“As long as idolatry exists in the world,
God’s fierce anger will exist in the world.”
Well, it’s Memorial Weekend. The unofficial kick off of summer. School is almost over, vacation plans are about to begin, and our new worship time is underway. While we still have to wait three more weeks for summer to officially begin, Hollywood is already out in full-force, unleashing the new line up of summer blockbuster movies. Whether you are a fan of animation, comedy, or sci-fi action, there is something for everyone.
If you ask me, I think this particular story from 1 Kings would make an interesting movie. It’s a classic tale of good verses evil, complete with dramatic plot twists and epic battle scenes. In it, the most unlikely hero saves the day by defeating the evil empire and bringing down its power. There's enough razor sharp satire to dramatize the true power of Israel’s God, who alone can do the impossible.
Granted this is not a new idea. The plot is a lot like hundreds of other films. Like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a movie about a god-like super hero whose actions have been left unchecked, and one’s personal vendetta to stop this modern-day savior from allowing a greater threat to take over the world.
Like Batman, the prophet Elijah, launches a powerful campaign to eradicate idol worship from Israel once and for all. And does so in spite of the social and political implications that arise. I’ll admit it’s difficult to get the full effect of this story without reading, at least, the first book of Kings. It’s like telling someone about the mafia by only describing the horse head scene from the first Godfather movie.
So if you have no idea what I am talking about here’s the backstory that drives this epic tale: The 12 tribes of Israel have divided themselves into two kingdoms; the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. This particular story takes place in the north, which is ruled by the evil king Ahab, and his malicious wife Jezebel.
Earlier in the story, Elijah denounces Jezebel for introducing the worship of this foreign god alongside worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. It seems the Israelites have forgotten Yahweh is their Lord and Savior, the one who rescued them from Egypt, cared for them in the wilderness, and brought them into the land of milk and honey. This action has made Yahweh very angry, and the kingdom extremely vulnerable.
Throughout the Bible God's power is often juxtaposed with trust in material strength like wealth, military power, and foreign alliances. So when Elijah challenges the power and authority of this Canaanite god, he comes not simply as a prophet calling on his God, but as a political dissenter; publicly shaming the religion of his earthly King and Queen. Maybe this is where Donald Trump got his ideas and methods to win votes.
The difference, of course, is that Elijah urges believers not to bow down to false idols, or give in to the cultural norms that threaten their identity as God’s covenant people. Instead, he calls them to stand in the truth and justice of Yahweh alone. (Come to think of it, perhaps this is where Bernie Sanders gets his inspiration.) Elijah reminds us that only Yahweh can make waters part, manna fall from heaven, and giant empires to topple with a single stone. He alone is the God who makes impossible happen.
This is the entire story of the Bible: God’s divine hand at work in our lives, rescuing us, and saving us, and forgiving us, and loving us no matter what. The good news for believers is we are not to worry when God seems hidden or absent from our life. Instead we are to trust that God is there, always ready to answer our prayers.
The key word here is “trust.” Trust is the muscle of our faith. Trust is the super hero cape that gives us the power to do the impossible.
Elijah, like Bruce Wayne, is just an ordinary human who can do extraordinary things. But unlike Batman, he doesn’t rely on a butler to concoct special weapons. Instead, he arms himself with faith. And trusts in it so fearlessly that he doesn’t just call on God for help, but instead demands that God comes. Elijah is intimate with Yahweh. He knows Gods heart because he shares his heart with God. He puts God to the test knowing God will respond in the most astonishing and unbelievable ways.
Jesus shared this intimate faith with God, too. In the wilderness, Jesus was victorious over temptation because of his strong relationship with God. Both Elijah’s prophetic contest and Jesus’ endurance through temptation point to the same truth: Trust in God alone can and will sustain you.
This flies in the face of what the world powers would have us believe. More bombs, more guns, equals more peace and more prosperity. When there is a grave threat looming, their temptation seems inviting. Before we know it, we are splitting our faith in various camps.
The medieval rabbi Rashi is quoted as saying, “As long as idolatry exists in the world, God’s fierce anger will exist in the world.” Yet try as we might to stand with God, we all seem to fall prey to idolatry, be it nationalism, materialism, ego and pride, or some other false truth.
Elijah asks the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If Yahweh is God then follow him, and if it’s Ba’al then follow him.” Jesus mirrors this same sentiment when he tells us that we can’t worship both “God and money.” Thousands of years later, the message remains the same: We either trust in God, or in something else.
As we celebrate Memorial Day, we might be tempted to place our loyalty to our country alongside God. We may not acknowledge our celebration as idol worship, but when things like national or financial security dictate our conversations, or holiday sales lead to self-gratification and material possession, or when sports or family take priority over our obedience and service to God, they indeed become idols. And no matter how we clothe them, the simple truth remains…they cannot save us. Only God saves.
Elijah's cinematic tale teaches us that our tendencies to cling to source of security that are not God leave us looking ridiculous and pathetic. We dance frantically to appease powers that are not real; we try to ensure prosperity through things that will not respond to us; we look for hope in things that cannot truly transform our lives.
St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” When we fail to recognize God as the source of our rest and our peace, we live our lives chaotically, on the edge of desperation. We are tempted into believing sex or drugs, or some other vice will fill the emptiness in our heart. But they only lead to addiction, not salvation.
Elijah boldly asks God to act, “so that the people will know that it is God who has turned their hearts back.” His plea is an invitation for us all to believe God is at work, turning our hearts towards good, towards love, towards God.
But do we really believe, and trust that God is who God says he is? And if so, are we acting faithfully to God, relying on the Divine fully and faithfully... in spite of all the temptations that the world presents?
By confronting the king and his god, Elijah is risking not only his life but also his faith. Yet by his bold action, his faith is rewarded. The lesson we can take away today is this: trusting God with such boldness removes the threats and fears that tempt us to give our loyalty, commitment, and worship to idols.
This is the message of Jesus, who shows us that when we boldly live out our faith, we are able to do the impossible.
We can heal the sick without the fear of infection.
We can give away all we have without the fear of being poor.
We can feed the world without the fear of running out of food.
We can repair damaged relationships without the fear of failure or rejection.
We can embrace the dying without the fear of death.
But best of all, we can fearlessly love one another…as God so fearlessly loves us.
You might say these are the unexpected plot twists and action scenes that make your story come to life. But you are more than just a summer blockbuster, your faith is the actual building blocks of a new heaven and a new earth. And your trust plays a pivotal part of the Good News of Jesus' redemptive work.
To put it another way...God has written the greatest screenplay, and has chosen you and me to have the starring role.
And so, to borrow a line from my favorite movie Sunset Blvd., "Are you ready for your close up?"