Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I Set The LORD Ever Before Me; With Him At My Right Hand, I Shall Not Be Disturbed.

Wednesday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Kings 18:20-39
Ahab sent to all the children of Israel
and had the prophets assemble on Mount Carmel.

Elijah appealed to all the people and said,
“How long will you straddle the issue?
If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
The people, however, did not answer him.
So Elijah said to the people,
“I am the only surviving prophet of the LORD,
and there are four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal.
Give us two young bulls.
Let them choose one, cut it into pieces,
and place it on the wood,
but start no fire.
I shall prepare the other and place it on the wood,
but shall start no fire.
You shall call on your gods, and I will call on the LORD.
The God who answers with fire is God.”
All the people answered, “Agreed!”

Elijah then said to the prophets of Baal,
“Choose one young bull and prepare it first,
for there are more of you.
Call upon your gods, but do not start the fire.”
Taking the young bull that was turned over to them,
they prepared itand called on Baal from morning to noon,
saying, “Answer us, Baal!”
But there was no sound, and no one answering.
And they hopped around the altar they had prepared.
When it was noon, Elijah taunted them:
“Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating,
or may have retired, or may be on a journey.
Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
They called out louder
and slashed themselves with swords and spears,
as was their custom, until blood gushed over them.
Noon passed and they remained in a prophetic state
until the time for offering sacrifice.
But there was not a sound;
no one answered, and no one was listening.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.”
When the people had done so,
he repaired the altar of the LORD
that had been destroyed.
He took twelve stones,
for the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob,
to whom the LORD had said,
“Your name shall be Israel.”
He built an altar in honor of the LORD with the stones,
and made a trench around the altar
large enough for two measures of grain.
When he had arranged the wood,
he cut up the young bull and laid it on the wood.
“Fill four jars with water,” he said,
“and pour it over the burnt offering and over the wood.”
“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he said,
and they did it a third time.
The water flowed around the altar,
and the trench was filled with the water.

At the time for offering sacrifice,
the prophet Elijah came forward and said,
“LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
let it be known this day that you are God in Israel
and that I am your servant
and have done all these things by your command.
Answer me, LORD!
Answer me, that this people may know
that you, LORD, are God
and that you have brought them back to their senses.”
The LORD’s fire came down
and consumed the burnt offering, wood, stones, and dust,
and it lapped up the water in the trench.
Seeing this, all the people fell prostrate and said,
“The LORD is God! The LORD is God!”
The sacrifice on Carmel

Today we have the dramatic challenge that Elijah made to the worshippers of Baal and to his own idolatrous fellow-Israelites. It will give clinching proof of who the true God is and this will finally be confirmed by the ending of the drought (tomorrow’s reading).

The scene is on Mount Carmel, a mountain in northern Palestine near the Mediterranean coast. King Ahab, in conformity with a request from Elijah, has ordered all the Israelites to gather there together with the 450 prophets of Baal.

Elijah throws down the challenge to his people by asking them how much longer they are going to continue hopping from one leg to the other, alternating between their worship of God and of Baal and of trying to have the best of both worlds. Elijah is speaking sarcastically. In her religious ambivalence between her worship of Yahweh and of Baal, Israel is but engaging in a wild and futile religious “dance”. Elijah tells them to make up their minds and choose one or the other; they cannot follow two antagonistic ways of worship. He draws a sharp contrast between the worship of the Lord and that of Baal and puts out of their minds that both deities can be worshipped in some combined rituals.

Elijah now throws down the challenge - himself against the 450 priests of Baal. He is the only true prophet in Israel to stand boldly and publicly against the king and the prophets of Baal. (In fact, we are told earlier in the book that Elijah was on the run. Anyone who knew where he was hiding would be executed.)

The elements of the challenge are straightforward. The 450 priests of Baal will prepare an altar with a dismembered bull and Elijah will do the same. Each side will call on the name of their divinity and the one who answers by consuming the animal with fire is the true God. To this all agree.

It is not merely a matter of deciding whether Yahweh or Baal is lord of the mountain or which is the stronger, but simply which is the one, true God. Both the Lord and Baal were said to ride the thunderstorm as their divine chariot (see Ps 104:3 - “You make the clouds your chariot; you travel on the wings of the wind.”); thunder was their voice (see Ps 18:14 - “The Lord thundered from heaven; the Most High gave forth his voice.”). Elijah’s challenge is direct. His own statement, his later prayer and the people’s acclamation at the end of the reading make it clear: the uniqueness of the God of Israel is at stake.

Because of their greater numbers, Elijah told the priests of Baal to proceed first. They set up their bull on the altar and from morning to midday they called on Baal to send down fire while they danced from leg to leg (echoing the jibe against the Israelites “hobbling” between God and Baal). The ecstatic cultic dance was part of the pagan ritual intended to arouse the deity to perform some desired action. But nothing happened.

Elijah begins to mock them satirically. “Cry louder because he is a god! So maybe he is contemplating, is resting, or off on a journey. He might even be asleep.” In his mocking, Elijah also reveals he is aware of the myths surrounding Baal.

The priests shout even louder and, as is common in such religions, become wild and ecstatic, slashing themselves with knives and pouring blood. Self-inflicted wounds causing blood to flow were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing the deity to action but such mutilation of the body was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic law. As the deadline of noon passed they continued with their ecstatic and trancelike raving in which their ritual reached its climax at the time of the evening sacrifice. But the god was silent. “No one answered; no one was listening.” Their efforts had come to nothing; their god could do nothing to help them.

