Profile of a Prophet: Anna – 07/31/2022

Luke 2: 36-40

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child [Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon Text

We close our look at the Prophets with one of the final prophets named in scripture. While a few more crop up in Acts, they are given even more passing a mention than Anna is given here. Anna is a prophet, a daughter of Phanuel, and a member of the tribe of Asher. She is given no voice in scripture, and yet we know her name and lineage and that she was among the first to publicly proclaim the work that Jesus was going to begin, some thirty years before any of it took place. Anna, Prophet of the Most High God, holds less than a paragraph of space in our gospel, but she must take an important place in our discussion of what a prophet is.

A prophet is the one who tells us to turn before we fall. They reveal the name and nature of God. They show us God’s very own emotions. They tell us the mysteries that even they can only begin to grasp. The final revelation of a prophet, at least that we will be discussing in our series, is just as important as all others. The Prophet reveals to us, the width and breadth and all-consuming nature of God’s love. This is achieved, not only in what the prophet says, but who the prophet is. Anna, Prophet of God, shows us that God calls people of all backgrounds and places in life to bring about Heaven on Earth.

Anna is described as being the daughter of Phanuel, the name doesn’t point to any specific person we know from history, but it is an interesting name to have. Phanuel, is a Greek spelling of the Hebrew Panuel, or “The face of God.” It is one of those names that shows God’s closeness to us. Not only is Anna’s father mentioned in her background, but that she is from the tribe of Asher, a Northern tribe. One of the things we come up to again and again in our discussion of scripture is the disappearance of the Northern tribe after the Assyrian conquest. Her family survived that conquest, and she stands as a descendant of those lost tribes.

The identification of Anna with the Northern Kingdom probably seems incidental to us. As people who do not hold tightly to our locative self-definitions, place is just a thing we find ourselves in. However, in the ancient world, place was one of the most important things a person held onto. When you were born in a town and probably never left it, then the most minute separation between one area and another had profound meaning. To tie the history of a person to something lost to the original audience of the gospels, of a people long dispersed and all but erased, is to tie Anna to something far older and far beyond the present troubles of the Roman occupation.

More than that, Anna is ancient herself. The Greek is unclear, and so she may be 87 years old or have lived 87 as a widow, in which case she’d be well over 100 years old at the time of Jesus’s visit to the Temple as an infant. Either way, she would remember when Judah was free from Rome, when it lived as an independent people. She would have been told the stories of her people, Asher, and life before the monarchy split and the monarchy fell. She was a great holder of lore that would define the people of God’s struggle now, in the past, and forever more. She dreamt of the day God would bring back, not a free Judah like in her youth, but a complete restoration of God’s people.

The people of God closest to her, at least by relation, were probably Samaritans, those people in what once was the Northern Kingdom. It is unclear how many of the Samaritans were Israelite or were shipped in by Assyria after the conquest, but they were people of Israel, or Samaria as the Assyrians, Babylonians, and many others called it. It was not till Ezra’s tenure as scribe in Judea that they were considered a separate people to the exilic community. So even in her identification here, she brings yet another community closer to God through her work as a prophet seated in the temple day after day, after day.

Anna also completes Luke’s tendency of uplifting women, while also highlighting his bad habit of stealing their words. Luke speaks more about women than any other Gospel, but he also will give things that women say in other Gospels to male speakers. He is a great collector of stories, but it seems that when a woman spoke, he sometimes doubted her eloquence could belong to her, and so shifted her voice to someone else in the scene. Anna is a prophet, defined by her speaking God’s word, and yet Luke tells us nothing that she said. Maybe Simeon, a prophet who speaks just before her, did not say every good word Luke puts in his mouth after all.

I could go on about Anna and the many hats that she wears, but I think I have made my point. She brings together different categories of gender, ethnicity, familial status, income, place, et cetera, et cetera. In her is an inflection point, a fulcrum, on which the Gospel must turn. God does not use one kind of person to bring about God’s will, but all people in all ways. We cannot begin to understand the largeness of God if we do not also consider the wideness of God’s love. There is no one who is not called and no one who cannot answer God’s call.

