When I was in middle school, my mom directed a musical at church with a few of us kids about this story of Elijah. It was called “No more Rain!”. My two best friends and I were Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah. I was Jezebel…the wicked queen.
To give you a little background….Ahab is, according to Scripture, more evil than all the kings before him put together. Then he marries Jezebel, who brings her own brand of murderous evil to join his, initiating the worship of Baal throughout the kingdom, and ordering the killing of all the prophets of Israel.
In response, God sends the prophet Elijah to give word to Ahab and Jezebel that ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ He then disappears…to avoid Jezebel’s thugs…and a drought begins. A drought that lasts for three years and causes the death and suffering of people throughout the kingdom. Ahab’s only concern is himself, as usual…and the story says that he sends people out to commandeer water for his horses…taking it away from the suffering people in his kingdom who were dying from the drought. And it is at this point in the story that Elijah meets Ahab and our lesson today begins. Ahab blames Elijah for the drought…’you troubler of Israel’…but Elijah places it squarely back on Ahab’s shoulders, as the one who lost sight of the true God while ruling the nation. And it is then, that the contest on Mt. Carmel is set. Which God is truly God?
Now…when I look back on the play we did, I remember it all as fun…and funny. And there is humor to the story, I guess. Like when Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal when no fire appears…..and says “ maybe he is meditating…or asleep..or on a journey…or as the Hebrew implies…maybe he’s indisposed…you know…in the bathroom.” And the histrionics of the 450 prophets of Baal might seem kind of amusing, if a little masochistic. But the truth is…this is a hard and uncomfortable story for most of us to listen to….especially if we read the whole thing. Our reading this morning conveniently stops before the last verse of the drama. After the people say “The Lord indeed is God; indeed the Lord is God”, Elijah says to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them all there.” All. 450 prophets. Slaughtered. Is this really what God desires? Doesn’t this make Elijah no different than Jezebel?
Here’s the thing — this is an ugly, bloody story. As so many stories in Scripture can be.
So why is that? What do we do with all the violence in the Old Testament? The slaughter and murder of everyone who is not “one of us”…from the prophets of Baal to the ordinary people of Jericho and any other nation or city the Israelites claim. For most of us who believe in a God who is love…a God who becomes incarnate in Jesus…who refuses to use force or violence to bring God’s Word of life to us…and instead becomes the victim of our senseless killing….these stories of “righteous murder” make no sense.
Because we have seen how thy have been used, throughout history, by Christians…to justify the massacre of Muslims who worship Allah…or the persecution and genocide of Jews who do not believe in Christ….or the annihilation of indigenous people with their own faith stories. And we have seen how they ave been used today by Jews, to justify the killing and oppression of Christian and Muslim Paslestinians. And we recognize how it is no different than Muslims who use their holy books to justify the slaughter of Chrisitans and Buddhists…or Buddhists to justify the slaughter of Hindus and Muslims…or Hindus to justify the slaughter of Muslims and Christians. All of which are happening…not in long ages ago…but today. In Burma. In India. In Tibet. In Syria. In Israel. In the UK and the US. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard it.
It is incomprehensible at times…the evil which we are capable of as human beings. And overwhelming. And downright depressing. But if it’s there..in the Bible…does that mean it’s justified, as long as we’re right? As long as we are sure the “Lord is God indeed’?
I have to believe…based on Jesus…that the answer is “no”. It is never justified. Never “okay”….but I also have to say that I think because we’re human…because we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves…because, like Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”…violence will persist. It is never what is good or right… but it is what should expect. John Calvin…another leader of the Reformation…called the human condition one of “total depravity”. Now, on the surface, I find that bleak. I am one who always wants to remind people that there is more good in the world than evil…evil just has better press. I want to believe that people are basically good and we can change the world…make it better…if only we would do the right thing…serving and loving one another.
But here’s the thing…people have been trying to do the right thing since the dawn of time…and in all the thousands of years of our human story, with all our good intentions, we have not travelled one inch closer to world peace…to ending greed and oppression. Rape and abuse and extortion and bribery, cheating and stealing, assault and cruelty…and an unending list of human evil still flourishes. And nothing we do to fix it is ever enough. It seems evil is not a problem we are going to be able to solve. Instead, we more often find our best selves entangled in evil, just like this story of Elijah….whose intention to follow God ends up with murder. I think war is perhaps the best example, as many veterans know. Often entered into with good intentions, it leaves scars on those who participate…broken lives and wounded souls, trying desperately to find their sense of goodness and safety in the world again. And no matter how a war ends…it just leaves the seeds of the next.
The truth is, Calvin’s understanding of “total depravity” rings true. It rings true to the stories of suffering we hear every day, in every corner of the world…stories of addiction and abuse, starvation and injustice…it rings true to the persistent realities of racism and bigotry and misogyny and corporate greed. And it is the only thing that begins to make sense of he stories of God’s own people in Scripture, who justify their genocide and brutality as “holy”. Total depravity affects our holy people and holy books as well.
But here’s the thing… if we accept that that is who we are as humans….that we truly are in bondage to sin……then we do not have to despair when evil persists. It is to be expected after all. And it does not matter that our attempts to love kindness and do justice seem small. Or that our striving to love our neighbors and do the next right thing sometimes feels like we are “tilting at windmills” with Don Quixote..because we are not the answer. It is God who saves the world. It is God whose grace is enough…whose love is enough…not ours. It is God…who forgives sinners and resurrects the dead.
We are not the saviors of the world…we are sinners. But we are the sinners Jesus came to love and to save and to redeem. And that is our hope. In the face of total depravity…Jesus is our hope.
As we baptize Alfons today…we will denounce evil…and all its tentacles that hold our world hostage. And we will pray that he might join us as we strive to live as people of compassion and peace in the world. But most of all…we will lay claim to the promise of Jesus. That Alfons belongs to God. And whatever his life may bring, whatever sin, whatever suffering he may know…God forgives. Redeems. And God resurrects the dead.
And that is God who is God indeed. God who loves the world…in all its depravity. God who saves the world..when we cannot.
And God who loves us…in all our depravity. And God who saves us…when we cannot.
Thanks be to God. Amen.