Monday, May 30, 2016

“Head-Cutting” (I Kings 18:20-39)

And the prophet Elijah stood before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

In response the people just stood there in silence.

First Kings continues the history of the Israelite monarchy begun in the books of Samuel.  The book is divided into three parts: the succession of Solomon as king of Israel and Judah, and the death of his father David; the reign and achievements of Solomon as king—especially building the Temple in Jerusalem; and, the division of the nation into the northern and southern kingdoms, and the stories of the kings who ruled them. 

Our story begins in the “divided kingdom” saga.  The kingdom has been divided . . . Ahab is the king of the northern kingdom or Israel.  The kingdom is slowly slipping away from God and moving towards the religion of Baal.  Exacerbating the situation is Ahab’s arranged marriage to Jezebel, who brought into the marriage her entourage of Baal priests and prophets.  Into this mess God sends Elijah to bring the people back to their senses and their God.  Elijah represents and speaks as God’s prophet.

At this point in the story, a showdown has been arranged, and Elijah is confronting the people . . . challenging the people . . . to quit sitting on the fence and make a choice . . . are they going to be God’s people or are they going to follow Baal.  “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal is God, follow him.” 

And, nothing happens.

So begins the showdown.  It is 450 against one . . . 450 of Baal’s priests and prophets against God’s lone representative.  The challenge is simple: make a sacrificial offering to their God . . . the God that lights up the sacrificial fire wins. 

In 1986 the movie, Crossroads, came out.  It is a classic story of the devil versus human for his or her soul.  As the story goes, there is a “crossroad” where the devil waits to make deals for people’s souls . . . things like wealth and fame for the individual’s soul.  There at the crossroad the deals are made, and the devil expects full payment. 

The movie is about a young man who is an extraordinary talent in playing the classical guitar . . . he is a student at Julliard, but his heart is in the “blues”.  In his interest in the blues he discovers the story of the legendary Robert Johnson’s lost and unknown 30th song.  He finds a lead to discovering the song’s whereabouts . . . in his mind he believes that if he can find the song and record it for the world to be heard; he will become the famous blues player he longs to be.  That lead is an old blues player in one of the old folk’s homes by the name of Willie Brown.  Willie leads Eugene on and promises him the song if he will help him bust out of the nursing home and get back down to the Mississippi Delta—the heart of the blues.  But, the truth of the matter is, Willie doesn’t care one iota about the song, he just wants to get back down to the “crossroad” where he made a deal with the devil a long, long time ago in his own youth.

Of course the movie involves all the travels and adventures of getting down to the “crossroad” . . . and, it is filled with lots of great blues music; but the climax comes when they encounter the devil at the “crossroad”.  Willie wants his soul back . . . the devil isn’t interested in making a deal.  Willie offers a proposition . . . he will challenge the devil to a “head-cutting” contest.  A “head-cutting” is a traditional contest (at least among musicians) between two guitarists who duel it out with their guitars in an attempt to match or out-play the other.  Whoever accomplishes the goal of making the other one quit wins.  It is a musical showdown.

Willie challenges the devil to a “head-cutting”.  If he wins, he gets his soul back.  If he loses, the devil gets his soul and the soul of his representative . . . Eugene.  If it is the devil, it is the devil; if it is Eugene, it is Eugene . . . there is no in-between . . . it is one or the other.

Sound familiar?

Ol’ Elijah is in a ‘head-cutting” contest.  The winner takes all.  There is no half-way . . . no sitting on the fence . . . a decision must be made.  The priests and prophets get down to work.  They cut up a bull and place it on wood to be burned . . . then they proceed to call on Baal to light the fire and burn the sacrifice.  They sang . . . they dances . . . they prayed . . . and, they yelled.  But nothing happens.  Around noon, Elijah begins to taunt the priests and prophets . . . “Shout louder! Surely he is a god!  Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling.  Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”  So they shouted louder and even began to slash their bodies until blood began to flow.  But, nothing changed . . . no fire.

Then it was Elijah’s turn . . . the evening sacrifice.  Unlike the priests and prophets of Baal, Elijah goes beyond the “norms” of the sacrifice.  Elijah repairs the altar of YahWeh . . .he builds an altar of stones . . . he digs a sizeable trench . . . he arranges the offering wood . . . slaughters a bull . . . and, then he has everything drenched in water, not once—but, three times!  With everything drench and soaked to the core, Elijah prays.  In prayer, Elijah acknowledges God and the rich relationship of God’s people to God.

And . . . then . . . “fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”  The fire burns ferocity beyond the normal physics of fire.  God has answered . . . contest over.

“When the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The LORD—he is God!  The LORD—he is God!’”

This story of Elijah “head-cutting” with the priests and prophets of Baal points to something that confronts all of us in our journey of faith.  It asks us to make a decision, and that decision is whether or not we are going to fully embrace God to be in a relationship . . . whether or not we are going to take our rightful places in the family of God.  As Elijah tells the people of Israel, it is one way or another . . . you can’t have it both ways.  You are either with God, or without God.  There is no fence-sitting allowed.

Sometimes we forget whose we are.

As we journey through life we can get hurried in our lives . . . we can be stressed out . . . we can be overwhelmed by all that is going on and happening in our lives.  We can be given lots of options and choices to make, and not all of them are God’s.  We sit on the fence . . . unable to decide on “whose we are” . . . God’s or someone or something else?  And, the choice is ours.

The choice is always ours.

In this passage we can be inspired . . . inspired by the activity of God that swirls around us.  Through that activity we know that God is God.  Like the Israelites of Elijah’s time, we can fall on our faces and victoriously claim, “The LORD—he is God!  The LORD—he is God!”  God always wins.  Amen.

Oh, yeah . . . does Eugene win over the devil’s guitarist in the movie, Crossroads?  You’ll have to watch it to find out!

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