of Elijah’s exercise in spontaneous combustion.  Both prophets of Baal and Shamubeel’s disciples of competition and neo-liberalism are idolaters.  Both are people who put their trust in false gods that bring people slavery and misery rather than healing, liberation and hope.

Our Gospel reading is very much in the tradition of prophetic realism.  Interestingly the separatism practiced by the Judaism of Jesus’ day is spelled out by the non Jewish Roman centurion as he sends messengers to Jesus, who say ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.’ (Luke 7:6)  That was not the way the all conquering Romans felt about their subject peoples.  It was the way the Jews of Jesus’ day felt about all non Jews.  In chapter eleven of Acts we read ‘So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?’’(Acts 11: 2,3)  Peter goes on to explain about his dream.  Through that section of Acts Luke gives an explanation of how the gospel message spread from the original Jewish Jesus people out into the world to become one of the three great faiths of today’s world.  Luke prepares his readers for that explanation in this section of his Gospel that we read today.

However Luke does much more than that because the centurion suggests that all Jesus has to do is to command that the sickness leaves his slave and it will happen.  Luke is telling us that even though we are not walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus, the power and divine presence of Jesus can still reach us. 

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Luke 7:9)    

Once again we see a hint of the movement shifting beyond Israel but more importantly we are told that it is by faith that we know Jesus’ presence and the healing power of Christ’s empathy and hope.

We do not physically walk the road to Jerusalem with the Jesus of history but by faith we walk our own journey with Christ.  It is a journey of love for all people, a journey that expresses empathy for the least in our world.  The journey we walk with Christ is never a journey that excludes other.  Our Christ Journey includes others, it includes every single other.

In accepting Christ into our lives we accept the call to be Christ to others on a journey of transformation and hope.

[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp248,249.

[2] Justo L. González Luke (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2010), p.96.

[3] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009),p.95.


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