June 2, 2013 1 Kings 18: 20-39
Rev. Catherine Purves
Have you ever remodeled a bathroom, or even worse, a kitchen? It sounds like such a good idea at first. Imagine how much nicer that room could be where so much time is spent. The kitchen is the heart of a home. And the bathroom – well, you have to spend a good bit of time there too. Everyone says that the value of your house goes way up when you have a remodeled kitchen or bathroom. If you have the money (and why put it in a savings account these days?), then renovating your kitchen or your bathroom makes perfect sense. But have you ever actually tried to remodel a bathroom or a kitchen?
It is not a joy. There are way too many decisions to be made. Contractors are often unreliable, costs go up, mistakes are made, appliances don’t fit, and there are always nasty surprises when you tear up 30 year old linoleum. If it’s a do-it-yourself job, it’s even worse, because then you’ll have to wedge the work into your very limited free time, and when things go wrong, you’ll have no one to blame. To start off, there is a seemingly unending list of decisions to be made: what kind of knobs do you want on the cabinets, is tile a good idea, paint or wallpaper? And every decision you make affects every other decision. You could get bogged down in the planning stages alone for months. Your dream kitchen or bathroom may be just that: a dream.
This is what happens when you are being pulled in too many directions at once. Nothing gets decided. You don’t know who to trust or whose advice to take. You find yourself hopping back and forth like a nervous bird who can’t settle on one branch. Meanwhile, your house is a half-demolished wreck, your spouse isn’t speaking to you, and you haven’t had a shower or a hot meal in a week. This is not a good state of affairs when it comes to remodeling. In a very similar way, this kind of disastrous indecision can also undermine our faith.
When I re-read the familiar story of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal this week, one unfamiliar phrase jumped out at me. At the beginning of our reading from 1 Kings, Elijah says to all the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” It seemed like an unusual turn of phrase, so I looked it up and found that the literal Hebrew makes no sense, so it must have been an idiom. The phrase includes the word for branch or stick and the verb refers to a hopping or awkward jumping or limping. It could mean that the people were behaving like birds jumping back and forth between two branches, or it could refer to someone hobbling along on two crutches or sticks.
Either way, Elijah is complaining that the people were not getting anywhere because they couldn’t decide whether they wanted to worship the true God of Israel or the Canaanite god Baal, and they were trying to do both. They were limping in two different directions. Their religious “house” was a wreck: half demolished, half re-built, everything mismatched, nothing functioning. Their indecisive compromises in religious remodeling were proving disastrous.
Into this very dangerous situation strides the ever-decisive Elijah. We really have to give Elijah some credit. It takes a lot of courage to walk into a remodeling disaster and say, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to finish this once and for all.” We should note that Elijah was confronting 450 prophets of Baal, not to mention wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, Elijah’s sworn enemy. So this was not really a fair contest. On his own, Elijah was taking on the entire government and the religious culture, but he had to do it. The people vaguely remembered their history and the mighty acts of God, but they were overwhelmed by a pagan culture which was embraced by their king and his false prophets. They weren’t sure what to do. They were limping in two directions at once. That’s why Elijah proposed a contest, and he rigged it so that there could be no doubt about who had won, drenching the wood for his sacrifice with 12 huge jars of water.
Even tying one hand behind his back, Elijah and the God of Israel were victorious over the false prophets and their pagan god, Baal, who didn’t show up for the challenge. Those false prophets did their best to summon him from morning till midafternoon, but “there was no voice, no answer, and no response.” When it was then Elijah’s turn, he offered this prayer: “O Lord…let it be known this day that you are God in Israel.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the offering, turning even the stones of the altar to dust and licking up all the water in the trench. It was an amazing show of power, and the people fell on their faces and proclaimed, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Finally, the people realized that limping after false gods while making a pretense of still serving the true God – limping in two directions at once – was no way to live. Their compromises and half-hearted renovations to their religion were a disaster. They needed to tear out all of those trendy innovations that didn’t work, and they needed to get back to the basics of worshiping the one true God. Notice how Elijah mocked the antics of the false prophets that were geared to orchestrate a divine appearance. See how disdainful Elijah is of King Ahab and his acculturated religion. The house of Israel was truly a mess. Elijah went in with a will and determination to remodel it entirely and to refocus the people’s religious fervor so that they would stop limping in two directions and instead fall on their faces and worship the only true God.
Now what has this ancient and entertaining story of Israel’s remodeled and restored faith have to do with us today? Well, I think, in many ways, it is an ageless story. Christians have always had to live in cultures that were compromised. False gods are never in short supply. New religious gimmicks, trends and remodeling suggestions abound. Everyone seems to have a solution to the church’s problems, and if you go limping after all of them, pretty soon you’ll end up not knowing what you believe or how to worship the one true God.
I know I’ve sat through a lot of worship services that were ‘renovated’ in an effort to please different groups within a congregation. The service ends up looking like a redecorating nightmare. Instead of trying to please the people in the pews or the pagans in our community, we should be trying to please the God we are worshiping. This was Elijah’s great insight. Clear out all of the culture religion. Peel off all of those layers of wallpaper and the now-dated religious innovations that had nothing to do with the God we serve. Forget about what makes you feel good or what seems relevant today, and let’s focus on God’s call to us in Jesus Christ.
Whether we’re talking about worship or mission or our shared life as a Christian community, we can’t go limping in multiple directions at once. We can’t please everyone. We can’t get comfortable with the culture and still remain faithful to the one God, because the culture (any culture) can manufacture false gods faster than we can remodel our worship services and our life together to accommodate them. In a real sense, you can’t drink the water or breathe the air without being compromised by the culture. You can’t read the newspaper or watch TV without soaking up a culture that is attuned to other gods. Elijah was absolutely right. The church, like Israel, is in need of major renovation, but how do we do that when we are confronted by the false gods of the culture and the failings of the church itself?
As Christians, we refer to ourselves as disciples, as followers of Jesus Christ. We need to train ourselves and order our life together so that we are only walking in that one direction. Our worship, our mission, and our shared life as a community of faith must all give glory to Jesus Christ. Everything should be moving in that one direction. Every time we decide to change something or to start something new or to recover something that we’ve lost, the renovating rule must be this: does it give glory to Jesus Christ, and does it enable us to follow him alone and to follow more faithfully?
True renovation and change is messy and risky. Ask Elijah. It’s a lot easier to tolerate the compromises, and to limp along in two directions than it is to scrape off layers of crack-concealing wallpaper and get back to the original plaster. But the false gods need to be revealed and removed. The true God must be worshiped and honored. This is a never-ending process for us in the church. If there’s one thing I know about renovating your house it’s that when you fix up one room you see what needs to be done to all of the others. It’s a big job. But we can take heart, because when Elijah decided to renovate the house of Israel by challenging all of their false gods, it was the true God of Israel who showed up and fought the battle for him. We serve a God who will show up in power. We serve a God who will help us to renovate the church and to live more faithfully. We serve a God who will teach us to walk in one direction, the right direction, so that everything we say and do will honor Christ alone.