We must be consumed

May 1st, 2016

1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39; Galatians 1:1-12

Abundance and scarcity are often the building blocks for human stories. Stories draw on images of deluge and aridity, vagrancy or luxuriance. Post-apocalyptic stories regularly take up themes of plenitude and deficiency as a vehicle for addressing what it means to be human. Competition for valuable resources has characterized our attempts at life together in all ages, so when confronted with a story about the absence of water, it is not difficult for us to imagine how quickly various explanations, causes, and remedies for a drought would spill forth. When our interests begin to compete with the interests of others, we often invoke the divine to settle such disputes, to set things straight, and to order our common life.

For the ancients, weather patterns were assumed to reflect the mood, will, or wishes of divine beings. In 1 Kings 17 we read that Elijah’s first act as a prophet of YHWH involved informing King Ahab of an impending and lengthy drought, which could be lifted only at YHWH’s discretion. Apparently YHWH grew impatient with the people’s insistence upon running after Baal. As 1 Kings proceeds, we find that the drought was indeed severe and that YHWH alone was responsible for any abundance of food or water. It was YHWH who led Elijah to a ravine with water and directed the ravens to care for him there. The brook eventually dried up for Elijah, though, and so YHWH turned the prophet’s attention to a struggling widow and her son in Zarephath. It was there that YHWH restored the widow’s son to life after Elijah had instructed her to provide YHWH’s prophet with water and bread despite a scarcity of oil. These episodes signal to us that it is YHWH alone who is capable of abundance in a world of scarcity.

But nowhere is this competition between YHWH and Baal more pronounced than in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah ascends Mount Carmel to confront the prophets of Baal. He accuses the people of swinging back and forth like a pendulum between Baal and YHWH. Elijah, living up to his name—which means something like “YHWH is my God”—informs the people that YHWH is jealous and impatient. It is time to choose, Elijah pronounces, and so begins the competition.

The prophets of Baal limp around the altar in a rather strange ceremony obviously meant to call down water from heaven. Elijah joins in the event by taunting them, even suggesting that Baal appears unaware, unconcerned, or disinterested. For all the noise generated in the opening act of the competition, it ends in a deafening silence (v. 29). Elijah, on the other hand, takes time to repair the altar to YHWH, which is a sign to all present that he is marking the place again as YHWH’s. He then proceeds to flood the altar with water, perhaps to symbolize rain, but the effect of seeing vast amounts of water being poured on the ground must have been a powerful reminder of what is at stake for a community in desperate need of water: nothing less than life and a future. YHWH, unlike Baal, gets involved, remembers the promises to the ancestors, and keeps the divine promise. YHWH descends upon the altar, or perhaps inhabits the sacred space Elijah has reconstructed, and consumes everything in fire. Nothing former remains.

The prophets of Baal and Elijah are engaged in competing stories that will produce a clear winner and loser, but more than the struggle is to understand reality and be swallowed up by what is true and enduring. Drought and famine and scarcity all suggest expiration and fading into nothingness. These are the things that YHWH descends to consume and devour and destroy. YHWH’s acts on Mount Carmel also call attention to divine abundance, the all-encompassing provision of YHWH alone. It is not just that Baal has lost; Baal, like any and all human creations, has been utterly consumed by YHWH.

Let us remember again that all that we hold most dear must be sacrificed. All the ways of ordering our life together must be consumed on the altar of the gospel. All the ways of dividing ourselves or uniting ourselves must be consumed on the altar of the gospel. There was nothing left in that trench after God’s fire fell from heaven; every remnant of the old was licked up, we are told. The gospel Paul proclaimed to the Galatians was an all-consuming piece of good news, a word that consumed and devoured all other words. Similarly, there are no scraps or leftovers in the gospel’s wake. To grasp at a shred of anything else is to make room for an idol or chase after a different gospel. Indeed, allowing vestiges of old ways or other gospels to exist is idolatry and denies the divine story we’ve been given in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. May God’s story consume us all this day and every day. Amen.

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