Now here, we may start saying, “God can use, even me!” And I want us to stop with the word, “Even.” Though God’s love is astounding in its inclusivity and its ability to make holy what was once mundane, I do not think it is helpful to say, “God can use, even,” anything. The call of God to all people is equalizing, and that means that it truly makes equitable what the world has made hierarchical. Anna is a poor widow, and a prophet of God. Full stop. God is not calling, “Even a poor widow!” He is calling a prophet who is a poor widow. You see what I mean? Our identity matters, our stories must be told, but if we demean ourselves in the process of celebrating God’s great love and strength and mercy, then we ultimately work against what God is trying to do in the world.

There is room to be honest, and to, like Paul, cry out, “Sinner that I am, who can free me from this body of death?!” But only insomuch as we acknowledge our present faults, and not see our inherent being or circumstance as any reason to mourn. God did not call a woman despite her womanhood, but because she was a woman. God does not call any of us, despite ourselves, but because of who we are. This woman, of the tribe of Asher, widowed at a young age, and now older than most anyone around her, was called to be a prophet because of each of those things, and not one of them was any less valuable or precious a status to God.

We all face unique challenges in life because of who we are, some more than others, and all at the whims of society and culture. Some of us are blessed to face very little opposition, others do not have that privilege. There are many still who are in danger simply for being who they are, and until we live in a world where the essential nature and the momentary circumstances of a person’s life are not seen as elevating or denigrating their dignity, there will always be work to do to draw the circle wider. Justice is a difficult thing, and the restoration of our Edenic bliss will not be found in anything but the restoration of all people to a place where they are seen as beloved of God, for nothing other than the fact that God so chooses to love the world, and in so doing gives us the only Begotten Son.

Let Anna, and her words that we can only imagine, be for us a call to take on the roles of the prophet as God calls us to do. Some to proclaim mystery, so to warn against idolatry, and some still simply to testify the name of a God who calls himself Jesus. Wherever the prophetic call leads, know the Spirit of God blazes a path on ahead of us. May we all find our way, not despite, but because of what God has called us to be in this world. – Amen.

Profile of a Prophet: Ezekiel – 07/24/2022

Ezekiel 1: 1-14

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the River Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar, and the hand of the Lord was on him there.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually and in the middle of the fire something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands.

And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

Sermon Text

I am a fan of a genre known as “Cosmic Horror.” In these stories the absolute smallness of humanity is compared with the grandness of the universe, and in the incredible dissonance, the mind begins to shatter. We cannot conceive of the size of some of the most distant stars from us, nor of the age of the universe that surrounds us. We who live our three score and ten on a single mote of dust in the sunbeam of a middle-sized star, cannot conceive of infinite time and space sprawling all around us. Thus, some of us find a strange comfort in personifying that terror in the form of unimaginable monsters and sleeping cities of strange geometry.

One of things I threatened throughout seminary, and might still someday do, is to take some serious time and compare how religious experience compares to cosmic terror. Afterall, we worship a God, “of which nothing greater can be conceived.” For such a being to enter our consciousness, we must be forced to imagine something larger than even the unimaginable stars distant from us. Something older than the universe whose foundations such a being set in place. To encounter God is to come to grips with the absolute finitude of the self and the absolute magnitude of the Divine.

Today we look at a prophetic vision that incorporates the terrible wonder of God with the knowledge of all the other aspects of God the prophets have shown us so far in our journey through their lives. The same God who is constantly making known the nature of God, that is revealing their own truth and oneness, and that is a Divine Personality we can know and feel alongside, is also something far beyond our scope of ever fully understanding. In this moment, God sends forward a collection of heavenly creatures as a welcoming committee, or perhaps a forward guard. The descriptions we read are bizarre, almost nonsensical, and they carry a great deal of power behind them.

Four creatures with multiple heads, their eyes locked in different directions and their wings spread out around them. They are vaguely person shaped, but are seemingly made of bronze, and covered in some kind of leather. Any attempt to draw them falls short of really capturing what this passage describes, and in our attempts to imagine them, we inevitably take a short cut to make them a little more intelligible. The reality is that what Ezekiel describes here is probably not terribly accurate to what he would have seen. His mind was grasping at straws to draw parallels in this world to something that was distinctly of another world. This first vision of several was already beyond his power of comprehension, and he had not even yet seen the wheels within wheels covered in eyes upon eyes.

