The crowd is not correct, just loud
Updated: Nov 5
1 Kings 18:17-39
I would actually love to see a show of hands, how many of you knew this story off the top of your heads?
I lead bible study on Monday afternoon with our friends from the CCC -- the Campus Christian Community -- the Methodist-Presbyterian counterparts to our Episcopal-Lutheran partnership -- they have a building right around the corner on Dandridge Street. I sat down in their circle to begin the bible study and the were like *rubs hands together* okay what've you got for us, Ezekiel? Matthew 25? No, 1 Kings 18. First Kings Eighteen??
I feel like it happens sometimes that everything between Joshua and Chronicles is a blur, just over and over and over the story of a king or a leader being called by God, coming into power and influence, somehow losing sight of their identity or their purpose, falling out of grace, lather, rinse, repeat.
So when I read a story like this, what it is meant to indicate to us about what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a child of God, and how it is calling us to have hope. It is really quite a colorful story, we have this tete-a-tête between the prophets of Baal and the prophet of God, Elijah. There are these 450 guys representing Baal and one little Elijah. And Elijah proposes this little contest, he says, bring two bulls, prepare the wood, prepare the bull, set up the sacrifice, and call upon the name of your god. Whichever god answers, is the God to follow.
So the 450 prophets of Baal are praying and they’re crying out, they’re dancing around in circles and self-immolating, they are spilling their own blood in a plea to Baal to answer. They are making quite a scene. And the bull and the wood lie unlit.
Elijah, the twerp that he is, heckles them a little bit and then calls on some of the onlookers to pour these pitchers of water onto his bull, the setup is drenched and there’s water pooling around it, and he speaks to God and *vphwoom* the bull is alit.
So what does this mean — it is a lovely thing that Elijah spoke the name of God and the sign was shown. But what strikes me more than anything is the absolute scene of what is happening, I can hardly imagine what it looked like what the prophets of Baal were putting on about, I can hardly imagine what it felt like to be Elijah watching this all happen and to be perceiving this, wondering how these fanatics will react to his winning the duel.
I also am mindful of the fact that this kind of fanaticism is well-represented in our modern day — in religious contexts, in Christian contexts, in political contexts, in deeply secular contexts. There are all sorts of absolutely hootin’ and hollerin’ wild public displays of passion and zeal, bordering on mass self-immolation, and we know about these things, we hear about them on the news, we hear about them from other churches. And part of what I read in this passage is that zeal does not make you correct. Zeal makes you loud, it does make what is happening correct, it does not make the belief that they are zealous about true. The 450 outperforming the 1 does not make the one wrong. And can you imagine how it would change our public life if we took that to heart.
Again, we just know that politically, religiously, culturing there is just so much hemming and hawing, as if the way to prove our faithfulness or to make our point or to convince others it to show them the fervor of our praying. What this story of Elijah’s faithfulness lined up next to the faithfulness of the prophets of Baal is that it is not about how loud or fanatically you pray, it is not about how many people you can gather into the collective effervescence of a moment. It is about whether or not the prayer you pray lights the fire.
There is an easy temptation — I feel it, and maybe you feel it too — to compare ourselves or our ministry to bigger, louder, snazzier church communities, the ones that have the rave lights and the taco trucks and the fog machine, and it can feel discouraging when we witness people we love or want to be here in this community with us making the same comparison, especially when they are young people.
But between their prayers and ours, between the fanatic and the raucous and the quiet and the steady, between the 450 prophets and the one prophet, how we judge the faithfulness and the truth of our prayers is whether or not they light the fire. Not how loud they are or how fun they are, but if they light the fire or not.
Well, the fire is a metaphor, unless Pastor Anne is really okay with me putting a bull up on this altar. So what does the fire represent? Well, I might imagine that the fire lit in a community by the prayers of the faithful might look like a generous spirit, a spirit of welcome, an acceptance of people in all their diversity and uniqueness. The fire lit by the prayers of the faithful might look like a community that truly welcomes and incorporates newcomers — that there isn’t a gap between when you show up for the first time and when somebody talks to you, or invites you into friendship. Maybe it looks like a spirit of generosity where the members of a community are willing to give a casserole or a coffee or even the shirt off their back to help friend and stranger alike. Maybe the lit fire of the prayers of the faithful look like an eagerness and an openness to listen to folks of many perspectives and beliefs and to work together to discern how the Gospel calls us to act with integrity. Maybe the lit fire looks like a courage to approach interpersonal or community conflict head on and to resolve it, rather than to let it fester or to simply run away from it.
At the end of the day, rather than judging ourselves or others according to how flashy or correct their prayer and worship is or looks, but the question instead is this: do the people in that community feel seen and heard and honored for who they are? Are the people in that community cared for in all the variety of their needs and life stages? Do people relate to one another with gentleness and with kindness resolve tension between then rather than allowing it to tear them apart? How long it is that strangers are allowed to remain strangers before they are allowed to become friends. Are the people longing to know more about Jesus and to grow steadily into his likeness and ministry. Perhaps it does not matter how loud or how quiet our prayers are so long as that fire is lit.