Monday, 14 June 2010 16:58

June 13, 2010 Sermon

“Elijah II: The Troubler of Israel”
I Kings 18:17-46
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 20, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Almost three thousand years ago, it came to pass that there was a political alliance between Israel and what would become known as Palestine.  It made strategic sense.  They needed each other to secure trade routes.  They needed to not spend so much of their resources defending themselves from each other.  United as one force, they could withstand even more powerful countries that would seek to take their land and establish a foothold on the fertile crescent of Israel and the coastal communities of Palestine. For the sake of this sermon, lets call Israel “Ahab” and Palestine “Jezebel”—the husband and wife king and queen of two historic enemy nations.  Ahab and Jezebel, Israel and Palestine decided to lay down their arms and coexist.  Well sort of.  It didn’t work very well in ancient times and it’s not working very well now.  So let’s unpack the roots of this struggle and listen for a word from God in the midst of it all.

The theory was that a political alliance meant that the two warring countries could have some peace.  The problem they got into was not about whose country was the best, but whose god, whose religion was the best.  Ahab naively thought that he could loosen the strictness of the Hebrew religion by allowing worship of Jezebel’s god Baal.  The people could make up their own minds.  They tried to establish a religious alliance by royal decree, but it didn’t work.  It doomed the political alliance.  Political alliances rarely work if religious differences are not addressed.  Ahab thought he could solve it all by having a spirit of acceptance.  Everyone could believe what they wanted to.  And it looked real good on paper.  It was down right liberal and inclusive.  But it didn’t make people feel better when the going got tough.  Which god do they follow?  Which image speaks to us?  And if one image speaks to us, doesn’t that mean that this image needs to speak to and for everyone?  “Which side are you on?” asks the old Union organizing song.


The story about Elijah on Mount Carmel has to do with power and worship gone awry.  It’s the culmination of not addressing the central roots of conflict.  Not addressing religious differences has deadly consequences.  Jezebel will fight to the death, sacrificing themselves.  Ahab will tangle itself over and over again with false gods.  It’s also about land.  When each religion believes that God has given them this specific land, you can’t kick them out without them feeling cut off from their sense of who God is.  This is the same problem that happened when white settlers broke treaty after treaty and forced Native people off their land.  They fought to the death, and the continent is littered with the blood of natives and settlers.

Elijah saw that the system was flawed.  When he pointed it out to both Ahab and Jezebel, they declared him a “troubler of Israel”.  In other words, he rocked the boat.  He refused to let this flawed alliance continue.  He called the marriage of the two countries a sham.  And then he proved it.   “If YHWH is God, then follow, YHWH.  If Baal is God, follow Baal.  But don’t straddle the fence.” That’s the word from Elijah for today. Remember that Elijah means, “YHWH is God.”  In this world of “my god is better than your god” it is actually dangerous to come off the fence.  Coming off the fence, and even reading the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel causes people to take up arms on behalf of their god.  This never ends well.  In fact, it doesn’t end well for Elijah either.  He kills all of these prophets (Elijah kills them because he thinks God wants them dead), but is he any happier? Is he safer?  No, he’s less safe.  He spends the rest of his life on the run.  Is this any way to live?  Wouldn’t it be safer to just sit on the fence until everything calms down?

Think of the gods that compete for our loyalty these days.  Do we like Elijah trust in our God the creator of the universe, or do we hedge our bets?  Do we act like the economy is our god?  The job market?  The stock market?   BP?  The almighty dollar?  The flag?  The Union?   Not rocking the boat?  Whomever the entertainment industry deifies next?

I like the way theologian Carolyn Sharp puts it: “We frantically dance to appease powers that are not real; we try to ensure prosperity through things that cannot respond to us; we look for hope in things that cannot truly transform our lives.  When we fail to recognize God as the source of our rest and our peace, we live our lives chaotically, on the edge of desperation.  Seeking the Holy in profane places, we go limping through life with two different opinions, as risible as the hopping prophets of Baal.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, 2010 p. 76)

In the Biblical story, what was at stake was life or death.  The people were in the midst of a drought.  Baal was supposed to control the rain.  Was the alliance with Ahab angering Baal?  Or was the alliance with Jezebel angering YHWH?

It is with this backdrop that I look at the conundrum of the blockade of Gaza.  The Baptist Peace Fellowship has been trying to come up with a statement that accurately addresses our concerns, and brings us closer to peace.  Unfortunately, whenever someone makes a statement that criticizes Israel, they become a “Troubler of Israel.”  They are fought against, dismissed and accused of insensitivity at best or complicit with terrorism at worst.   The Peace Fellowship has yet to come to a consensus about a statement.  We want to shine light on the possibilities of peace while speaking truth to power.  We hope to have a statement soon that is both powerful and points us in the direction of peace.

Elijah was a troubler of Israel.  He was fought against because he wanted the people to follow God.  Following God means speaking the truth to power, even when the ruling power is something that you love.  So at the risk of being a troubler of Israel, I want to go on record as saying that the blockade of Gaza is unjust and inhumane.  And that the best use of power would be to find a way for both Israel and Palestine to coexist.

Of course, the existence of the modern state of Israel is the result of an ungodly massacre of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.  No one ever wants to minimize the pain and injustice of this event.  In fact, Christians have been too silent when anti-Semitism gets woven into our liturgies and ideologies.  We must speak out when we see any kind of unjust punishing of another people’s right to exist.  It’s central to our faith.  As Elijah of old said, we cannot follow two gods.  If God is a god of peace and justice, then we need to speak and act on behalf of that God.