It is now Elijah’s turn. He calls on the people to gather round him. Using twelve stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel he rebuilds the altar. It is possible it had originally been built by the people of the northern tribes after the division of the kingdom (Jerusalem and the Temple were in the southern kingdom) but had been destroyed by the agents of Jezebel and the worshippers of Baal. The 12 stones represented all the tribes of Israel as God’s one people despite the political division into two kingdoms. What is about to happen concerns the whole people and not just the 10 northern tribes. The Lord had said to the people of all the tribes: “Your name shall be Israel.”

Around the altar Elijah had a large trench dug large enough to hold two measures of grain. Wood was placed on top of the altar and the dismembered bull on top of that. He then gave instructions for four jars of water to be poured over the sacrificial victim and over the wood. This was done three times altogether. By drenching the whole structure with water, Elijah was making the subsequent happening all the more convincing.

Then Elijah prays. His prayer is in marked contrast to the frenzied actions of the Baal priests. He calls simply on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, thus recalling the great covenants that had been made between God and his people. In plain language he calls on God to answer his prayer so that people will know not who is the more powerful but who is the one and only God. And he appeals to Israel to remember all that the Lord has done for her since the days of her forefathers.

The coming manifestation will demonstrate:
1:  to the prophets of Baal and to Jezebel’s entourage of foreigners that there is no place for them in Israel where Yahweh is God; and
2: to the Israelites that Yahweh is the only God, the God who wins back wayward hearts.

In immediate response to Elijah’s prayer the Lord’s fire comes down on the altar, consumes the holocaust offering (sodden though it is with water) and totally evaporates the water in the surrounding trench. The people’s reaction is to fall down in awe and worship: “The Lord is God!” they keep repeating.

(The end of the story - not recorded in our reading - is that the priests of Baal were then seized and all of them executed by having their throats cut. Hopefully, we might think now of other less drastic ways of dealing with them.)

Life with our God is, in the long run, a simple and straightforward affair. There are people who try to make religion very complicated. For many, superstition and idolatry are not far away. The idols today, from which people expect great returns, are those of the consumer society, of money, fame, power and “success”. The god of Mammon has taken over the lives of many and many Christians, like the Israelites in the story, try to hop uncomfortably between the two. But Jesus said that we had to make a very clear choice - it has to be one or the other (cf. Matthew 6:24). The God of the Gospel simply invites us to become closely united with him in prayer and love.

That is the God of Elijah and should be ours too.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 16
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
Keep me, O God, for in you I take refuge;
I say to the LORD, “My Lord are you.”
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
They multiply their sorrows
who court other gods.
Blood libations to them I will not pour out,
nor will I take their names upon my lips.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
O LORD, my allotted portion and cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 5:17-19
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come
to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you,
until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter
or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks
one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”
Sermon on the Mount (cont’d):
We have said that Matthew’s gospel is primarily directed at a readership with a Jewish background. It is clear that their Jewish background and traditions were things which it was not easy for Christian converts to give up. Both Paul and Matthew go out of their way to assure Jewish converts that Christianity is not a rejection of Judaism but its natural development. It is everything that Judaism is and more.

So, in today’s passage which continues the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus solemnly assures his readers, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.” Jesus has not come not to terminate the Law but to bring it to a higher level. (In a rough simile, it is like the upgrading of a computer by e.g. increasing its memory. It is still the same computer doing the same things, only better and faster.) The vision of Jesus helps us to see the Law in a new light.

So Jesus says that the Law is still to be observed. Of course, we will see very clearly in the following days exactly what Jesus means. He is not saying that every single injunction of the Law (some of which seem very strange to us) has to be literally observed but rather that the spirit behind those injunctions is still in force. His words are meant to console but they are also a challenge, as we shall see. The New Law does not mean simply the addition of new elements. There is what we would call now a ‘paradigm shift’ to a Way which goes beyond laws to the Law of Love.

In our Church, too, we need to be ready to move forward creatively to new ways of understanding our faith and living it out. The traditions of the past are still valid but we must never get bogged down in them to the extent that we do not respond to the clear signs of the times. Tradition can be understood in two ways: either as a fundamental belief that has existed from the very beginning or simply a way of doing or understanding things which has been around for a long time.

When will the Church stop changing? we hear some people ask. The answer is, Hopefully never. The day we close ourselves to change is the day we die, as Paul warns us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. To quote Cardinal Newman, To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often. He knew about change. He made radical changes in his own understanding of the Christian faith, changes which he saw as unavoidable although they involved great sacrifices on his part and led him from the Anglican to the Catholic Church.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I can't help thinking that Elijah tipped the balance in his own favour scientifically. Lightning is much more likely to strike later on in the day than in the morning (when the prophets of Baal were trying their luck). Also, lightning is attracted to water, so having his sacrifice surrounded by a water-filled trench might have actually been an advantage.

This reminds me of the story of Daniel and the priests of Bel. Daniel used his own wits to prove that the priests of Bel were frauds. Perhaps Elijah was using his own lifetime observations of the behaviour of lightning to debunk the prophets of Baal.