In the Fire and In the Water

Prepared for FPC Apopka

Rather than reading our scripture first this morning, I want to set up the story a bit… Because it really is a great story.  

We have been journeying together through the story of God’s people – the stories from the Hebrew Bible – where we’ve followed the relationships between God and the family of Abraham as it expanded and broadened, just as God promised.

And we’ve seen how the relationship between God and all those people gets more and more complicated. How the people lose sight of the God who was so intimately involved in the lives of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, in the saving of the Egyptians and descendants of Jacob through Joseph.  How God chose judges and ultimately the first king, David.

By the time they got to David’s grandson Rehoboam, the people had forgotten the story of Moses and the exodus of the people out of slavery. Rather than following a brave or wise king, the people find themselves oppressed by one from their own tribe… or removed to a second kingdom that wasn’t much better.

Rehoboam ruled over the kingdom of Judah for 17 years, and was followed by an equally bad kind Abijah. Asa then ruled for 41 years and was considered a good king who at least attempted to follow God’s ways.

In the meantime, the northern kingdom of Israel was a mess… During that stretch of time, a series of coups and overthrows saw 7 men assume and ultimately lose the throne. The last of these was Ahab.

Ahab was one of Israel’s most powerful rulers. Many consider him the WORST ruler that ancient Israel ever had. His wife Jezebel was so evil that her name has become a sort of shorthand or metaphor for a vengeful, malicious, immoral or cruel woman. Yeah – it’s not nice if someone calls you a Jezebel. Anyway, when Ahab married Jezebel, he became the first Israelite king in the Bible who allied himself to heathenism through marriage.

Now, a major theme in the books that tell us the history of the Hebrew people is the tension between the prophet and king. In theory, the king was charged with seeing that the people were faithful to the covenantal law. This is why the historians judge kings like Ahab harshly; not only did Ahab personally lose sight of the laws of God, he encouraged the people to set aside those laws.

Promptly after his marriage to Jezebel, Ahab built a temple for Baal in Samaria and erected an altar to Baal in the temple. Additionally, he made the Asherah, a sacred pole that is representative of the goddess Asherah.

If the king is meant to keep the people aligned with God’s law, the prophet was responsible for keeping the king accountable to the law. Thus God sends the prophet Elijah to Ahab to pronounce judgment on Ahab.

Elijah announces that Ahab’s worship of the Baals has provoked God to cause a drought in the land. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the drought occurs as Elijah prophesied, Ahab blames it on Elijah.

The drought is God’s direct challenge to Baal’s influence as the storm god who assures rain, dew, and fertility in Canaan and Phoenicia. The drought is meant to demonstrate God’s supremacy over Baal and thus the other deities in the Canaanite pantheon.

Intentionally causing a drought, given the famine and suffering that would follow, might seem an extreme means for God to make a point. But I’m not altogether sure that it is any less damaging than the response I imagine…  God throwing up divine hands and telling the children of Israel, “I’m done.  I’ve had enough of your disrespect and disobedience” and leaving them to their own devices.

After more than three years of drought and famine, God tells Elijah to return to Ahab and announce the end of the drought: not because the people had repented, but by the command of the Lord. The time had come for some revelation… God’s self-revelation.

This is where we will jump in. Listen for the Word of God and the Presence of God as I read from Eugene Peterson’s translation of 1 Kings 18 and 19 in The Message.

God showed up when Elijah challenged the prophet of Baal. Not because of snarky taunting. Not because of showmanship. God’s presence was made known because God is above humanity’s stubbornness and pettiness. Because God’s grace is abundant. Because God’s love is enduring.

God was present during the drought, watching and waiting. Longing to be seen and trusted.

God was present in the fire. God was present in the cloud on the horizon. God was present in the rain that fell. Powerfully present and offering healing and hope to the people, despite their disobedience

And then, for the one who orchestrated that dramatic entrance for God, God was present in the silence, requiring Elijah to be attentive in new ways, to remember that God is not only about showing up and showing off, but that God’s power is equally transformative in quiet mystery.  

God is present in the fire that did more than destroy. God was present as it purified and prepared the altar for its right use.

God is present in the rain that did more than nourish the land. God was present as hearts were renewed and re-awakened to faith in the one true God

God is present in the water that will surprise little Reed as we baptize him in a few minutes.

God is present in this place as we lay claim to the promise that God is already at work in this beloved child’s heart and will be faithful to complete it. Just as God continues to work in each of our hearts.

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