1 Kings 18:20-39
One of the threads running through the lessons for today is not so much “Who is God?” as “Who (or what) is not God?” The prophets of Baal are character actors in this story, cast to show the utter futility of calling on those beings who “by nature are no gods” (in the words of St Paul). This point is belabored by the caricature of the pagan prophets, who run around all day screaming, dancing and wounding themselves simply to get the attention of Baal. The reader, though, is privy to information that they are not – the narrator has been priming us all along for the conclusion in v. 39: “The Lord indeed is God!” Against the laws of nature itself (illustrated by the drenching of the sacrifice before the divine fire comes), Israel’s God asserts the divine prerogative as the only being worthy of worship.
This passage is, in sum, an answer to the question left to us from the passage immediately before. When King Ahab, a patron of the prophets of Baal, sees Elijah coming, he says, “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?” To which Elijah replies, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have … because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.”
- The question is, who is right: the king or the itinerant prophet? To hear the author of Kings tell it, Israel and God have been going different directions, and Elijah is tasked with calling the nation back. The prophetic words and actions that task requires are uncomfortable, but many times God calls us away from discomfort and into conflict with prevailing power structures and social scripts.
Continuing the theme, this song of thanksgiving makes abundantly clear that “the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” While this sentiment makes the psalm a challenging read in a pluralistic culture, there is something going on here deeper than shallow superiority.
There is a switch back and forth in this psalm between reference to the earth in the sense of all creation and the earth in the sense of the dwelling place of people. God is clearly the creator of both equally, but this dual picture emphasizes that the world is not all about us humans. The beautiful language at the end of the psalm – in which heavens, earth, seas, fields and trees are invoked to praise the name of the Lord – is echoed in Jesus’ Palm Sunday declaration that even if the people were silenced, the stones would cry out. The message, if we will listen, is that God doesn’t need our praise to feel appreciated: the beauty of creation is praise enough! When we begin to be full of ourselves because we believe our picture of God is clearer than that of others, we should embrace the humility that comes with this concept. After all, the reason all creation is praising God is because God “is coming to judge the earth” (v. 13). If we are found being oppressive, or prideful, or abusive of creation, that judgment will certainly bring humility, as well.
- What does it mean to say that God is the king over all the earth?
- Do you find it easy to praise God for judgment? What does God’s judgment mean today?
Paul is defending himself all through this letter. The Galatians received and welcomed his message, and then apparently received and welcomed some people who were not so enthusiastic about Paul. In trying to sort this all out, they must have conveyed to Paul that these people were saying nasty things about his credentials. So the introduction to the letter: “Paul, an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” He goes on to exclaim that anyone who contradicts his gospel is anathema.
We obviously have accepted Paul, and even smoothed off his rough edges quite a bit – after all, he is the most prolific of all the New Testament authors. So what might this passage be saying for us, who live almost 2,000 years later and are not in danger of being anathematized by Paul? Perhaps Paul is naming the reality that it is easy to get excited about “human approval” of our religious beliefs. The gospel is, indeed, of divine origin, but in transmission it comes through people who have different ideas and different worldviews. Instead of spending all of our time fighting among ourselves about which view is right, perhaps we ought to pray for the grace to reveal Jesus to others.
- Does the gospel of Jesus demand certainty of opinion, or is there room for ambiguity?
This gospel text points to other candidates for things that are not God. The centurion whom we meet here is an officer in one of the most powerful armies in the world. Yet we meet him precisely because he is coming to Jesus for relief from something against which the Roman army could not defend. Illness, death, grief, loss – these confront every single person in the midst of life. The centurion is a man of means; yet rich, poor, powerful and helpless alike all cope with mortality.
The Third Gospel’s concern, at many points in the narrative, is to show Jesus as the representative on earth of Israel’s God. We are meant to see that Israel’s Messiah is none other than the universal Christ, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel” (Luke 1:32). The centurion coming to Jesus is a representative of all nations, because Jesus is the Savior of all the world. God’s judgment (cf. Psalm 96) comes near in Jesus, and it turns out that judgment is good news for all who are willing to hear it. The centurion was willing, and thus Jesus praised his faith as surpassing the faith of everyone in Israel.
- What does the centurion’s faith mean for the church? How is the humility of realizing his own powerlessness related to his faith?