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Worship Theme: Love takes on the forces of evil.
Sermon Theme: The Battle Is On
Satan is evil. Just remove the “d” from devil, and you get … evil. In today’s Gospel account the impure spirit who took up residence inside a young boy was evil. In today’s second reading the apostle states in no uncertain terms that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12). The battle is against evil, and “the battle is on.”
Today’s first reading wings us back to a time in the history of the nation which carried the promise of a Savior more than eight centuries before that promise came true. Evil seemed all around. Not seemed. Was. After King Solomon died, the country split in two, creating rival factions that at times engaged in civil war. The northern part went down the tubes first. The king in the north tossed, “Worship the Lord your God, serve him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13) out the window and merged worship of the true God together with idol worship, which was bad enough, making it hard for people to sort evil from the truth like trying to pull out weeds among wheat when they first sprout. But within six decades it got worse. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were evil. They declared that what God intends only for the privacy of the bedroom between husband and wife should be flaunted and practiced by anyone with anyone and not just in homes. I don’t want you to lose your breakfast, but here it is. They promoted turning churches into nightclubs of inappropriate behavior. They actually believed that such immoral behavior would make the rain-god happy so that much needed rain would fall and enrich the soil for good crops.
God raised up Elijah to be his spokesperson, told him, “The battle is on,” and sent him to King Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Famine followed and so did the fury of Ahab and Jezebel. God whisked Elijah away to safety as Queen Jezebel rounded up as many prophets of the true God as she could and lopped off their heads.
That takes us to today’s first reading. It took a lot of guts for Obadiah to do what he did. He was an administrator in Ahab’s palace but remained a worshiper of the true God. He even hid a hundred prophets from Jezebel’s bloody raging. But while on a mission for the king to find springs or brooks that might provide water, Elijah met him, and said, “Tell the king I’ll meet him.” 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.” I find it amazing that mighty King Ahab did what Elijah told him to do. But perhaps he was thinking, “OK, if the battle is on, fine. I’ll have representatives from all over my land witness a battle with the odds four hundred fifty to one in my favor. It’s a slam dunk that Elijah will be the loser.” The prophets of Baal were evil. The Israelites who joined their king and queen in immoral behavior were evil, and the battle was on. 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.”
But here’s the statement that pokes at my heart. The people said nothing. Obviously, Elijah poked at theirs. It drives me to ask, “Where do I fit in this story?” Oh, it’s bad out there. What used to be spoken of in whispers is plastered on billboards, trumpeted in commercials, and accessed instantaneously on the Internet. Immoral filth is embedded in nearly every prime-time television show. Greed drives the economy. People post their opinions on social media and offer unfiltered comments which only make it harder to have a reasoned conversation. But there is evil worse than that. It’s inside of me, my thoughts, the sin-dirt ground into my soul. Of course, right away a little switch flips on in my brain, “At least I’m no idolater.” But when I elevate feeling good over suffering for the sake of God’s kingdom, or my pleasure over someone else’s feelings, or what I want over what’s best for those around me, then I’m putting myself in first place. That’s idolatry, and the battle is on. I hate to admit it. It’s embarrassing. It makes me sad, makes me feel guilty. Can I do something to get relief? Can I get relief from anything in myself?
That’s what Elijah had the prophets of Baal try. This scene on Mt. Carmel presents a real battle. Which god would send fire to burn up a butchered bull, Baal or the LORD? The prophets of Baal set up their stone altar, arranged the wood, and plopped the sacrificial bull on 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. If it were not so pathetic a scene, Elijah’s taunting could cause us to chuckle, “Shout louder!” he said. Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping.” Elijah was driving them to look inward. “We can pretend that we are religious, that we have been worshiping something ‘out there,’ but in reality, our ‘religion’ is all about us, our fun, our pleasure, our happiness, and our efforts to get all that.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves … until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying till evening. Now look how the “no” statements are piled up. Can I look within and win the battle against temptation and sin? Is there anything inside of me, some hidden potential that will cause God to like me and be nice to me and bless me with good things? No, no, no! Baal worship wasn’t about a god “out there” but their inner sinful desires. Could they fix that on their own? There was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
What was it like, Elijah, to stand before King Ahab, to be threatened, to see such evil, to know God disapproves, and to long to do something, anything to show there is only one true God? Elijah, did you have fears? Were your hands shaking? Was sweat dripping off your beard when you trudged up Mount Carmel or trickling down into your eyes from anxiety? Did you have second thoughts about this battle because you knew that the worst evil was neither the skepticism of the crowd gathered around you nor the arrogance of the prophets of Baal nor the anger of Ahab but buried in your own sinful heart?
Elijah may well have had misgivings about this battle when he thought of what was in his own heart, but he got relief and courage by lifting his eyes from an inward focus on self to an outward focus on God. 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. Twelve tribes no longer divided into two kingdoms but reunited? How could that be? Impossible! Tribes descended from Jacob, the one who was treacherous, tricky, self-reliant, who had to flee from home because of his deceit, who needed not only a name change to “Israel” (“He wrestles with God”) but an internal change. Impossible! He built an altar in the name of the LORD, the only true God there is. “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” How will it be burned up? Impossible! “Do it again.” Fire will burn this offering? Impossible! “Do it a third time.” Now the prophets of Baal with their slashed forearms and bloodied hands must have chuckled, “Elijah taunted us, but we’ll get the last laugh. The battle is on and will at least be a draw because fire to burn up the soaked bull and wood is now even more impossible!”
But Elijah prayed, “LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,” making it clear to all, “This God, the only God there is, is the LORD, the one who makes promises and keeps them. “LORD … let it be known that you are God” … 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.
“Do not be afraid, Mary … you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” … “How will this be … since I am a virgin?” … “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:30-31,37). “Jesus, if a rich person can get so distracted by money that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a person focused only on dough to get into the sphere of God’s love, who then can be saved?” … “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).
The battle is on. Evil is all around. I’d be a fool to ignore it or deny it. But there is evil far worse. The stony altar of my heart of sin, the wood of my stubbornness, the dirt of my misdeeds is all drenched in the water of my cover-up and soaked with my saying one thing but doing another. How can I win the battle? How can you? Conquering evil seems impossible. Listen! “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you (Isaiah 54:10). “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist” (Isaiah 44:22). Jesus did the impossible. He lived a life that is impossible for us to live, a life with no faults or failures. His death finished the payment for sin, the payment impossible for us finish. The battle is on, but the ultimate battle has been won. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:37). My dear friends, rejoice! Amen.
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