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Bible readings:


Proper 9 Year C (May 29, 2016)                                      St James', Peace River

The spiritual wrestling match between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, in our Old Testament reading today, is one of the most exciting scenes in the Old Testament. Perhaps one of the most under-referenced too – I was honestly surprised to find that it doesn't seem to have featured in any of the big epic blockbuster biblical movies, as it would make a great visual experience, complete with lots of drama and special effects! Even without the visuals, I can vividly remember singing this section of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah with a massed choir when I was a university student. The music brings out the frenzy, but also the implied ridicule, of the prophets trying to manipulate their god into doing what they want him to do.

Perhaps one reason this scene hasn't made it to the movies is that we don't really know what to do with a throw-down between two gods. In our own cultural environment, if we think of polytheism at all it's in the context of ancient Greek and Roman myths. We might be vaguely aware of the one powerful modern culture that still resonates with talk of gods and goddesses, which is the Hindu tradition – though even there, my Hindu in-laws have often carefully explained to me that Hinduism really believes in one divine being, of whom all the others are no more than manifestations. The struggle between Baal and the God of Elijah seems to belong a long way away and a long time ago, when these “gods” were the embodiment of competing tribal and national identities in the middle east.

Of course in the secular world around us, we're lucky if we even get to hear about one god. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that the official atheism of secular culture is a front. A 19th century revision of the ten commandments describes it well:

Thou shalt have one God only: Who

Would be at the expense of two?

No graven images may be

Worshipped, except the currency   [Arthur Hugh Clough, 1819-61]

There is a belief in “a power greater than ourselves” in the secular world, and it's a belief that leads to despair rather than to hope. We too easily believe that life is controlled by some power which is impervious to our influence and inaccessible to our understanding. It's what we are referring to when we say things like, “They're making us do this now.” A particularly powerful or influential person might become the embodiment of “them” for a time, but really if we dig into it, we're talking about something more impersonal like “the economy” or “the system”. And we know that we participate in the rituals and worship of that system, simply because we have to – they are the price of admission for living in the world we are in, and for many people that is all they can hope for and all they can imagine.

While this kind of belief characterizes our modern world, it has a long history. In Jesus' time the Romans would have called it “Fate”, and understood it to be a power greater even than all the gods. Fate means that everything will continue to go on exactly the way it is going right now. The world will keep on getting better, or getting worse – depending on which you think is actually happening. The powerful superhuman forces, whether you call them gods or systems, will continue to clash and struggle, and the powerless will continue to be ground into dust underneath their feet. That is how the world works, and that is the most we can hope for when the power we believe in is Fate – whether in the 21st century, or the 1st, or Elijah's time nine centuries before Christ.

But Elijah had a different hope. He was not satisfied with the worship of Baal, which made out that the power that rules the world is fickle, inattentive to us and blind to the things that matter most in human terms. Elijah believed there was a God who appeared in history, not to keep the hamsters going round and round on their wheel, but to engage with human beings and to shape this world around a sense of purpose which both God and we can share in.

So after the prophets of Baal had laid out their sacrifice, and spent the whole day trying to get their god to send fire to consume it, Elijah took his turn. First he recalled the history in which God had already been revealed, by rebuilding the altar which stood there and choosing twelve stones to represent the covenant God had with the twelve tribes. Then he laid out the sacrifice, and soaked it thoroughly with water, lest anyone might think that it would catch fire by natural causes! And finally, he prayed, a prayer that was almost exactly the opposite of his competitors. Instead of praying in a way that would get God to do what he wanted, Elijah prayed that everyone might see that he was doing what God wanted, and would know “that you, O Lord, are God, and... have turned their hearts back.”

That insight is at the heart of the faith which would develop into first Judaism and then Christianity, and it is diametrically opposed to the majority belief in our world now, as it was then. It's also at the heart of the “good news” which Jesus and his disciples offered, and which we ourselves have the opportunity to share with the people around us. The good news is, first, that we are not left to ourselves in a world which does not care about us, and which will chew us up and spit us out likely as not. And the good news is, second but perhaps more importantly, that power and control in this world is not in our hands. You might think it would be better news to hear that we do have that kind of power and control, but think again. When human beings try to exercise power like that, two things inevitably happen: those who have the power lord it over those who don't; and sooner or later the power we think we have gets out of our control, and we end up making the world worse rather than better. You don't need the Bible to tell you that (though it does) – any history book will say the same.

The real good news, though, treads that fine line between hopelessness on the one hand, and a false confidence in ourselves on the other. It tells us that we are not merely subject to fate and whatever life throws at us; and it tells us that there is someone who is not just capable of making some meaning out of the wrongs and mischances of this world, but whom we can also trust to do that in a way which cares about and includes us. God's presence in our universe gives us a way to look both backwards and forwards to the vagaries of fate and still say, despite everything, we are part of something bigger than ourselves – something truly satisfying, truly fulfilling, and truly good.

That is the faith that, somehow, we need to lay out in our time and place, in a way that people can see and believe in. The need is just as great now as it ever has been. We live in a world where even those who are relatively well-off (like many of us and many of our neighbours) feel we have little capacity to control what happens in our own lives, let alone on any scale beyond that. Stuff happens, in a way which leaves us believing that the powers that control the world don't even notice us. People want to hope for something more – we wouldn't have that capacity or that yearning for hope if it wasn't meant to enable us to believe something different about life. But, in the absence of any alternative, it just doesn't seem realistic.

So it is up to those of us who experience God's grace to offer that alternative. It is up to us to say, like St Paul says to the Galatians, that we know something that is not just self-serving or a made-up fairy tale, but which reveals the reality of a gracious God breaking into our closed world. It is up to us to say, like the centurion in the gospel, that we understand not just the kind of power God has to make things happen, but the character God has to make those things grace-filled, loving, and good.

There is one and only one reason we can say those things. It is because we meet and know and experience Jesus. We meet him in the Bible, in that story that rings so true and places God within the frame of this world of ours. But we know him in those places where we gather together, two or three or more at a time, and realize he is still present and still speaking. And we experience him in the midst of daily life, in all those ways we talked about on Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit of God prompts us to feel how deeply God is loving us and still giving himself for us in order that we, and all people, can experience life in a completely new way. That's how the “power play” between two gods, or two convictions, works itself out today. When the systems that govern our lives appear to be paying no attention, or worse, are running roughshod over us, we can still demonstrate our expectation that God will show up in the midst of things, and will prove to us that our capacity for hope can be fulfilled.