Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 20 - Yahweh is Looking for a Faithful People

Living Water Community Church - Sunday Worship
1 Kings 17 - “Yahweh is Looking for a Faithful People”

Yahweh loves with a loyal love. Yahweh provides for our needs. Yahweh alone provides for our needs. Yahweh is true and reliable. Yahweh alone is reliable, dependable, worthy of our trust. When Yahweh says something will happen, it happens. Yahweh loves with a loyal and faithful love.

Israel and its king did not believe these things. One hundred years after David, Israel denied every one of these claims. They did not believe that Yahweh was loyal, faithful, true, reliable, dependable, loving. Israel did not believe Yahweh was sufficient. Ahab, Israel’s king, did not believe Yahweh was sufficient.

When I was growing up, I had a story book about Elijah. Elijah being fed by ravens, Elijah and the jar of oil, Elijah on Mount Carmel, Elijah and the fiery chariot. My mom would sit on the bed with me and let me turn the pages while she read. I had other Bible story books--they were in a series, thin and paperback: Samson and the Philistines, David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lions’ Den. These stories were simply told with matching simple, colorful illustrations. I would turn the pages and learn the moral or find an example to imitate in each story.

The moral of the stories we’ve  heard this morning is that God is the one who is control and the one who provides for us. Elijah and also the Sidonian widow are wonderful examples to imitate, heroes of faith. This is what my childhood storybook said.

But we can hear more in these stories when we listen to them in context. The storybook moral of David and Goliath, for instance, was that when we trust in God, no one (however big) can stand against us. When we read the story in the unfolding history of 1 Samuel, however, we find that the contest is less about David versus Goliath and more about the question of who will be God’s chosen shepherd-king-protector of the people--David who completely depends on Yahweh or Saul who is a tall and strong warrior. No one can stand against us when we trust in Yahweh, but the real threat is Saul, not some Philistine giant.

In the same way, we need to hear these Elijah stories as part of a larger story about how God’s people move from theocratic rule under Samuel to exile in the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The moral of that bigger story is a theme that shows up over and over again in each of the intervening narratives: Yahweh’s people must depend on Yahweh alone.

First Kings 17 introduces a cycle of stories about Elijah and his disciple Elisha that continues on for nineteen chapters, from 1 Ki 17 to 2 Ki 13. The events focus on the reigns of King Ahab and his successors in the northern kingdom of Israel. The theme of this story cycle is that while Yahweh is faithful and loyal, the king and his kingdom are faithless, trusting in anything and everything but Yahweh, refusing to obey him. 

Chapter 16, verses 29 through 33 show us the situation:

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa’s reign over Judah, Omri’s son Ahab became king over Isarel. Ahab son of Omri ruled over Israel for twenty-two years in Samaria. Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the sight of Yahweh than all who were before him. As if following in the sinful footsteps of Jeroboam son of Nebat were not bad enough, he married Jezebel the daughter of King Eth-baal of the Sidonians. Then he worshiped and bowed to Baal. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal he had built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole; he did more to anger Yahweh, God of Israel, than all the kings who were before him.

It is sixty-five years since Jeroboam and the ten northern tribes of Israel revolted against the oppressive rule of Solomon and his son Rehoboam. It has been sixty-five years since Jeroboam, first king of the the northern kingdom Israel, set up two golden bull statues so his people could worship Yahweh without going to the temple in the enemy capital city, Jerusalem. This idol-laced Yahweh-worship is the “sin of Jeroboam.” These have been sixty-five rocky years, with assassinations and wars, political intrigue and the killing off of entire families to establish new dynasties.

But now there is a new king, Ahab. Jeroboam bent the rules to shore up his political advantage while still paying lip-service to Yahweh worship. Ahab, on the other hand, treats religion as nothing more than a tool--a political and technological tool. Yahweh worship hadn’t been working too well for his family dynasty, so he chose to import a new religion: Baal worship.

Yahweh loves with a loyal and faithful love, but his people do not. When Ahab treats religion as a piece of ideological, political, or, even, agricultural technology, he’s merely thinking about religion in the same way as all the other nations and peoples do. Religion is a way to get things done. Ahab is feeling politically and fiscally insecure. He has an ongoing war with the southern kingdom Judah (the two tribes who remained loyal to the David dynasty), and he needs allies to help fight and fund this war. Sidon is a wealthy merchant kingdom on the coast. Ahab forms an alliance in the usual way: marry the daughter and set up a temple-consulate for foreign worship. It sweetens the deal that Sidon’s gods are Baal, the storm god who brings the rain, and Ahserah, his consort and goddess who brings fertility in field, flock, and family. Adopting the Baal and Asherah cult is good business and good politics. It’s also faithless and disloyal to Yahweh, the God of Israel.

