Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
1 Kings 18:20-39
Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “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.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 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.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
We find ourselves today on top of Mount Carmel, with Elijah, and 450 priests of Baal, and the people of Israel. In this cluster of humanity, I find myself standing over in the corner with the Israelites.
Let me tell you why… because the first words Elijah spoke to them feel like words that he is speaking to me. “How long,” he asks, “will you go limping along with a divided mind? How long will you go limping along with a divided mind?”
And the first question for me in this question is what does it means to have a divided mind. I found clarity to this inquiry in a story my wife told me the other day.
She and our son Desmond were talking. The topic of telling the truth came up. In the course of the chat Desmond declared that he believed his Mother always told him the truth. To which she brought up Santa Claus, and the many years she told him one thing about Santa Claus that he now knows not to be true. In this deception she was living with a divided mind; one that supported the truth about Santa Claus, and another that supported a cultural joy in Santa Claus.
And that is just a small, safe example of how a divided mind looks, and how tension can exist between two competing principles.
Which brings us to Elijah’s presenting issue: do we have one organizing principle in our life or many? And where does God fit in?
The priests of Baal are the catalyst for this conversation. There were men devoted to gods that gave name and image to the practical necessities of life. In those days these gods were made of wood or stone or metal and set in the corner of the house to guard it, or make it fertile, or to bring about prosperity. These were the gods of hunting and fishing and trading and cooking. Some of these gods looked like otters or bears or boars or butterflies or pregnant women, or men with many heads.
They were gods made with hope and aspiration, by human hands. They were gods who found tangible substance for the yearning of the human heart. And over time people forgot that they were just rock or wood or metal, and began to organize their lives around these figurines. It sounds so silly to us.
But it is more than silly, it is problematic as we see it play out on Mount Carmel. The Baal priests build their altar. They cut up a bull and sacrifice it. Then they call to their gods, the gods made from stone or wood or metal, the gods that sit in the corners of homes or on desks at work, or scribbled in accounting ledgers, or encased as documents on the wall.
And they call to these gods when they need a god, when they need a miracle, when they need a force that is bigger than themselves, to counteract a force bigger than themselves that has come screaming into their lives.
They call on these gods in a moment of need, when the walls of the kingdoms they have built are crumbling down. They call on these gods in those moments, like that moment on Mount Carmel, and their gods of stone or wood or metal are silent. So the priests of Baal lash out at the perpetrator of this falsehood, this lie, and the flesh that they cut is their own.
And Elijah asks, “How long will you go limping along with a divided mind?”
And this question pulls up before my eyes the organizing principles in my life: Family, Education, Church.
I think a lot about family. I know many of you do too. Do I provide well for my family? Am I loyal and faithful? Do I play ball with my kids? Do I remember my parents? Am I a thoughtful sibling, uncle, and son? Family is a framework for organizing and prioritizing one’s life and that is good. It creates healthy communities and sometimes even well-adjusted children.
But what the living God Elijah calls to, there on Mount Carmel, is too big to fit into the framework of family.
Education is another organizing principle I am familiar with, both mine and my children’s. It feels risky to talk about it. There are more than a few that hold education as the ticket for making everything good and right and better. The right schools, the right grades, lead to the right schools and better test scores, then excellent colleges, and profitable careers and happy, productive people.
It is another framework, but it is a framework that is too small for the God Elijah worships on Mount Carmel.
Finally, for me, there is the framework of church itself. For me it is a job and a passion, a vocation and an avocation. Yet as we embark on a building campaign I have to ask, maybe you do as well. Is this campaign being done so we can have a beautiful space in which to fit our God?
But what the living God Elijah calls to, from the heights of Mount Carmel, is even bigger than this campus, is even bigger than our denomination, is even bigger, I dare say, then religion itself.
On Mount Carmel Elijah stood with 450 Baal priests and an assembly of people who were uncertain about where God fit if God didn’t fit into organizing frameworks they spent so much time fitting themselves into. So where does God fit?
On Mount Carmel we witness Elijah going over to the altar the priests of Baal had built and he kicks it over. Then he picks up rocks, rocks with names on them, names like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, rocks with names of the faithful people, like Eleanor, Sam, Lucy and Charley, names of people who had put their family, their businesses, their education, their identity into a framework built not by human hands, but by the living God.
When we set our lives inside the framework of God’s divine economy; when we actually say God is more important than everything else, more important than family, than education, than church, this faith, this faith in the living God does a miraculous thing. It brings idols to life. Family, education, work, hobbies and even church take root and flourish as living neighborhoods in the kingdom of God. God is the Frame into which everything else fits!
And more than that, even more than that when life is disrupted, as it inevitably will be, when some force comes screaming into our life from the outside, we do not run from one house to another, from one framework to another, from one organizing principle to another like the three little pigs! We sit secure, knowing for sure that there is nothing in this system that can thwart a God that is bigger than the system itself.
That is the point Elijah makes on the top of Mount Carmel by calling a flash of fire from an unseen realm to burn up idols. Our God comes from the outside to disrupt the idols that enslave us on the inside.
And when we are obedient to this power, when we let it preside as our framework, we experience what the Centurion experienced in the Gospel of Luke heard today.
He was a man empowered by the organizing principle of the Roman military, which was quite possibility the most effective organizing principle ever devised by humanity. It was so great and so powerful that its leader was called god.
But disruption came upon the Centurion as a force that he could not thwart, even by the power of his military god. He was defenseless. And his response? FAITH. Faith in the one who came from the outside to show us how all of the pieces fit together on the inside. He called on the name of Jesus, the source of power that links the system that is beyond with the system in which we live. Jesus is the cable of meaning; he is the fire, the way, the truth, the light, the radiance that fills the gaps with a singular principle that brings unity to the divided mind.
It is the principle my wife called upon when determining what to tell Desmond about Santa Claus. It is a principle that allowed her to preserve his joy, and then at the right time, to tell him the truth.
The organizing principle, of course, is love.
Love is the link, the divine bridge, built by Jesus.
Love is the framework of God. And while it is a framework that does not answer all of our questions or give us everything we want, it is the framework that can sustain our yearnings without crumbling; that can magnify our joys without indulgence; that can lift our hearts beyond the weight of idols. It is the framework that inspires us to love our family, to love our learning, to love our church.
Epiphany is our church. It is a community that has stood, these past 100 years, as a place set apart to teach about the framework of God’s love through the person Jesus. This is the place that honors the God that is greater than any system we can devise. Epiphany is the place where we are fueled with a fire that enlivens our families, our studies, our work, our hobbies.
It is the place we can travel next to the God who came from the outside to walk with us on the inside. It is a place where we can come to practice a perspective that transcends the divided mind.