Years ago, Hebrew National Hotdogs ran an advertising campaign featuring Uncle Sam smiling while holding a hotdog. The voice over discussed all the artificial ingredient the United States Food and Drug Administration allowed them to use to produce a hotdog. The tag line at the end was, “not us, we have to answer to a higher authority.”
Answering to a higher authority is part of the lesson from this morning’s reading from First Kings.
Before I go on, it is important that I share the back story. Years earlier, King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel married Jezebel. This marriage was a scandal at the time. Queen Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, a worshipper of Baal and Asherah. As the Queen of Israel she insisted King Ahab build temples to Baal and Ashram. She went even so far as to insist Baal be made the God of Israel and ordered the deaths of Yahweh’s prophets.
This did not go over well with the people or with Yahweh. A drought spread throughout the land as famine ensued. This is where our passage picks up. Elijah is now taunted by the prophets of Baal as they celebrate Baal’s apparent defeat of Yahweh as more and more of the children of Israel literally switch sides or choose to worship both Yahweh and Baal.
But Elijah stands undaunted, and literally chooses to challenge the Prophets of Baal to a duel. Not necessarily a duel to the divine death, but truly a duel to see which god is real, or which god is capable of doing the impossible.
The contest is simple, two altars are set up with a sacrifice set on each. The object of the challenge is to see which god will come down to consume the sacrifice of the people. Baal goes first, with the altar set, his prophets chant and pray and spill their own blood through the night for Baal to consume the sacrificial carnage with fire. At dawn, their efforts are of no avail. Baal does not come.
Now it is Yahweh’s turn. Elijah prepares the altar, and then ups the anti by flooding the altar with water. He then calls upon the almighty. With flare and panache, Yahweh comes as a ball of flame and consumes the sacrifice, proving, it is not Yahweh who is impotent, but Baal.
In time the Children of Israel abandon Baal and the other false gods corrupting their relationship with Yahweh and return their fidelity to God. Queen Jezebel is eventually defeated and brought to her own untimely demise.
This morning’s story serves as an archetype of the human condition. It tells of our own fickleness in terms of our loyalty to God and to the values God has bestowed on us. It demonstrates how quickly we are willing to turn our backs on God when seduced by the false god’s which surround us until we finally come to understand the cliche “all that glitters ain’t gold.”
Our passage is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. This weekend, as we celebrate and remember the men and women who gave their lives on behalf of this country, we are called to pause, and to ask what it was they were willing to fight for. The easy answer is freedom. But I believe the call to arms for many went deeper than that. If my history teachers were correct, this country was founded on the belief that everyone was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yes, I know the history of this country is not as pure and as simple as my grade school teachers made it out to be. At the time of our forefathers, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was only the unalienable right of the free male. But in time, and with great conflict, we have come to broaden our understanding to mean that all people,male and female, gay or straight, white or of color, are to be afforded the same basic rights.
This is truly a lofty ideal, and perhaps even part of the foundation of what Divine justice is meant to look like. Justice and freedom for all as the pledge of allegiance ends with, is also hard and messy, it involves risk and a willingness to respect those who are different from ourselves. In times of prosperity and peace, it is easy to live out our values as a free and open country. But in times of hardship and turmoil, it is even easier to abandon these values as we struggle to save ourselves from what may often feel like being on a sinking ship.
The men and women who we celebrate today, placed themselves in harms way believing they were overturning oppression so others could enjoy the same freedoms we take for granted. The men and women we celebrate today, put themselves in harms way because they believed America to be a place where the poor and the oppressed could come to find prosperity.
I am saddened to think, that so many of the values this country was built on and that brave men and women were willing to die for is quickly eroding away. I do not deny, we live in very difficult times. The enemy of today is not as easily defined as it was years ago. Yes, in this time of terrorism and fear, it may make sense to close our borders, even though millions of innocent people are dying, trying to escape the very enemy we have fought so had against in the past, so as to prevent acts of terror on our soil. And it may make sense to isolate and to deny our rights to certain religious or ethnic groups because of their history of terror.
But I have to ask, what is the price we ultimately pay as a country that claims to be “one nation under God” and for us as a people of God. From my perspective the false god Baal for modern times has become the god of total security. As I said earlier, to live in a country where we believe all people are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means we live where there is risk. To be willing to deny freedom to someone else means a denial of that freedom for ourselves. We are in the same predicament Israel was in in the days of King Ahab, seduced by the wiles of Baal.
I accept we live in a scary time, that todays prophets of Baal, the prophets of fear and revenge appear to far outnumber the prophets of hope and Christ. The good news is, our situation today is not new. No matter how dark or dire the times maybe, when all seems lost, and evil has truly won, we know in time, God’s time, Yahweh will prevail. God will prevail in the same way God did in the days of King Ahab, in the same way did God did when all seemed lost on Good Friday, as God did when Hitler appeared unstoppable during World War II, and as God will do even today. All we have to do, as many have done before us, is to fight the good fight for God is with us.