Today’s lesson from 1 Kings is part of cycle of stories about the prophet Elijah and his relationship with King Ahab. Ahab was king of Israel about a hundred years after King David. Israel’s kings had gotten worse and worse since David’s time, and Ahab was the worst yet. He took as his queen Jezebel, a princess from another tribe, who worshipped a god named Baal. And Jezebel convinced Ahab to start worshipping Baal too, and abandon Yahweh, the God of Israel, even having all Israel’s prophets and priests killed.
So the word of God came to Elijah. God sent Elijah to King Ahab to tell him, THUS SAYS THE LORD: You may have killed off all my prophets, but I’M still alive, and I’m watching you, Ahab…. In a couple of weeks I’ll share more of the stories of Elijah and Ahab’s long and contentious relationship. Today we get this one episode, this epic throwdown between the priests of Baal – 450 of them – and Elijah, the sole representative of Yahweh, Israel’s god.
It’s a terrific story – read it again later and take in the details. My favorite part is when Elijah starts mocking the priests of Baal because despite all their dancing and chanting, nothing is happening. Elijah says, Chant louder! Maybe your god is meditating, or has gone on a trip, or is taking a nap, or he’s wandered away – a Biblical idiom that is equivalent to, “He had to see a man about a dog.”
And then of course Yahweh, Elijah’s God, comes through in a dramatic way, What happens after the end of this passage is that Elijah incites the crowd to murder all the priests of Baal on the spot. Elijah is not a cuddly prophet.
Today we are going to baptize little Nicholas as the newest member of Christ’s body, the Church. When I first looked at this lesson several weeks ago, I thought, Wow, I love this story; but I can’t make that into a baptismal sermon…! And then I started to think about who God is in this story, and in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, in general.
There is a distinct arc in Israelite history, in the story of the people Israel coming to know and understand Yahweh, the God who named and claimed and called them. At first they see and describe Yahweh as a tribal god among other tribal gods. Every tiny kingdom or cultural group had its own gods, usually including a head god who was supposed to protect them, provide for them, help them out in battle, and fight with other gods on their behalf.
There are many verses in the Old Testament that describe God very much that way. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy – “Yahweh your god you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, or any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because Yahweh your god, who is present with you, is a jealous god.” The gods might as well be presidential candidates or football teams. We like ours best, and hope ours will win, but they’re all basically on the same footing. By this logic, when things are going well for Israel, it’s because Yahweh is really kicking butt for them, beating the other gods, and when things don’t go so well for Israel, they tend to start worshipping other gods and losing faith in Yahweh. “What have you done for me lately?”…
So there’s that way of thinking of Yahweh, the God of Israel who becomes the God of Jesus and our God: as essentially a tribal god. Not the only god and not consistently the best or most powerful god, but OUR god. The God who belongs to and looks out for our little tribal group. But fairly early on in the history of Israel, there also begins to be an understanding that the God the Israelites have named and worship isn’t just another tribal god, but is, well, THE God.
It’s in the first chapter of Genesis, in which Israel’s God is described as creating heavens and earth. Today’s Psalm – from the time of King David – holds up God as a creator: For great is Yahweh, more to be honored than the gods of other peoples; for they are idols, but Yahweh created the heavens. It’s in the covenant with Abraham, who is called and chosen to be the father of God’s people – but with the stated intention that through Abraham’s covenant relationship with God, all the peoples of the Earth will be blessed. Likewise in the books of the words of the prophets, often, we see that God, Yahweh, has a particular relationship with Israel, but has that relationship for the sake of the whole world. The final chapters of Isaiah are perhaps the best-known example: Nations will stream to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawning! Through Israel, the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations!
The fact that Yahweh had an agenda for Israel and its rulers, that Yahweh wasn’t just an idol to be bossed around and to rubber-stamp the king’s decisions, was the source of a lot of tension between Israel’s kings and Israel’s prophets. In most ancient world cultures, the king either was a god, or was the child of a god, and whatever the king did was seen as divinely endorsed. Not so in Israel, where God argues with Israel’s kings over and over again, through the voice of the prophets – Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and many more.
