May 29, 2016

Where Did That Bull Come From?

            In 1997, I went with my dad on a work trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While my dad worked, his colleague’s nephew, who was about my age and Malaysian, was supposed to show me around the city. But instead of seeing any exciting sites, we just went to see the movie “Con Air,” which I’d already seen. My dad still laughs that I flew halfway around the world to do exactly what teenagers in America were doing.

            There was one big difference, though: The Malaysian version of “Con Air” was censored by the government’s film censorship board. So, the boy I went to the movie with relied on me, who’d seen the movie before, to fill in the narrative gaps. For example, very early on in the movie, the main character—played by Nicholas Cage—is in a bar, and then all of a sudden he’s in prison. How did he get there?, my friend wanted to know. I explained that he’d gotten into a knife fight, which was censored.

            Reading today’s first Scripture reading, I feel a little like my mystified movie companion. We’ve been dropped right in the middle of a fight, and we’re not sure how we got there. Then, there’s a big section missing from the middle of the reading itself. So when the passage tells us that Elijah “cut the bull in pieces,” some of us may have been scratching our heads and wondering, “Where did that bull come from?”

            Well, fear not: I’m here to fill in the missing pieces, just like I was in the summer of 1997. But, more importantly, we’re all here to draw near to the Lord and offer ourselves, like that bull, with the hope that we’ll be fully accepted—even if we’re soaking wet.

            Our story today comes from the first book of Kings. Both books of Kings tell us about the reigns of many rulers of Israel and Judah, usually to show us how kings are not ultimately in control. Rather, God’s people should look to God and God’s prophets as their authorities. Today’s reading features one of Israel’s most sinful kings—Ahab—and one of God’s boldest prophets—Elijah. The people, as we can see, have been torn between worshipping the Lord and worshipping a “god” known as Baal. To settle this tension once and for all, Elijah proposes a contest.

            Our passage leaves out the terms of the contest, as well as the odds, so here they are: Elijah claims to be the one and only prophet of the Lord, whereas Baal’s prophets number four-hundred and fifty. Elijah suggests, “Let two bulls be given to us.” (That’s where the bulls come from.) Elijah proposes that Baal’s prophets choose and offer one bull in their way, while Elijah will offer the other bull. There’s one stipulation: no one is allowed to burn their offering. Elijah says, “you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”

            The prophets of Baal do their best: They prepare the bull, lay it on the wood, and shout Baal’s name from morning to noon. Then they limp around their altar—maybe doing some kind of procession or dance. When this doesn’t work, they keep shouting and they even harm themselves with swords and lances until they’re bleeding. They keep going until evening, but the Scripture tells us “there was no voice, no answer, and no response.”

            The prophets of Baal have cried and prayed their loudest, they’ve tried their hardest all day long, they’ve harmed themselves deeply, and yet they still aren’t enough.

            Our reading today leaves out these efforts by Baal’s prophets and tells us about Elijah’s sacrifice. As we heard, Elijah tells the people, “Come closer to me.” Then he picks up the pieces of their broken altar, and puts them back together. He digs a deep trench around the altar, sets out the wood, cuts the bull into pieces, and puts them on the wood. Then, he calls for a surprising ingredient: four jars of water, filled and poured out three times over, until the offering is completely soaked and the trench around it is full.

            Seeing the altar drenched with a total of twelve jar-fuls of water, the people must have thought, “There’s no way this bull will make a good burnt offering now.”

            But Elijah comes near and prays to the Lord, says “I am your servant,” and asks the Lord for an answer so that the people will know him and know that God has turned their hearts.

            And here’s God’s answer: “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”

*     *      *

            Here’s an image of radical, impossible, total acceptance of what the people have to offer—and more. Elijah offers his presence and closeness, his service, his simple prayer . . . and an altar that’s soaking wet.

            Any so-called god and his devotees can set things on fire, but only an awesome God can accept offerings that are dripping wet. Only an awesome God can accept stones, dust, and deep trenches of water—things that seemed impossible for God to receive.

            In our worship today, the Lord receives our presence, our service, our simple prayers, and the selves we might have thought impossible for God to receive. This is because our offerings are already drenched in the love of God—the waters of baptism, the blood poured out for us. This isn’t the God who waits for things to be set on fire, but who comes himself for the flesh, for the wood, for the stones, for the dust, for the trenches, for his beloved people—for what seemed impossible for him to accept. The God who says, like Elijah, “Come closer to me.” Amen