This is where Elijah appears for the first time, without fanfare or even much introduction.  Chapter 17 begins, “Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As certainly as Yahweh, the God of Israel, lives (whom I serve), there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command.” In effect, “Worship your so-called rain and fertility gods! See what they can do! I’ll leave you to them.”

If we were to listen to all of the Elijah stories, we would find that Yahweh is not a god who can be reduced to a tool. Yahweh is not an abstract law or concept that we can plan around or use to our advantage. Yahweh is personal. Yahweh loves with a loyal and faithful love. We see this in Yahweh’s attention to Elijah, to the Sidonian widow, to foreign kings and generals, even to Ahab. Yahweh pays attention to the needs, the hopes and the hardships of individual people. He feeds Elijah during a famine, he feeds a woman from Sidon, he revives her lifeless son. Yahweh loves us personally and wants us to love him in return.

We today should know that God is personal much more than Elijah or Ahab knew. We have seen the person who is God, we have seen Jesus. Jesus is not merely a moral example or a theological idea that we can safely build our lives around. Jesus loves us and asks that we love him in return. This means following him. He said, “If you love me, you will do what I command.”

The stories we heard this morning--Elijah fed by ravens, Elijah fed by a starving widow, Elijah reviving the dead boy--these stories also show us what faithful and obedient love for Yahweh looks like. When the hot anger of Yahweh withers the crops and causes widespread famine to show the faithless lies king and people have built their lives around, Elijah obeys Yahweh’s command and finds Yahweh’s faithful, loyal love.

Yahweh sends Elijah to a creek in the wilderness, and Elijah obeys. Unlike Ahab, Elijah trusts that Yahweh, not the supposed rain-god Baal, is the one who gives water and food. And the food is good. While the faithless people struggle to scrape together bread and water, Elijah is miraculously delivered a meat feast fit for a king twice a day. Yahweh shows Elijah faithful love.

But this isn’t the limit of Yahweh’s love. One day Elijah goes to get water from the creek and finds only a mud puddle. We might think, “What’s this? Has God failed us?” But Elijah listens and hears Yahweh’s voice. Yahweh says, “Get up, go to Zarephath in Sidonian territory, and live there. I have already told a widow who lives there to provide for you.” If the creek drying up was confusing, this is even more troubling. God does not seem to be making sense. The two square meals a day next to the creekside retreat was the kind of love we want. But go to Sidon--the home of Baal worship? Stay with an impoverished widow? Depend on her to supply food when she can’t even provide for herself and her son? This doesn’t make sense to us. But Elijah trusts Yahweh and obeys. 

The person in this story who impresses me even more than Elijah is the widow. She is, in many ways, the opposite of Ahab. Ahab is an Israelite king rejects Yahweh for politically advantageous Baal worship imported from Sidon; the Sidonian widow, from Sidon not Israel, trusts Yahweh even when she has no earthly reason to. Her people worship Baal. She is poor. Her husband has died. The famine caused by Yahweh has reduced her to her last meal. But she obeys.

Elijah finds her at the city gate, picking sticks to bake her last loaf of bread. When he asks her for a meal and a drink, she confesses that she has nothing to offer. Nevertheless, she is willing to trust Yahweh, and she discovers Yahweh’s faithful and loyal love in a bottomless jar of oil and a never-failing sack of flour. By obeying Yahweh’s command, feeding the prophet even from her poverty, she find that Yahweh is faithful to provide not only for his prophet but also for her and her family.

It’s easy to trust God when we see God’s provision on a daily basis. But what do we do when God’s provision, God’s love do not seem to be present? The widow had a son, and the son got sick. He got sicker and sicker everyday. Finally he stopped breathing. The first two stories have tested Elijah’s and the widow’s faithful love for Yahweh, but this is now a test of Yahweh’s faithful love for Elijah and the widow. The woman asks, “Why, prophet, have you come to me to confront me with my sin and kill my son?” Elijah asks, “O Yahweh, my God, are you also bringing disaster on this widow I am staying with by killing her son?” What will Yahweh do? How will he respond?

