Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, 17th June 2007
“This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!” 1 Kings 21:19
Professor John Bartlett, our lecturer in Old Testament, would have reflected upon such verses and looked at us smilingly, “Great Sunday School stuff, this”.
Elijah does not shy away from speaking in the strongest terms. If something is wrong, then Elijah says so and leaves no room for doubt. I always thought Elijah was a refreshing contrast with the way the church often speaks.
Church statements on even the most serious of matters have often been closer to the lyrics of Colum sands than to the words of Elijah
One of Sands’ songs has a refrain that goes:
“Whatever you say, say nothing, when you talk about you know what
For if you know who should hear you, you know what you’ll get
They’ll take you off to you know where for you wouldn’t know how long
So for you know who’s sake don’t let anyone hearing singing this song.”
It is easier to say nothing, to keep our heads down, to not risk saying anything that would annoy people, to avoid the danger of being unpopular. It is hard to imagine many people in the churches in Ireland being as forthright as Elijah in their comments on those in authority.
There comes a point when Christian people have to stand up and be counted. There comes a point when we can no longer have a faith that is just private and personal. If our faith means anything at all it has to have something to say what is going on around us.
Elijah reaches this point. He cannot remain faithful to God and remain silent when he witnesses evil and corruption. He speaks out against what is wrong and it brings him trouble. In 1 Kings 19, he gets into so much trouble that his life is in danger. He runs and runs and hides in a cave where God speaks to him, not in an earthquake, or in the wind, or in a fire, but in a still, small voice.
The God that most of us want is the God of the still, small voice. We want a God who is quiet and gentle, we want a God who is private and personal. We don’t want a God who drives us out to face a hostile and violent world. But the God who speaks to Elijah is the God who sends Elijah out into the world to do the very things that we don’t want to do.
Elijah is sent out to meet evil and violence and to oppose them. So when it comes to the murder of Naboth in today’s reading we see Elijah answering God’s call to go and denounce the evil of Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah does so in no uncertain terms, he cannot have spoken more graphically than he does in the words we heard—the dogs will lick up Ahab’s blood.
What does God ask of us? These are uncertain times for the church, uncertain times for our standing in society, surely God doesn’t want us to be rocking the boat? Maybe we need to ask ourselves whether we believe in the God of Elijah, the God of Scripture, the God who intervenes, the God who is passionate about justice and righteousness; or whether we believe in an a la carte God, someone we can pick up when it’s convenient and ignore when he makes us feel uncomfortable.
The one thing that the God of Elijah does not want is the very thing that is happening in the churches. God doesn’t want the church to turn in on itself and yet more and more we see churches turning their backs on the world. We see fellowships and new churches where there is no concern whatsoever to pursue God’s justice in the world. We see Christianity becoming a private spirituality, something people buy into when they feel a need for it. We see an evangelical spirituality that is based not on the Bible, as was the evangelicalism of centuries past, but is based on a feelgood religiosity. We see a Church where we are very far from the example of the prophet Elijah.
To be like Elijah means engaging with the world so that we can take on the evil and the violence that threaten all of us. The thought of getting involved in political activity causes us discomfort, it hasn’t been part of our tradition. Protestant churches have traditionally been concerned with the individual’s relationship with God, ethical matters for us have been matters of personal morality. Protestant churches have emphasised abiding to the law and being obedient to those in power.
When we look at this attitude in history, we see there was little organised Protestant opposition to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, similarly, there was co-operation with the apartheid regime in South Africa. We see the Anglican bishops in Zimbabwe even now continuing to condone the vile regime of Robert Mugabe.
Elijah’s denunciations of evil and corruption haven’t figured too largely. in our way of doing things. If we read the Bible and take it seriously we have to take the awkward and uncomfortable challenges as well as the easy ones.
If we watch the news and believe that our faith has nothing to say about the stories we see, we really need to ask ourselves whether we believe in the God whom Elijah served. If we don’t believe in a God of justice we don’t believe in the God of the Bible, and if we don’t believe in the God of the Bible we really need to ask ourselves, “what is my faith about?”