"Bearing Witness" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
1 Kings 18: 17-29
Friends, I’m going to be honest with you that I struggled with this week’s text. I tried for days to think of a title other than “I don’t know….” I had a bad taste in my mouth all week about Elijah and this whole contest Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann admits, “reads like a showdown between neighborhood bullies that revolves around shows of raw power.” Elijah’s easy killing of hundreds of people in the last verse of the reading is particularly hard to stomach, even if that’s exactly the fate he would have suffered had YHWH not come through for him. I even had my mom read the story, sure that over her lifetime of church membership and being the daughter of a minister, she’d heard it before. Her response I think exemplified how we’re all feeling about these verses, “Yuck! This is not the loving, compassionate God we usually talk about. This God is just scary!”
And my mom’s not alone in that assessment. I’m part of several groups of pastors on Facebook who use this same lectionary. At least half of my colleagues bailed on this passage and are preaching something else today. And I don’t mind admitting that I seriously considered the same thing except that one of the podcasts I listen to weekly talked about Elijah bearing witness. Which is the core of All Saints Day.
Elijah is a rough character, totally outside of courtly, less abrasive prophets such as Nathan. In many ways the ministry of John the Baptist “carries a distinct echo of Elijah’s practice of resistance.” Again, as Walter Bruggeman notes, “Elijah - and John after him - are extreme cases, to be sure. In their extremity, however, they embody disengagement, resistance, and alternative as a mark of faith that yields transformative power.”
Our text this morning begins with King Ahab accusing Elijah of being the “troubler of Israel,” for Ahab blames Elijah for Israel’s now 3-year drought. In response, the brash Elijah bluntly says to the King, “It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel...but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods, the Baals.”
Elijah then challenges Ahab with a contest between YHWH and Baal, setting himself in opposition to 450 prophets of the god Baal and four hundred prophets of the goddess Asherah. The test is to see which god will engulf a bull in flames first.
After prepping their bull, the prophets pray to Baal but nothing happens. They jump and stomp on their altar. Nothing happens. Getting desperate and likely feeling harried from Elijah’s sarcastic taunting, the prophets pray “louder and louder, cutting themselves with swords and knives—a ritual common to them—until they were covered with blood.” This goes on for hours with the Baal prophets using “every religious trick and strategy they knew to make something happen on the altar,” and still nothing happens. “Baal is absent, silent, indifferent, unresponsive, uncaring unwilling to answer. He devotees are abandoned and on their own.”
Elijah then has the people gather around him, builds an altar with twelve symbolic stones, and has the people douse it with water three times. Altar completely water-sodden, Elijah calls to the Lord, praying a prayer laced with Genesis ancestors that’s “formal and solemn, congruent with the urgency of the moment.” Credibility is on the line here, for Elijah and for YHWH so the prophet could not help but feel vindicated when “immediately the fire of God fell and burned up the offering, the wood, the stones, the dirt, and even the water in the trench.” From this the people see there is only one God and fall on their faces in praise of YHWH. Our reading ends with Elijah ordering all of the Baal prophets be captured and killed, and as The Message translates it, “they massacred the lot.”
The best All Saints sermon I have ever heard was from the pastor you know well. I was a member at Northside Drive Baptist Church while I was a seminary student, which was during James Lampkin’s tenure. Having been there for several decades Dr. Lampkin wove his institutional memory with his knowledge of the congregation and described being able to look around the sanctuary and see the saints of the church sitting in the balcony. Gazing into the balcony, Dr. Lampkin shared sweet memories, told funny stories, was even honest about some people who made pastoral-care challenging.
Despite not knowing a single person mentioned, the descriptions were so complete and vivid I had a sense of each of these saints. Several times during the sermon Dr. Lampkin was overcome with emotion and he stopped once or twice to clear his throat. Seeing him so moved was a beautiful testament to his love for his parishioners but more broadly it was a testament to the power of memory and bearing witness.
For that is what he was doing on the special All Saints morning when the line between this world and the next felt impossibly thin; he was bearing witness. Witness to church members who challenged him. Church members who fed him at every opportunity. Grumpy church members who came across as intimidating but were the first to comfort a crying child. Even those church members who pushed and challenged Dr. Lampkin when he did not want to be pushed or challenged. He paid tribute to them all and it was surprisingly beautiful, tender, holy moment.
That tenderness and beauty does not translate to this morning’s scripture, but in his crusty, brash way Elijah is also bearing witness. No matter how we feel about his behavior, quite a bit of which is inexplicable, the reality of his situation is that he is standing up to the “new national cult.” Israel has moved so far into worshiping Baal and Asherah that it has become ubiquitous.
This is the new normal and no one seems willing to point out the ridiculousness of worshiping a god of rain who is allowing Israel to be in a multi-year drought. Or even asking if it makes sense to worship a god who allows you to harm yourself or, as we can read in previous chapters, a goddess who expects the sacrifice of children. Elijah is the lone voice trying with “cheeky irreverence” to turn the people back to YHWH. He calls the bluff of King Ahab and Baal’s prophets and though we can unequivocally condemn Elijah’s easy murder of hundreds of people, what this story forces us to admit is that warts and all, Elijah is part of a long line of the faithful calling both the Israelites and us back to God.
For that, my friends, is the Good News this morning - we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who call us to the very heart of God. People of every generation both with us and gone before us who bear witness to the goodness of being faithful to the Lord. Now, let us be honest and admit that sometimes these saints and witness bearers share a bit of Elijah’s bluntness.
We need parents who say some version of “We’re leaving for church in 10 minutes if your hair is curled or not!” We need Sunday School teachers who loving tell our children to stop talking and pay attention. We need fellow church members who respectfully challenge us in group conversations to be thoughtful and even rethink our positions. We need that long-time church friend who can come to us and say, “I see you’re hurting. Let me help you.”
And when we boil down all the details, bearing witness and calling each other back to God - which is something we are all capable of - is being the church. After all, what is the church if not a group of people, the Body of Christ, gathered to worship and embody God in the world?
So, take a moment, beloved, and look around this room. See those who have come before and taught you the stories of Jesus. Hear the voices of those who made you love music and raised you in song. Remember the mentors who believed in you and helped you grow. Give thanks for the parents and family who gave you identity and brought you to this place to find your identity in Christ. Grieve those gone too soon and those still missed. Feel the push and pull of the saints who continue to bear witness and call us back and back and back again to God. Then hear these precious words from the hymnwriter Robert Lowry who was once the pastor of my former church in Pennsylvania. He wrote “The Jubilee Hymn” for the 50th anniversary of the church and it is an incredibly important to those good folks to this day. The third verse of the hymn is particularly appropriate for this morning:
Here we recall the loved and blessed
Who now have entered into rest;
We take the work that they lay down,
And hope with them to wear a crown.