Sunday, 14 January 2007

The decision

1 Kings 18:20-39

This is a familiar passage and a great story. Elijah and the prophets of Baal

Elijah calls on the people to decide: are they going to follow the LORD or Baal?
The question they have to answer is who is going to be in the centre of their lives: as a nation and as individuals?

One of the interesting things about the passage is the use of the word 'dance', 'waver' (v21, 26): it is the same Hebrew word. The people waver or dance about which God they will serve. The prophets of Baal waver or dance round Baal. One day they serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The next, they serve Baal.

It is so human.

We are very frightened of commitment - because commitment restricts us. We are frightened of it at the level of relationships (it is the single major reason why so many couples live together without getting married); at work (this week Walter Smith walked out on his contract to manage Scotland to go back to Rangers. The man being interviewed said: 'Everybody else does it. Why shouldn't he?' That is what everyone does, but Psalm 15 says blessed are those who 'keep their oaths even when it hurts'). And we are frightened of commitment at the spiritual level: we are much happier with a smorgasbord of gods or spirituality, when we can pick from this one or that one.

And for the Israelites it seems to have been no different. They worship Baal when it is convenient to worship Baal and they worship the LORD when it is convenient to worship the LORD. And so when Elijah challenges them: 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him', they are silent.

But the time has come when they cannot sit on the fence any longer. They must make a decision.

And this is profoundly political. It is a battle for the heart of Israel. Who is going to be at its spiritual centre of Israel: Elijah, the prophet of the LORD, or the 450 prophets of Baal? And notice how Ahab, the king, stands on almost as a helpless observer.

Elijah is telling the people that they have to make a decision. Is the LORD going to be your God, or are you going to serve some other god? Choose. It is decision time.

But Elijah doesn't just simply ask people to make a decision. He gives them some pretty strong reasons for choosing the LORRD.

1. He demonstrates that god's that are no gods are powerless.

False gods cannot deliver the goods. They usually cannot even deliver what they claim they can deliver. Fire was meant to be one of Baal's specialities.

Elijah mocks Baal. V27: 'Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy or travelling. Maybe he is asleep and must be awakened'.

And if we turn something that is not God into a god, then it will not deliver. If we make a god out of our career or our children or our home or our family or another person or a hobby or interest or even our church, and if we live for that god, and think that it can deliver us fulfilment and uniqueness and freedom and significance and peace and happiness and eternal life, we are sadly mistaken.

I am not saying that those things are not important; and I am not saying that it is wrong to love our family or to serve our church or even to be ambitious (it really depends what we are ambitious for). What I am saying is that if we put those things in the centre of our lives: if we allow them to control how we think and behave - then we are going to be let down.

2. Through this incident Elijah shows that when we put false gods in the centre of our lives, they destroy us.

The problem is that if our self-made god does not come up with the goods - basically whatever it was that made us serve it in the first place - then we often think the problem is us. We worship the career because we think that it will get us the big house we’ve always wanted; but when it doesn’t come, we think that we are the problem. So we work harder and make bigger sacrifices. We never question whether our god is a true god.

And it really is true that if you or I do put money or ambition or status or career or politics or whatever at the centre of our lives it will eventually destroy us

Look at the prophets of Baal who end up cutting themselves.
Look at the person whose devotion to their career ends up destroying their relationships, or giving them a heart attack.
Look at the person whose love of money means they trample over others and end up isolated, broken and alone.
Look at the person who has been devoted to partying and who ends up pathetic, screwed up, sad and lost.
Look at the person who has lived for their partner or children and they find themselves trapped.
Look at the person who wants everything to be controlled and life will simply not play ball.

And even if our false gods do not destroy us in this life, they strip us of real life, and when it is our turn to die, they cannot handle it.

We are talking about the need for balance. It is a big in-phrase. When I put 'work life balance' into google, I got 78,200,000 results

We need to live balanced lives, and anything that becomes a god for us will over-balance us, unless it is actually in the centre. I can only live a balanced life if I know what is at the centre.

And Elijah's challenge, and the claim of Christianity is that I can only begin to live a balanced life if I am prepared to put the true God, the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the centre.

3. Elijah demonstrates that the God of Israel is the God who produces the goods

We need to be careful about how we interpret this.

Elijah demonstrated God's power, and the people responded.

But Jesus refused to demonstrate God's power in order to make people believe: in Matthew 12 he was asked to perform a sign. He says, 'A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it ..'

And for us, this is a norm. We should not expect God to do great acts of power in order to make people believe.

At the heart of the Old Testament is an external law. It is about a religion from outside: you obeyed the laws of Israel because you were an Israelite or a servant of Israel, and if you didn't you faced legal sanction. That is why the 450 prophets of Baal have to be put to the death.

But the New Testament is about obedience to the law that God puts in our heart. It is not about the imposition of laws from outside. The only authentic sanction that the church has is to cut someone off from fellowship.

The New Testament, covenant of God, requires us to make a personal free decision to receive Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

I am not saying that God does not continue to do great acts of power. In Acts 8:6 we are told that "When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said". What I am saying is that God, in New Testament times, does not bring people into his kingdom by outward compulsion, but by inward compulsion.

However, the God of the New Testament still produces the goods. When a person comes to him, when a person puts him in the centre, it does not mean that life will go well, or that they will be spared from doubt or tragedy. But God does promise that he will always be with us; that he can work good in every situation; that his Holy Spirit will comfort us and guide us; that we are part of his people with a new identity and a new destiny; that death is not the end.

And in Matthew 12 Jesus doesn't actually say, 'None will be given it'. He says, 'None will be given it .. except the sign of the prophet Jonah'. And he goes on to explain that it will be his death and resurrection that will be the sign: the great working of God that will prove that he is who he claims to be.

So Elijah demonstrates
1. False gods are powerless
2. False gods destroy us
3. The Living God produces the goods

And he calls on the people to decide.
He brings them to the point of crisis
Who will you follow?

And for us, this passage is a call to decision.

Who will we put in the centre of our lives?

The living God or our false gods?
gods of shopping or drink or sex to give us comfort or power.
the god of adventure holiday to give me excitement
god of spirituality to give me peace
gods of astrology or the opinion page or the website to give me guidance.
gods of achievement to give me success
gods of business to give me money
gods of conformity or celebrity to give me status

On one occasion Jesus tells his followers that he has to suffer and die. Peter says to Jesus: 'No Lord, that will not happen to you'. And Jesus says to Peter: 'Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but human concerns'.

Peter is tempting Jesus to worship the god of self: to give in to his fear, not to do what God is calling him to do. But Jesus says, "No. The one who is at my centre is my God and Father. And I will be obedient to him, even if it means I suffer and die".

And for us, we have to choose. We can follow the example of Peter, and seek 'merely human concerns'; or we can put the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who gives life to the dead, at the centre of our lives.

Evangelists love to get people to make decisions. The writer to the Hebrews implores his listeners, 'Today is the day of salvation'. And decisions are important. Because when we make that decision to put Jesus Christ in the centre of our lives, we give ourselves a reference point by which we can measure ourselves. So if we waver and find that, having said that we would serve him, we discover that we are still serving other gods, we can turn again to him and receive his forgiveness and strength.

So the message and the challenge of today's reading is simple: Who or what is at the centre of your life? Because this is the time to put Jesus Christ there, to put his word there, to put his love and his mercy and his forgiveness, and his power. Today is the day to stop messing around with God, to repent of the pride and arrogance that presume to choose which god you will serve when and how, and let him - the living God - be your God.

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