Talbot Davis ~ Lost Religion

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Some of you might remember when this happened in an NFL football game:

And that gave rise to a whole breed of commercials called “Not In My House!” – in the world of sports, a way of saying, “there is no way I am going to let you come into my home field, home court, home stadium, and beat me, taunt me, or take away what’s mine!” It’s sort of macho, but it sort of works, and the deal is if you can go into someone’s “house” and beat them at their own game while on their own turf, well, you’ve done something: a victory for the ages. (I looked for some kind of parallel in tennis but it’s not like Harvard used to get all macho and say to the Princeton tennis team: not in our house! They’d be more likely to say, “I’ve got an interview on Wall Street later, can we hurry?”

Well, as we get to our second installment with Elijah in our series “Lost And Found,” it’s a “not in my house!” kind of deal. Here’s what is going on: the people of Israel had lost their faith. There had been a civil war, a division into north and south, and in the Northern Kingdom King Ahab was on the throne and quickly staking claim to title of Worst. King. Ever. By marrying a woman named Jezebel, he (and she) brought the worship of Baal into the kingdom of the Lord.

Look at I Kings 16:32: “He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.”

Who and what was Baal? A god they could make with their hands.

The people had lost patience with the invisible God and so they decided to make one that was visible. As we saw in the first installment, since Baal was a fertility god, worshipping him involved rain dances and temple prostitutes. I don’t care how good a church’s band is, that can be hard to compete with as far as “gettin’ the men in church”!

In the wake of these events, Elijah tells Ahab there is going to be a drought. This is to prove that God – the invisible one – is more in charge of the rain and the sun than Baal could ever be. Elijah pronounces the drought and then disappears for three years. The people all around him had lost their religion because they were busy making gods, and so Elijah opposes it and then vanishes.

But I wonder, are we done with that? Are we really finished with making our own gods? Now: not too many of you are making ceramic idols, but did you know that a survey of American Christians showed that 22% believe in reincarnation, 23% believe in astrology and 15% have seen a fortune teller? More to the point, maybe you have made a god of a relationship in your life. It’s not a healthy one, mind you – toxic, actually – but you feel like if it is taken away from you, you won’t be able to breathe anymore. That relationship, in spite of its turmoil, gives you security, identity, and meaning. Or maybe you have made a god of your resume. If you can’t hand a business card with a nice title on it to people you meet, what’s the point in living? It’s a god you have made. You know what it is for me? Church! Reputation! How those two intersect! My own image is a god I make and tend and protect and obsess over. Yeah, ancient Israel had lost their religion because they had traded the original, invisible god for a visible substitute, and we do the same.

Here’s what’s even more true: if you are at that place of thinking about leaving faith – “I don’t really believe anymore. I believe nothing.” I’ve been there. Most have. But you need to know that you are really just substituting another god in God’s place: most likely, you! You have a god, whether you know it or not. The question is whether it’s the One who made you or the one you are making.

Back to Elijah. He proclaims drought’s coming and then he’s gone for three years. He returns to public life in I Kings 18, meets Ahab, and look at what he does in 18:16-19: “So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’ ‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.'”

So he wants everyone who is anyone to gather at Mt. Carmel. Why Mt. Carmel? He could have chosen any mountain in Israel; why this one? Because it was the center of Baal-worship. Baal had home court advantage on Mt. Carmel! And so Elijah wanted to see Baal’s “Not in my house!” and raise it by “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof!” and put his Hebrew National football right on Baal’s 50-yard line star. Ahab and the prophets may believe “Baal’s gonna protect his house!” but Elijah knows “No he ain’t! I’m gonna ROCK HIS HOUSE!”

And Elijah challenges the people in I Kings 18:21: “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.'”

And note the people’s answer in 18:21c:

“But the people said nothing…”

They said nothing: all the folks who have lost their religion and gone to follow a god they made just sit in silent observation.

And what does Elijah want to do in Baal’s house on Carmel? Stage a contest in which they’d kill a bull – these were the days before PETA – put it on a pallet, and the Baal prophets would pray to Baal, and Elijah would pray to the Lord, and whichever god sets the bull on fire is really God.

So here’s the big question: is Baal going to protect his house or not? He’s the god people have made, he’s the one for whom they have lost their religion, and that’s the question. And I love the people’s reaction in 18:24: “Then all the people said, ‘What you say is good.'”

Good idea! They have gone from silent to intrigued!

So the contest starts and it’s really a thing of comedy. Baal’s reps go first in 18:26: “So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. ‘Baal, answer us!’ they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.”

Elijah taunts them in I Kings 18:27 (not very Christlike, but then again, Christ hadn’t been born yet, so Elijah gets a pass).

“At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.'”

When it says “busy” there in the original language, the inference is that he is “using the men’s room.” The longer they pray, the more notable the non-answer, and the more panicked the Baal followers become, as we read in 18:28: “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.”

