Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sitting on a Fence (I Kings 18:20-39)

     Are you one of those people who jumps in with two feet whenever something new comes around?  Or, are you one of those people who sits back, sizes things up, sit back some more, size up some more . . . before you make a decision—if you make a decision?  Are you a grab the gusto sort of person, or are you a person who sits on the fence and waits?  How you answer those questions might tell you where you fit into the story we heard earlier this morning.

     Though our reading mentions that these prophets of Baal were King Ahab’s prophets, we need to get something straight from the very beginning . . . Ahab is just the front in this story.  This story is not about a grudge match between Ahab and the prophet Elijah . . . it is between Ahab’s foreign wife, Jezebel, and Elijah.  Jezebel was the one in the family who was the zealous worshipper of Baal . . . Ahab was a weak-willed pawn in the hands of his wife.  If she said jump, Ahab responded, how high?  Thus this really is a grudge match between Jezebel and Elijah.

     Jezebel was Ahab’s wife because it was a means of sealing a treaty between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its enemies the Phoencians.  As long as she remained his wife, there was peace between the two kingdoms; thus, Jezebel pretty much controlled Ahab who wanted to keep the peace.  Jezebel was an adamant follower of Baal—a fertility god, a pagan god, who wanted everyone to join in her religion.  Thus she was persecuting those of other religions—especially those who were Yahweh worshipper—those who were Jews.  For the Jews, well, they were between a rock and a hard place.  Instead of making a decision one way or another, they sat on the fence not making any decision.

     So, who were they going to pick?  Baal, and keep the queen happy and avoid persecution and possibly death?  Or, Yahweh, the God of their descendants . . . the God who had delivered them from captivity . . . the God who had given them their home?  Well, in the story, they aren’t willing to pick either way . . . they sit on the fence.

     Maybe we would be sitting on the fence too if we had been there.  Maybe we would want to sit back and wait . . . sit back and wait to see who was left standing once the dust settled in this grudge match between Jezebel and Elijah.  Who knows?  Maybe something better might come along in the meantime.  They were in no hurry as it was better to keep the peace than to be persecuted or killed.

     As God’s prophet, this was not good enough for Elijah.  As far as Elijah was concerned, sitting on the fence—not making any decision as to whose camp they were in, was no better than already being a worshipper of Baal.  As far as Elijah is concerned, not choosing for God is to choose against him.  Frustrated, Elijah issues a “put up or shut up” challenge to the prophets of Baal.  He creates a contest, the one that we read about this morning.

     In simple terms, the contest is to see who can get their god to light the sacrifice that is being offered.  Since Elijah is confident in his God, plus he is being a nice guy, he allows the Baal prophets to go first.  And, they do . . . with no results.  Hour after hour, they pray and do every ritual imaginable to get Baal to light the fire and burn the sacrifice, and nothing happens.  This goes on for so long that Elijah starts talking trash to them and taunting them—he is making fun of their god by telling them that maybe their god is busy . . . or off meditating somewhere . . . or, maybe, their god is on vacation.  This only inspires the prophets of Baal to try even harder.

     Again, the result is that nothing happens.  Finally, Elijah has had enough and declares that it is his turn.  But . . . says Elijah, let’s make it even more difficult.  He tells the people to do all sorts of things . . . soak the wood for the fire with water . . . build a moat of water around . . . anything to make it difficult to ignite the wood for the sacrifice.  Then he offers a prayer, asking God to come through and burn the offering.  To say the least, Elijah has a sense of the dramatic . . . everyone knows that the wood won’t burn, but it does.

     The result?  There ain’t too many people sitting on the fence any more.
     When it comes to faith . . . a lot of us are still sitting on the fence . . . we are still waiting . . . waiting for what, I don’t know . . . waiting for something better, something easier to show up.  We are not living our lives as if we believe in the existence of God, instead we view our faith as a sort of insurance policy that we can use . . . just in case.  Just in case it turns out that God is real . . . that God exists.  Think I am joking?  Well, who sustains you?  As Americans we proudly answer that we are a nation that takes care of itself . . . as Montanans, we are a people who take care of ourselves.  We do not rely upon anyone or anything else to take care of us or our business.  We pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps—is this relying on God?

     Probably not . . . I think we believe in God, up to a certain point, and thus we do not throw ourselves whole-heartedly into our faith . . . into our belief.  We sit on the fence.  To paraphrase Elijah, if you ain’t for us, you are against us.  So, are we in or out?

     Now, understand, Elijah was not putting down the people . . . Elijah was wanting them to make a decision.  Elijah understood the situation that the people were in, thus he was just going to give them a little push to help them decide.  He also recognized that with the people agreeing with the contest, that they were at least willing to consider . . . to consider the possibilities . . . to at least consider the question, after all, they were sitting on the fence.

     We, too, are there.  We, too, are willing to consider the question of whether we are all in or out when it comes to following God.  The question this morning is: are we in a place where we are willing to choose?

     I can assure you that there will be no miracles performed in the sanctuary this morning . . . unless you consider getting finished by 11:00 o’clock a miracle.  All I can assure you is that all of us are at that place in our lives where we need to make a decision . . . are we in or are we out?  Our lives will reflect our decision.  The nice thing about it is that ours is a patient God . . . a God who is willing to wait as we waver on the fence.  Ours is a God of grace and love . . . if that is not enough, then all the miracles in the world will never change our minds.  The words of the prophet Elijah echo in our ears today: “How long are you going to sit on the fence?  If God is the real God, follow him; if it is Baal, follow him.  Make up your minds!”  Amen!

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