So there’s a back and forth movement, and sometimes a tension, in the Old Testament, between God as team mascot, always on our side, and God as… GOD, who calls us to be on God’s side.
This tension shows up in the New Testament too. Jesus is pretty clear that God is the God of everybody and everything, and that becomes the understanding of the early church. But there are hiccups along the way. Like when, after Jesus’ resurrection, some of the disciples ask him, NOW are you going to throw out the Romans and restore the kingship of Israel? They want their tribal god back. To fight for them and rule over them and let them be their own people in their own land. They are frustrated and confused that God’s purposes, manifest in Jesus Christ, encompass other peoples, other lands, even the hated Romans.
You can put a finger on the tension in today’s Gospel story. The Roman centurion is drawn to the God of Israel. He’s a friend of the local synagogue, even sent his soldiers to help with building it. He recognizes the power and authority of Jesus and of God in Jesus. And yet. He is and remains an outsider. God can, and may choose, to exercise God’s healing power across the lines of class, status, nationality, and religion; but God is still Israel’s God, the God of the Jews, and this act of mercy for a Roman slave is understood as a special favor. It’s not until much later in the life of the church – and after quite a bit of conflict and struggle – that non-Jews will be seen as belonging to God on an equal footing with Jewish Christians.
I think we still live in that tension, sometimes. The tension between seeing God as a tribal god, who watches out for us and our community; and seeing God as THE God, a God who is present in and has intentions for the whole world.
There is a real and lasting appeal in thinking of God as our tribal god, our pet god. A pet God feels safer. More controlled, more defined. The relationship, though demanding, is clear-cut: we do the stuff God wants us to do, and God stands by us and takes care of us. Also a pet God, a tribal God, is far more comfortable for us as people of faith in a pluralistic and largely secular society. If God is the god of our tribe, then God can stay our business, safely ensconced in our private lives. We get together at church with the other members of God’s tribe, we tell stories and sing songs about how great God is, we complete our ritual obligations to God as God’s people have done since the book of Exodus, and we go out into the world where God is largely absent. Where other tribes and other gods are dominant – wealth, power, beauty, success.
But if God is the God of everything. If God is THE God, who has intentions for the whole world, for all peoples, and who is in fact a little cranky about our persistent idolatry, our millennia-long love affair with these dead idols – wealth, power, beauty, success – If the God we meet here when we gather as God’s tribe is also the God of everybody and everything, then we are still God’s people when we walk out those doors. Then our relationship with God isn’t confined to what we do together when we gather as a family, a tribe, here at church. THE God, who has intentions for the whole world, sends us out into that world to meet and serve God there.
And that – finally – brings me around to baptism. Our baptismal rite uses both languages, both images. We baptize new believers into the household of God, into the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. Baptism is a rite of admission into God’s tribe, God’s family. And, probably because we most often baptize babies, that’s where our imagery and language tend to linger. We give Nicholas homely gifts, a blanket, a candle. We vie for the chance to cuddle him. We rejoice to welcome him into our oikos, our household of faith. Into the warmth and welcome and nurture of our tribe, which will, I fervently pray, be a safe and joyful and enriching place for him to grow as a child of God.
And. We baptize new believers not only into the household of God, but also into the mission of God. We are baptized as ambassadors of Jesus Christ and agents of God’s redeeming purposes on earth. We are baptized into God’s profound compassion for all peoples, and every person. We are baptized into the church, and also into the world. As people who seek and serve Christ in all people. Who love our neighbors as ourselves. Who strive for justice, peace, and dignity for everybody.
It’s a tall order, especially for someone who is still getting to know his toes. The good news is that we don’t expect Nicholas to work it out yet. If I have the blessing to still be his pastor when he is ten, fifteen, twenty, I look forward to talking with him about who he is called to be in the world, as a member of this tribe that exists for the good of those who don’t belong. In the meantime, we welcome Nicholas into our tribe, and strive to be a people who will teach and form him, and all our children and new believers, to live as God’s people, in the world and for the world.