Ezekiel is a prophet who has one primary purpose – to show the people in exile that there is a future ahead of them more wonderful than the past that they are nostalgic for. This is accomplished through a variety of visions – visions of a new Jerusalem and a temple at its center, visions of heavenly beings like no other, and visions of God as a man wreathed in flame and cast in metal. Nothing in this vision should be literal to us, it is simply an attempt of our faculties to grasp something beyond ourselves. Yet, it shows us something interesting about God. God’s immense nature, terrifying at first glance, eventually allows us feel secure. If such a deity, so great and terrifying to behold, so far beyond our own ability to even imagine, is on our side, then the extremity of the world’s troubles are suddenly much more moderate.

When we hear the wonders of Heaven revealed in Ezekiel, we are not being given literal diagrams of Heaven or of angelic ways of being, nor do we see them in Daniel or Revelation. Instead, we are being given a glimpse of something much larger than we are. This largeness manifests in one of two reactions. The first reaction is to try and constrain God, to make the descriptions Ezekiel gives exact and literal, and so constrain God. The second is much more exciting.

In this second reality we let the mystery of God continue to grow and thrive within us. The image of God, the image of the angels, the image of Heaven breaking through! These are not pictures of a moment captured and delivered perfectly to us, but are instead the shadow, as in a mirror darkly, of what glory we might one day know. There is light bursting out every moment in the dim recollections of our eyes, but that light is always filtered through a variety of prisms. We are able to engage and wonder at what God offers us, but there is always more to know and to see and to comprehend.

When we come together on Sunday we somehow join together with the entire Church everywhere and every time. If we try and turn make that something we can easily imagine, we lose it completely. When we take bread and juice and pray together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist we somehow, spiritually, eat Jesus’s flesh and blood. If we try to make that into something easily understood, then we become weird vampiric cannibals. The entire nature of the Church, from how we are baptized into death and simultaneously resurrection, to something as simple as prayers that never leave our lips but somehow land in the ear of God, all of it is mystery that we can never truly give solid form to.

One of the things I wanted to test out with this service was to see what the raw textual description of these beings in Ezekiel would look like if I asked an image generator to draw it. So the cover of our bulletin this week reflects what a non-human intelligence does with the raw words that are given in scripture. Looking at that, I’m not confident it is what Ezekiel saw, but I can’t say that it is wrong in terms of trying to put the description of these beings into something a bit more solid.

Computers, with their dedicated processors oriented toward the one goal of painting images, cannot begin to understand the nature of the divine. We with our much stronger, but much more involved organic processes cannot ever grasp an image of divinity for very long. Yet, in what Ezekiel, what Isaiah, what every prophetic voice in all of scripture gives us, is a glimpse into something greater. By them writing down what they saw we all can see, even for a moment, what heavenly wonders exist just beyond the veil of this life. As we encounter God, there are always moments like this, moments of liminality where the separation between what is visible and what is invisible seems inconsequential.

About the time I properly converted to the faith, I was in a worship service and had a religious experience that was not completely unlike Ezekiel’s. Gathered in that group of people, I saw all the world around me fall away, so that I stood on a single pillar of earth. From the pit below me rose a gleaming prism, a shapeless form that still kept some degree of form. I knew it was something magnificent, I knew that the Elders of Israel were granted to see the feet of God at the base of the throne. I asked that radiant shape in front of me to let me see even that, and a voice echoed through my mind to say, “Not yet.” That “Not yet.” Has sustained me throughout my life, because in the mystery of that moment, I was told that while presently I do not see glory, I will someday have it near to me.

Fast forward many years, and I found an icon, a devotional image, that had God the gather, throned among the Cherubim, and surrounded by a prism of light. I wasn’t alone in glimpsing a mystery quite like this, and I will not be the last. So see today, in your life and the life of the prophets, something beyond description. Rather than shrinking the wonder that you see, let is overwhelm and consume you. Finite as we are, we like Ezekiel are testaments to the infinite that sits just beyond our view. – Amen.

AI generated 4 Living Creatures

The Ancient of Days, a 14th-century fresco from Ubisi, Georgia

Profile of a Prophet: Jeremiah – 07/10/2022

Jeremiah 9:1-11

O that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood and not for truth, for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the Lord.

Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer. They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent. Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit! They refuse to know me, says the Lord.

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: I will now refine and test them, for what else can I do with the daughter of my people? Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceit through the mouth. They all speak friendly words to their neighbors but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness, because they are laid waste so that no one passes through,  and the lowing of cattle is not heard; both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and are gone. I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.

Sermon Text

We are on our third week of talking about Prophets and what they bring to God’s people. We began with Moses, and how the Prophetic Voice reveals who God is to us. We turned to Elijah and saw the prophet steering us away from false gods, and toward our true God. Now, we take up the call of Jeremiah, the prophet closest to my heart, as he cries out the agony that God feels on behalf of the people of God. We know that God has heard the cries of the needy, but it is in Jeremiah that we see just what hearing us suffering does to God’s emotional state – not a static, unfeeling position, but a tumult of pain and deep sorrow.

Jeremiah begins his ministry at the end of Judah’s existence as even a vassal-state of any other power. Being called to testify to the evil of his own people, Jeremiah is often reluctant to take up the sword of prophecy. Yet, without fail his hesitation is turned into zealotry as God’s judgment is shown to be true in his own life. God warns him that people are laying plots against him, and then soon the trap is set and sprung. God tells Jeremiah that there is scarcely any good left in the city, and Jeremiah’s optimism is destroyed as he, like Diogenes, searches the city for a single honest person and finds no one.

Jeremiah is faced with all his preconceived notions of how the world should be and has each aspect of life systematically ripped apart. He thinks for a moment that the poor are more prone to evil, and then is shown the trickle down economy of evil that begins in the rich and sees its fulfillment among their oppressed. He hopes that the temple would be a bastion against the evils of the world, but finds himself called to preach on its steps against those who enter it. He becomes the great pessimist, decrying optimism itself as he stands in ruins, and suffers in mud-pits, and even is made to move to Egypt as guardian of the refugees that fled there. Jeremiah is perpetually spinning round, an inverted figure looking for truth in an upside down world.

The most striking aspect of the book of Jeremiah is how God speaks through the prophet. In other prophetic literature the prophet is usually clear in separating their speech from God’s. The mark of the prophet is their use of the term, “Thus says the Lord,” (כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה). Usually, this occurs at the beginning of a prophetic statement. Frequently in Jeremiah it does. Yet, as this passage we just read shows, the separation between the speech of a prophet and their prophetic speech is not always clear. From verse 1 to verse 5 we see someone begging that they had springs in place of tear ducts, that they could weep without running out of tears. Our first thought is that Jeremiah is weeping because he is thinking of his people and the suffering they are and will go through, but it is equally possible the person speaking is God.

Jeremiah shows such a synchronicity with God that the voices of the two often overlap. One moment Jeremiah will begin a sentence, and then seemingly God steps in to end it. We hear about the desire to weep for the fate of God’s people, we read about a strong and dry wind blowing across the world and making it a wasteland – a wind that both comes from God and toward God. Jeremiah at one point looks out to see the world completely unmade, as if God had never organized it in the primordial sea of creation. God’s burning words are like a fire in the prophet’s stomach, but the smoke and tears and anger and sorrow are not unique to Jeremiah – God feels every emotion he is rushing into the vessel that is his prophet.

The prophets serve an important role by personifying God. I don’t want to say humanizing here, because while we can get into some complicated discussion of Jesus as equally God and human, here I want to keep some distance between the two for clarity’s sake. When we pray to God, when we share our pain and our suffering, when we see the news stories spread out and shake us to our core – God is not unmoved by any of these things. Jesus wept in the garden because he was human, but the divine can weep just as powerfully, God is not a static being.

I am someone who is adamant about keeping the Old and New Testaments close to one another. We cannot understand the New Testament without the Old, and to understand why we have access to the Old we need the New. It is common that the differences between the two are put up as integral to the nature of God. In this framing, one day God woke up and decided to speak Greek and be a lot more about love and inclusion than back in the day when he spoke Hebrew. That is a bad way to see God and scripture, it suggests we worship two Gods instead of one, something we already established is not good. Yet, as with many misunderstandings, it begins not with a falsehood, but a misapplication of truth.