We are at a turning point in the Elijah stories. So far Yahweh has worked through Elijah to show the faithless and futile way Israel and its king use religion. Elijah has been an obedient spokesman, and Yahweh has faithfully provided for him, first beside the creek and now in the widow’s house in Sidon. But Yahweh is not the kind of god who is content merely to speak the truth and walk away. Yahweh is looking for a faithful people. 

In the next chapter, Yahweh sends Elijah to confront Ahab, the people, and all the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel with the demand that they choose which god they will love. In a trial-by-fire-from-the-sky, Elijah prays before all the people of Israel, “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are the true God and that you are winning back their allegiance” (1 Ki 18.36-37). Elijah prays before the people, and God sends lightning to burn up the sacrifice on the water-soaked altar. Yahweh is showing his faithful love, proving that he loves this people.  But the people impressed by the fireworks on the mountaintop are just as quickly swayed back to Baal and Asherah by the anger of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab.

So, at this turning point, what does Yahweh do about the widow’s lifeless son? On the one hand, we might wonder if the fate of the widow’s son really even matters. After all, we’ve seen God’s faithful provision for Elijah already--meat in the desert, bread from the widow. God is taking care of his prophet. Surely Elijah has all the confidence in Yahweh that he needs to go and confront Ahab. But there is more going on than just the story of Elijah. 

This is the story of Yahweh who wants a faithful people. We might want to follow Ahab in a religious arithmetic where God’s provision is connected to bloodline or occupation--Elijah is an Israelite, Elijah is a prophet; of course he is blessed! But Yahweh shows faithful love to all those who depend solely on him and who obey his commands. God is not limited by our sectarian boundaries or our theological lines in the sand. God is looking for people, any people, all people, who trust God alone and follow God’s instruction.

There is an interesting pattern in the three stories we’ve heard this morning. In the first, at the creek, Yahweh provides for his prophet. In the second, Yahweh’s love provides for his prophet and for an obedient widow from Sidon. In this last story, Yahweh shows faithful love to the widow--not for Elijah’s sake, but for her own. Yahweh heals the boy, and the woman exclaims to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a prophet and that Yahweh really does speak through you.” Yahweh’s faithful love moves out from those with ethnic claims on his love to all those who trust and obey him.

Jesus noticed this pattern. In a well-loved passage in Luke 4, Jesus walks into a synagogue, takes the Isaiah scroll and reads, “The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor.” I suspect this is a familiar passage to many of us. But listen to what happens next: As the crowd sits confused about the meaning of this manifesto, Jesus exclaims, “No doubt you’ll want to know why these things aren’t happening here in your town.” He continues, “In truth I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three and a half years, and there was a great famine over all the land. Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” (Lk 4.24-26). What Jesus is getting at is that Yahweh’s faithful love comes not to those who can claim it by birthright or ethnicity. Instead, Yahweh is looking for a faithful people, and Yahweh shows faithful love to all people who will depend on him alone and obey his commands--to people who love him.

For Elijah and for the larger story of 1 and 2 Kings, this means that Yahweh will eventually reject his faithless people, judging them with the very nations whose religious outlook they have emulated. Israel will be devastated and finally dispersed into the Assyrian empire. A faithless people have no claim on Yahweh’s love. But Yahweh’s quest for a faithful people also open the possibility to outsiders, like the Sidonian widow, to anyone and everyone who will love and obey Yahweh.

We at this church are a collection of outsiders. We have no claim on Yahweh’s love by birthright anymore than Ahab and Israel did. We cannot hold up our occupations, our theologies, our work for social justice, our family heritage as rights, in and of themselves, to God’s loving provision. Merely saying that we are “Christian” will not win us a sure claim on divine blessing anymore than Ahab’s profession to be “Israelite.”

No. Yahweh is looking for a faithful and obedient people. “If you love me, you will obey my commands,” Jesus said. Only when we depend completely on Yahweh--revealed to us in Jesus--only when we own that Jesus alone is sufficient for our needs, when we cease from trying to hedge our bets by relying on others schemes and powers, only when we faithfully and loyally follow in the pattern Jesus has left for us, obeying his commands and living in the new life he has won for us--only then do we find out how loyal, faithful, true, reliable, dependable, loving our God is.

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