Pentecost 2 C: God both Rough and Smooth

The Readings for the Second Sunday after Pentecost are…

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      1 Kings 19:1–4 (5–7) 8–15a

Psalm                    Psalm 42, 43

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Isaiah 65:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 22:19–28

New Testament     Galatians 3:23–29

Gospel                   Luke 8:26–39

We have chosen the Old Testament reading Option 1 to reflect upon: 1 Kings 19:1-15.

The late, great novelist, Saul Bellow, said once that when he revises his fiction he strives not to make it smoother, but rougher. The Bible is good literature, not in spite of it’s rough edges, but because of them.

The Bible gives us a God who is both smooth and rough. The words associated often with the former are mercy, steadfast love, and grace; while wrath and zeal or jealousy are associated with the latter.

Chapter 18 of 1 Kings is all about Elijah and the rough God. Appropriate to a relationship with a God of jealousy and wrath, Elijah is incensed with the way the worship of the storm and fertility god Baal has entered and spread in Israel when the princess of Sidon, Jezebel, married Israel’s King Ahab.  There is a contest on Mount Carmel with 450 priests of Baal pitted against  Elijah and the God of wrath. Fittingly it is all about fire. Elijah taunts by declaring, “The god who answers by fire is indeed the One True God.”

The followers of Baal are confident that this storm god will use his lightening to ignite a conflagration and consume the sacrifice. They try their best, even lacerating themselves to show their earnestness. But there is “no voice, no answer, no response.” But after Elijah has the wood and the sacrifice drenched with water, he calls on the LORD, who sends down fire that consumes not only the sacrifice and the wood, but also the stone, the dust, and the water.

What a show of firepower!

But the story doesn’t end there. All the 450 priests of Baal are slaughtered. This is a demonstration of the prophet’s zeal that both conjures and responds to the zeal of the LORD, who is a zealous or a jealous God, according to Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, and 6:15.

But then comes our chapter 19 of 1 Kings. Predictably, Elijah’s murderous zeal has sparked  Jezebel’s, and she sends her threat to have him killed by the next day. Elijah does what any zealous man would do in the face of the vengeance he unleashed: He runs.

You see, Elijah is like many of us in the religion game—even the tough talking religion game. He is a coward, a Cassandra, and a whiner at heart.  He runs to the wilderness, shelters under a broom tree, and says to God he wants to shrivel up and die. God instead feeds him and guides him on a reverse of the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrew children, to the holy mountain Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai.

Now Sinai is famous for smoke and fire and God’s entire wrath against bad belief. But now the story turns it’s gaze from the God of roughness to the God of the smooth. The LORD’S first words to Elijah aren’t declarations of commands, but a probing, cutting question, “What are you doing here?” Elijah goes though a story describing the world according to the vengeful coward: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

The followers of the God of wrath commonly think this way: “I was your last and only hope, O God, so I lashed out. Now people don’t love me, and I’m very scared and very isolated. Nobody loves me.” This indeed is the kind of thinking that turns religious zealots into champions of a narrow-minded god, a narrow-minded religion, and a nation that can only be made safe with more assault weapons. We need a crusade and we need it now.

But in chapter 19 God beckons Elijah out of his narrow cave of self-pity and into the open. No, this LORD is not going to come in the great wind, the earthquake, or the fire. The LORD is more than one thing. This LORD can use wind, quake, and fire to get the point across—but there is another point at stake here, calling for other methods. Not devouring fire, but redemptive whisper. Here God uses the still small voice, or sheer silence.

Yes, the story continues with the LORD telling about the killing to come in Israel, but the LORD also assures Elijah that he is not God’s only hope. There are a healthy mass of 7,000 Israelites who haven’t bowed down the false god.

This chapter 19 of 1 Kings is seen by scholars as an editing job by the same school of theologians who added the Book of Deuteronomy to the Torah. And that law book, while it does declare that God is jealous, also tries to soften the picture of God and of the idea of justice in the Hebrew Bible.

Now we are left, countless generations later, having to decide how to think of God. Have we thought of God as too rough—as too rigid a tyrant to be a good Father to us or anyone else? Have we applied only the stick to our justice and left the carrots of grace to rot? Or have we thought of God as too smooth? Have we made God irrelevant, insisting God would never chastise those who lie and cheat, or destroy those who destroy?

The Bible is an authority in our lives. But the Bible also authorizes. It draws us into a drama of decision. It speaks to us in absolute commands like the Ten Commandments, but also reminds us of the exceptions, and explores a host of casuistic “If-Then” situations when we have to make decisions. It tells us God surely rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous, but then gives us Job, the most righteous man on earth, who loses everything and then chooses to engage with God in hot debate over what God is really doing to maintain justice. And when the LORD in the end says, “I like Job—he was honest with me!” we too are urged to grow up and think. We too are authorized to think for ourselves, and then to rely on the grace of God to hold us as we learn from our mistakes.

What are we doing here? That’s what the LORD is asking us. Are we running scared in life because we have a one-sided view of God? Or are we grown up enough to see God from both sides now—rough and smooth?

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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