The context of the Hebrew Bible and its writings was very different from the Greek Bible. In its earliest days, the Hebrew Bible was written alongside stories of gods that were very human in their nature. They got Jealous, the fought, the had political aspirations and alliances. The language of the Hebrew Bible, then, is much more fixated on the discussion of God as a person, actively engaged with the world and expressing emotion and feeling and preferences even. The language shaped the character of God, as did the context of the people writing it.

The New Testament, being in Greek, was more philosophical in its approach. While constantly rooted in the humanity of Jesus, we see the New Testament arguing philosophically about the nature of God. When those texts were handed off to the first generation of theologians, they went further than Paul or John ever did and completely melded Greek Philosophy and Christianity – for good and for ill. The result was an emphasis on the unchanging, static, God-as-Prime-Mover, and a downplaying of the personal divinity that felt and fought and raged and wept. Jesus the Human might weep, but God the Divine Trinity was unmoved as something that was before and above all things.

We imagine God as a blank slate, perpetually looking out at us with the eyes of a Warner Sallman painting – unmoving, mildly positive, and still capable of stoic and unfeeling wrath. That is not the God of scripture, not the God revealed in the life of Christ or the prophets. The God we worship feels deeply, the God we worship weeps at the injustices of the world. The God we worship is sitting beside us in our darkest moments, and feeling what we might feel. This does not make God a reflection of our emotion, but it does mean that the closer to God we become, the more alike our emotional state will be.

Bob Pierce, founder of Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision, once said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” That understanding of God’s emotional state is something we should all strive for. Not to make God into an echo chamber that affirms and denies everything in the same way we do, but to truly understand the nature and desires of God. When we can tie ourselves closely to the work of God in the world, when we can become compassionate toward all people we meet, then we begin to know what it is like to inhabit a prophetic role. When we become a vessel for the emotions of God, the love that pours out like rivers of tears, then we know what it is to bring the Word of God to the People of God.

So, our challenge in light of God’s prophetic message to us all, is to be transformed into emotional creatures. To give up stoicism in the face of adversity and care deeply for the hurt, the lost, those in every kind of need. We come to our God and we behold so many wonderful things, but I think most wonderful of all are the precious tears that are shed by the God of this universe on our behalf. Be cheered today, and mourn tomorrow, that we too can feel as deeply as God does. – Amen.

Profile of a Prophet: Elijah

1 Kings 18: 20-40

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud, and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me,” and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.”

Then he said, “Do it a second time,” and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and killed them there.

Sermon Text

Fire from Heaven! Now that is something worth talking about. I think that this is a passage that speaks for itself on many levels. The challenge to the prophets of Baal is simple, make this offering disappear. No amount of prophesying or ritual could accomplish the act, but for Elijah it only took an earnest prayer to bring God’s presence down among them. The “Fire of the Lord,” was strong enough to consume everything it touched. Stone, water, wood, and flesh turned into vapor in a moment. The show of power was done, the proof of which God reigned supreme was now obvious. In the hearts of those present, there was no longer Baal standing alongside the God of Abraham, but Abraham’s God standing far above any ruler of Heaven or Earth.

The prophet was not just, as we talked about last week, a way for the people to know that God was present with them, but a means for the people to be brought back out of the trouble they found themselves in. Next week we’ll dig into Jeremiah and how he shows us another side of this trait – appealing there to God’s care for us. Here the message is different, God is supreme in power in majesty, and nothing can compare to what God has to offer us. The fire from Heaven here is not something we see as common in the Biblical record, and definitely not in human history, but it takes other forms in every age. The burning message of the Gospel that spilled out of the first Christians on Pentecost, the pious longing of believers of all ages, the passion for righteousness still seen today in every place people call upon the name of God.

Not as dramatic, I know, and we get disappointed by that sometimes I know. Still, God is active among us and asking us as a prophetic voice to show God’s glory. If we cannot do so with a rain of fire? Then what are we to do? Moreover, what do we do to fight idolatry? Sacrificial competition on mountains feels… Not viable, so what are we to do?