And then the loudest silence in Scripture: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

The panic and the escalation is exactly what we do with the gods we make. When you beg your boyfriend or girlfriend to stay; when you think one more hit of the drug will satisfy; when the next job will finally be the one to make you happy; when the cutting you do will make you calm. Increasing desperation yielding smaller rewards and it’s all because of the gods you make.

So Elijah steps up for his turn. First, in a nod to Jewish history, look what he does in 18:30-32: Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel.’ With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed.”

And then he declares what he has demonstrated in I Kings 18:36:

“At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.'”

He traces his prayer to history. Not fertility, like Baal, not the seasons of the year as with idolatry, but to the way God has acted in the history of the people. The way that Elijah knows that he is just the next in a long line of people to whom God has been faithful. “Lord, I’m just one in this tree of folks you have touched and held and protected.”

Then the prayer’s simplicity & brevity stands in marked contrast to the panicked offerings to Baal in 18:37:  “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” And the answer in 18:38: “Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”

The gods the people make: nothing. The God who made this people, all the way from Abraham to Elijah: fire from heaven. And I see that for this people who had lost their religion because they have substituted something they’d made – and how what they’d made disappointed them – and I see how that still happens, and here’s the deal: the gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

Because look at the crowd! Remember how they were silent and then intrigued? Look what I Kings records next of their response: When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!'”

That’s it! That’s the moment! That faceless crowd is actually the most important character in the story – even more than Elijah, more than Ahab, more than the bull! It’s their trajectory from silence to interest to confession: the God who makes us is the only God there is! El Yah! We remember who made us now! We too are in the line that stretches from Abraham and Isaac to today. He made us and he’s holding us even when we tried to run away! But the gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

Can I ask you something that Elijah asked the people at the heart of the story?

How long will you waver?

If you are in the middle of losing your religion is it truthfully, honestly, because you’ve made another god? People do. Religious people do. Like the Episcopal priest out in Washington state who decided to become Episcopalian and Muslim. It sounds nice, it sounds all, “can’t we all just get along,” but intellectually it falls apart. You can’t be both. It’s why standing in the middle of the road you get hit by cars coming from both sides.

No parent, for example, wants your child so influenced by peers that you get overruled as outdated. That’s what we do with God. Whether it’s another religion or our horoscope or a toxic romance, drug use that yields inevitably diminishing returns, or preoccupation with image, it’s all wavering. If you stay in that place too long you make self-destructive decisions that have a long term impact and then BAM! you’re done. Some of you married or formerly married people let that guy or that girl be the god you’d made in the moment, and that’s why your marriage died.  he gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

I really love the introduction to Elijah’s prayer. Look at it again in 18:36: history, people, a line. It demonstrates that even when God doesn’t fix our circumstances – when he does in a sense “let us down” – he doesn’t leave us alone. He won’t let go that way. And who is it who reminds me God is real? I don’t have that vivid immediacy to say “the God of Abraham” like Elijah did. I might say “the God of Matt Ristuccia”!

Who is he? The New Jersey pastor who mentored me in college and then married me and Julie upon graduation. Lord, the God of Matt!

Or the God of Claude Kayler.

Who is he? The guy who is my best preacher-friend, who founded this church, and because he built it on Jesus and not on Claude it was incredibly easy to follow him. Lord, you’re the God of Claude Kayler and because I see what I see in him I believe in you! Or even the people who work here now.  Why? Because some of what has been poured into me through the years I can pour into them. Ministry gets multiplied. It shows that God is faithful, enduring, and he won’t let go. I may run, I may think he is invisible, but he’s still not letting go.

See, when God feels distant and you’re losing your religion, something else is going on. He’s like the sun. The sun is never “not on.” It’s always burning; never “not shining”. When it gets dark, that’s because the earth turns, not because anything happened with the sun, and it’s the same with God. He’s never not on. We lose our religion when we turn, not when he does, and when we turn, our hands get busy making our own gods. The same gods who invariably, inevitably disappoint.

Oh, turn back. Test him. Move from silence to intrigue to confession!  The gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

Down in rural Florida, a little boy was walking near a pond near the family home. (Child, water, Florida…you know what’s next). As happens down there, a gator bit on to the boy’s legs. Fortunately, the boys’ mother was near, saw what had happened, was filled with adrenaline and grabbed his little arms. A tug of war started. More tug. More war. The gator was stronger but the mother was more passionate. The great thing was, a farmer drove by, heard the screams, had a gun in his gun rack, took aim, and shot the gator dead.

Remarkably, the boy survived, though his legs were badly scarred. Several weeks later a reporter came to the hospital room to do an update. He asked the boy if he could see the scars on his legs. He pulled the sheets over so he could. But then the boy did something else: “But look at my arms! I have some great scars there, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let me go.”

NOT IN HER HOUSE!

Because the gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go!

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Talbot Davis is the pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, a modern congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. He helps lead a talented group of pastors and support staff. He is the author of Head Scratchers, The Shadow Of A Doubt, The Storm Before The Calm, and Solve, all available from Abingdon Press. In another life, he played a lot of tennis. He married up and has two children.

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