…The Bible is very likely to tell you a powerful word on that subject, and then tell you (equally powerfully) another word on the same subject, with a meaning possibly altogether different, possibly even opposite to your first understanding. That’s something like the situation in our lessons today.
The first one – the first in a series of wonderful stories we are going to hear this summer about Elijah the man of God, greatest of the prophets, comes from a time in the history of God’s people when what seemed most important was differentiating them from the peoples and cultures around them. Their allegiance to YHWH (called ‘the LORD’ in our reading) was spotty, wavering, not clear, not constant. It was probably a lot more fun to join their neighbors in worshipping the local gods, the Ba’als, with their wild rituals and lots of sex and other enticements. These were the gods of the seasons, of the land and the fruits of the land. They made the crops grow if you kept them happy with lots of sacrifices (including lots of sex); they caused the sun to shine and the rain to rain. Except when they didn’t, like now as our story opens. It hasn’t rained in 3 years, because of the people’s, and especially the king’s, apostasy – God has been keeping back the rain to punish them for turning away to the gods of the local neighborhood; and the people’s response is to pray even harder to those gods and turn their backs on YHWH.
Elijah’s response is to invite everyone to a god-contest on the top of Mt. Carmel, beside the sea on the western coast of Israel. It’s where the weather comes from; you can see storms brewing up for miles out over the Mediterranean. The people are gathered because Elijah is determined to force them to a choice between the Ba’als and YHWH. So he sets up his contest: the god able to bring fire to the offering on the altar will be shown to be the god able to bring water to a land already burning up. His words to the prophets of Ba’al are thick with sarcasm – ‘what’s the matter with your god? Maybe he can’t hear you; maybe he’s meditating; maybe he’s in the rest room…’; nothing subtle about the taunts. Nothing subtle about the setup either – he soaks his altar, its bull, the whole area, with water before he asks YHWH to set it on fire, a nice little piece of sympathetic magic, since the real issue here is who has the power to bring rain to the land. And sure enough, after the contest, when Elijah sends his servant to look out over the sea, after seven tries he reports ‘a little cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand’ way out over the water; and Elijah’s word to the king, Ahab, is ‘you’d better high-tail it for where you’re staying so you’re not stopped by the rain’ – and it pours.
YHWH wins the contest, of course, and the people of Israel are, at least temporarily, won back to worshipping him instead of the gods of the neighbors – but the struggle goes on for another millennium. (You might say that it’s still going on, with people limping after different opinions even today, still waffling about whether God is God, or some other power is more likely to do whatever we want a god to do….) The moral of the story is that you can’t be too careful about hanging out with the neighbors, because they’re likely to drag you away from the paths of righteousness.
In our story from Luke’s Gospel, there’s a very different attitude toward the neighbors, at least those neighbors who know what’s what in the god-line. The centurion is a member of the army of occupation, a potent symbol of the takeover of God’s people by foreign power. These people, these Romans, have their own gods, certainly, and the conflict between them and YHWH is absolute. But some of them have a soft spot for the God of the Jews; they are ‘God-fearers’, who haven’t completely converted to Judaism (you’d have a hard time explaining that to your commanding officer), but do acknowledge the Jews’ God, and belong to local synagogues as a sort of ‘adjunct members’. This one has paid for the building of the synagogue itself, and obviously has excellent relations with the local Jewish community – that’s what entitles him to Jesus’s attention, according to them. And his tact is amazing: knowing that Jesus might be defiled by contact with him, he doesn’t intrude on his notice, but sends members of Jesus’s own people to make his request.
But what entitles him to Jesus’s attention, according to Jesus, is something quite different – not his favorable attitude to the Jewish people, but his recognition of who Jesus is and what he’s about. He obviously hasn’t just gravitated to the God of Israel out of some superficial enthusiasm – he really ‘gets’ who this God is and what he’s about in the world. That’s how he recognizes Jesus in the first place, because he can tell that the kind of things Jesus does are the kind of things you would expect from God. And when he addresses Jesus to ask for help, he lets him know that he truly understands all this, and the kind of power that is behind what Jesus does. He understands it because of his place in the structures of power that keep the Roman empire afloat – the legions. He’s an officer: he has men under him that he commands, and all he has to do to get them to do what he wants is say so, just as he has to do what the officers over him command. This is second nature to him.
What’s so amazing is that this picture – of people being able to direct other people by (so to speak) remote control – is the metaphor the centurion applies to the relations between Jesus and the powers that can hurt, and sicken, and kill and destroy life in the world. Jesus is to the demons, the powers and principalities, the forces that drag us down to illness and death, as this officer is to his men – all he has to do is send out the order and expect it to be obeyed; he doesn’t need to appear in person for it to get done. Jesus is astonished at this conviction because he isn’t used to people figuring him out so clearly – not even in Israel has he found such faith. In this case, it seems that it’s the neighbors who have gotten it right, unlike in ancient Israel where they got it all wrong. The common denominator is, sadly, that God’s own people keep getting it wrong whether it’s because they’re following the neighbors or ignoring them…..
We can see from stories like this that belonging to the ‘chosen’ can be a risky business. First because we’re surrounded by alternative options for where to put our allegiances, which are always so tempting, so easy to fall for, and sometimes so much more attractive than what God seems to be asking us to do. If we don’t like what we hear in church, there’s always somewhere else to go, where we can hear more of what appeals to us. And then it can also be hard when we look around and see ‘alternative’ visions of the world that seem to be doing actually better than we are doing at making God’s Kingdom real in the world – the people of good will, but no religion, who take on the work of peace and justice in the world, who stand up to the greed and arrogance of power in our society and pay dearly for it, sometimes.
I guess what we might draw from stories like these is something like: there is no substitute for faithfulness, wherever the impulse for it might come from. Our God has been faithful to us through thick and thin, and longs for us to understand the cost of that and be faithful to him in return. He has power to care for the earth and for us, power that he delegates to us to use in his behalf, and he longs for us to do that in accordance with his will. If the culture around us calls us away from that allegiance, that vocation, then our job is to stand up to that culture and walk in the ways of righteousness ourselves. And when we can find in the world around us examples of how to do it right, even if they don’t have any ‘religious’ stamp of approval, then our job is to take that example for our model, in all humility, and give thanks that God is not left without witness even among those who may not know him as we do. The deeds of power are there to be done – let us give thanks that some of them are there with our name on them, waiting for us, too, to bear witness to a God of compassion and might.