So to set the context, the area of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea is south of the ancient city of Sidon, Jezebel’s hometown.  It has been pared down to a small fraction of its former self.  The Israeli government has built a wall around it, destroying Palestinian homes in the process.  It appears to be similar to a colonized area.  The West Bank, on the other side of Israel also has a wall around it making it difficult for Palestinians to get food, medical care, or even access to their farmland.  Their land continues to get annexed by Israel and settled upon.  Did I mention that Israel is Jewish and Palestine is largely Muslim?

Israel also is the fifth largest military power in the world.  It is a strategic base for the US as it stages its battles against interests in the Middle East.  A two-state solution makes sense, but Israel who has the most power, does not seem to want this—at least not in a way that would grant dignity to the Palestinian people.  Contrary to popular belief, Hamas has on three occasions declared Israel’s right to exist.

The Gaza Freedom Flotilla that was attacked had things like building supplies on it.  It had wheelchairs and medicine.  It was documented over and over again that it carried no weapons.  It had schoolteachers and Nobel laureates on it.  And yet, it was blocked from giving aid to the people in most need.  

(I’m thankful for the research and passion of BPFNA member and Middle East expert Barbara Taft who is responsible for a good bit of the following information)

In fact, the Israeli Navy committed an act of piracy by attacking the ships in international waters more than 40 miles off the coast of Israel.  It’s important to note that those on board the ships had no intention of entering Israel.  They were forced to enter that state against their will, which under international law is also known as abduction.  There, they were incarcerated and many were ordered "deported," which is an action occurring after their illegal "importation" by Israel.

The passengers on board the ships were not carrying weapons and did not attack the commandos of the Israeli Navy.  They had been prepared for such an attack by threats the Israeli government had been issuing that it might commit such an act.  They were defending themselves from an act of piracy and, as committed peace activists, attempted to disarm the pirates who were storming their ships and using live ammunition against passengers and crew, as well as tear gas.

You can understand the Freedom Flotilla members' reluctance to give up their cargo of 10,000 tons of relief supplies for Israel to deliver to Gaza on their behalf, after inspection.  Most of these supplies have been listed by Israel as unacceptable during the three-year siege of Gaza, and there is little likelihood that they would now be allowed in.  The items include cement for rebuilding homes Israel destroyed in its Operation Cast Lead (over 20,000 homes destroyed, and many families still living in tents or bombed-out buildings), toys and chocolates for the children, medicines, and parts for rebuilding machinery such as the various medical equipment destroyed when Israel bombed hospitals and clinics.

There was also food aid on board.  Although the World Food Program indicates that Gaza needs 400 or more truckloads of goods daily, Israel has allowed in an average of only 25 truck-loads per day.  The closing of the border has led to widespread malnutrition and even death.

The humanitarian convoy was attempting to break the siege and to bring relief aid.  The convoy included parliamentarians of various nations, a Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureates, and well-known peace activists from around the world.  The ships had been inspected and the cargo cleared at each of the ports of embarkation.

And yet to point such things out, might make me a troubler of Israel.

Elijah asked the people to declare which god they served.  I think it is imperative for us to remember which god we serve.

Elijah’s actions were not just words about religion.  They were treason.  He was speaking against the policies of his King and Queen.  That’s Elijah’s legacy.  Even his epic battle on Mt. Carmel was viewed by Jezebel as an act of terrorism and mass murder.  She has a point there.

How long will you be sitting on the fence asked Elijah?  Remember the God whom you follow: that God who provides rain and fire and power.  That is the power of God and it is always a power for good.  That’s how you know it is God’s power.  And yet, when you win one battle, you can go overboard, like Elijah.

Now I’m not saying that you need to be a troubler of Israel.  But we do have a responsibility to speak truth to power and make the world safer for all people.  That’s what Elijah tried to do in his own flawed way.  May we have just a portion of his zeal and his commitment.  If we did, imagine what the world would look like.

Is there hope for Ahab and Jezebel, Israel and Palestine?  Yes, there is.  It requires Ahab letting Jezebel live in peace and security.  It requires Jezebel recognizing Ahab’s right to exist.  It requires setting realistic borders instead of Ahab subsuming Jezebel’s land and demonizing her religion.

Ahab and Jezebel living in peace is central to our strategic interests in the Middle East.  A lot of the angst against the US is our blind support for Israel/Ahab and our disregard for Palestine/Jezebel.  We need a troubler of Israel to speak truth to power and remind us all that the One true God seeks peace, loves justice, eschews violence and models mercy-even to one’s enemies.

Elijah won a battle, but he did not bring lasting peace.  In fact, his slaughter of the prophets of Baal enflamed the Canaanites to the extent that 3,000 years later we are still on Mt. Carmel.  The true troubler of Israel is the one who brings us toward lasting peace.

That’s what Jesus was getting at when he said we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  When Ahab called Elijah a troubler of Israel, Elijah responded, “I’m not the troubler, you are.”  Elijah’s best legacy was his ability to expose the complicity of Ahab and Jezebel in a destructive alliance.

Peace will not be won on Mt. Carmel.  It will only be won as we see each other as sisters and brothers instead of enemies.  That’s the ministry to which we are called.  And yes, in Elijah’s flawed legacy, we are called to trouble the powers that be so that the people of God might be set free to imagine a blessed future.

May the creative flotillas of freedom and mercy and compassion continue to be our response to the trouble in the world.  And when we see injustice, may we take a little bit of Elijah’s example and expose the trouble.  May we also refrain Elijah’s arrogant and destructive violence.  May our troubling of the powers be wise and may they serve the cause of Peace.  For ultimately, that’s what God wants from us.