The first thing is that we have to identify what our idols are today. This is a popular place to talk about phones or media or any old thing that someone might do other than sit at home and read the bible. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said for our lack of attention these days, but pointing fingers and every little thing and saying it might be an idol feel a little Reverend Parris to me. No, we need to celebrate as something as serious as idolatry from our devotional skills (or lack thereof.) I suggest that the best way we can identify idols is to dig into the image that Elijah uses at the start of our text. The NRSV renders it, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” highlighting the way that our idolatry actively hurts us. However, I prefer Robert Alter’s translation, even if I think it is a little literal. “How long will you keep leaping between the two crevices?” [1]

In other words, here is one reality, the one where you follow God and live in peace and love with all around you, and over here you abandon God and live for yourself and what you want. For the people of Israel that meant finding an excuse in Baal and his cult. Baal wasn’t that different from the God of Israel on paper, a storm God and ruler of the cycle of seasons and crop growth, king of his own pantheon. Both had a mountain they called holy, both had a court of heavenly beings at their disposal. Most people were polytheistic, so why not? Solomon did it, David toyed with it, and even Jacob long ago was not willing to give it up totally.

There’s the rub though. It is easy to justify the death by a thousand cuts that is our slide into idolatry. We worship a God who is always a little less than the God of Heaven. A God who isn’t as loving as the God of Israel, because that would mean we’d have to love our enemies like God does. A God that isn’t as powerful as the God of Israel, because then the moments our prayers go unanswered would hurt even more. A God that isn’t as just as the God of Israel, because then the little ways we hurt each other would add up to mean a lot more than we would like them to.

Baal was not radically different in the eyes of most to the God that Abraham had known, but Elijah made it clear there was a massive gulf between the two. We don’t have the exact dichotomy today, but I think we suffer a similar problem. I worship a God who is radically different than the God that other Christians claim to know, and that can cause some trouble. I don’t mean that we interpret scripture differently or that we have different priorities, there is always a place for that in the Church. I mean that when we offer our prayers to God, we are not actually offering them to the same being. Oftentimes what we are actually worshipping is a projection of what we would like to see in the Almighty, and not the true God of the Universe.

Now, here is where we might start pointing fingers, that evil thing we talked about a few weeks ago. Stop it, now. Even as I wrote out my sermon, I thought of all the people who made “lesser,” images of God. Those people I disagree with theologically or politically in the Church that I see as separate from myself. Sure, I think my instinct is good, but my instinct is not perfect. Even my most detailed arguments of how I see God revealed in scripture and life is going to fall short of really capturing the divine. No, the first prophetic task we have is not to point to the enemy we know outside, but to interrogate the enemy within ourselves.

It is so easy to make an idol out of what we would like God to be. When we read scripture, if we read it properly, we should constantly find ourselves challenged to grow. To love more, to serve more, to care for ourselves more, and to sacrifice some of our dearest concepts that we cling to and make into God in their own right.

I could give a thousand examples, but I think one of the clearest examples comes from another prophet in scripture. Jonah, son of Amittai, worshipped God. When the word of God came that Jonah was to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s mercy, he ran as far away as he could. He did this and showed immediately the God he was willing to worship rather than the one who called him. He dreamt of a God that couldn’t reach beyond the borders of Israel, that was locked into the hills of the Shephalah. He dreamt of a God who cared enough to wipe out his enemies, but not enough to forgive them. He had created an idol, not of stone, but of ideals that kept God in a convenient little category that was well within his reach and contemplation.

Before Jonah knew it, he had made an idol. He had hewn away at the image of God bit by bit until something else was there entirely. Not a Baal he could throw away in a second, but his own, personal, God of Jonah. We all want God-for-Us, but that is not who God revealed God to be in scripture. God is Emmanuel, God with us, and while God certainly fights for us, we should never think that God exists only within the bounds of what we have imagined to be true, and what we would allow God to be.

The testimony that we give today about God should not only be outward focused. Elijah, after testifying about God’s glory by bringing down fire, ran to the hills to escape his enemies. He prayed to be killed rather than face the morning. He needed to climb a mountain, to see fire and flames, and to hear a still small voice to understand the greatness of God for himself. We are all of us testifying, through the work of the Spirit that God is great and good, but when we speak against the idolatry of the world, we must be sure that we are not doing so with a chisel set against the face of God ourselves. Will we hop between the two crevices? Or will we stand on Christ, the solid rock? – Amen.  


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