Icons and Idols: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal – A Sermon on 1 Kings 18:20-39


Image:  Icon of Saint Elijah in the church “Saint Elijah” in Asproneri, Greece. Written by the hand of Argir Mihaylov,  1838.

So, here’s a question for you: when was the last time you heard a sermon on the Old Testament? Been a while? Many preachers, including this one, have a tendency to focus on the gospel and epistle, often at the expense of the Old Testament lesson.

This is somewhat understandable, given the privileged position of the gospel lesson within the liturgy. Unlike the other readings, the gospel is given its own procession, encased in an elaborate Book of Gospels, it is blessed and censed, and we even stand to hear it proclaimed instead of remaining seated as we do for the other lessons. It is a long-standing custom in the church that, in the context of the Holy Eucharist, the Gospel proclamation is reserved for a deacon or priest. All of these customs point to the priority we grant the gospel in the context of the liturgy.

By these commonplace practices one might assume that the Old Testament is somehow less important than the New, but nothing could be further from the truth. Six years ago, as I stood before the church on the day of my ordination, I professed to the bishop:

“I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”

The Old and New, both the Word of God, together containing all things necessary for salvation.

So, perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to (what some have called) God’s First Testament.

This summer, now that we have entered the Season after Pentecost (aka Ordinary Time), the Revised Common Lectionary offers two tracks to follow for the Old Testament lessons. Most typically we have followed Track 2, which tends to select Old Testament lessons based on a thematic tie to the New Testament reading. Track 1, however, offers a more sequential reading through significant portions of the Old Testament. In the three years since I first came to St. Paul’s, this will be the first time we will have followed Track 1 all the way through the summer and into the fall. And through the summer, at least, most of my sermons will focus primarily on the Old Testament lesson.

And this Sunday we start off with a doozy – a showdown, really, between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal. As if to represent the one-ness of God, Elijah alone faces off against four-hundred-and-fifty prophets of Baal.

Now we could spend a lot of time talking about ancient sacrificial systems, and monotheism versus polytheism. We could spend a lot of time talking about King Ahab and how he had compromised Israel’s fidelity to the one-God by marrying the Baal-worshipping Jezebel. We could. But all you really need to know for the sake of today’s sermon, is that this was not a high point in the illustrious history of Israel. The kingdom had been divided and was often under siege from outside threats. This did not represent the proudest moment in their history.

The people’s unique relationship with the one-God of Israel had been perverted into a marketplace of religions, the kind of pseudo-spirituality where one can pick and choose amongst idols masquerading as deities…a sort of ancient turning of the tables to craft God into the image of Man.

Elijah, never one to mince words, reminds the people that they cannot have it both ways: “How long will you go on limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, well…which is it?” As theologian Michael Chan has pointed out, “For the prophet Elijah, indecision is not religiously neutral ground. They cannot worship both Baal and Yhwh, for to trust the former is to reject the latter…in fact, their unwillingness to choose only results in self-inflicted injury.”

Now, as I said, one does not have to be an expert in the intricacies of ancient near-Eastern religions to identify with Elijah’s position. How often are we impeded in our ability to make a decision by waffling about between two opinions? As a wise old trucker used to say, “The highway of life is littered with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.”

We, like the people of ancient Israel, are everyday faced with decisions between icon and idol. An icon’s purpose is to be transparent, an image that draws our attention to the reality behind the symbol. Conversely, an idol is anything that obstructs or obfuscates our vision, distorting our view of reality.

Viewed this way, anything can become an idol, and anything can become an icon. According to the biblical tradition, the material, created world is inherently good. In Genesis when God saw everything that he had created, he paused to rest and called it all very good. This is to say that anything created by God, and certainly anyone created in the image and likeness of God, is intended to be an icon pointing beyond the created to the Creator. In the gospels, Jesus will use iconographic images from nature to convey the created’s relationship to the Creator: “I am the vine and you are the branches; Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

All throughout the story of the bible, however, we see again and again how deceptively good we human beings are at creating idols out of icons. Time and time again we, who are created in the image of God, seek to turn the tables to forge God to conform to our own wishes and whims.

And what the prophet Elijah is saying here, is that oscillating back and forth between idol and icon is hardly a faithful stance. We cannot conform to the image of God while simultaneously bending the world to our will.

Sure, worship of Baal may have fallen out of fashion these days, but do we not still trade icons for idols? Do we not have different names now for these substitutes for God? Names like Security and Status, Independence and Invulnerability; the means by which we strive for such things constantly compete for our allegiance to God. When we look to cars or clothing to define our identity, when we depend on careers and accolades to tell us of our worth, are we not exchanging our faith in God for the certainty of substitutes?

As our story from the Book of Kings suggests, “what Elijah is proposing is about much more than mere pyrotechnics. In fact, this narrative isn’t fundamentally a power contest at all. At stake is which God answers prayer. In other words, whom could the people truly trust with their petitions? Which of the deities would actually deliver on promises? What the false prophets find is a god who is hidden, out of sight and out of earshot.” An idol who is unable to save.

So maybe the question for us here today is not a matter of apologetics. Maybe it’s not about defending our God vs. the god of this or that religion, this or that idol. Perhaps the question for us here today is rather more simple, yet profound: Who do you trust? Where do you place your faith? Is it in an electoral process to elect a political figure who will save the day? Is it in insuring ourselves against all harm, or insulating ourselves from becoming dependent on one another? Who, or what, has our fidelity, our trust?

The prophet Elijah is an icon, pointing the people back to God, the only Source in which we can rest secure – The God of Israel, the God of you and me and us together.

May God grant us eyes to see beyond the idols that compete for our fidelity. May God grant us eyes to behold icons that sharpen our image of God, so that we, too, may see the faithfulness of God.

As our story today concludes, “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God.” The Lord indeed is God. Amen.

The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry

St. Paul’s – San Antonio

Proper 4c (2016)


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